A brief history of compilation albums, the trajectory of this multi-artist concept, and of course, a list of some ISC favorites.
The Compilation. Some purists may cringe at the word. It is, in some ways, a more respectable version of “Greatest Hits” collections, but these introductory releases have helped delivered an exceptional amount of lost music that may never otherwise be heard. And despite its formula, the format allows for multiple rewarding experiences: discovering obscure sounds of a remote region; unearthing gems that would’ve otherwise been lost entirely; or finally obtaining a physical copy of that inflated and completely unbuyable private press. The compilation has also seen many shapes and incarnations throughout its history, and has certainly come a long way since its anthology roots and the NOW That’s What I Call Music heyday of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Disregarding its initial beginnings in classical music, the compilation as we know it was created for convenience — a way for home listeners to listen to 50s and 60s chart-toppers without having to flip the record every three minutes or commit to the full album. A way to have a long flow of party music without the need of a DJ or record changer.
The idea was a huge success. Major companies discovered a way to profit off their vast music vaults and large rosters. In a way, the approach spawned a new form of album that wasn’t necessarily an album at all. Best Of’s, Motown’s Greatest Hits, themed records, minor and major label samplers — all of them became extremely popular. Compilations untethered great songs from the album listening experience, foreshadowing the playlist-driven listening routines of today.
With listeners growing interested in obscure music, comps have evolved into brilliantly curated reissues featuring sounds that were lost, obscured by the times or simply unheard. Music that we can only now fully appreciate. Whether presenting niche music from a specific part of the world, documenting a short-lived sonic movement from the past, or just avid collectors and DJs piecing together a mix of their esoteric findings, the comp has come a long way, and in the process changed the ways we discover and appreciate sounds.
Here are some of our favorite classic compilations <3
Wilderness America, A Celebration of the Land (1975)
According to the liner notes, Wilderness America, A Celebration of the Land is a musical exploration of our place within the cycle of living things. All compositions were specifically commissioned for this album and blended with natural sounds recorded in the wild. This Bay Area conceptual private press compilation features a mixture of gentle, breezy Americana folk pieces, gorgeous new age and jazzy instrumentals and moments of heavy funk. A collection of 70s field-recording laden songs converge for a common purpose: raising environmental awareness and earning money to be donated to conservation organizations. Highlights include the beautiful new age opener by one of the genre’s key players, ”Dawn” by Iasos; the beautiful orchestral and howling folk ballad “Before I’m Gone,” by album organizer David Riordan; and, most, notably, the Walter Hawkins gospel and heavy funk track that caught many collectors’ attention, “Metropolis.” The compilation has since become somewhat of a holy grail. The art-funded nature appreciation concept and a stellar lineup of musicians certainly added to the allure, but most importantly, these Redwood-inspired songs are beautiful and will leave you yearning for wildlife. -DM
WTNG 89.9 FM: Solid Bronze (2012)
Undoubtedly the most significant contributor to the compilation’s resurgence would be the incredible Chicago-based reissue label Numero Group. A team that has unearthed countless lost recordings that are now considered classics, the Numero posse has spent the last seventeen years reanimating rare music from all around the globe. Any of their revered comps could’ve appeared on this list but one of our favorites is their 2012 ode to the FM radio station compilation albums of the past. In their words, the album is an homage to “back in the days of when FM radio jocks stoked the flames of stage acts in their broadcast area with hyped-up talent shows, invaluable airplay, and homegrown LPs stacked with the best efforts of bands not more than a few counties away. Solid Bronze covers all of that ground and then some: smooth rock, AOR, easy glide, hot tub soul, and earnest yacht rock sailing gentle radio waves. Fans of the Dans—Fogelberg, Steely, Seals, and Hill—this is your Numero record.” – DM
“One Giant Leap” (1983)
What could be looked at as the crown jewel of DIY recordings, One Giant Leap is, in the label’s own words, an “ambitious collection of demos from bands and solo artistes who are currently not signed to either major or indie record labels.” Part 5 in the short but remarkable 6-part “INTEL” compilation series from UK indie label 101 International, the 25 tracks spread out across the records 2LP’s are from mostly unknown artists displaying a unique mix of electro, synth pop and new wave jams. While most of the songs exist only on YouTube due to limited pressings and no reissues, one of the compilation’s highlights, “Impossible Dreams” by Rajan James, was recently reissued and pressed to a 12” by Australian label Left Ear. – Jonny Garciaros
From Brussels With Love (1980)
The first proper release on Belgian label Les Disques du Crépuscule, From Brussels With Love was released in November, 1980 as a deluxe cassette/booklet package featuring 22 exclusive tracks of avant-garde, post-punk and new wave along with several artists from the Factory Records roster. Purposely international in scope, the compilation featured established artists experimenting with new styles, as well as rising artists on the cutting edge — A Certain Ratio, Harold Budd, Thomas Dolby, The Durutti Column, Bill Nelson, New Order, Michael Nyman and many others. To mark the 40th anniversary of the album in 2020, Crepuscule reissued three remastered editions, with the most ambitious featuring a 60-page book including rare images, posters, sleeve designs and period ephemera, plus a detailed history of the Crepuscule label between 1979 and 1984. Although Crépuscule was not the first modern independent record label from Belgium, the label’s legacy is rich and culturally significant. The label inspired a new era for the cassette format and self-released music in general. Even today, From Brussels with Love holdsup as a masterfully curated and tastefully designed compilation. – Jocelyn Romo
Black Rio – Brazil Soul Power 1971-1980 (2002)
Black Rio, the namesake of this compilation, is the name of the prolific Brazilian funk movement of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. This potent selection of obscure tracks was born of two years of tireless digging in the Brazilian tropics by London-based DJ Cliffy. In his words, this search went “from garages to flea markets, warehouses to favelas,” and the result sits somewhere between Gilberto Gil and Parliament. – Tana Yonas
Ambient Dub Volume 1: The Big Chill (1992)
This classic UK “chill-out” compilation series from the early 90’s focused on ambient and dubwise style productions across various electronic genres including house, techno, downtempo, and trance. The curation approach here is less genre-focused, with more emphasis placed on the overall vibe of the tracks, which can truly be described as “big chill.” Highlights include Original Rockers’ downtempo dub “Sexy Selector” and the Higher Intelligence Agency’s tripped-out “Ketamine Entity.”
We also quite enjoyed reading the compilation’s sleeve notes, which contain a few cheeky messages, a Lewis Carroll poem and the following: “Respect for nailing up the signposts to: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Mongo Santamaria, Terry Riley, Ned Lagin, Strummer and Jones, The Orb (of course), Bootsy Collins, Joe Gibbs, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh and Breathless on a Friday night.” Even better, a portion of the proceeds from this album were donated to the Rainforest Action Network. A+ – Phil Cho