Best albums of 2012, No 8: The xx – Coexist

Continuing our countdown of the year's best albums is the xx's second LP, which didn't break new ground so much as cover old terrain with even more delicacy and poise

'In Leeds, we had our first moshpit' – read Romy Madley Croft on the xx's amazing year

The xx's first album had debuted a sound – a spectral melange of post-punk and R&B – that seemed unprecedented. It went on to soundtrack everything from Newsnight to Greece's Next Top Model, was sampled by Rihanna and won the Mercury prize. So the pressure was on for the follow-up. Coexist didn't manage to reinvent their sound – and it certainly wasn't the all-out dance record some had been anticipating – but it did refine the band's blueprint into something even more minimal, sexy and insidious.

Though it lacked the shock of the new, Coexist wasn't lacking in confidence. Slimmed down to a trio and jettisoning all outside help (even their managers didn't hear the album until it was finished), Jamie xx, Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft brewed up a quiet storm. Some songs, such as Angels, weren't so much intimate as internal, like tuning into someone's thoughts. Others, such as Fiction, were so sparse that a guitar line packed as much drama as a thunderclap. Yet the record's shadows weren't so dark that the tunes got lost. From the surging Unfold to the yearning Try, they were uniformly strong and supple, while the atmosphere of unspoken desire was even more torrid than on their debut, but increasingly shaded with darkness and anxiety.

As the album slowly revealed its secrets, the sheer strangeness of the xx became more and more apparent – a producer and percussionist plus two singers (Sim and Madley-Croft) who never harmonise, don't sing to each other or even about the same person, yet are so tightly knit they seem like three aspects of the same androgynous whole. This second album showed them coexisting, beautifully and mysteriously.

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Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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