The essential Harry Styles songbook
Global superstars don’t form overnight: Behind any “new artist” moniker is a lifetime of work – or, in Harry Styles’ case, a childhood spent singing covers on a karaoke machine that gave him his grandfather, and half a decade as the de facto leader of the world’s biggest boy band, One Direction. In the years since the quintet broke up, 12 years in the public eye, Styles has cemented himself as the world’s most wanted man (and the first rolling stone cover star.) A dedication to 70s pop-rock sensibilities and anthemic arena rock are certainly factors – not to mention his silky baritone and undeniable charisma – but at the heart of it all are his award-winning songs. and their intergenerational appeal.
Throughout his three critically acclaimed solo records, and a taste of those early boy band ballads, here’s a collection of some of Harry Styles’ most essential songs; a crash course in the singles and B-sides that made his career and continue to cement his place at the top of the modern pop canon.
‘Sign of the times’
When Harry Styles left his boy band, One Direction, to pursue a solo career, comparisons to Justin Timberlake and Robbie Williams ensued – for those familiar with the biggest pipeline band on the planet’s TV show contest, it seemed Harry Styles, the heart of 1D, was set up best for solo success. What no one expected is exactly what he delivered: a massive glam rock ballad, a young man exploring a 70s David Bowie myth through a 25-piece choir singing his harmonies, a searing declaration of his talents and aspirations. In the clip, he literally takes flight — the metaphors write themselves.
‘As it was’
A lifelong admirer of classic rock and Americana (it was easy to confuse the title of his third album, Harry’s housewith a reference to Joni Mitchell — it’s actually an ode to Haruomi Hosono’s 1973 city-pop LP Hosono Housewhich Styles first heard when he was living in Japan years ago), leading his third album with a synth-pop single and his catchy production to the A-Ha was a surprising choice. Now in her late twenties, her affection for the mystical rockstar has been replaced by unbridled joy. And live, “As It Was” is a fan favorite…depending on where you are. In the United States, the line “Leave America, Two Children, Follow It” is muted, in the rest of the world – including the UK – it’s a rallying cry for Harry to find his home outside the US.
Harry’s house, 2022
When Harry Styles started promoting Harry’s house, he told the press that his third album was his most intimate, the one that best reflected himself. Lyrically, that’s true: but his most heartbreaking songs use his sense of inwardness to write thoughtful odes to his loved ones. On ‘Matilda’ he sings a tender ballad to a friend who suffered childhood neglect and family trauma – named after the orphan character of Roald Dahl. If any of these songs evoke tears, this is it.
A direction Four2014
“If we never come back down,” Styles sings on the chorus of One Direction’s often underrated track “Clouds,” “Yeah, we look at the clouds” her voice rising with a levity that perfectly mimics the subject. If a 1D song nods to where Harry’s house Styles would take is this one, with its massive drum fills and heart-pounding production.
There’s no way to go through a list of essential Harry Styles tracks without including a heartbreaking ballad or two, and ‘Falling’ certainly comes near the top – it’s Harry at the piano! A rarely seen but deeply celebrated Harry! It’s also the source of Harry Styles’ huge cult following. when he sings, “And there’s no more coffee / At the Beachwood Café / What if it kills me ’cause I know we’ve run out of things to say.” Surely he was unaware that he was offering a place of pilgrimage for his diehard fans, a breakup mecca in Los Angeles for those of us who feel too much.
Unpublished, Harry Styles-era, 2017
If it seems unfair to include an unreleased Harry Styles song on this list, well, maybe you’ve never felt the true joy of watching the world’s most wanted pop star live in a crowd of his most ardent devotees. ‘Medicine’ takes the ‘fan favorite’ to the next level – it’s Styles’ hottest track, what Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield once called ‘the Stones’ sex-crazy depraved rock and roll’. It’s a happy good time, much like the ‘Kiwi’ rocking the arena, but most of all: he seems to flirt with sexual fluidity, and fans can’t get enough of him singing “Boys and girls are here / I have fun with them.”
An indiehead’s favorite song from Harry Styles, ‘Lights Up’ is Styles at his most existential, a body-pop melody of massive bridges and a single chorus, an experimental sound for the singer. He repeats, “All the lights couldn’t put out the darkness / Run through my heart,” at the end, offering some comfort in the journey: “Do you know who you are?”
Golden hour? California’s Golden Coast? The golden euphoria of being in love? Dusk, the golden world of a runner? The source of Harry Styles’ light on this Thin line the cut isn’t exactly obvious, but the shimmering effects are: his voice never sounded more exuberant than when paired with a glockenspiel and like a rising chorus. It feels like a vacation, so let it take you for a ride.
Harry Styles’ falsetto is a rarely used sharp weapon (okay, in the year between Zayn Malik leaving One Direction and the band announcing an indefinite hiatus, he was certainly tasked with hitting those impossible high notes, but his natural lyrical baritone is what we’re most used to hearing.) On the chorus of “Adore You,” there goes — a charming pop-rock song delivered by the guy who does them best.
When Harry Styles said his second album was about “having sex and feeling sad”, the title track must have been in the lead: it’s a repetitive dirge, offering kindness in the lines, “We’ll be a fine line / We’ll be fine,” almost the end of the song. Most Styles songs work best when played out loud, with your best friends, in the special comfort and happiness of the community. This one is for introspectives and introverts, those who seek truth in tiny assurances.
‘What a sensation’
Made in the morning2015
In One Direction’s later years, particularly those following Zayn Malik’s departure, the boy band transformed into the vintage pop-rock band of their dreams (well, let’s be real, Harry). “What a Feeling” seems prescient: its Fleetwood Mac style structure laid the foundation for Styles’ future projects. It’s a boo!
Made in the morning2015
For years, Styles has been able to transition seamlessly from pop-rock ballad to rhythmic, stadium-sized multi-instrumentalist singles. ‘Infinity’ is a quieter moment: but it’s a perfect example of Harry’s vocal ability, a nod to how his octave range would soon expand and his ability to hit a high note despite the depth of his voice. It is everything about the voice.
If Harry Styles wrote a better, more atypical and more extravagant deck than ‘Satellite’, it hasn’t been made public – and that’s such an unexpected blast! First, a gloomy ballad synthesized on the piano, Styles’ voice strong in the mix; then, distorted vocal effects and an explosive, experimental, vertiginous detour. He quickly became a fan favourite, perhaps for his outside lineup. It will hit you right in the gut.
“From New York”
Narrative American and folk songwriting is at the heart of many Harry Styles songs – catch him with an acoustic guitar and he’ll sing you a confessional. “Ever Since New York” is one of the first and best examples of this“Oh, tell me something I don’t already know,” he sings, “Brooklyn saw me, empty on the news / There’s no water in this pool.” No wonder he chose her to play on Saturday Night Live back in 2017.
‘Best Song Ever’
The most aptly titled song for a boy band purely for the purpose of making the listener elated, “Best Song Ever” is One Direction’s best song – or, best known, second only to 2011 career “What Make You Beautiful”. (That one you can still see in Styles’ solo live set — an ode to his early success and a celebration of all his fans who have been with him since day one, 12 years ago.) But “Best Song Ever”, and its major chord, the guitars of Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’, is utterly irresistible pop songwriting.