In an uneasy atmosphere of sales slumps, stifled creativity, and a rapidly changing industry, few labels have remained as consistent as XL Recordings. Labels may not get much credit from fans and artists will always be the stars, but the track record of XL is undeniable.
Since 1989, when the label was formed, XL has not only released commercially successful projects (like Adele), but they’ve constantly pushed boundaries, taking on projects deemed too risky for the majors and giving the artists enough freedom to do things right. With releases by Jack White, The xx, Jai Paul, Bobby Womack, and more in 2012, the label is looking as strong as ever.
For once, let’s show some love to the label. Here’s a list of XL Recordings’ Greatest Hits.
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25. Thom Yorke – “And It Rained All Night”
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s debut solo album The Eraser (released in 2006) is a moody, gloomy, glitchy album full of sparse, Kid A style electronic ballads, with “And It Rained All Night” being a trance inducing standout. With longing, lonely lyrics and hyperactive death-rattle percussion complementing the bassline, the song manages to retain a lurching forward motion while at the same time conjuring up images of post-apocalyptic wastelands. XL would go on to release and distribute two Radiohead albums, but their first hook-up with a solo Thom Yorke is full of offbeat gems, with “And It Rained All Night” being an under-appreciated melancholy masterpiece.
24. Friendly Fires – “Jump In Pool”
Anyone who has ever seen Friendly Fires live can testify to just how incredible of a party the band hosts, and while it is hard to imagine how some of their songs might translate into the vogue-tastic jams that lead-singer Ed McFarlane leads his band on, it is clear as soon as that tropical percussion hits that this track is made to dance to.
“Jump In The Pool” starts strong, and just gets better, with a soaring chorus, airy synths and a couple of crazy drum breakdowns to boot. Friendly Fires debut album is chock full of foot-moving, singalong chorus featuring dance-pop, but the Paul Epworth (Adele, Cee Lo Green, Bloc Party) co-produced “Jump In The Pool’ is a real all-round gem, with an emotional, atmospheric punch that complements the tribal dance party vibe.
23. Jonsi – “Go Do”
Sigur Ros guitarist and singer Jónsi used his main band’s temporary hiatus to let loose with a joyous, soaring debut solo album that saw him singing in English for the first time, and even creating what might loosely be termed pop-songs. “Go Do” is one of the most straightforward songs on the album, making full use of Jónsi’s strongest weapon (his wonderfully distinctive falsetto) but nevertheless still finding time for a plethora of other instruments to come into play. There is a playful eclecticism running through Go that marks it out from Jónsi’s work with Sigur Ros, and never is it more apparent than on “Go Do,” which is an enjoyable change of pace from a supremely talented musician.
22. Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx – “Running”
The remix album is a tricky prospect, particularly when commissioned by the label that released the original. Jamie xx’s remix of Gil Scott Heron’s acclaimed I’m New Here accomplished the rare feat of reinventing original material that simultaneously highlighted the best qualities of the primary performer (Heron), while breathing strange, new life into quality material, and announcing xx’s style and skill set without the usual requisite obtrusiveness. “Running” is one of the strongest encapsulations of this dynamic, as Jamie xx lays down a distinctive beat that breathes and swells at the proper moments, giving Heron is due and shining in its own right.
21. Vampire Weekend – “A-Punk”
Vampire Weekend is one of the rare examples of an independent band that is able to parlay underground and critical support into real, mainstream success, and a huge part of that is due to “A-Punk.” Not too long after the release of their refreshingly creative debut album, the song started popping up everywhere – an effervescent, concise piece of guitar pop with a shoutalong chorus and relentlessly inventive drumming. It was quirkier than anything on the radio but just as immediate, and it wasn’t long before people started catching on.
The argument can certainly be made that the song has reached its saturation point by now; it was seemingly in every commercial trying to appeal to preps and hipsters between the ages of 17-28 for about two years without exception. And, while it was annoying hearing the song on TV every half hour in 30-second increments, it’s worth going back and listening to the song in context. Sandwiched between “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “A-Punk” doesn’t sound irritating, out of place, or like a cash grab—it fits right in.
20. Electric Six – “Danger! High Voltage”
As the garage rock wave of the early 2000s crested across the pages of Rolling Stone, along came sleazesters Electric Six with their immaculately grooving “Danger! High Voltage.” With enough absurd lyrics, catchy riffs, and mysterious Jack White appearances to go around, “Danger” is a fantastic lead single, a melting pot of styles that organically touches on the band’s disco, garage, and new wave influences in under four minutes. It doesn’t hurt that “Danger” happens to be an unapologetically catchy good time either.
19. House Of Pain – “Jump Around”
To write about “Jump Around” in 2012 feels like eulogizing a dinosaur, long fossilized and universally known. There isn’t an American stadium that has not blasted “Jump Around” through it’s PA system. It is an indelible relic of the early ’90s, its rhyme patterns and dusty bounce (provided by Cypress Hill maestro DJ Muggz) instant, precise reminders of a bygone era. “Jump Around” succeeds largely because it approaches the bravado and style of the era with a vigor and fun (largely courtesy of its production) uncharacteristic of the so many other similarly concerned releases. Its energy is infectious, its impact immediate. From the opening fanfare to through the final chorus, “Jump Around” is joyride Hip-Hop of the highest order.
18. Basement Jaxx – “Where’s Your Head At”
You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a song more fun than this. Bassment Jaxx, a South London electronic duo that had reached near-legendary status throughout the ’90s, found themselves with a major hit on their hands when they dropped “Where’s Your Head At?” with their second album, Rooty, on XL Recordings. The track married a huge house beat with the shuffling percussion of UK Funky and threw in a few Gary Numan samples for good measure, and was an immediate blast without dumbing itself down. The result was a track that blew up in London upon its release, even reaching Billboard Chart-level recognition as the track began to spread internationally throughout the early 2000s.
17. Beck – “Gamma Ray”
The second single from Modern Guilt, Beck’s 2008 collaboration with producer Danger Mouse, “Gamma Ray” serves as a statement of purpose. Like “Where It’s At” to Odelay and “Sexx Laws” to Midnite Vultures, “Gamma Ray” is the key to the map of Modern Guilt, exposing Beck’s British psychedelic leanings (though Danger Mouse can be thanked for that as well), an obsession with nostalgia–both sunny and melancholic–that colors the album, and the distillation of years of noodling with samples and sounds that settles into Beck’s most mature set. “Gamma Ray” and, as an extension, Modern Guilt, play fitting, matured capstones to a triumphal four year period that saw him return to seemingly long forgotten form with 2005’s Guero and 2006’s The Information, albums recalling the sound that made Beck a poster boy of genre-bending indie cool.
16. Jai Paul – “BTSTU”
Londoner Jai Paul came out of absolutely nowhere with the truly singular, quirky, and intensely catchy “BTSTU,” a demo he recorded in 2007 that eventually came to popular attention in 2010, landing him a deal with XL, as well as radio play and frenzied blog attention. Everything in this track, from the opening falsetto of “Don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me” to the sudden, sawing bass, is perfectly placed and startlingly original, in fact this song is so good we can even forgive Jai Paul for the year it took him to release new music in the form of “Jasmine“. There is very little more welcome than new music from this intriguing young man, so here’s hoping we don’t have to wait quite as long until his next release.
15. Dizzee Rascal – “Fix Up, Look Sharp”
Though American listeners could scarcely understand what was coming out of Dizzee Rascal’s mouth, “Fix Up Look Sharp” spoke the universal language of massiveness. With a thunderous beat borrowed from Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” and a fierce, spit-fire performance from Dizzee, “Fix Up” announced the 19 year-old rapper/producer as a force of nature. “Fix Up” draws power from elemental simplicity: the beat hardly progresses beyond “Big Beat’s” towering drums and a Billy Squier squeal, but against the existing landscape it stood out like a grime caked beacon.
14. The Avalanches – “Frontier Psychiatrist”
The best individual song on an album that could easily defend itself as the best album of the last decade, “Frontier Psychiatrist” is The Avalanches’ calling card. The Australian group, something of cult figures today, combined live instruments with a hyperactive rush of samples and deft turntablism to an effect we’ve never seen recreated (well) since. The song never stays in one place, jumping from groove to groove and sample to sample until it’s impossible to truly determine what exactly is going on in the mix at any given moment.
“Frontier Psychatrist” melds 37 spoken word recordings into something almost resembling a narrative on insanity. It’s humorous, intricate and is so good it practically grabs the listener’s head and forces them to nod along. Although XL normally gets credit just for releasing forward-thinkin
13. Tyler, the Creator – “Yonkers”
When Tyler teased fans on Twitter by telling them that “Yonkers” was just some piano, bass, and drums, he, of course, neglected to prepare listeners for the song’s gargantuan, sinister thump. “Yonkers” played the perfect lead single for Tyler’s first label release, reminding existing fans why they’d come along for the ride in the first place and distilling the style that had the internet buzzing for almost a year prior into a digestible (if perhaps not easily… let’s remember the cockroach) package.
12. Radiohead – “15 Step”
Radiohead came out guns a’ blazing with this opener for their seventh studio album, In Rainbows. “15 Step” is an upbeat, schizophrenic track that defies any genre we could think of. The combination of excitable drums, soothing guitars and elongated howling synths towards the end perfectly showcase the band’s ability to mix nearly anything into a digestible cocktail of aural pleasure.
The bevy on instrumentation and atmospheric sound use on this record are suitably matched by Thom Yorke’s vocal accompaniment. “How come I end up where I started?” he ponders, addressing a relatable feeling that so many of us have wrestled with. Overall it set the tone for what proved to be a very monumental step for Radiohead, and music in general, when the self-released In Rainbows was made available for fans to download directly at a “pay what you want” rate, a practice that has since become increasingly more common place in the industry.
11. Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”
Jack White is a pure-bred rockstar of the highest calibre. The air of mysterious aloofness and eccentric manner that he carries with him simply serves as a backdrop to his superb musicianship and raw, timeless voice, both of which are in full effect on “Sixteen Saltines.” Over a blistering two and a half minutes, we were shown that the predominantly acoustic “Love Interruption” was only one side of Jack White as a solo artist, and reminded that when he unleashes a jagged riff and a pained yelp it is almost impossible not to get swept up by the power of his music.
10. Roy Davis Jr. ft Peven Everett – “Gabriel”
Released in 1997, this is a stone-cold classic of a track—a truly timeless piece of music that, for seven soothing minutes will transport you to another world. Chicago house producer Roy Davis Jr. provides the UK garage style drum programming whilst Peven Everett adds his simple but gloriously soulful vocals and plays trumpet. There is an elegant simplicity to this track, a gentle warmth that can bring peace to the most stressful of situations, and while you may be much more familiar with many of the other tracks on this list, “Gabriel” more than stands tall beside the best of them. Classic.
9. Gil Scott Heron – “NY Is Killing Me”
It’s not often that a second act in music is as invigorating and incisive as the first, but such is the case with Gil Scott Heron’s thunderous “NY Is Killing Me, the ominous first single from his stellar I’m New Here–an album that served as both a return to form and a tragic final call from a long tortured artist. “NY Is Killing Me” saw Heron wrap his gravelly voice around a thoroughly modern production and a personally apocalyptic vision as insightful about his adopted city as anything on Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Though the song would take on continued life when remixed into an anxious, bass heavy anthem by The xx producer extraordinaire Jamie xx, the original possesses an ominousness and grit that situate it closer to Gil’s condition at the time of recording, a dark truth that imbues it with even greater weight.
8. Badly Drawn Boy – “The Shining”
The first song on Badly Drawn Boy’s debut album, “The Shining” opens with plaintive, deep strings and as light a touch a horn can have. It’s a slow build that draws you in; a now-classic album opener that takes its time to reach resonance. By the time the guitars mesh with the strings you’re hooked – the creative singer-songwriter is a role that we’ve seen a thousand times, but this song is a prime example of how intimately good the music can be by executed by someone talented. Under his moniker Badly Drawn Boy, multi-instrumentalist David Gough emerged in the late ’90s as a voice in the musically experimental and emotionally sensitive indie scene that would come to prominence throughout the next decade. He spent his earliest years and six releases with XL, winning the 2000 Mercury Prize and seeing some mainstream success before parting with the label in 2004.
7. The xx – “Islands”
It’s hard to pick a single song as a “hit” off of The xx’s fantastic, near-eponymous debut album. They wrote great songs, yes, but the aesthetic was the true key to that album’s greatness. The melding of electronic production with guitars and songwriting, the sensuous minimalism of the approach – that, over the course of an entire album, was the core of The xx, rather than a single song. The fact that the band, then only in their late teens, were allowed to helm production of the record is presumably a primary reason for xx’s singular sound and the eventual calling card for rising star Jamie xx. With a wide range of high-profile producers (including Diplo) willing to take executive duties over the album, that decision was a risky one on the part of XL imprint Young Turks that paid off.
If a song must be picked, “Islands” is the difficult pick. A brief burst of light in the spacious, whispered length of the album, it was the most straightforward
6. The Strokes – “Last Nite”
The Strokes only had one limited run release on XL, but what a release it was. “The Modern Age / Last Nite” was released as 7″ single on May 21st of 2001, sparking a bidding war to sign the band that was eventually won by RCA, who released their debut album later that year. “The Modern Age” and “Last Nite” make up a pretty iconic opening statement from the New York garage-rockers, but it’s that sneeringly delivered gem of a chorus, and incredibly catchy riff from “Last Nite” that helps it get the nod for our list.
5. SBTRKT ft. Little Dragon – “Wildfire”
SBTRKT’s eponymous debut album was that rare beast that managed to crossover from the underground dance music scene to the mainstream without losing any credibility, and “Wildfire,” his collaboration with Little Dragon is the standout hit. The song was the sound of pop music evolving, taking Yukimi Nagano’s longing, radio friendly vocals and countering them with SBTRKT’s experimental post-dubstep production for a bona-fide hit. proof of “Wildfire’s” wide ranging appeal came when Drake featured on the official remix (even performing it live with SBTRKT & Sampha), but regardless of the rapper’s star appeal, nothing can beat the near-perfection of the original version.
4. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes”
XL signed M.I.A. in 2004 off the strength of her demos of “Galang” and “Sunshowers,” and while those songs demonstrate a creativity and eclectic approach to music that set her apart from many contemporaries, no one could have predicted just how big of a hit she would have with “Paper Planes.” The song, which featured on her second album Kala, was virtually inescapable throughout 2008 (and beyond), and as a single went triple platinum in the US, whilst becoming XL’s second highest selling single ever.
Combining pop sensibilities with a light coating of anti-establishment subversiveness, the song’s the gun-shot laden, chanted chorus of “All I wanna do is… and take your money” and the loosely delivered sing/rap verses are M.I.A.’s finest moment to date, and a sharp reminder that the talented artist really has no need to engage in negative publicity grabbing middle-finger related activities.
3. The Prodigy – “Firestarter”
The release of The Prodigy’s second album Music For The Jilted Generation was important for XL as the album debuted at number one in the UK Albums Chart and was the label’s first big hit, but it was the release of the band’s third studio album, Fat Of The Land, in 1997 that really took things to the next level. The album debuted at number one in both the UK and the US, and “Firestarter” is an instant classic on an album full of them, forming part of one of the strongest album opening combos of all time along with “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe”.
Aided and abetted by a strikingly shot black and white video (below), “Firestarter” cast Keith Flint as an aggressive ringleader ready to get you riled up over some furious percussion, and even with newspapers campaigning to ban their music from the airwaves, “Firestarter” became The Prodigy’s first number one single and a worldwide monster hit. Fat Of The Land was a real game-changer for the post-rave era dance music, and “Firestarter,” with its wailing looped guitar riff and don’t give a shit attitude is a truly iconic song.
2. Adele – “Rolling In The Deep”
At this juncture, if you haven’t heard “Rolling in the Deep,” you’re either deaf, dead, or attempting to dig through that 855 song mixtape Lil B released. “Rolling” is perhaps XL’s biggest hit, an utterly inescapable revivalist soul gem that propelled the already successful Adele to previously unimaginable heights. In the wake of its ubiquity, it can be difficult to remember that “Rolling” is indeed an undeniably great song, a love letter to craft and what a singular voice can do when it sinks its teeth into a well of raw emotion. “Rolling” his risen and will endure not because of pure memorability, but because it strikes at deeper chords so often overlooked (or unreachable) in modern music. Forget the hype and listen with fresh ears.
1. The White Stripes – “Seven Nation Army”
While all White Stripes fans will have their own personal favourites from the band’s wide ranging back catalogue, “Seven Nation Army” is the biggest, most recognisable and indeed most popular song the band has ever recorded. Released in 2003 as the first single from The White Stripes fourth album, Elephant, the song’s incredibly catchy underlying riff (played on a semi-acoustic guitar ran through an effects pedal) is now known worldwide, reaching an audience far wider than just fans of the band’s garage rock style. With both Elephant and “Seven Nation Army’ being critical and popular successes, and landing on numerous “best of” lists, and The White Stripes being one of the best loved rock bands around, it was impossible not to put this instantly recognisable, gritty, addictive song at number one on our list.