Every year in the U.K. a group of music industry insiders award the Mercury Prize, an accolade given to the best alternative album of the year. When The xx received the prize last week they joined the ranks of other notable British groups such as Portishead, Franz Ferdinand, and The Arctic Monkeys. To win an award is one thing, to produce a truly excellent album is another. The question is: “Is xx all that it’s cracked up to be?”
To determine this answer, it is useful to look at the context of music in 2009 as a whole. Alternative musicians gained more momentum against mainstream mainstays as the digital era really began to level the playing field. Songs from Phoenix and Passion Pit appeared in cell phone and car commercials and radio stations played yet another Vampire Weekend single. It appeared as though “indie” could be pigeonholed: just take a bunch of guitars, a synth, and some catchy beats, add 20-somethings in sweater-vests and serve.
Given this climate it’s not difficult to see why The xx stands out: rather than lots of bright, sunny instruments all they’ve got are a cool, spring-reverb-tinged guitar and a drum machine. Their vocals are relaxed and smooth- sexy and nearly emotionless- very much like watching fashion models on a runway.
For all of its soft, minimalist, hip dance songs, xx attempts to define “cool” and succeeds. What is so appealing about the debut from The xx is that the songs are catchy, but not cliché. Listening to “Shelter” for the 10th time is still as enjoyable as the first time, something that cannot be said of many songs.
There are, of course, songs that simply fade into the velvet-black tone of this record; however a handful truly stand out. Tracks such as “VCR” and “Islands” do a good job of showing why The xx deserved the Mercury Prize.
To watch the video for “Islands” visit www.minesblog.com/music