It’s been odd year for the album. The instant classics have remained few and far between. Formats are dying and resurrecting, listening habits are evolving, and more and more we’re inundated with new music. Thus, curation has become an art form unto itself, elevating the importance of the good ol’ compilation with it.
Along with the label showcase compilation, the DJ mix compilation, and the ‘current chart hits’ compilation, the alternative history compilation has undergone a meteoric rise in recent years. Labels like Soundway, Soul Jazz Records, Light in the Attic and Sturt seek to revive long lost chapters from global music culture, balancing cultural topography with killer in-depth research and graphic design.
Take Light in the Attic’s Native North America Vol 1: it’s one of the best offerings from the year in any genre, shedding light on a largely unheard wealth of folk and rock recorded by natives from Canada and the USA. Similarly the stellar soundtrack to Elaine Constantine’s British indie film Northern Soul unearths forgotten gems that reveal parallel histories for both the home of soul in America’s motor city and our own industrial north’s colourful youth subculture.
All of which is why we find ourselves putting together this brief list, assembling ten of the best compilations to come out of 2014. They’re unranked, and the list is undoubtedly more subjective than even your usual album chart (as hard as it is to get reach a consensus over the year’s best new releases, it’s even harder to reach a useful one on compilations). Also worth noting that we have included a Spotify playlist of all we could find from our compilation choices below.
A helping hand can go a long way when making those precious new discoveries, and while it’s not quite a golden age for the album, we’re at an all-time peak for the compilation.
Ten Essential Compilations - Playlist
10.1 / 10.2 / 10.3 / 10.4
Tristan Bath: Clearly this is four compilations and not one, but you are unlikely to buy just one and leave it there. 2014 represents ten years since Kode9 founded the seminal Hyperdub label to release his own music after some advice from The Bug, and it’s since grown to become one of the world’s - and certainly the UK’s - pre-eminent exponent of new electronic music.
Every track on offer across these four volumes is a stone cold classic, ranging from Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland’s artsy avantgarde pop songs, to cuts from dubstep mainstays like Burial and Mala, footwork from the likes of DJ Rashad and rainy techno from Laurel Halo.
Few labels are in ownership of quite such a brilliant catalogue, and no other label in the world is shaping the future in quite as big a way. This year also saw the tragic early loss of both the Spaceape (a consistent Kode9 collaborator) and fotowork pioneer DJ Rashad, both of whom contribute some of the finest cuts on what is already that rarest of things in electronic music: a timeless collection.
Native North America
Vol 1 - Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966 – 1985
(Light In The Attic)
Aaron Lavery: Reading the title of this release might initially make you think of some worthy yet hard-going archival project, but you’d be wrong. Key to what makes Native North America Vol 1 an exciting, invigorating listen is both the period it covers, and the man who has pulled it together. Just as California and the Deep South were their own spin on those building blocks and gaining mainstream attention, this compilation unearths a wealth of previously unknown acts that were doing interesting things with that rock and roll template, but from the outer reaches of Canada. They received little-to-no recognition at the time, due to their out of the way location and probably some negative attitudes towards their communities, but thanks to DJ and vinyl collector Kevin Howes and Light In The Attic, they can now be heard in all their glory.
It’s simultaneously familiar and completely unlike anything you’ll have heard before – Willie Dunn’s psych-tinged acoustica has echoes of Dylan and Young refracted through his own particular experiences, while Willie Thrasher (no giggling at the back, thank you) has the Crazy Horse / Grateful Dead vibe down perfectly on ‘Spirit Child’. However, the fragility of John Angiak’s ‘I’ll Rock You To The Rhythm Of The Ocean’ has the air of something crafted completely separate from the wider world that surrounded it, while Alexis Utatnaq’s ‘Maqaivvigivalauqtavut’ rises above the language barrier to deliver a sweetly sincere campfire singalong.
With it being a Light In The Attic release, the accompanying material is almost as good as the record itself, with Howes delving into the back stories of each artist and coming up with some fascinating, and occasionally heartbreaking stories. Listen whilst reading and you’ll feel clued up on a musical world that was previously unknown, still the tracks in the midst of your record collection and you’ll smile appreciatively whenever one pops up on shuffle.
Psych for Sore Eyes 2
Dom Gourlay: As with its predecessor, Psych for Sore Eyes 2 throws together a diverse mix of established and relatively unknown artists from around the globe. Musically disparate yet clearly under the influence, all six contributors prove inspired choices. This is a welcome addition to the Psych for Sore Eyes series that delivers both quality and quantity across its six tracks. Here's to the next instalment...
(Read Dom Gourlay’s full review here)
(Strut / Sofrito)
Tristan Bath: This compilation of 60s and 70s music from Haiti plays out as a joyous parallel history of the nation’s era under dictatorship. There’s explosive creativity throughout, and the daily struggles with violent oppression and poverty are nowhere to be heard in the songs themselves, hovering ghostlike out of earshot. Never has history been this much fun. Haiti Direct is not only a crash course in one of 20th century North America’s most undersung musical hotbeds, but also one of the most addictive, energetic, outright fun compilations ever put together. Vodou aesthetics clash with Latin rhythms, African beats and latent French influences, making every track more colourful than the last. There’s so many high points, memorable moments and addictive grooves across these two discs - simply put, Haiti Direct is endlessly listenable, life-affirming, and utterly brilliant.
The Film Soundtrack
Dom Gourlay: Thanks to the golden age of the internet and sites like northernsoulmusic.co.uk it has become slightly easier to build one's own digital library but the clamour for rare vinyl artefacts continues to this day. Earlier this year, BBC4 ran a documentary on the phenomenon entitled Living for the Weekend which anyone with the slightest interest in club culture needs to watch, while last year's Culture Show special 'Keeping the Faith' served as a timely introduction to the UK's first entirely word-of-mouth underground music scene.
Which brings us onto the soon-to-be released film celebrating the scene. Northern Soul, directed by Elaine Constantine, whose past credits include the promotional video for Richard Hawley's 'Baby You're My Light', tells the story of two teenage friends whose lives became impacted by the scene. The accompanying soundtrack compiles a mammoth 54 songs including Marvin Gaye's hard-to-find 'This Love Starved Heart of Mine (It's Killing Me)' and 'The Night', Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons first release on Motown in the mid-1970s which heralded a resurgence in the group's career some 13 years after their first release.
Housed in a two-CD and DVD box set, Northern Soul: The Film Soundtrack represents a treasure trove of lost classics from the movement's widely conceived archives that will prove as much of an interest to completists as it will those on their maiden voyage of discovery.
(Read Dom Gourlay’s full review here)
Late Night Tales
...presents Automatic Soul
(Late Night Tales)
Christian Cottingham: It’s pretty dark out, huh? In a year where daily events seem to be vying with our most dystopic fictions for sheer awfulness, and the dread triumvirate of extremists, fascists and tories hang omnipresent like a veil, it’s often been tough to find cause for cheer. But this mix sure has helped. Granted, mining the 80’s is nothing new, but Groove Armada’s Tom Findlay has assembled such a choice array of 808 classics and drum machine unknowns that it’s impossible - impossible - not to respond. Rose-tinted nostalgia? Definitely, but dammit if we couldn’t do with more disco lighting in these shadowed times.
Science Fiction Park Bundesrepublik
Tristan Bath: This set of insane futurist cassette tape music from West Germany in the 80s was lovingly compiled by Felix Kubin, and provides a telling snapshot of an odd moment in history. Primordial electronica, Residents-like schizophrenic pop songs and outsider krautrock sketches abound in the unique collection. As Kubin himself summarises, “the four-track tape studio becomes the medium of the collective unconscious... most of the recordings are born without strategy or intention of commercial exploitation. They are eruptions out of the crater of a society that had reached a deadlock during the so-called German Autumn... Everyone was waiting… But for what?”” Like Victorian sketches of steampunk machinery, the view of the future from the bedrooms of 1980s West Germany was dark and strange - and arguably far more interesting than our digital present.
Tristan Bath: This Texan quartet was formed by the Kudane brothers in 1991, recorded three albums of contemplative, slow, thoughtful and often very pretty indie rock, and then disappeared. They're no Slint; they didn't scream wildly into the night, or record a game-changer that launched a thousand axes - Bedhead simply made brilliant and beautiful guitar music squeezing everything they could from a relatively limited sonic palette. They were the exact opposite of all the angry MTV grunge and metal that dominated the era, with the Kudane brothers gentle vocal styles often buried semi-audible beneath the four sleepily interlocking guitar (and bass) lines. This perfect package compiles all of their recorded material in one box (three albums, two EPs and some singles), and is perhaps the ultimate antidote to the relentless maximalist battleground modern music’s become.
The Sound of Siam
Vol 2: Molam & Luk Thung Isan from North-East Thailand 1970-1982
Aaron Lavery: Easily winning the title for the Best Album Likely To Make You Sound Like a Pretentious Music Nob Of 2014, the second volume of The Sound of Siam is also likely to make the list of finds you’ll recommend to a friend who likes something a bit more left-field. Following the first volume in the series which highlighted the influence of Western sounds on the Thai musical culture, volume two zooms in on one particular region to highlight how rural instrumentation and traditional singing styles combined with funk and psychedelia to create something that came to be hugely popular in Thailand but virtually unheard of outside the country.
There’s real variety here, with Saksiam Petchchompu & Pornsurapon Petchseethong’s ‘Jeb Jing Jeb Thai’ sounding like a lost track from some neon-fuelled art-house movie, while Chanpen Sirithep’s ‘Lam Plearn Kiew Bao’ starts somewhere near what we might think of as Bollywood before becoming a strutting minimalist funk number. If you want to find something genuinely different to what you’ll hear elsewhere, whilst learning about a little-known part of the musical world at the same time, The Sound of Siam Vol 2 would be a great bet.
What’s Your 20 What's Your 20? Essential Tracks 1994-2014
Dan Lucas: Surely a band as beloved and revered around these parts as Wilco haven’t lowered themselves to a pointless Best Of?
Well no, they haven’t.
OK they technically have a bit, but there’s really far more to What’s Your 20? than the bog-standard, record label-curated, lazily packaged hits compilation. For one thing… what hits? To put it to the scientifically accurate litmus test, neither of my parents would be able to name a Wilco song so there’s that.
What’s Your 20 probably won’t win the band new fans. After all, if this kind of music is your thing then you already know who Wilco are and Radio 2 are unlikely to be playing ‘Handshake Drugs’ any time soon. It’ll make a great addition to fans of the band’s vinyl collections though, or will spend a long time in the car CD player (I don’t drive: do people still have those?). It’s one for the wider music aficionado too though, a fine opportunity to appreciate the best band of the past 20 years.
(Read Dan Lucas’ fuil review here)