The essential Harry Styles song book

·8-min read
Harry Styles performs on NBC's "TODAY" Show at Rockefeller Plaza on May 19, 2022 in New York City. (Picture: Alamy)
Harry Styles performs on NBC's "TODAY" Show at Rockefeller Plaza on May 19, 2022 in New York City. (Picture: Alamy)

Global superstars are not made overnight: hidden behind any “new artist” moniker is a lifetime of work — or, in the case of Harry Styles, a childhood spent singing covers on a karaoke machine given to him by his grandfather, and a half-decade as the de facto lead of the world’s biggest boy band, One Direction. In the years since the quintet went their separate ways, across 12 years in the public eye, Styles has established himself the world’s most wanted man (and the first global Rolling Stone cover star.) A dedication to seventies 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 cross-generational appeal.

Throughout his three critically acclaimed solo records, and a taste of those early days of boy band balladry, collected here are a few of Harry Styles most essential songs; a crash course on those singles and B-sides that made his career and continue to reinforce his place as the top of the modern pop canon.

‘Sign of the Times’

Harry Styles, 2017

When Harry Styles left his boy band, One Direction, to pursue a solo career, comparisons to Justin Timberlake and Robbie Williams followed — to those familiar with the television show competition to the biggest band on the planet pipeline, it seemed 1D’s heartthrob Harry Styles was set up best for solo success. What no one expected is exactly what he brought: a massive glam rock power ballad, a young man exploring a seventies-style David Bowie-esque mythos through a 25-piece choir singing his harmonies, a soaring declaration of his talents and aspirations. In the music video, he literally takes flight — the metaphors write themselves.

‘As It Was’

Harry’s House, 2022

A lifelong admirer of classic rock and Americana (it was easy to confuse the title of his third album, Harry’s House, with a Joni Mitchell reference — it is, in fact, an ode to Haruomi Hosono’s 1973 city-pop LP Hosono House, which Styles first heard when he lived in Japan years ago), leading his third LP with a synth-pop single and its driving production a la A-Ha was a surprising choice. Now in his late 20s, his affection for rockstar mystique has been replaced by unbridled joy. And live, ‘As It Was’ is a fan favourite… depending where you’re located. In the US, the line “Leave America, two kids, follow her,” is muted, in the rest of the world — including the UK — it’s a rallying cry to have Harry find his house outside of the US.

‘Matilda’

Harry’s House, 2022

When Harry Styles began promoting Harry’s House, he told the press his third album was his most intimate, the one that best reflects himself. Lyrically, it’s true: but his most heart wrenching songs use his sense of interiority to write thoughtful odes to his loved ones. On ‘Matilda’, he sings a tender ballad to a friend who suffered some childhood neglect and familial trauma — named after the orphaned Roald Dahl character. If any of these songs will evoke tears, it’s this one.

‘Clouds’

One Direction’s Four, 2014

“If we’re never coming back down,” Styles sings on the chorus of the oft-underrated One Direction tune ‘Clouds’, “Yeah, we’re looking down on the clouds,” his voice ascending with an airiness that perfectly mimics the subject matter. If any 1D song nods at where Harry’s House would take Styles, it’s this one, with its massive drum fills and pulsating production.

Falling

Fine Line, 2019

There’s no way to get through a list of essential Harry Styles tracks without including a heartbreak ballad or two, and ‘Falling’ certainly comes in near the top — it’s Harry on piano! A rarely seen but deeply celebrated Harry! It’s also the source of immense Harry Styles worship. When he sings, “And the coffee’s out / At the Beachwood Café / And if kills me ‘cause I know we’ve run out of things we can say,” surely he wasn’t aware that he was giving a place for his diehard fans to pilgrimage to, a breakup mecca in Los Angeles for those of us who feel too much.

‘Medicine’

Unreleased, Harry Styles-era, 2017

If it strikes you as unfair to include an unreleased Harry Styles song on this list, well then, maybe you’ve never experienced the true elation of watching the world’s most wanted pop star live in a crowd of his most ardent devotees. ‘Medicine’ takes “fan favourite” to the next level — it’s Styles’ raunchiest track, what Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield once labelled “a depraved, sex-crazed Stones-y rock & roll strut.” It’s a rollicking good time, not unlike the arena-rocking ‘Kiwi’, but most critically: it seems to flirt with sexual fluidity, and the fans can’t get enough when he sings “The boys and girls are in / I mess around with them.”

‘Lights Up’

Fine Line, 2019

An indiehead’s favourite Harry Styles song, ‘Lights Up’ is Styles at his most existential, a bodily pop tune of massive bridges and a single chorus, an experimental sound for the singer. He repeats, “All the lights couldn’t put out the dark / Running through my heart,” at the end, offering some solace in the journey: “Do you know who you are?”

‘Golden’

Fine Line, 2019

Golden hour? The Golden coast of California? The golden… euphoria of being in love? Dusk, a runner’s golden world? The source of Harry Styles’ light on this Fine Line cut isn’t exactly evident, but the shimmering effects are: his voice has never sounded more ebullient than when it is partnered with a glockenspiel and as an ascending chorus. It sounds like going on holiday, so let him take you for a ride.

‘Adore You’

Fine Line, 2019

Harry Styles’ falsetto is a sharp weapon rarely utilized (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 lyric baritone is what we’re most used to hearing.) On the chorus of ‘Adore You’, he goes there — a charming pop-rock ditty delivered by the guy who does ‘em best.

‘Fine Line’

Fine Line, 2019

When Harry Styles said his sophomore LP was about “having sex and feeling sad,” the title track must’ve been top of mind: it is a loving dirge, and a repetitive one, offering a kindness in the lines, “We’ll be a fine line / We’ll be alright,” nearish the song’s end. Most of Styles’ songs work best when they’re played loud, with your best friends, in the particular comfort and bliss of community. This one is for the introspective and the introverts, those who seek truth in tiny assurances.

‘What a Feeling’

Made in the AM, 2015

In the later years of One Direction, especially those after the departure of Zayn Malik, the boy band morphed into the vintage pop-rock group of their (well, let’s be real, Harry’s) dreams. ‘What a Feeling’ feels prescient: its Fleetwood Mac style structure laid the groundwork for Styles’ future endeavours. It’s a bop!

‘Infinity’

Made in the AM, 2015

For years now, Styles has been able to flawlessly move between pop-rock balladry and up-tempo, multi-instrumentalist, stadium-sized singles. ‘Infinity’ is a quieter moment: but it’s a tight exemplar of Harry’s vocal ability, a nod to how his octave range would soon broaden and the ability to hit a high note despite the depths of his voice. This one is all about the voice.

‘Satellite’

Harry’s House, 2022

If Harry Styles has written a better, more atypical and out-there bridge than the one in ‘Satellite’, it hasn’t been released to the public — and it’s such an unexpected explosion! First, a mournful synth-y piano ballad, Styles’ voice loud in the mix; then, distorted vocal effects and an explosive, experimental, dizzying detour. It has quickly become a fan favourite, perhaps for its outsider composition. It’ll hit you right in the gut.

‘Ever Since New York’

Harry Styles, 2017

Americana and folk-y narrative 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 earliest, and best, examples of this: “Oh, tell me something I don’t already know,” he croons, “Brooklyn saw me, empty at the news / There’s no water inside this swimming pool.” No wonder he chose it to perform on Saturday Night Live back in 2017.

‘Best Song Ever’

Midnight Memories, 2013

The most appropriately titled song for a boy band solely in the business of making the listener feel elated, ‘Best Song Ever’ is One Direction’s best song ever — or, the best known, right after 2011’s career-making ‘What Makes You Beautiful’. (That one you can still catch in Styles’ solo live set — an ode to his earliest success, and a celebration of all of his fans who’ve been with him since day one, 12 years ago.) But ‘Best Song Ever’, and its major chord, the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’-channeling guitars, is totally irresistible pop songwriting.