2009- a year in which Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors ruled the internet and The Black Eyed Peas and Kings of Leon ruled the charts. Its always hard to revisit these memories. Boom Boom Pow in your head is never a kind gift and Sex On Fire only reminds us of the time when we almost had the next U2. Five years later, The Black Eyed Peas are seemingly over and Kings of Leon are no longer on their rock n roll pedestal.
Fortunately there is fonder memories of that year. Theres one release from 2009 that has spread a subtle yet lasting web over the music world. The xxs self-titled debut. While the band had an auror of hype surrounding them thanks to the blogosphere and NME, the album only reached number 16 on the British charts upon its release. Chart success never felt like the goal for the band, but it seemed like an inevitable byproduct of the minimalist, melodic music that quickly spread its influence by providing the soundtrack to shows like 90210 and Misfits.
While not so much an immediate chart success, it was a critical darling. Pitchfork called it nuanced, quiet and surprising while The Guardian said it will win many friends for its beautifully haunting, understated charms, further labelling it the best album of 2009. It took a while, but the many friends eventually gravitated towards the record. In 2010 it won the prestigious Mercury Prize over records by La Roux, Florence and the Machine and The Horrors.
Following the win, album sales rose by 448% in the UK to take them to a new chart height of number three. When their less critically-lauded second album, Coexist was released in 2012 it shot to number one, much off the merit of the first album, one would presume.
However, the legacy of the xxs debut five years on is detached from sales. Rather its left a prominent impact on the face of music today with many artists making music that is a little more minimalist, has more space and breathes more vocally. Their debut was a record that relied solely on delectable melodies, coated in subtle emotion. When Romy and Oliver flip between telling each other sometimes I still need you on Heart Skips A Beat its not forced. Its a statement of sincerity born in the darkness of the early morning when the club music mutes and the lights begin to blur.
The record always sat in the pocket of electronic music but further than that it was difficult to define. Looking on five years later, it shares many qualities with the recent outburst of future RnB. The vocals are placed on top of beats that are given adequate space to breathe. Guitars and synths are left to provide the emotional lacing for the music. In many ways the record championed an RnB revival far before critics and the public alike were talking about its emergence.
Its a testament to the bands ability to hold back and Jamie xxs nuanced beatmaking that even pop remakes of the tracks were unable to make them sound more commercially appealing. Rihannas use of Intro fell far short of the xxs stormy album opener and Shakiras latin-flavoured version of Islands proved the songs always grew better in darkness than in sunlight.
Below are five artists that have taken a little something from the xxs debut whether it was intentional or not.
Fellow British-band, London Grammars lead-vocalist, Hannah Reid, undoubtedly has more of a booming voice than Romy but there are definite instrumental comparisons between the two. While London Grammars brooding debut errs more to alternative-pop that electronic music, the delicate guitar plucks and use of space hark back to the xxs discovery that melody could be crafted out of little to nothing. Place crescendoing beats and more immediate piano-work on top of the xxs minimalist soundscape and youve got London Grammars Wasting My Years.
Reid recently told Gigwise, I think we're in a kind of post-xx era where a lot of people are quite influenced by that atmospheric pop vibe." Its a pertinent comment that very much reflects the state of alternative pop right now.
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Jamie xx held production duties on tracks from Drakes Take Care record so it makes sense that he would be directly influenced by the xx. The title-track with Rihanna takes Jamies remix of Gil Scott-Herons Ill Take Care of U, with Drake singing and rapping over it. Its arguably one of the first times Drake truly embraced his singing voice, delicately cooing over the track in a similar way to the xxs Oliver. While Jamie didnt have a hand over Drakes latest effort, Nothing Was The Same, the influences still remain. Own It is hauntingly minimalist and also sees the rapper sing while From Time, has him add Jhene Aiko to the mix with the two flipping back and forth vocally a la Romy and Oliver.
Could it be that the most innovative artist of 2014 is in fact influenced by the biggest innovators of 2009? It doesnt seem Twigs notable xx influence is something she is conscious of, but its hard to imagine her debut existing without the xx breaking down some walls before it. LP1 is impossibly sparse with Twigs rarely having to raise her voice to convey her point. She said in an interview recently that she didnt like the RnB genre-label and shes right, shes not an RnB artist. But neither were the xx, explicitly. By making music that is so minimal, both artists carefully traverse a line of many genres including RnB, electronica, pop and hip-hop. You cant really sit comfortably inside a genre and be innovative, can you?
Jessie Ware is a product of a time in music when Sampha was toning down SBTRKTs dance music and RnB and electronica were beginning to combine, partly thanks to the xxs debut. While she has a huge, booming voice, we never truly heard it on her debut Devotion, which was part of its sophisticated charm. The title-track is perhaps the best indicator of the xxs influence of the record. Subtle jabs of guitar lay beneath Wares breathy vocal. Synths sit underneath simply for substance with not much else used to convey the smokey, lovelorn atmosphere. Tell me that description doesnt also work to describe the xxs Infinity.
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Beyonces latest self-titled effort is very much a thoughtful and educated take on the current wave of future RnB. As weve discussed above, the xx have had a part in formulating that genre and the minimalist nature of it. Much of the appeal of Beyonces latest album is the way she creates delectable melodies from very little at all. On Superpower with Frank Ocean her only real-backing is vocal harmonies Ghost/Haunted is born from a thumping bass and haunting synths. Its a far cry from the brass-laden, pop/RnB of her previous albums. As Spin said, Haunted is Janelle Monaé's delivery meeting the xx's reverb-y stare.
In an example of how meta the world is becoming, the xx covered Beyonces Frank Ocean-penned I Miss You which is the first track of hers to show obvious similarities to the xx. I Miss You dims the lights, clears the clutter and sees Beyonce in the most gentle vocal display of her career. When the xx covered it, they barely had to do a thing to bring it into their lane.