12 essential tracks by SOPHIE, the producer of a generation

Remembering SOPHIE’s legacy through 12 of the pioneering producer’s best and most important tracks.

February 01, 2021
12 essential tracks by SOPHIE, the producer of a generation

SOPHIE shaped a generation. From the release of debut single “NOTHING MORE TO SAY / EEEHHH” on Huntleys and Palmers 9-odd years ago through to last year’s glamorous, glorious HEAV3N SUSPENDED quarantine livestream, the Scottish-born producer never stopped creating sounds and feelings that were powerful enough to change people. SOPHIE’s music was sometimes a portal into another world, but more often provided a clearer look into our world. Songs like “Immaterial” and “HARD” allow us to arbitrate the immovable things that define the world around us — to turn the texturally hard and cold into something inviting and alive, the body into a canvas, life into a work of art and empathy, as opposed to just a negotiation between mind and body.

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From the time I first heard “BIPP” as a strange, annoying teenager, I was fundamentally changed by SOPHIE’s music, entirely challenged by this four-minute pop song that contained thousands of new ideas about sound. I obviously wasn’t the only one: without SOPHIE, we wouldn’t have so-called hyperpop as we now know it, or even regular pop as we now know it, so impactful was SOPHIE’s near-decade in the public eye.

It often felt like SOPHIE was operating at some level removed from our stratosphere, and for good reason: who else was that good that often, that fast? SOPHIE was well-documented as not really believing in the album as a format, and yet made two unbelievably great ones, in the form of the triumphant, indelible debut OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES and its companion remix album, itself basically an entirely new record. Few producers could jump between scenes and styles like SOPHIE, and fewer could retain their identity and aesthetic trademarks regardless of who they were working with. There was nobody like SOPHIE, and never will be anybody like SOPHIE. SOPHIE’s death is indescribable, literally: all the words — insurmountable, incalculable, unbelievable, immeasurable — feel laughably arbitrary when trying to describe an artist whose music was always trying to get as close to a feeling or image as possible without mediation or excess.

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Instead, as always, SOPHIE’s music will speak for itself. These 12 productions by the late artist showcase the dizzying scope of SOPHIE’s work, as well as its complexity and depth. From “BIPP” to the production on “Vroom Vroom” and “Yeah Right,” no two SOPHIE songs were the same, the result of a vision and philosophy of music-making that was extraordinarily specific, well-defined, and, most likely, never to be matched. — Shaad D’Souza

Note: SOPHIE’s label has asked publications to, where possible, remove third-person pronouns when writing about SOPHIE, hence their absence in this piece and others following SOPHIE's passing.

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SOPHIE, "NOTHING MORE TO SAY / EEEHHH"

“EEEHHH” and “NOTHING MORE TO SAY,” the two songs that comprise SOPHIE’s debut single for Huntleys and Palmers, come in many different forms; two tracks on their original vinyl release, they now take the form of three separate tracks on streaming services. My favourite configuration — the definitive version in my mind, although I’m certain other fans have their favourites — is this mashup of the two, for a while the only widely-available version of the songs. Propulsive and gorgeous, it’s one of SOPHIE’s most straightforward songs and one of the best, showcasing in early, almost rudimentary ways, the producer’s interest in repetitive, durable hooks and burbling synth sounds. (I would love to know if it was even made on SOPHIE’s beloved Elektron Monomachine, the avant-garde synth that allowed SOPHIE to make numerous iconic singles, and which, with its decidedly anti-skeuomorphic interface, aligned perfectly with SOPHIE’s vision of electronic music.)

“NOTHING MORE TO SAY / EEEHHH” also displays an early fascination with form and format that persisted throughout SOPHIE’s career. It is gob-smackingly brilliant, in my mind, that so many different-sounding songs could be made out of two individual tracks. No one version of these songs is definitive, and not all versions have been available at the same time, meaning that, depending on when you got into SOPHIE, you probably have one or two versions that you consider ‘original’, and others you consider extraneous. It’s a neat, beautiful metaphor for the ethos that seemed to define SOPHIE’s music: two songs living an existence that’s harmonious, conflicting, and multiplicitous, all at once. — Shaad D'Souza

SOPHIE, "It's Okay To Cry"

When SOPHIE first emerged as an anonymous artist loosely affiliated with PC Music, there was a good deal of critical hand-wringing about the artist’s sincerity (many publications, including this one, were caught up in the cresting poptimism backlash and fell short). “It’s Okay To Cry” trashed the assessment of SOPHIE’s music as just finely sculpted yet disposable plastic. It is a ballad for a new millennium of eschewing the puritanical for a different, far more righteous method of transcendence, and addresses those most affected by the times with the sensitivity they deserve. Are you overwhelmed by the pressure to live out loud? Dealing with some kind of hatred that’s eating you up? SOPHIE’s song explodes with the colors of a sunrise, offering a radical love preaching not only pride, but taking responsibility for those you truly love. “'Cause we've all got a dark place,” SOPHIE coos. “Maybe if we shine some light there / It won't be so hard.” — Jordan Darville

SOPHIE, "Immaterial"

There were a number of eloquent SOPHIE quotes circulating on social media in the immediate hours after the news was confirmed but one in particular stood out to me. "The challenge I'm interested in being part of," SOPHIE told Rolling Stone in 2015, "is who can use current technology, current images and people, to make the brightest, most intense, engaging thing."

No song fits the banner of "brightest, most intense" like "Immaterial." Electronic music is often seen as a serious place and is certainly guilty of occasionally favoring the academic over anything approaching fun; "Immaterial" flies in the face of that idea. With its cheeky central Madonna reference, this is a song for the immaterial girls and boys that asks existential questions about the purpose of life while serving as a celebration for those that proudly exist in "any form, any shape." True to SOPHIE's unique musical palette, "Immaterial" sounds utterly synthetic and yet more full of life than the emotionally raw artists held up as examples of how best to engage with life's pain and joy. By mixing highbrow ideas of existence with out of this world sci-fi pop bangers, SOPHIE was never anything less than utterly brilliant. "Immaterial" is a life-affirming proof of concept. — David Renshaw

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Vince Staples feat. Kendrick Lamar and Kučka, “Yeah Right” (co-prod. by SOPHIE)

The progressive ear L.A.-based rapper Vince Staples has for beats would be well served in his collaborations with SOPHIE. One of two SOPHIE productions for Staples’ sophomore project The Big Fish Theory, “Yeah Right”’s cartoony, industrial beat would continue to mutate over the years before becoming “Faceshopping,” the beloved third single from Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides. The beat’s transformation isn’t just limited to the trajectory of SOPHIE’s music — the kick on “Yeah Right,” thick with nuclear-powered distortion, was a sonic precursor to the now-dominant sound of SoundCloud rap. Staples is electric, but the biggest thrill is Lamar’s guest verse, showcasing the rapper’s sponge-like talent for absorbing the spirit of the beat and spitting something in kind yet surprising. SOPHIE turned him into a machine gun in free fire, and he’s having a blast matching the beat's high power. — Jordan Darville

SONNIKU & LIZ, "Sweat - SOPHIE Remix"

“Sweat”, along with a few other remixes and odds-and-ends released by SOPHIE last year, hint at the direction SOPHIE might have chosen to take over the coming years. Eschewing SOPHIE’s stuttering, irrhythmic style for something closer to traditional house music, “Sweat” — as well as certain moments of last year’s essential HEAV3N SUSPENDED livestream and remixes for BABYNYMPH and Fletcher — shows the might of SOPHIE’s style even when put into traditional constraints. Featuring the rare use of a sample in a SOPHIE song — spoken word vocals from John Tejada’s 2004 minimal house track “Sweat” by Susan Langan, a dead ringer for Marie Davidson — “Sweat” is a total flex and an absolutely thundering dance song: a 2am refit of classic SOPHIE sounds with a little something extra, too. — Shaad D'Souza

Charli XCX, "Vroom Vroom" (prod. by SOPHIE)

In 2015, Charli XCX had transitioned from music blog and Tumblr queen to bonafide pop star. That’s why it was so striking at the time to hear her on “Vroom Vroom,” where in the opening seconds she proclaims “Let’s ride” right before colliding into a metallic trampoline of a synth ripped from an ancient Sega Genesis cartridge. It was just a little bit unexpected, and certainly bold, to take on a sound so unapologetically chrome. The song's evolving production was also fresh, relative to the music SOPHIE had released up till then — it starts off sparse but never restrained, a sole boom-clap-boom-boom-clap behind Charli’s first verse adding some unexpected gravitas to her primped locker room flexing. A highlight in SOPHIE’s diverse production discography, “Vroom Vroom” remains one of the most successful moments in SOPHIE’s direct engagements with the mainstream. — Jordan Darville

SOPHIE feat. BC Kingdom, "PONY WHIP"

Many remix albums feel like filler, a stopgap on the way to the next record to be consumed once and then forgotten. Not so with OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES NON-STOP REMIX ALBUM: the unwieldily and comically titled companion piece to SOPHIE’s debut is its own record, a raucous, mixed-through epic that contains enough new material — and enough radical reshaping of old material — that it often feels like a sophomore record, or at least something entirely different to OOEPUI. Much like SOPHIE’s many retooled versions of “NOTHING MORE TO SAY / EEEHHH,” OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES NON-STOP REMIX ALBUM feels shocking and revelatory in how it reframes and reforms existing music into entirely new shapes. One of the record’s many prime examples of this is “PONY WHIP,” a new version of the single “Ponyboy” which mixes elements from the original song with parts of “Whole New World/Pretend World” and “It’s Okay To Cry,” as well as new vocals from BC Kingdom. The result is a piece of wholly new music, the kind of tweaked-out runway track that Playboi Carti might rap over at a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show circa 2121. — Shaad D'Souza

Let's Eat Grandma, "Hot Pink" (prod. by SOPHIE)

A commonality found among SOPHIE’s most rewarding collaborations is that they sound like an exchange of strength between artists. That bond is elemental to Norwich avant-pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma’s sophomore record, I’m All Ears, but never so much as on lead single “Hot Pink,” which plumbs expectations of femininity with inquisitive ferocity. “Hot pink, is it mine?” Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth demand, backed by SOPHIE's staggering battalion. Once you’ve begun to even fathom an answer to their question, it’s arms down and glitter up. — Salvatore Maicki

LIZ, "When I Rule The World" (prod. by SOPHIE)

LIZ was one of SOPHIE’s many pop muses, and “When I Rule The World” was the pair’s greatest triumph, a bratty and bossy heart-racer of a pop track that crystallized a style and look for LIZ and also served as a testing ground for some of SOPHIE’s later ideas. On “When I Rule The World”, you can hear the early genesis of the bubblegum kink of OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES’ “Ponyboy”, as well as early examples of the way SOPHIE would hybridize a more chaotic sound with pop impulses, as would later occur on releases with Charli XCX and others. — Shaad D'Souza

SOPHIE, "JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE"

In her 2018 CRACK cover story, SOPHIE expressed an intent to keep making music within the framework of the mainstream, “purely because it lives in the lives of so many more people. It’s not exclusive, it’s not elitist, and those are the standards I want to maintain in my music.” “JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE'' consecrates that mission. By stretching one-that-got-away pop tropes to their maximalist extremes, SOPHIE splits open a chasm of yearning, one that’s immediately efficacious. — Salvatore Maicki

Madonna feat. Nicki Minaj, "Bitch I'm Madonna" (co-prod. by SOPHIE)

If “LEMONADE” sounded like pure bubbles turned into music and “HARD” like pure metal, “Bitch I’m Madonna” is pure Madonna, distilled to her pure essence and then stretched back out to pop star proportions. SOPHIE’s first big-ticket pop co-sign couldn’t have been more perfect: “Bitch I’m Madonna” gave SOPHIE the opportunity to play with authenticity, maximalism, and the tensions between real and fake or underground and mainstream, on the biggest stage possible. It doesn’t sound like old Madonna, because which producer in their right mind tries to make a star sound like their 20-year-old self 35 years later? Instead, the song lended Madge some much-needed self-awareness, as well as her closest brush with pop’s underground since Ray Of Light. Best of all, it gave SOPHIE an opportunity to produce for Nicki Minaj, whose plasticky, maximalist sound and bubblegum-bright looks circa 2010 felt like an aesthetic precursor to SOPHIE’s look and sound. A lot of people seem to really, really dislike “Bitch I’m Madonna”, but the song’s embrace of camp, self-reference, and cathartic abrasion make this an essential SOPHIE work. — Shaad D'Souza

SOPHIE, "BIPP"

“The one that started it all” is a cliche, but a lesson SOPHIE gave us is how convention isn’t something to be feared if you hope to subvert it. “BIPP” brought ‘80s mall-pop and underground rave music onto a supernova of synthesized pops, chirps, and whistles, utterly original noise that ping-pongs around your brain before melting away. Our introduction to SOPHIE was a paradigm shift and a reincarnation all at once. — Jordan Darville

12 essential tracks by SOPHIE, the producer of a generation