Written by: Vincent Nijenhuis
Xiu Xiu is the experimental electronic post punk brainchild of Jamie Stewart. It is his strange, at times, magical attempt to make some of the most daring, emotional pop music being made today. It’s hard to define Xiu Xiu’s sound considering that Xiu Xiu is clearly inspired by so many different musicians, ranging from Nina Simone to David Lynch. It varies so much from album to album that usually it sounds just like whatever fell into Stewart’s mind and we are lucky enough he’s willing to open his brain to show us how it functions. Xiu Xiu has a unique lens to say the least. It’s so distinctive that choosing one’s favorite is an extremely personal experience. There’s some songs from Xiu Xiu I absolutely hate, but know other people love and vice versa. So, with that in mind, here is my top five Xiu Xiu’s songs in no particular order.
“Fabulous Muscles” (Fabulous Muscles 2004)
This is the best song about a blowjob ever. The quintessential Xiu Xiu song is also one of Xiu Xiu’s most stripped back, and emotionally honest songs they’ve ever released. It would be easy to dismiss this song as Jamie Stewart being overt about his sexuality for shock value, but that would be incredibly reductive. This song is not just about a blowjob; it’s about the desire to please the ideal we can never be. It’s heartbreaking. It’s about the need to be of service to the straight muscle jocks just to seem of value to those we were told we should be, and that our value lies as being an easy, reliable last resort. It’s the sexual fantasy that many gay men live out on a regular basis to attain the literal essence of the straight ideal. Stewart’s vocals sound more like the sobs of a failed orgasm oozing for the relief of his partner’s pleasure. The gentle guitar on the track is just background noise to avoid silence and the harsh reality that comes with it; it’s there to romanticize the act in hopes that it isn’t as pointless as desiring to be the unattainable ideal.
“Gray Death” (Dear God, I Hate Myself 2010)
“Gray Death” is a fun song. I promise. Leave it to Xiu Xiu to title a song “Gray Death” about begging to be beaten to death to have one of the most infectious, vibrant instrumental to hide from the darker subject matter. (Though, to be far, is fairly lighthearted compared to most work Xiu Xiu has done.) This is Xiu Xiu operating at their poppiest selves, once again proving my theory that the loudest, most experimental musicians also write the best pop songs.
“Fast Car” (A Promise 2003)
This is known as one of the hardest songs to ever listen to. I would have to agree. Jamie Stewart sounds like he is actively trying to tell himself a lie to hopefully give him hope to see the next day, and failing. Failing into his own misery. His desperation is heard through his hushed whispered vocals. Stewart drained all the optimism from the original Tracy Chapman version and replaced it with a longing for that same exact optimism. Stewart makes sure we focus on his pain, and yearning by slowing down the melody of the song and stripping it down to only a ukulele and the lightest touch of synth at the end. This is not a song that is going to force emotions out of you, but instead, forces you to slow down, and go at its own seemingly meandering pace. If you are willing to let it take its time, it will completely consume you and make you feel the same exact longing. It’s awful. It’s incredible. It makes me ache for an experience I have yet to live through. It’s the reason I listen to music: to connect to something on a level I can’t verbalize, or even rationalize, because it resonates on such a profoundly emotional level.
“Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl” (A Promise 2003)
Yes, this is the second song off A Promise. It’s my favorite Xiu Xiu album, and yes, I am very much bias. This song is about Jamie Stewart’s sex life, but again, it’s not just about the sex. It’s about role-playing what would be more attractive to the straight ideal: a women. This is a song about Jamie Stewart cross-dressing for a married man to seem desirable to the ideal. It also has this irrational, loving melody that makes the entire affair seem warm and inviting by making us see the whole affair through the same rose colored glasses the narrator sees the relationship through. It explodes with energy, and desire that lacks the self-loathing and longing we’ve come to associate with Xiu Xiu. Instead, it comes across more like someone content with secret between lovers.
“Josie’s Past” (Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks 2016)
2016 was a terrible year. It was so terrible in fact that I somehow forgot to include Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks on my top ten albums of the year list. This is the most deeply unsettling track off said album, and possibly Xiu Xiu has ever put out. It’s technically a cover, but Xiu Xiu adds this sample of a childlike voice reading diary entries of her dreams depicting a strange, masochistic sexual fantasy. It could almost pass as camp if the exaggerated expression of childhood sexuality wasn’t told through such a blasé, nonchalant way. She giggles the way a middle schooler would if her crush simply looked in her direction. It’s knowingly innocent. Xiu Xiu infuses the innocent with a dark, truly frightening skeletal instrumental to only intensify our discomfort. David Lynch would approve.