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Best Of 2011: Compilations & Mixes

At a time when podcasts are available for every day of the week it seems even harder for the commercially released mix album to remain a viable entity. The majority who still see reason in the endeavour are doing themselves little favours in endlessly commissioning triple CD mixes put together on Ableton with little ingenuity when there are similarly accomplished, if soulless, efforts available for free for the nuisance of subscribing via iTunes?

Equally, the art of a finely curated compilation with a central concept that intrigues and a tracklist that excites becomes ever more difficult to pull off in age where the New Boring permeates deep into all reaches of electronic music. Aside from the more thought out label showcases, perhaps the most interesting compilations to surface this year have been those that take their cue from reissue culture. In an age where retro-futurism has become a standard term, it’s perhaps labels taking the time and patience in acquainting new ears with sounds from days gone by that helps provides the necessary context.

Thus this list draws together ten of those releases over the past twelve months whose approach has side stepped the aforementioned problems facing the two mainstays of electronic music, and perhaps provide an insight into how others could follow suit.

Four Tet
FabricLive 59
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The Fabric mix series seems to be one of the final few that approach the art form with any real ingenuity and the Farringdon club probably enjoyed its finest year with regards to the artists it chose for the long running CDs. Excellent contributions surfaced from Jackmaster, Pearson Sound, Derrick Carter and Dave Clarke across the double pronged series and even the Jamie Jones effort was surprisingly good (bonus points for the inclusion of Oppenheimer Analysis Jamie) Towering above these however was the fascinating Four Tet mix which offered a concept that was matched by execution, essentially mapping out the soundtrack to the producer’s early days as a clubber in London and presenting it as if you were traversing the behemoth of a club as it played out.

Furthermore, it cunningly joined the dots between the swinging, dusty underground UKG of the pre YouTube black hole and straight up techno with his own track “Pyramid” a true centre piece. It seems to be a mix whose legacy is enduring too, with one of the rarer tracks featured on it – Persian’s “Feel Da Vibe” – recently getting the proper release it deserved on Persian’s own label thanks to repeated requests. When reviewing the mix, Scott Wilson finished by stating how it had arrived at the perfect moment with the revival and re-appraisal of older UK garage sounds never more popular amongst the new wave of production talent, but stated Fabriclive 59 showed there was more to the genre than saccharine vocals and neon synths and was a mix that offers a love letter to a producer’s most treasured memories and influences.

Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller Part 1
Clone Classic Cuts
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It’s hard to underestimate the enduring impact Detroit duo Drexciya, aka Gerald Donald and the late James Stinson, have had on contemporary electronic music. Their faceless and anti-mainstream approach has been mimicked countless times but seldom with the same level of complexity or intrigue. Their music – an uncompromising, raw and thoroughly singular take on techno and electro – earned them a cult following that lasts to this day. They were a vital part of the Underground Resistance family and went on to release material on seminal German techno imprint Tresor, while Clone issued the last ever Drexciya long player (2002’s Grava 4).

We can only doff our caps in the direction of Rotterdam based imprint Clone for compiling this comprehensive collection of the duo’s early material, all of which has been remastered from the original tapes. Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller Pt 1 contains gems gleaned from 1997 album The Quest, as well as their early 12”s for the likes of Tresor and Underground Resistance. Appropriately, this release comes 20 years after the release of the first Drexciya LP, Deep Sea Dweller. The decision to release the first reissue as a comprehensive “best of” Drexciya’s early works as a CD, instead of reissuing each release with original track lists, was done in reverence of the original. Put simply, this is one of those deliciously rare reissue/compilations that is essential for obsessives and newcomers alike.

Karl O’Connor
White Savage Dance
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Whilst it may seem odd or out of place to include a twelve inch here White Savage Dance is essentially a compilation, offering a welcome chance for Regis completists and Sandwell District fans to indulge in several key moments of Karl O’Connor’s early musical life. For us, the opportunity to own and blast out loud tracks from O’Connor that featured on the much played Silent Servant Sandwell District Radio Mix #2 was reason alone for this fascinating twelve inch to be celebrated. The five industrially charged tracks on White Savage Dance surfaced on highly limited seven inches during the early years of Downwards existence, though the recordings date back to the mid eighties.

Clearly influenced by the nascent metallic clang of 1970s post punk and Industrial, all of the tracks here provide an illuminating insight into the early days of a producer whose status is now rightly regarded as iconic. There’s plenty to appreciate in the corrosive, battered, spasmodic cold wave of the Anglo – Germanic versions of “Here & Now” whilst “Understand” and “A Man Has Responsibilities” see O’Connor step behind the mic revealing a fragile Midlands brogue that battles for your attention with sinewy guitar riffs and drums that sound as if they’ve been carved from the hollow battering of caustic tin pans. The inclusion of an equally illuminating A5 booklet filled with extensive sleeve notes from Downwards alumni Tony Burnham aka Autonym made White Savage Dance a fascinating release in all respects, and a welcome prelude to the forthcoming triple CD Regis retrospective from the same label.

Sweet Exorcist
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Although largely forgotten, bleep techno remains one of Britain’s most thrilling and eccentric musical developments. Arguably the first distinctly home-grown brand of house or techno, it emerged from a glorious fusion of black and white musical cultures in a handful of bleak Yorkshire cities at the tail end of the 1980s.

Of all the early bleep acts, it was Sheffield’s Sweet Exorcist (a collaboration between local DJ Parrot and Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H Kirk) that left the greatest legacy in terms of authentic bleep productions, as RetroActivity, this long-overdue anthology of their productions attested.
In many ways, Sweet Exorcist’s suite of “Test” tracks released in 1990 are the best remaining examples of bleep in its purest form. Raw, spooky, uncompromising and focused on the twin attractions of unfeasibly heavy sub-bass and a simple but devastating melody, “Testone” through “Testsix (Toneapella)” remain powerful and unique dancefloor records. RetroActivity showcases them all in remastered form.

But Sweet Exorcist didn’t stop there. Over the next year, they released a couple more 12” singles for Warp and an album, C.C.I.D. While the latter – included here in its entirety – largely featured 808-heavy house productions with the duo’s distinct bleep touch, it’s their techno productions that still bristle with clanking industrial intent.  RetroActivity is a fitting tribute to both Sweet Exorcist and bleep techno – a revolutionary genre whose stark, post-industrial narrative offers a uniquely British story to match that of Detroit’s earliest electronic pioneers.

Various Artists
Sofrito Presents Tropical Discotheque
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Upon release back in January of this year, we were moved to state we’d be surprised if another compilation grabbed our attention as much as the Tropical Discotheque release East London collective Sofrito put together for Strut Records. Fast forward eleven months and this statement still rings true, with Tropical Discotheque offering a delightfully diverse insight into how Sofrito have grown far beyond their roots from sweaty parties at various East London locations including the legendary Passing Clouds to essentially becoming the tropical variant of Horse Meat Disco.

The fifteen track set veered between everything from Cumbia to Congolese jams, Ghanaian funk to salsa and calypso with the results undeniably exotic and eminently danceable (the R2D2 style bleep funk Cumbia of Frente Cumbiero’s “Pitchito” remains one of our favourite tracks) Arriving with some wonderfully distinctive artwork from Sofrito’s resident designer/illustrator Lewis Heriz adorning the packaging, it was complemented by some typically insightful sleeve notes from Sofrito resident Hugo Mendez accompanying each selection.

Strut have a high standard when it comes to compilations and reissues, but Tropical Discotheque was steeped in such quality it really stood out as it couldn’t fail to convey how much time, effort and care has gone into the selection.

Various Artists
116 & Rising
Hessle Audio
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Of all the label showcase releases that surfaced this year few could match the imperious 116 & Rising compilation from Hessle Audio. It was a wonderfully presented and curated document of the label’s progression since it was founded in 2007, arriving in typically beautiful artwork courtesy of Trilogy Tapes designer Will Bankhead. Looking back, 116 & Rising can be viewed as a true centrepiece release from Hessle, with only a few key twelve inches released this year; the compilation allowed the people behind the label to spread their reputations away from the everyday label hassles. David Kennedy’s multiple alias endeavours were fully explored, Pangaea further established himself as a producer and Ben UFO quietly slipped into his role as one of the UK’s most revered selectors.

Musically the compilation was pitch perfect, sharing some of the key highlights of the Hessle back catalogue such as Martyn’s imperious remix of TRG’s “Broken Heart” and Ramadanman’s “Don’t Change For Me”. It was however the raft of exclusive productions that elevated 116 & Rising to the forefront of our thoughts when selecting what belongs amongst this list, with mainstays such as James Blake, Elgato and Untold complemented by new tracks from Addison Groove and Peverelist. Perennial Juno Plus favourites Blawan and Cosmin TRG both submitted killer inclusions too, which were illuminating preludes to the successful 2011 both have enjoyed.

Harald Grosskopf
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By now we’ve come to expect a certain standard of quality from RVNG Intl, but that doesn’t stop them constantly trying to surpass these expectations. Alongside the increasingly ambitious FRKWYS series, the New York based label took on the task of selecting Harald Grosskopf’s Synthesist as their first ever reissue, allowing us the chance to bask in an enigmatic producer’s debut album that has been unavailable largely since its release in 1980 just as the time celebrate it’s 30th anniversary came around. Upon listening, Synthesist revealed itself to be a masterpiece of expansive synth driven cosmiche, veering between the close brushes with pop music such as the title track and “Transcendental Overdrive”, more cosmically charged explorations such as “B Aldrian” and the woozy, all encompassing hypnosis of “Emphasis” and “1847 – Earth”.

Arriving in typically unique packaging from RVNG cohort’s Will Work For Good, the reissued material was complemented not only by sleeve notes from Grosskopf himself, but RVNG Intl added yet another example of their expectation surpassing endeavours. The label called on a whole host of talented friends from both sides of the Atlantic to rework the eight tracks on Synthesist for an accompanying Resynthesist CD. Featuring the likes of JD Twitch, Stellar Om Source and Walls’ Sam Willis under his Snoretex alias alongside the cream of America’s contemporary synth talent such as Oneohtrix Point Never, CFCF and James Ferarro, it was a finely judged way to show how Grosskopf’s influence still resonates brightly today.

Various Artists
If This Is House, I Want My Money Back Zwei
Permanent Vacation
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Munich label Permanent Vacation’s second dollop of the brashly titled If This Is House I Want My Money Back compilation was perhaps the perfect antidote to the overly polished and far too ubiquitous shallow house endeavours of the irrepressible Hottown clique. A much more refined selection than the inaugural 2009 compilation, it saw some familiar Permanent Vacationers line up alongside label debutants whose stock has risen of late.

It’s no coincidence that some of our favourite artists in 2011 delivered fine contributions to Zwei, not least as the Hivern Discs duo of John Talabot and Pional. The former’s “Leave Me (Friendly Pattern Version)” remains one of those tracks that we can quite happily listen to on repeat, such is the level of detail throughout, and it’s little surprise to hear Permanent Vacation have collared the Spaniard for his debut album. Pional’s contribution meanwhile, delivered the kind of sultry mid tempo thump that was sadly missing from much of Nico Jaar’s debut set.

Elsewhere, the Future Times duo Beautiful Swimmers stepped out of their DC comfort zone with the bastard concoction of Faltemeyer stabs and proto house pressure that was “Excited”. Further contributions from Uncanny Valley’s Korn & Cuthead sat alongside the likes of Soul Clap, Session Victim, Hunee and the PV bosses themselves offering a selection that approached the form of house music from differing sonic angles with aplomb.

Rinse 16
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Ben UFO has spent the year surrounded by the near constant chatter of praise for his vinyl digging endeavours and status as a rarity in contemporary club culture, having built his considerable reputation as a DJ, not a producer (his work as part of the Hessle crew obviously helped too) His entrance into the Rinse FM mix canon for their sixteenth edition wonderfully demonstrates this, acting as a calling card for his own idiosyncratic mixing and selecting style, which effortlessly joins the musical dots between London, Bristol, Berlin and beyond.

The 29-track twists, turns, ebbs and flows, with the Hessle Audio chief seemingly always thinking one step ahead. Before there is time for the flow to drop into dark, undanceable corners, a sun-kissed curveball – be it the rapid arpeggios of 2562’s “Winamp Melodrama” or the saccharine vocals of Champion’s “Sensitivity” – is thrown and the mix is yanked in a new, pleasing direction. The upward progression through BPMs is barely perceptible; hardly surprising for someone who makes a living ignoring genre and stylistic restrictions. Alongside Four Tet’s FabricLive effort, Rinse 16 demonstrated that in the right hands there is still plenty to explore within the confines of 74 minutes mix CD.

Various Artists
Vibe 2
Future Times
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Sometimes a record comes along that perfectly captures the mood and sound of a particular corner of the music world. Vibe 2 from Washington DC imprint Future Times was our favourite example of that sort of release this year, joining the dots on an international network of underground house artists spanning both coasts of the US and mainland Europe. Presented as a heavyweight vinyl double pack, Vibe 2 came across as the grubby, lo fi transatlantic brother to Permanent Vacation’s own doctrine on contemporary house listed elsewhere here.

The fingerprints of New York’s L.I.E.S. imprint feature heavily here, no surprise since label boss Ron Morelli revealed to us how important a role Future Times played in encouraging him to start the label. Alongside a Max D embellished track from Morelli, there are selections from the likes of Steve Moore and L.I.E.S stalwart Jason Letkiewicz under two aliases (with the Confused House contribution “Concrete (dub)” a particular highlight.

Yet more of 2011’s underground heroes appear though, such as Tom Noble who has been responsible for some superlative under the radar vinyl releases as the year rolled on. His track “Malaco” effortlessly bridged the gap between the proto thump of Ron Hardy’s Musiq Box and the flirtatious, forgotten boogie gems that Peoples Potential Unlimited specialise in, whilst both Hunee and Amsterdam’s adopted sons Juju & Jordash also contribute energetic workouts. Arriving in a simple black sleeve with equally unfussy artwork, Vibe 2 was one of those releases that simply let the music do the talking.