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Caroline Polachek’s Top 10 Songs Ranked

13 November 2023 | 3:29 pm | Ellie Robinson
In Partnership With Sydney Opera House

Before the experimental pop icon takes over the legendary Sydney Opera House, we’re sifting through ten of her biggest tunes to find the shiniest gems among them.

Caroline Polachek

Caroline Polachek (Credit: Aidan Zamiri)

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It’s been a long journey to Australia for Caroline Polachek, but in a just a matter of weeks now, the iconic experimental pop artist will finally take to stages Down Under. She’ll kick things off in Eora/Sydney on Monday December 4, taking over the Concert Hall in the iconic Sydney Opera House.

To date, Polachek has released two albums under her own name – 2019’s Pang and this year’s Desire, I Want To Turn Into You – but she’s been a staple of the underground pop-adjacent scene since the mid-2000s. She cut her teeth in Chairlift, the synthpop project she formed with Aaron Pfenning in university; the band spawned the sleeper hit Bruises in 2008, and rolled on steadily with three album releases – Does It Inspire You that same year, then Something in 2012 and Moth in 2016 – before calling it a day in early 2017.

Amid her last few years fronting Chairlift, Polachek tried her hand at two solo projects, releasing spacey alt-pop as Ramona Lisa (dropping the album Arcadia in 2014) and minimalistic ambient tunes as CEP (with another one-off album, Drawing The Target Around The Arrow, arriving in 2017). The former project laid the groundwork for Polachek’s eponymous offerings, and when Pang cracked the mainstream in 2019 – thanks in no short part to spellbinding singles like Door, Ocean Of Tears and Parachute – she knew she’d found the formula that suited her best.

Both the albums she’s released as Caroline Polachek are laden with incredible collaborators: she’s close with hyperpop staples like A.G. Cook and Danny L Harle (as well as indie-rock icon and famed Olivia Rodrigo ally Dan Nigro) and although her own output eschews a lot of hyperpop tropes, her colleagues’ input on Pang and Desire have made for some incredibly dynamic, polychromatic sound design.

Before she takes to the stage at the Sydney Opera House, we pored through Polachek’s discography to find the shiniest gems among her biggest hits, as well as a few choice cuts that slipped to the sidelines. Read on for the full list below, then head here to grab one of the last few tickets for Polachek’s career-defining Sydney show.

Also worth mentioning: this list only covers Polachek’s headlined solo catalogue, but we simply need to make special mention to her remix of Hayley Williams’ 2020 hit Simmer and her joint releases with Flume (Sirens) and Charli XCX (New Shapes, which also features Christine And The Queens).

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10. Welcome To My Island (2022)

The opening track on Desire, I Want To Turn Into You (released as its fourth single last December) is aptly titled, acting as a stellar introduction to Polachek's labyrinthine musical wonderland. We start with ethereal howls and a simple, yet gripping and radiant guitar part, before Polachek subverts our expectations by snapping to a very different soundscape: twinkly '80s keyboards, ultra-sharp synth beats and vocals drenched in sensuality. It all comes together in the chorus, where that striking howl blends with the jagged synthpop backing for a charged emotional peak.

9. Ocean Of Tears (2019)

Co-produced by Cook, Harle and Valley Girl, the second Pang single shines with its prickly and unconventional sound design – driven by bassy stabs and spiny percussion, coloured in with flicks of jagged synthesis and pitch-bent sizzles – which Polachek soars over with her deeply emotive and soulful leads. Like a few of her strongest cuts, it's a poignant ode to yearning, as she sings with a burning passion on its chorus: “Oh my god, I wanna know what it feels like / To pull you close and tangle up with you real tight / The only thing that’s separating you and me tonight / Is an ocean of tears.”

8. Door (2019)

The lead single to Pang spotlights Polachek's melancholic side; she sings wistfully over a lowkey basis of reverberant keys and percussive 808s, musing on the feelings of disconnect and dourness that supplement a breakup. She labels herself a "perpetual novice" and laments being "just another girl in a sweater" when she puts herself back out there. The spacey, droning production aids in conveying Polachek's listlessness, melting into a spiral of haziness and longing.

7. Look At Me Now (2019)

Released just days before Pang as its final single, Look At Me Now is a bit of a sonic outlier, trading the punchy synths and sharp percussion for gentle strums of an acoustic guitar, rosy strings and haunting atmospherics. The closest Polachek has come to a folk song, she’s gone on record to cite artists like Jewel and Sarah McLachlan as its key inspiration, saying she wrote the track – described as the album’s “diary entry” – while she was reckoning with an emotional cocktail of “guilt, self-destructiveness and hope”.

6. Bruises (2008, with Chairlift)

This is the track that gave Polachek her first taste of mainstream stardom, blowing up after it appeared in a 2008 ad for the iPod Nano. Though it's not technically her song, it's worth throwing in the mix for how formative it feels to her later solo material: the track is lowkey and emotive, but uses bright imagery and upbeat sonics to mask the poignancy within it. In 2009, Polachek told Drowned In Sound that she and Pfenning wrote Bruises to “sound like a long-lost TV song”, quipping that “being in love makes people do really silly things, like write lyrics about frozen strawberries”.

5. Breathless (2020, The Corrs cover)

Polachek has been performing her take on The Corrs’ 2000 chart-topper since 2018, finally immortalising it two years later for an album of Pang remixes. Co-produced by her and Harle, it keeps the original song's halcyon brightness intact, but spins it through a web of sepia-toned wistfulness. Polachek's heavily autotuned vocals take the spotlight, carried by a minimalistic suite of bassy percussion and '80s pop-esque synth hits. This is one of the tracks that best showcases Polachek's "less is more" ethos, using only what it needs to deliver something truly captivating.

4. Parachute (2019)

The closing track on Pang wraps the album up with a sobering wallop of visceral emotion, its raw soundscape allowing Polachek’s vocal to cut deep without distraction. When it was released in July of 2019 (as a double A-side with Ocean Of Tears), she described its origin as a formative moment in the album-making process, “realising that this melody we’d written was unintentionally re-telling a dream I’d been shaken by”. She expounded: “I went home, re-drafted the words to fit, and came back to the studio at 1am to record the vocal the same day. And that's the take we kept. From that moment on, [Harle] and I knew we had a lot more work to do together.”

3. Blood And Butter (2022)

As the last single released before Desire, I Want To Turn Into You landed back in February, Blood And Butter is another mind-melting slowburn, utilising a pseudo-tropical beat and acoustic strums – and in one particularly wild moment, bagpipes performed by Brighde Chaimbeul – to show her kaleidoscopic musicality. Polachek described it as “a psychedelic folk song” that she wrote as “a love letter” to some of the music she rinsed in her youth: particularly Savage Garden, I Love You Always Forever by Donna Lewis and tracks from Madonna’s 1998 album Ray Of Light. “It imagines itself set in England in the summer,” she said, pinning its sonic angle down to “really pulsing, tantric electronic music that has a quite sweet and folksy edge to it”.

2. Some Small Hope (2020, Virginia Astley cover with Lauren Auder)

This transcendent cover of Virginia Astley’s 1986 gem – a duet with fellow English singer David Sylvian – stays largely true to the original, dreamy and atmospheric with its dazzling spate of airy woodwinds and soaring harmonies (albeit with its production modernised and flourished with the Polachek's signature glisten). Polachek sings Astley's lines, while Sylvian's are taken by French singer-songwriter Lauren Auder (whose own debut album, The Infinite Spine, arrived in July of this year and is goddamn brilliant). Their disparate vocals styles – Polachek's sweet and delicate, and Auder's gloomy and rich – give the cover a magical contrast, gelling to command your undivided attention.

The cover was released to raise money for the UK charities Shelter and Mermaids – who respectively help the houseless and transgender youth – as well as the former org's LA offshoot. In releasing it, Polachek said: “Within hours of first meeting Lauren on a rainy day in November, we found ourselves gushing about Some Small Hope, a precious and influential piece of music for both of us, and it was clear we had to sing it together. The process of making it spiralled into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: a light at the end of a dark year, and a shared internal space to reflect on loss, transience, trust, and hope.”

1. So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings (2019)

Though it didn’t quite take off when Polachek dropped this banger as the fourth single from Pang, it blew right the hell up when it went viral on TikTok at the start of last year. She was heavily inspired by the synth riff in Kim Carnes’ 1981 hit Betty Davis Eyes, with its melody capturing what she’s described as “a kind of ‘80s magic”. Breaking down the song for Genius, Polachek admitted: “I tried so hard to make this song feel less ‘80s, and it just refused. Every time we’d swap out the drum palette with something less old-school, it just lost the vibe. So we just had to admit it. Let it be who it wanted to be.”

She added of the story behind So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings: “This song was what they call a sneeze, like it all came out at once. It was really fast. It was essentially done in two days, the whole thing. ‘You’re so hot you’re hurting my feelings’ was something I told someone in a moment where someone was looking painfully hot, and I was laughing about it for a couple of days afterwards and had a writing session set up with Dan Nigro and Teddy Geiger. Before I even went into the session I was like, ‘We have to use this line. It’s the chorus of something.’

“The most fun part of the song to write was the pre-chorus, because at this point I was almost done writing [Pang] and I was just sick of rhyme structures. So I was like, ‘Let’s write a pre-chorus with no rhymes and make it one long run-on sentence.’ The verse was a big question mark because the other parts were so melodically dense, then Teddy had this idea just to keep the verse really spare. Just a one note thing that just hangs out there and that gives us a little breathing room for all the singing.”

Caroline Polachek will perform at the Sydney Opera House on Monday December 4. Tickets are on sale now – find them here.