Who They Are: An American experimental pop ensemble formed in 2002 by singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jamie Stewart, who has been the group’s sole permanent member. The group takes its name from the acclaimed 1998 Chinese film Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. Stewart is the son of producer-musician Michael Stewart, and the nephew of John Stewart of the Kingston Trio, who composed the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and scored a classic rock hit with “Gold” in 1979. Xiu Xiu are currently officially a duo of Stewart and Angela Seo, though when touring music live was a thing that happened in our world, they expanded into a four-piece format with Swans members Thor Harris and Chris Pravdica serving as their rhythm section. Xiu Xiu have been highly prolific since their inception, having released 15 studio albums and dozens of EPs, singles, splits, live and compilation albums. While their original compositions form the backbone of their catalog, they have released spectacular cover songs and albums, most notably 2016’s Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks and 2013’s Nina, which explored and re-imagined the catalog of the late, great Miss Simone. Xiu Xiu’s latest album just came out last month: entitled OH NO, it is composed entirely of duets, with Stewart trading vocal and instrumental lines with a stellar crew of collaborators, including Sharon Van Etten, Owen Pallett, Alice Bag and a dozen others.
When I First Heard Them: Autumn of 2006, soon after the release of their fifth studio album, The Air Force. I had a subscription to eMusic, an early alternative to iTunes, at the time, which offered much better choices for listeners at the extreme ends of the musical spectrum, while Apple was still in empire-building mode with a largely classic rock and pop catalog. eMusic’s subscription model was to give you a certain number of song credits each month, and if you didn’t use them you lost them, so that routinely forced me to find new stuff to download, to maximize the value of my expenditures on the site. I don’t know exactly what grabbed me about that outstanding Xiu Xiu album (I’m guessing it might have been the incongruity of its cover art, featuring a medieval portrayal of a suffering Christ, juxtaposed with the name of a modern military organization), but its second song, “Boy Soprano,” grabbed me, hard, quick, and I soon acquired their complete back catalog, and have purchased everything they’ve released since, eagerly, readily, excitedly.
Why I Love Them: “Excitedly” was a good, if not exactly intentional, word with which to end the prior paragraph, as it is an apt descriptor for the ways I always feel when I hear that a new Xiu Xiu release is imminent. Each new project feels like an event to me, in large part because I (and you) never know quite what we’re going to get from record to record to record. There are pop-oriented Xiu Xiu records, and there are brutally extreme (lyrically and musically) Xiu Xiu records, and there are Xiu Xiu records that combine both elements, and there are (for lack of a better word) conceptual Xiu Xiu records, like the new duo album, or the earlier cover albums. There’s enough commonality of sound and structure and approach for listeners to know that it’s always clearly Xiu Xiu when they’re spinning, but Stewart, Seo and all of their earlier/other collaborators are truly deft at stretching the sonic barriers around their musical world to, and often beyond, their breaking points, without ever not being themselves, without ever lowering the exquisite quality of their work. That mixture of dark and light, accessibility and experimentalism, welcoming embrace and off-putting punch in the face often evokes and invokes COIL for me. And that is a very good thing, given how much I adore the work of that other late, lamented experimental pop duo, and how precious few other artists can aspire to, much less match, the quality and volume of their work over time. Xiu Xiu are also incredible visual artists, and their videos are typically beautiful, shocking, haunting, and imminently re-watchable little works of art. While I normally just link to videos featuring the clean studio versions of songs on these lists, the top ten list below includes some of their extraordinary small films (often NSFW, be forewarned), as well as a live take on my #1 cut. That’s one of my favorite online performance videos, sound and image glitches notwithstanding; it features an earlier duo version of Xiu Xiu with Stewart accompanied by Caralee McElroy on keys and percussion. I’ve watched this video many times over the years; Jamie’s passionate performance is thrilling, and the creative ways the duo use odd bits of technology (and housewares) to make a particularly strange and magical pop sound are truly sublime.
#10. “Cinthya’s Unisex” from Angel Guts: Red Classroom (2014)
#9. “Hi” from Always (2012)
#8. “A Bottle of Rum (Feat. Liz Harris),” from OH NO (2021)
#7. “I Luv the Valley OH!,” from Fabulous Muscles (2004)
#6. “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy,” from Girl with Basket of Fruit (2019)
#5. “Pox,” from La Forêt (2005)
#4. “Boy Soprano,” from The Air Force (2006)
#3. “Wondering,” from Forget (2017)
#2. “Dear God, I Hate Myself” from Dear God, I Hate Myself (2010)
#1. “Clowne Towne,” from Fabulous Muscles (2004)