Various Artists: XL Records – Pay Close Attention

A concise, pure and punchy pop history lesson.
Various Artists
Pay Close Attention: 25 Years of XL Records

This is one of those compilations where time seems to slip or speed away underneath you as you listen to it. It is, in essence, one complete sound which you sense moving and developing as each song starts and ends, each adding its own flavour to the overall mood and feeling. The Prodigy offer rave both lightweight and hardcore, Radiohead offer darkness, paranoia and ennui, and Adele offers something almost in-between. Thirty-five songs by critically important British, European and American artists in just under two and a half hours. Pay Close Attention starts with SL2, from the early days of rave and the proudly touted “Original Version” of “DJs Take Control”, with it’s pulsing, punchy electronica and raw, sampled cries of “how’s everybody feelin'” and ending with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” (from 21 — at the time of writing, the biggest-selling album of the 21st century). This compilation pulsates with pure energy and will hook you in, no matter where your musical tastes should lie.

Pay Close Attention also offers a welcome return for the likes of the Prodigy and Basement Jaxx. The former, whose “Out Of Space” gives the compilation its title, get to remind us through both that track and the almighty “Firestarter” (still the most unlikely number one in the history of the British Charts) why they were so vital in the first place — with white hot breakbeats burning their way into your conscience and Keith Flint’s searing, shimmering vocals screaming, hollering and screeching their way through your ear holes and into your gut. Basement Jaxx, meanwhile, delight once again, with “Jump’N’Shout” in making us do exactly that and bringing back (for this writer, at least) fond memories of shimmying and shaking the night away in lots of sweaty, adrenalin and alcohol-fueled clubs through seasons full of stolen moments which you wish would just never end. The breakbeats pound your chest cavities, the bass reduces your thigh bones and knees to dust and an overall air of sheer, uncaring, live for the moment joy surges right through the speakers.

If anything, the one arguable real flaw of Pay Close Attention is that the shadows of the Prodigy and Adele’s are allowed to dominate proceedings just a little too much. This compilation has balance, for sure, thanks to the pulsating, ominous riffage of the White Stripes (yes folks, Seven Nation Army is here in all its glory) and the booming baselines of Roy Davis Jr’s “Gabriel” (and if you haven’t heard this terrific mash-up of soul, R&B and drum’n’bass topped off with the voice of a fallen angel, then I ask you, why not? If you want to, then it provides the perfect excuse to purchase this album). Where, though, are the likes of the Avalanches, whose album (especially with its title track) Since I Left You was one of the purest pop treats of the early 2000s, containing as it did, a reputed 3,500 samples, one, therefore, for every season of weather in Britain? Surely the world needs to hear them once again, rather than the somewhat perfunctory disco-pop of Dem 2’s Destiny? Yes we know every label has to make money with some tracks but we do not, at this stage in your history, need to be reminded of the fact quite so brazenly.

That, however, is but a minor quibble. XL Records proudly boast here of a “relentless pursuit of headstrong pioneers” and they certainly deliver on all fronts. Where else, for instance, would Radiohead go, having left EMI? Who else would be brave enough to deal with the White Stripes? Where else were we going to find artists who were both flash-in-the-pan one hot wonders and also yet both true and genuine mavericks, such as Liquid (present here with the appropriately-titled “Sweet Harmony”) or Peaches (who help kick off Disc 2 with the charming, ahem, in its own way “Fuck the Pain Away”)? In a nutshell, many of the most important artists from the last 20 years are present here. XL Records — one of the last few truly independent records labels remaining, in case no-one had noticed — prove here that they have truly stuck to their original mantra of being somewhere in which each artist has their own individual voice. Peaches and Adele are bitchy, Basement Jaxx are pure pop, Radiohead are Radiohead and the Prodigy are the Prodigy. Yes, some of the sounds here are a little dated and a little jaded, but each has true honesty and spirit and heart and the results of that alone are truly joyous.

This is like the best music festival you’ve ever been to, condensed into two and a half hours. Just about every artist allocated one song and one song only (except for, of course, the Prodigy who, being label royalty, get two) and all grab their chance to shine and prove, as they say themselves, that XL has “almost uniquely… remained both open-minded and tightly focused”. Their ambition, at least in the beginning, was purely to make records which they themselves could play as DJs. It was (and has indeed proved to be) a very good starting point as, like all good, hard-working DJs, they have kept an open mind about the kinds of music they choose to work with and the directions it takes them in. This has meant that, unlike so many acts and labels of their birth era, XL Records (and their artists) have successfully moved on from the staleness of rave. As they themselves say, “scenes start off as a platform but they can become a prison”. Well, this is one platform which they have joyously jumped from and are cavorting with glorious ecstasy in the sonic waves they have made. Pure pop with a raw, ragged and beautiful edge of darkness. Here’s to the next 25 years.

RATING 9 / 10