As is the case with NME lists, our The 100 Most Influential Artists piece in 2014 proved to stir some controversy. It was based on bands and acts influencing the scenes and sounds that define the musical landscape, with the caveat that The Beatles were not to be included. If you haven’t already, you can read about numbers 100-51 and 50-1. Straight in at number 10 was The xx.
Now, as with every conversation worth having, the list attracted a lot of fiery debate online and The xx didn’t fare too well in some of the responses. All fair comment, of course, but one that really didn’t sit well with me? “The xx? Yes, they have sounds that are ‘in’ right now (and do it REALLY well), but they have hardly been around long enough to have left a lasting mark on music.” Their self-titled debut album has been around for more than seven years, actually, so in my book that’s definitely ‘long enough’. In fact, taking a proper look at the music of this decade so far, I’d say that if you search in darkened corners this record has left the biggest mark, an impact that – like The xx themselves – isn’t all guns blazing.
For a start, the debut from the London trio introduced a band who are proof that it is possible to invent new spins on old genres. It’s not so much the sound of ‘The xx’ that’s made such an impression on current sonic trends, it was the approach of that record. As a group of teenagers, Jamie Smith, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim invented an atmosphere entirely their own; it began with their collective love for electro and R&B and mutated into a spacious and sophisticated brand of pop. The xx became the voice of an iPod Shuffle youth who weren’t afraid to combine their music passions, regardless of genre, into a deeply personal soundtrack. Their self-titled album represented a group of idealistic dreamers throwing far too many ideas at the wall in order to see what stuck. It was this multi-textured Timbaland-meets-The-Cure-meets-UK-garage that went on to redefine the soundtrack to inner-city sprawl and nocturnal journeys home on public transport. They showcased new realms of self-produced possibility and the fact their influence has subtly infused the music of artists from Drake and Lorde to James Blake and Beyonce demonstrates the impact of their vision.
Listening back today, when you press play on first track ‘Intro’ you realise how many current bands nod to their aesthetic. Bands who didn’t exist back in 2009: London Grammar, Banks, Woman’s Hour etc. Alt-J’s ‘Intro’ was directly inspired by the album’s first track. But despite its influences, ‘The xx’ still sounds quite unlike anything else. James Blake argued that The xx made it “easier” for him to release new music. “I can’t say that I was inspired to write my album because of The xx, but what I can say is that they’ve made it a lot easier for me.” He continued:
They’ve kind of warmed the seat, in the way that when people listen to sparse electronic music, they are gonna be a lot less shocked by it now that The xx have released an amazing album
Tracks on the record have been sampled regularly and notably in US hip-hop and R&B. How often do you see a new shy, underground British indie band inspiring US rappers and R&B superstars from all over the States, including Mac Miller, Rittz, Rockie Fresh and NEAKO (‘Fantasy’), Rihanna (‘Intro’), and K Flay (‘Crystallised’)?
Sure, ‘The xx’ could have been way more polished, concise, structured, but that’s what second album ‘Coexist’ was for. The greatest virtue of the record is that it was made by a bunch of mates buzzing with new ideas in their own space. Imagine them sitting in a back garden shed, or plunged on Jamie’s sofa, bouncing off each other’s so-called guilty pleasures, relationship dramas and in-jokes. Young kids, big dreams, with the balls to just see if it might take flight.
In ‘Islands’, ‘Crystallised’ and ‘Heart Skipped A Beat’, they made sophisticated pop songs that were brutally cool, even though these three wallflowers were anything but. And if anyone was going to inspire new voices at a time of disaffected youth, horrific unemployment, a crippling recession, a deeply questionable success rate following higher education, it probably wasn’t The xx. But they did, and suddenly here were three teenagers making era-defining new genres of music a world away from Duffy, Alexandra Burke and Mika, with the ability to overtake those massive artists in terms of their reach both under and overground.