The multiverse of Harry Styles is still growing, and a part of you has surely become sucked up into it by now, even if you’ve long tried to resist its power. The English singer/songwriter has two highly anticipated film roles (in Don’t Worry Darling and My Policeman) on the way this year; his nail polish company, Pleasing, is quickly growing; he was the first man to appear alone on the cover of Vogue; the hype around his shows crashes ticket-selling apps routinely. Some days, Styles is the most talked-about pop star on Earth. Other days, his music still feels undiscovered by too many.
Styles’ reputation is a spectrum. He’s been championed as a beacon of tackling gender norms and toxic masculinity; his high-waisted pants, fruit-patterned sweaters, painted nails and pearl necklaces linger in your head and light fires in the deepest parts of you. His influences, which range widely, from Fleetwood Mac and Peter Gabriel to Shania Twain and Lizzo, have broadened the musical horizons of many of his most devout followers. Watching Styles go from X-Factor fame with One Direction to playing Wembley Stadium solo is just one of the ever-growing joys of following his five-year, meteoric ascent into fluttering hearts worldwide.
After One Direction broke up in 2016, Styles dropped his eponymous debut the following year—flirting more with the bounds of rock ‘n’ roll than any of his former bandmates, who’d all gone mainstream pop. The results, including cuts like “Kiwi,” “Sign of the Times” and “Woman,” proved his emulation skills to be admirable, and gave us all a taste of an artistry not yet wholly harnessed. He quickly ditched the art of homage for his own thing. On 2019’s Fine Line, Styles was in better command of his own grandeur, and the tunes sound so unequivocally like him—he plunged far into listeners’ souls with a charismatic and sultry ambiance that has now become a brand in itself.
But his newest LP, the stunning and mystifying Harry’s House, is what may cement Styles, finally, as the best pop song chef we have. The album was produced with the same dudes he’s worked with since first going solo, and the entire crew has grown together, coming out with the kind of record listeners will be addicted to for years. Harry’s House is triumphant and fully realized, a dazzling product of the rock star Styles has relentlessly teased that he could be, and he isn’t slowing down, either—pulling Coachella headliner sets, doing cover interviews with interior design magazines and touring the world a dozen times over.
With a short catalog as diverse as Styles’, you could write this list a thousand different ways. Every song he’s made moves a mountain for someone (if that describes you and “Kiwi,” “Boyfriends,” “Adore You” or “From the Dining Table,” this list will differ from your own), so, to mark the release of Harry’s House, Paste is celebrating his 15 grandest solo studio album tracks, from post-One Direction stadium bangers to post-pandemic odes to the art of touching.
You could argue that Harry’s House’s “Keep Driving” is worthy of inclusion here for these lines alone: “Tea with cyborgs / Riot America / Science and edibles / Life hacks going viral in the bathroom / Cocaine / Side boob / Choke her with a sea view.” There are many instances on Harry’s House where you catch a whiff of how Styles is, indeed, Going Through It, but on “Keep Driving,” he is, conversely, having the time of his life with someone he’s daydreaming about jumping off a roof with. With butter-smooth vocals and a lush, bedroom-pop composition, the song signals an important third act in Styles’ solo career: Gone are the days of naive heartbreak and vague oral sex allusions, as he now welcomes songs about doing blow and eating breakfast into his repertoire. Our prodigal pop star son is all grown up.
“Grapejuice” is such a sexy song, man. What a number! Fine Line didn’t let us all the way into Styles’ world, save for a few confessional tracks, but on Harry’s House, he gives us plenty of looks into the dizzying world of pop stardom. “Grapejuice” sounds like Paris on a summer night, and the sweet jangles of soul and R&B make it one of his most addicting instrumentals. But not even longtime collaborator Kid Harpoon’s buoyant mellotron can distract us from how sad this story of a dying romance is. “Just me and you / There’s just no getting through / The grape juice blues,” sounds as much like a white, suburban mom’s memoir as it does the burnt-out repercussions of celebrity dating. The song poses the question, “What’s it like being one of the most talked-about musicians in the world?” Apparently, getting wine-drunk isn’t so fun at 28 years old, even when you’re a Grammy winner.
This track isn’t a “Sign of the Times” rehash, but, sonically, they tread similar waters, with the former not as operatic, but equally as emotional, as the latter. “I’m well aware I write too many songs about you,” Styles sings, upping the ante on who the “you” in his songs actually is. “Falling” is a down-bad post-break-up song with familiar, self-analyzing themes that are as trivial as they are universal—but with a performer like Styles, sometimes all you need is him and a piano. He’s candid, memorable and frank with his words, and the song is punctuated by the emotional reverence of his delivery.
If you’re at all privy to Styles’ recent romantic escapades with Olivia Wilde, as well as his starring role in her forthcoming film, Don’t Worry Darling, the imagery in this track might feel all too familiar. And with John Mayer on guitar and Kid Harpoon on talkbox, the restrained, sensual, introspective lyrics from Harry Styles are no more, as this funky, poppy, bubbling joint is an urgent and explicit love letter to the art of getting it on. “If you’re getting yourself wet for me / I guess you’re all mine / When you’re sleeping in this bed with me” is a grand and convincing gesture from England’s delicate and humble sultan of suave. Styles has never been so frank and unabashed about his sexuality, as he gives us access to even the juiciest details. “You pop when we get intimate,” he sings before the song edges us with a Sopranos-esque cut to black. Maybe the real climax was the friends we made along the way.
All pussy-eating metaphors aside, “Watermelon Sugar” remains one of Styles’ most reliable tunes, even though it nearly got cut from Fine Line. He culled the title of his first-ever Billboard #1 from the Richard Brautigan book of the same name when he was in Nashville recording his acclaimed second record. It’s been over two years since it fell into our laps, yet “Watermelon Sugar” lingers everywhere, as its intoxicating grooves are still racking up streams. “Tastes like strawberries on a summer evening / And it sounds just like a song” remains an eternal opening line, because it’s a simple euphoria so many are searching for. The song didn’t hit the top of the charts until nearly a year after its release, an exclamation point on its sweet, thumping magnitude unconfined to the boundaries of timeliness.
Sandwiched in between two of Styles’ busiest songs on his debut record, “Ever Since New York” is a solemn, reflective number about feeling disconnected from someone. The instrumental relies on Mitch Rowland’s pronounced drumbeat and a soft, twangy acoustic strum. Fans believe the song is about Styles’ late stepfather’s cancer diagnosis, but the open-ended lyrics allow listeners to find their own unique meaning in the story. “Brookyln saw me, empty at the news / There’s no water inside this swimming pool,” Styles croons in the second verse, conveying a certain kind of hollowness that, sometimes, can’t help but manifest in our public lives. It’s one his least talked-about great songs, but it was good enough for a Saturday Night Live performance before the album even dropped—so there’s that.
This song is so pretty and just as morose. One of Fine Line’s centerpieces, “Cherry” is a confession of jealousy, of longing for a bygone lover. “I still miss your accent and your friends / Did you know I still talk to them?” Styles sings poignantly, presumably about his ex-girlfriend, Camille Rowe, who appears at the end of the track, speaking French in a voice memo. It’s like John Lennon’s “Julia,” but with an extra heart beating, and it still haunts as the most gut-wrenching, vulnerable song Styles has composed to date.
Whenever there are horns in a Harry Styles song, you know you’re in for a treat. The splendid, sexually tense date-night revolution of “Music For a Sushi Restaurant” is important for two reasons: It’s the first chapter in Styles’ new era, and it’s an impeccable opener, miles better than “Meet Me in the Hallway,” which ushered in his debut album five years ago. If Styles makes this track a single, it’ll become a bonafide dance-floor bop for years to come. It might just become that regardless. There’s not a lot at stake, lyrically, here—though “I don’t want you to get lost / I don’t want you to go broke / I want you” is such a clever and well-phrased sequence—but the focus is, and should always be, on the groove. By the track’s breakdown, you’ll be sweating from the exorcism it performs on your body (and you might be a tad bit horny, too). Gold star, Harry.
If I were asked to articulate what God might sound like, Styles’ falsetto would get some consideration. On “She,” he welcomes it back in a full embrace, letting it carry six minutes of soul-stealing, ice-cold funk. The ambiguity of the song’s story has never been clarified; theories range from “She” being a rumination on gender identity to it being about a monogamous protagonist yearning for infidelity. It might just be a sexed-out, manic odyssey. That’s more than fine, too. There’s a mental guitar solo from Rowland, who, by Styles’ own admission, came up with the licks while the two tripped on mushrooms. It’s the singer’s heaviest composition, incorporating as much ’60s riffing and strutting as it can while cementing the singer as one of our strongest modern translators of classic rock ‘n’ roll.
Styles consistently places acoustic tracks in the midsections of his albums (see “Cherry” or “Sweet Creature”), and “Matilda” is the newest installment—and his best example yet. With string accompaniment from Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), it’s his most empathetic piece to date, delicately telling a story about the titular protagonist escaping a loveless upbringing at the genesis of her adulthood. “You can start a family who will always show you love / You don’t have to be sorry for doing it on your own” is not an advice column as much as it is an act of solidarity, of understanding how you must leave your most familiar home to grow whole again. It’s a recurring theme on Harry’s House, the disjointed, out-of-touch claustrophobia associated with the loosely presented idea of “home.” The singer meanders widely across the tracklist, but, here, he steps away from himself and tilts the spotlight elsewhere. Styles’ crew promoted the record through bat signals of half-open doors and the tagline “You Are Home,” and, as “Matilda” so firmly and lovingly suggests, what that place looks like is entirely up to you.
“Golden” is a balancing act. On one hand, it’s a wave of sunshine pop; on the other hand, it’s indelibly depressing. There’s a fluidity in that give-and-go schtick that Styles affectionately embraces. He’s got a propensity for writing pop songs that don’t eat themselves alive by doing too much. For every addictive hook, there’s a bummer one-liner following close behind, but none of it is overwrought. Harry Styles is where Styles got his bearings, but, as “Golden” foreshadows, Fine Line is where he admits he’s got issues, too. Lyrics like “I don’t wanna be alone” and “I’m hopeless, broken, so you wait for me in the sky” linger over the track’s racing instrumentals, but what makes the whole thing so good is how the background harmonies don’t overpower Styles’ swagger. Every section is meticulous and restrained, proving that a song doesn’t always have to reach every corner of the stadium to be everlasting. There’s a hard-earned reward in “Golden,” too, when Styles gifts us with his best breakdown: a shimmering, beautiful swell that ascends to him singing, “I know that you’re scared because I’m so open.” Soon after, the horizon of Fine Line is cracked open and Styles welcomes us inside. “Golden” remains his most impressive album opener and one of the most important compositions in his catalog.
“Late Night Talking” is Styles’ brightest signal of songwriting maturity. As the track glides soulfully from start to finish, it’s ritzy, synthy and chameleonic, evocative of George Michael and Prince. Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson’s production is in peak form, and the aesthetic is timeless, programmed to sound as much like a chart-topper from 1982 as it does one from 2012 and 2022—a trick reserved for artists who have mastered the methodical process that comes with writing era-spanning pop songs. The slick vocal runs, subtle rhythm shifts and exquisite pacing shine here, as Styles effortlessly makes one feel madly in love, which he punctuates with the proclamation, “Now you’re in my life / I can’t get you off my mind.” What makes “Late Night Talking” so damn good, though, aside from the standout line, “Nothing really goes to plan / You stub your toe, I break your camera,” is how tight the whole thing is. There’s not a second of this track that’s cuttable, which is impressive, and one of the few instances of such a feat in Styles’ compact discography. Everything the singer has been working towards since the dissolution of One Direction lives in “Late Night Talking,” and this might be the song fans are calling his best by the time his fourth record hits the shelves.
Where “Watermelon Sugar” clawed and fought its way up the Billboard charts for nearly a year after Fine Line’s release, “As It Was” was born with a silver spoon in its mouth, set to be a bonafide #1 hit before it even hit streaming services in April 2022—and rightfully so. Our first glimpse into Styles’ newest era, where he is fully immersed in his own flamboyant intricacies, the song is a thoughtful rumination on the exhaustion that stems from not enough love and too much fame. The immediate popularity of the song speaks, at least in part, to everyone finally arriving to the Harry Styles party, but recency bias be damned: May we forever be entrenched in the hype of this deeply personal, triumphant and tightly arranged document of dance-floor pop. The drums sound like the best parts of The Strokes’ discography; Styles plays tubular bells; the whole thing is boldly vulnerable. “Answer the phone / Harry, you’re no good alone,” Styles rings out in the second verse, as he combs a heap of personal trauma into a synthy, hook-heavy anthem.
Styles’ first single post-1D breakup still roars. It’s a “Live and Let Die”-esque, stadium rock ’n’ roll riot—just a boy and his piano, absolutely crooning as a king does. With only three chords and a mother/daughter narrative at the center, the song is textbook rockstar stuff, combining the mythos of Elton John through a commanding stage presence you can actually hear on the studio recording. After “We don’t talk enough / We should open up” falls into a blanket of operatic backing vocals, Styles belts, “We got to get away,” until a magnetic crash turns into a few lone piano notes—a goosebump-triggering moment like few in Styles’ discography. Co-writer Jeff Bhasker called the song “an instant classic-sounding record from conception to completion,” and I’ll be damned if that isn’t the truth. It’s rare when an artist puts out a career-defining song on their first-ever solo release—and at 23 years old, no less—but Styles’ pivots between his under-utilized falsetto and full-throated belting make a convincing argument that the million-dollar theatricality he’s now fully harnessed was inevitable all along.
The titular coda of Styles’ sophomore album is as far away from a boy-band song as anything else in his discography. Structurally reminiscent of The Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” “Fine Line” arrives atmospheric, stringy and sprawling, showcasing the rawer corners of Styles’ songwriting chops. The 11 preceding numbers on Fine Line all work from some kind of pop song blueprint, whether it’s jangly, Laurel Canyon folk (“Canyon Moon”) or singing-and-clapping groove-wave (“Treat People with Kindness”)—but “Fine Line” is full of sorrow and has no qualms about getting in your face with it. Maybe the saddest line on the entire project, “Spreading you open / Is the only way of knowing you,” arrives shortly before we spend nearly three minutes listening to a resolved Styles crying out, “We’ll be a fine line / We’ll be alright,” over and over. And it’s here where his declarations are most convincing. Prior to Harry’s House, Styles so often relished his own cheeky restraint, covering all of his emotional bases without giving us too many details, and all in the most intoxicating, dreamy ways. It’s common among his fandom to examine which metaphors the singer might, or might not, have intentionally placed in his songs (fans are still theorizing who Fine Line is about nearly three years on). But “Fine Line” gently makes a case that maybe we don’t need to get into the specifics of why we’re drifting apart, so long as we agree to still make it out, together or not.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.