Label Watch: XL Recordings
Beggars Group satellite, talent scout extraordinaire, Mercury Prize collector. Here's the lowdown on the indie label who sign up the biggest stars: XL Recordings.
As a UK indie label, XL’s importance rather lives up to the initials. Now entering its thirtieth year, it’s long since revealed a sustained and patient sensitivity to what’s hot in the UK scenes and beyond. It was good at this even at the start, sniffing out SL2 and The Prodigy when it was but a wee sublabel of Beggars Banquet dance correspondents City Beat. The trail of successes over the years, some of which from strikingly young artists (Adele, Dizzee Rascal, King Krule and Tyler, The Creator, for instance) is most impressive. Receipt of the yearly Mercury Prize has also become something of a hobby for the label.
Richard Russell established XL in 1989 with City Beat colleagues Nick Halkes and Tim Palmer. Have you ever wondered who in particular is responsible for the UK label release of the dubious and dismally deplorable eponymous number one hit by Dutch duo Doop? Now you know. Ta very much, you three. Halkes, with whom Russell has also dabbled in rave as Kicks Like A Mule, now manages Liam Howlett among others; Palmer went on to run the labels Positiva and Incentive. Russell has been at the XL helm solo for most of the way, and his magic owl ears rarely let him down with a new signing.
XL began as a dance music specialist similar to City Beat. But with popular culture increasingly cross-referencing the vocabularies of seemingly discrete traditions, styles and genres, Russell has proven no stranger to the temptations of an eclectic roster. So it is that within and between dance, electronica, rock, pop, soul and hip hop subheadings, XL has come to nurture quite a constellation of artists. Especially if, as we’re about to do, you include XL employee Caius Pawson’s pet label Young Turks, which is now a full-fledged XL partner.
Oxford’s foremost fivesome Radiohead have managed nine albums to date, at least eight of which ranging from good to bleedin’ excellent. By 1997’s OK Computer, they’d grown from juvenile alt-rock into a sort of arty, confidently dishevelled stadium sound. From then on, they’ve kept up a trend of negotiated style-mixing that has produced many singular and captivating songs. While Amnesiac has a simmering, bristling menace, Hail to the Thief adventurously casts consistency aside. The King of Limbs squirms beneath a mulch of cheery electronica influences, while most recently, A Moon Shaped Pool is all weary, wilting reverie.
Between the obtuse lyrics and aching wail of turbo grump Thom Yorke and the mercurial textures of his bandmates, The Radio Heads have pulled off so much good stuff over the years. But not one Mercury Prize? Fear not, Thom; it’s only a matter of time with XL.
Baroque indie rock meets unspecific Afro-worldbeat and Irish folk on the Columbia University campus: “Upper West Side Soweto”, in their own words. Will any band achieve the distinction of out-fratting Vampire Weekend? But it really turned heads, this stuff. Their debut album reached 15 in the UK albums chart; Pitchfork called it “sly, quiet and casual”. Sly because self-aware lyrics carefully poke fun at the band’s preposterous own expense; quiet because the songs are gentle and good-natured; casual because it’s all just a bit of fun. You have to admire their cocky, naive nonchalance and sweet pop melodies, I suppose.
As is often noted, the youngest generation of musicians presently establishing themselves were born into internet culture. It's a particularly porous culture, where the communities that delineate musical styles and traditions aren't so directly tied to localities and their histories, and music is less connected to corporeal media than ever before. A lot of troubled young artists have found vital creative outlets, collaborators and support in this environment, and one of them is King Krule. That he's named for the Presley song 'King Creole', rather than a certain crocodilian Nintendo villain, is a hint of the slightly unusual vintage span of Archy Marshall's tastes. It emerges in his music, which renders jazz fusion atmospheres with frank lyrical intensity and a voice as ready for rap and post-punk gnashing as it is for jazz crooning.
Richard Russell’s instincts served him well when he tracked down the then-teenage pop songwriter Adele to discuss her MySpace demo. But one doubts even he could have guessed she’d go on to sell more than a hundred million records. By and large, he’s probably quite pleased with this result.
While rooted in the modern stylings of soul pop and R&B, the particular appeal of Adele’s voice is immediately obvious. It's so rich, poised between delicateness and power and a wide vocal range in which to explore them. If anyone can carry the heavy, mainstream rituals of this style to truly moving expression, it’s Adele. Each of her albums has hosted a bunch of jostling producers – Rick “Hagrid” Rubin not least for the second one – which suggests logistical nightmares but ultimately only complements the same diary- or photo album-esque character that informs their current-age titles. Her title song for the James Bond film ‘Skyfall’ is exquisite, as well; one of the finest Bond songs generally. It certainly outshines its associated film, a work whose plot holes, excessive even by Bond standards, could defeat a stilt walker.
British-Sri Lankan Mathangi Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A.: early harnesser of the power of the viral video, frank political lyricist, gaudy pop cultural refererence-remixer, spirited rapper and singer. While her music is definitely a stylistic inspiration to many artists, M.I.A.’s openly political posture is a particular distinguishing mark – one that has brought her death threats as well as accusations of terrorism from the Sri Lankan government and, er, Oprah Winfrey.
Calls to awareness and action in art are one thing. They can send powerful messages; the extended video for ‘Born Free’ from Maya by Romain Gavras, which depicts military genocide against red-haired folks, showed with straight-faced hyperbole the tragic arbitrariness of discrimination taken to its logical conclusion; the ridiculous spectacle of hatred. But such messages, if left as they are in a cultural marketplace, don’t necessarily challenge status quos. So Auralpragasam’s activism and extensive donations to charitable causes are grounds for special kudos. So is the absolute banger that is XXX0.
Part of XL’s Young Turks division, Elliott School chums The xx’s debut arrived with a massive buzz. The 2010 Mercury Prize winner linked dream pop, indie and R&B with an unostentatious grace. An understated, fine pop album, it seemed to cause excitement chiefly by lacking much of its own. The first hit, ‘Crystalised’, sounds like a dream pop rework of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ – and I must say those chords are markedly better off without Isaak’s execrable, whingeing croon. Later material such as Coexist and On Hold has allowed in more urgency and dance references – and a lot of polish – though rarely at the expense of the their dreamy schtick.
Footnote: one of the first dates I had with my now-spouse was at one of their gigs. Thanks, The xx!
What were you up to in 2003? I was in secondary school, hearing praise about an emerging rapper and grime producer named Dizzee Rascal (that’s Mr Rascal to you, Jeremy Paxman). All these years later and he's only just pushing his mid-thirties. His brusque, high-speed rap delivery is aggressive and boastful, but his voice is so often full of cheek and cheer as well. A boisterous, slightly wayward but definitely affable rascal indeed. Co-producing his smash debut Boy in Da Corner in 2003, he only went and turned the urban, subcultural London grit of grime music into a mainstream phenomenon. No biggie. His repertoire has since expanded to include a bit of dance, with mixed results (if you take issue with the delightfully artless 2009 number one single ‘Bonkers’ from Tongue N Cheek, you might prefer stompbox bluesman Son of Dave's loopy cover). Another memorable 2009 moment was his Children in Need performance of 'Diamonds Are Forever', on stage with Shirley Bassey herself. Blimey.
The electroclash of Merrill "Peaches" Nisker, with its racy explicitness and flexing of heteronormative gender roles, has played a vital role in challenging norms and prejudices in an industry that has long held commercial, patriarchal influence over female sexuality. A lot of (especially male) critics have trouble grasping where sex-positivity ends and a continued subscription to the sexual domination of women, on-stage or elsewhere, begins. But right off the bat on her first album (under the Peaches name anyway) Peaches is in charge, asserting her agency, desire and indeed (as the title suggests) her gift of instruction. For she has much pertinent knowledge to share, and you may not otherwise have asked. This overt disposition has come to characterise Peaches' artistic persona. Yet, crucial as that may be, the quality of her musicianship itself shouldn’t be ignored. The dirty grit of the first album, completely contemptuous of subtlety, is brilliant. As befitting a step towards synthpop, the sound is a fair whack cleaner by the time we reach 2009's I Feel Cream. Yet, as Peaches is careful to point out on 'Billionaire', it's "never overproduced".
You haven’t heard of The Prodigy? They’re a British dance music trio, fronted by an absolute madman.
Of course you've heard of The Prodigy. As one of a few groups key to the Big Beat sound, they’re of no small importance for bringing British dance music into 1990s popular culture. Choice samples, rave references, sheer stamina and heavy beats are their bread and butter. As they swelled into the radar of an unsuspecting general public, their raver punkishness and naughty videos became controversial topics. The easily misinterpreted (and perhaps ill-advised) ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ and its devious promo clip were understandably hot, though as an impressionable child watching Top of the Pops I missed whatever was supposed to be threatening about ‘Firestarter’.
Big Beat began dropping out of fashion at the turn of the century and XL dropped The Prodge after the relatively poor sales of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. These days it’s all dubstep, electro house, trapcrak, clashfoot and dropcronk, isn’t it? But listen to the latest Prodigy album, 2018’s No Tourists or their possibly a little-too-inevitable mash up with Sleaford Mods. Big Beat is alive and well wherever it is that Howlett, Flint and Maxim spend their time. I think that’s their tour bus.
The world’s favourite crate-diggers, The Avalanches began as a bunch of ex-noise punks in Melbourne with a shared passion for thumbing through box after box of misc. old records. Eventually, they'd strung together over 3,500 disparate samples into a variously groovy, humorous, ludicrous and sometimes achingly beautiful album. Few would challenge the consensus that Since I Left You is a mucky old masterpiece; a peerless plunderphonic spree and one of XL’s most desirable releases. The music video for ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’, which plays the sample ensembles systematically for laughs, deserves special comment as well. It’s a rare example of a promo clip truly contributing something worthwhile to a song, which is especially important in an extract from an album designed for continuous flow.
And the legendary reputation of Since I Left You only continued to simmer the longer and more exasperatedly the world anticipated its follow-up. When at last Wildflower was released sixteen years later, Richard Russell was of course there, patiently waiting. Wildflower is a warm and lavish successor to Since I Left You, although the sort of impact the latter enjoyed is something that really only comes around once.
The late great Gil Scott-Heron’s final album was a surprising return from sixteen troubled years out of the studio. His voice had aged – very well – and his oft-spoken lyrics wax very personal, turning his insights towards his own confessions. At the same time, the album doesn’t sound like something all his own. Its sparse new electronic style owes much to collaborator and co-producer Richard Russell himself; Scott-Heron’s modest assessment was even that “[t]his is Richard’s CD”. I’m New Here also features Blurry Damon Albarn on keys and Chris Cunningham on guitar and synth (don’t miss Cunningham’s jaw-dropping triple-screen video remix of ‘New York is Killing Me’). Moreover, Jamie xx did an accompanying remix album. Don’t listen to it.
Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here wasn’t the only final album released in a legendary artist’s troubled lifetime to be nurtured by Richard Russell. Along with Damon Albarn (with whom Womack had already worked for Gorillaz), Harold Payne and Kwes, Russell produced Bobby Womack’s tremendous The Bravest Man in the Universe. Womack’s twenty-seventh album and first in twelve years, it marked a sudden and unexpected resurgence of songwriting inspiration. Womack sings with great intimacy, his voice able to vault instantly from the pathos of soul to kicking a few conversational stones about, all warmth and humour. Accompaniments range from beats, synths, piano and samples to naught but a guitar (‘Deep River’). Lana Del Rey’s appearance on ‘Dayglo Reflection’ is well judged, and Fatoumata Diawara is simply phenomenal on ‘Nothin’ Can Save Ya’.
This album charted at number one in twenty-six countries, making its title presumably quite apt. My sister had the CD and would rinse it at home, together with Music for the Jilted Generation, Jagged Little Pill and the ‘I’m A Scatman’ single. Ever an enthusiast for arthropods, I approved as much of the cover art aged seven I do today. Anyway, this is the holy grail of big beat. More streamlined and bombastic than Jilted, it’s home to most of the group’s biggest and most subversive hits: the useful instruction ‘Breathe’, the cyberpunkish ‘Mindfields’, the twisted ‘Firestarter’, whose shoestring video brought a deluge of concerned letters to the BBC and, of course, the delicately titled ‘Smack My Bitch Up’.
Another Mercury winner, this one’s probably among XL’s most honeyed and graceful albums. There’s much to be said for what Sampha accomplished at home for his EPs, but this co-production with XL’s in-house sound chap Rodaidh McDonald presents some really splendid, bassy LCR. It’s a real buff. Meanwhile, Sampha’s gentle voice and lyrics bear the added emotional weight of the loss of his late mother.
The Horrors surprised a lot of us with Primary Colours. The preposterous hair and garage punk of Strange House were largely shed in favour of reverb-soaked psychedelia; somewhere between post-punk and shoegaze (there’s positively Shields-esque guitar on opener ‘Mirror’s Image’). There’s krautrock too (‘Sea Within a Sea’). It was like watching the unsettling, shrivelled defensive posture of an owl relax into softer and more appealing (but still very much predatory) proportions. With Geoff Barrow, Chris Cunningham and Craig Silvey co-producing, it was bound to be something neat, wasn’t it.
OK, OK...let's get the obvious out of the way: we all agree nobody ever need to hear another word about OK Computer, right?
The prototypical Bandcamp pay-what-you-like album, In Rainbows marked Radiohead’s return following several years of post-contract downtime. The lush title, colourful art direction, gorgeous melodies and chunky production all suggested confidence, rejuvenation and quite a bit of cheer. It’s also shorter and more focused than its predecessor Hail to the Thief. You’ve got daft claps and schoolchildren yelling “Yeah!” on ‘15 Step’, the riffing excess of ‘Bodysnatchers’ and the jaunty, soft rock groove of ‘House of Cards’ – one of their finest, sweetest tunes. And this is balanced by a lilting, overdue version of fan favourite ‘Nude’, glockenspiel drama llama ‘All I Need’, the succulent and brittle ‘Reckoner’ and understated tearjerker-closer ‘Videotape’. Pretty good album. More satisfying than the slightly awkward The King of Limbs and better-proportioned than the unwieldy A Moon Shaped Pool.
This Arca fellow’s got some mad skill at pairing fleshy and impossibly muscular production with visceral, sometimes cinematic displays of anguish, sorrow and sexuality. And his humid, androgynous voice, emerging on record at the suggestion of close collaborator Björk, is a tremendous addition to his arsenal. It’s a smeared, disconcerting album, and its intense fixations can be tiring. But there are many moments where its rough rhythmic textures, expressive vocals and aching harmonies hit just the spot. This one, for instance:
Jack’s and Meg’s third album is the sort of burst of quality that comes from a well-judged self-imposition of risky limits: in this case, no blues, no solos, no covers, no decoration. They did less than ever and found themselves a new sound of unceremonious, dog-eared garage rock. Not technically difficult to play, not even always very well played, and utterly, authentically unsophisticated, it’s a triumph of rock music purity. An essential bunch of captivating, from-the-heart rackets.
It pioneered grime, drove critics into a frenzy of approval and won its year’s Mercury Prize. Its star, meanwhile, wasn’t yet old enough to buy a pint legally. It's a brilliant ride, full of good moments. That pentatonic evil clown loop driving 'Brand New Day'. The lower octave boost that turns the brittle orchestral pluck hook of '2 Far' into a nifty jungle bass line for the choruses. The bold sparseness of single ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’, which comprises nothing but a Billy Squier sample and Rascal’s voice. Though produced cheap and cheerful, it's also aged remarkably well.
Yet another Mercury Prize winner, the debut album by beanie / human duo Badly Drawn Boy is a series of romantically lyricked strumathons, brought together by various combinations of over twenty musicians. Simultaneously, it's a flexibly self-indulgent hour of dreary, fleabag indie folk. Perhaps it works anyway – and it does work – because of the self-awareness and gallows humour Damon Gough brings to his odes. His delivery of some profoundly affectionate and wistful lines, whose sincerity need not be questioned, can still be suspiciously cool and affable. Clearly, he saw the funny side of it all.