We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again. We are truly excited for the new album from The xx. I See You, the band’s third full-length, has been anticipated by two singles, the band’s first-ever appearance on SNL and a literal boatload of hype.
But we still have another 24 hours to go before the fated release day arrives. So what to do? Ranking every single song in the band’s catalogue in descending order of greatness seems a good an activity as any to pass the time.
Before we begin, a brief note on eligibility: we considered including the 11 tracks found on Jamie xx’s superb solo debut In Colour from 2015, but that would inevitably be unfair as his solo work would carry at least half of the top ten. We did however, include the two singles from I See You out officially tomorrow. And without further ado, here’s our ranking of all 25 songs by The xx:
Coexist saw The xx reduce their sound to the bare essentials, and on an album full of minimal tracks, this one is the most minimal of all. This song barely even has a melody, just the band’s token heartbroken musings and whispers over a handful of guitar chords.
24. “Our Song”
Some albums close with a bang. Coexist ends with a whimper. Literally. It’s hard to recall how this song goes even while you’re listening to it.
Another one of Coexist‘s snoozers, this track is notable for one exceptionally fine moment. After a minute and a half of atmospheric ambience, we are treated to four full seconds of silence, enough to make you wonder if something broke. Until that delicious drop arrives. The rest is… fine.
22. “Basic Space”
The xx’s self-titled debut is a well-oiled machine, with hardly a misstep. But if there is one, it’s this track. While not bad per se, its meandering melody is particularly noticeable given the strength of the tracks on either end of it.
Continuing to prove the point that this band prefers to end things quietly, “Stars” closes out their first record with a bass-line reminiscent of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and an elegant fade to silence.
An interlude track, “Fantasy” serves a purpose in the journey of the record, but on its own is fairly forgettable. Unless you’re listening to it with a great sub-woofer in which case, girl, buckle up.
This is the longest track on xx, and it shows. While a perfectly good song, it begins to outstay its welcome after the fifth or sixth mantra of “give it up / I can’t give it up.”
18. “Night Time”
The first half of this song sounds exactly like the rest of the latter half of xx, until that beat comes in. And suddenly you’re in the middle of a gloomy, wave-your-arms-in-the-air-so-you-don’t-start-crying dance party!
While this track presents a deliciously simple statement of heartbreak (“We used to be closer than this!”), it doesn’t offer the same expedient quality on the musical end. Really great “ooohs” though.
Coexist has far fewer moments that spotlight Jamie xx’s touch than their previous (and assumedly, forthcoming) record, but this track is one where he really shows his hand. In the midst of Oliver Sims’ crooning, we are treated to a fantastic beat that sounds like it wandered out of The Knife’s Silent Shout and into Jamie’s lap.
15. “Swept Away”
In an album of minimalism, “Swept Away” is the one song that goes for maximalism, deftly juggling all three bandmate’s instrumentation across a clean five minutes.
Written for the gaudy monstrosity that was Baz Lurhmann’s interpretation of The Great Gatsby, The xx’s sparse sound seems an odd fit. But they turned in one of their best singles for the film, one that is built around a haunting synth-blare and sweeping, cinematic orchestral instrumentation that rears its head during the dramatic latter half.
Through and through, this song belongs to Romy Madley-Croft. It features some of the best guitar work on the album, and she fiercely delivers one of the most devastatingly bleak pleas for sexual deliverance in a record full of them: “Can I make it better when the lights turn off?”
12. “Say Something Loving”
Though we are about to find out for sure, it seems that The xx are playing with sampling for their new album in a wholly new way. I See You‘s second single continues to show that the band has grown demonstrably, with both Croft and Sims turning in career-best vocals over production that hops between samples, orchestral arrangements, and their own instruments with preternatural ease.
Opening cold with an a capella refrain of the chorus, “Tides” is a fantastic exercise in layering. Each element of the song builds piece by piece, subtly drawing your ear in until it vanishes almost instantaneously. A true magic trick.
Truly one of the eerier songs in their catalogue, the experience of listening to “Try” is all about following that strange, loping synthesizer noise, circling around the track like a vulture over fresh meat.
9. “Heart Skipped a Beat”
“Sometimes I still need you” Croft and Sims admit unashamedly, the emotion in their voices standing in stark contrast to the precise, mechanical percussion that lodges this tune firmly in your brain. And as expressive as this sentiment is, it doesn’t come close to the expressive quality found in the skittering synth line that never stays still, almost lost in walls of reverb.
“Sunset” is a bi-polar song. The drum line flits in and out, seemingly at random, without any concern for which section of the song it’s currently resting in. The end result is one that plays back and forth between moody ballad and upbeat, perhaps even danceable, tune.
Anyone who listened to Jamie xx’s In Colour knows that he has an odd affinity for the steel drum, a typically loathsome instrument that he can uncannily wring a wealth of diverse emotions from. Here, on this song, is the moment that that obsession begins. And it is devastating.
For those of us old enough to vote, the concept of a VCR is like a warm hug, transporting us through the power of nostalgia to a far simpler, idealistic time. Which is perhaps why this song may be the best-titled of any in The xx’s catalogue, because it is precisely that: a sonic equivalent of a once-remembered warm hug.
5. “On Hold”
Many of us were quite understandably perplexed when The xx dropped “On Hold” back in November. For a band that has famously played it close to the chest, this track is almost too forthright in its bubbly, touchy-feely vibes. Had they just discovered Prozac? And wtf is going with this Hall & Oates sample?
But with time comes the realization that this may be the most fully-developed song they have ever released. Each component of the trio is firing on all cylinders; Croft and Sims have tightened their instruments and loosened their vocals, and it’s all delivered atop one of Jamie xx’s most surprisingly touching samples to date.
The xx’s sound is not one that could be considered ‘pop,’ but hot damn, “Crystallised” is a truly perfect pop song. It’s about heartbreak, there’s an everyone-can-sing-along chorus of “aye-aye-ayes” and it is catchy as hell. But the key element to this track is the guitar line, one that literally cascades and rains down on the ear with each breathless repetition of the chorus. The guitar is the true star of this show, the singing is just decoration.
For a band that specializes in quietly devastating tracks written as minimally as possible, this is the most devastating and most minimal of them all. There are three basic elements: Romy’s voice, a terse guitar line and feather-light ambient production, and they are woven together like a tapestry. But it would have none of the staying power that this song continues to hold without the piercingly touching chorus: “As in love with you as I am.”
No song in the band’s career moves quite like this one. It is a true anomaly. Every piece feels fluid, constantly shifting about until it all grinds to a halt with the repetitive buzzing that opens the song and reappears as a coda for each phrase. Literally like a record skipping, the whole song is one built from the same individual pieces being continually reshuffled.
This quality is exemplified in the music video, which sees the band reordered in a room constantly in motion and forced to repeat and repeat again. And in seeming opposition to the repetitive nature of this track, it’s doubtful they will ever create something like this again. Which is, for all of the perfection found in these two minutes and 40 seconds, probably for the best.
It feels odd to say that the greatest song by The xx is a two-minute, wordless intro-track simply titled “Intro” on their debut album. But there is simply no other song in their career thus-far that could hold this position.
There is an undeniable power in “Intro,” an energy that courses through each second. It lays bare every single sonic element of the united forces of Jamie xx, Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sims and pieces them together like the intricate machinery of a clock. Everything that makes this band great is here, everything they have done since can be traced back to this. “Intro” is their mission statement, and not even a Rihanna cover or continual commercial rip-offs have done anything to diminish this power. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, and undoubtedly the best xx song.
For more on The xx, take a look at our 2017 album preview.