PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

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

Label: XL
US Release Date: 2014-08-25
UK Release Date: 2014-08-25
Label website

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.