Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Ten Great Single Disk Compliations

One of my deepest character flaws is that I am a little easy to troll. I know that the person is trying to get a rise out of me. I know that what they have just said is ridiculous. I am pretty sure that they think it is ridiculous too (even if they may want to argue that there is a kernel of truth to it). Nonetheless, I still want to either beat them or at the least berate them for their apparent stupidity.

I say this because a number of years ago a friend of mine trolled me. Knowing that I am an obsessive collector of music, she said to me, 'if you love music so much, why do you buy compilations - surely you would hunt down the originals?'

Compilations are an odd thing from one perspective - they are tracks yanked out of their original context and forced into a new artificial format, where they must rub shoulders with other tracks from other places. However, on the other hand, they perform a service that is invaluable. They produce a short cut into a world that may be too difficult or foreboding to access single-handed. No matter how much we might value music, uncovering the seminal tracks from a specific time or place or genre might be too time consuming or too costly or both. It may be that you might go on to find the original releases, or it may be that the original releases are impossibly rare or simply not available.

Thus, compilations play an essential role to the music lover and a good compilation is priceless. This list (and some further lists already lined up) are intended to flag up some compilations that I have enjoyed and found to be first rate. Some of them have uncovered new world, whereas some have simply encapsulated what is special about a given scene.

I have specifically focused on single disk compilations here. Primarily this is because a single disk can be digested in a single sitting. Multiple disks can be wearying, even if they are excellent. Fundamentally I hope that you consider checking out some of these albums if you have not already come across them, and I feel that by sticking to single disks you are more likely to connect with them. Maybe I will do some more lists of multiple disk sets, but in my preparation for this I already have 40 compilations I would like to write about, so they will have to wait.

So, here are ten. As ever they are in no particular order, with no particular agenda. I just hope that, if you check them out, you enjoy them as I have.

Tropicalia (Soul Jazz 2005)

"Tropicalia mixed American and British psychedelic rock and pop with Brazilian roots and European avant-garde and experimental music to create a new sound that was both distinctly Brazilian and truly international. Ideologically they mixed high art with mass culture and mocked both the military dictatorship under which they were living at the time as much as the militant left wing artists that wanted to bring them down." (From the CD Booklet)
Soul Jazz have rightly made a name for itself as must-buy compilation label. Their albums are often definitive statements of the scenes, styles, places, people that they are intended to depict. Sleeve notes are typically informative and pertinent and the design is high quality. Soul Jazz had already established a pretty formidable reputation, but this - their highest rated compilation - set a new standard. (It is, according to Rate Your Music, in the 15 best compilations ever - top 5 if you include single disks comps only.)

So why is it so good? It captures the scene, includes the major players, points to further areas to explore, includes a 48 page booklet explaining and offering a detailed history of Tropicalia. So as a document it is exemplary. But as with any document, no matter how good, it is wholly dependent on what is being documented. Luckily, this scene is one of the richest and most beautiful bubbles of the whole of musical history. The talent, the inspiration, the influences on display here are truly unique and this CD captures the excitement and inventiveness of the scene. Furthermore, it gives a very good set of reasons for why it went on to be so revered and influential.

It might be cheating, but I will end this review with stealing a review of it from the internet (a RYM user called 'Blowout'). I think it gives a very succinct impression for why this is essential: "Imagine you'd never heard any music whatsoever from the major artists of England (or alternatively the USA) from the late 60s. Then imagine an album that compiles the best tracks of the best 6 artists from England/USA from that period. Imagine how it would blow your head?"

Never the Same (Honest John's 2005)

Folk music did not begin at any point, any more than it has had any point of decline - like the poor, folk music is always with us. But this is not to say that it has not suffered ebbs and flows. In the 1960s, folk music had what could legitimately be described as a renaissance. From the inception of the decade (strictly speaking the middle of the previous) there was renewed interest in the traditional songs of England, nurtured by the touring fellow-travellers from the States; Dylan, Simon, Franks. This was, on both sides of the Atlantic, fed into the rock machine, and folk-rock became a vital force until the turn of the decade. At which point it either went back to its roots or became a novel irrelevance - so, if we are to be cruel, it was sort of irrelevant either way (commercially, at least). Nonetheless, this compilation looks at some of the recordings made by Bill Leader for the Leader or Trailer label in the mid-70s. Leader's approach was to record the music as simply as possible, on 2 or 4 track, with next no overdubs or embellishments. The music captured could never have been further from the glam, prog, punk or disco that it was contemporaneous with. 

Instead, it was stark, simple and achingly beautiful. For most tracks it is simply a voice and an instrument. Sometimes, not even that. There is a heavy Gaelic tone to the compilation, pulling tunes from Scotland or Ireland. The only track that might have an inkling of familiarity is Tony Rose's cover of Bert Jansch's 'Blackwaterside' (credit shamelessly stolen by Jimmy Page as Black Mountain Side from Led Zeppelin 1). Otherwise, here lie some of the unsung (or unsung enough) heroes of 70s folk; Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, The Boys of the Lough. The real gems here are two tracks from the Legendary album 'Bright Phoebus' from Mike & Lal Waterson*. Lal's heavy, dark, Northern voice soars over the delicate guitars and rare strings. This CD rewards repeated listens despite the strict simplicity of the music. If I ever needed to convince someone that there was value in British folk beyond 1970, this is where I'd take them.

* 'Bright Phoebus' has finally been given a wildly overdue reissue on Domino records.

Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label (Numero 2004)

Nowadays Chicago-based Numero have made a pretty solid name for themselves as a premium archivist label, having stretched out from their initial soul roots to picking up obscure gospel, slowcore and even LOTR inspired metal. Just check out the love and care and that has been bestowed on the discographies of Bedhead or Codeine. But back in 2004, this must have been a curiosity with little context to point the way. Numero releases are beautifully packaged but until you get beyond the cellophane there is precious little actual information. On the rear there is the title of the series 'Eccentric Soul'. Below this, in smaller type: 'The Capsoul Label'. Aside from the number 001, which is also found on the front cover, there is no other text at all. On the front is a water damaged photograph of Bill Moss (who?) manning the controls alongside the now familiar logo. This is unhelpful beyond even that of Factory records releases.

And yet, those who ventured beyond the cellophane were treated to a full tracklisting - inside the slipcase - beautifully compiled sleevenotes and most of all a collection of tunes that almost no-one had ever heard before. And those who had heard it, had most likely forgotten. But what tunes! The Eccentric Soul series has now established itself as a first rate resurrector of obscure soul. Whilst some tracks might have been familiar to the cognoscenti or Indiana Jones level crate diggers, almost all are unknown.

Amongst the revelations present is the awesome vocal group Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum and Durr. The may sound like a third rate law firm but their 'You're All I Need to Make It' should have been a hit - it is comfortably the equal of The Detroit Emeralds or The Elgins. Marion Black's tenor delivery is stately and rich. Kool Blues 'I'm Gonna Keep on Lovin' You' could have been a Sam & Dave hit. Bill's Moss's own tracks are classic, specifically the conscious anthem 'Sock It To'Em Soul Brother'. Elijah & The Ebonites' 'Hot Grits' brings the funk. The stars of the show is The Four Mints who are a hop and skip away from 60s' Stevie or early Jacksons. In short, this set - like most of the Eccentric Soul releases - is a hard luck story. If circumstances had been just a little different, one or more of these songs would have hit, and no doubt one of the above would have been household names now.

Michael Mayer - Immer (Kompakt 2002)

I find it hard to write about this album. I don't know about you but the world of electronic music - and German minimal techno especially - is the most foreboding of genres. It is so wide and so anonymous, made up of endless 12" singles than may or may not be remixed by someone else that you may or may not have heard of. Probably the latter. It doesn't help that the music itself adds to that anonymity by leaving few traces of overt personality. I know that I risk sounding simplistic, or perhaps geriatric, when I say that the difference, for me, between good electronic music and bad electronic music is that the former will lead me to feel something, whereas the latter will leave me feeling nothing, save frustrated in its impotence. So all credit then to Mayer and his legendary mix-cd 'Immer' (although Mayer's name is presented like it is his album, it is a mix-cd and thus a compilation) since it elicits a lot of feelings - mostly happiness, a good deal of bobbling up and down. 

In short, it contains a really nice array of textures and grooves and it maintains the focus without being busy. Nothing is rushed, and yet nothing outstays its welcome. It also offers a look into the world of minimal techno and while it makes no claim to function as a primer to the genre, it does provide a sense of why this music can be so powerful. On the surface, minimal techno can appear a wash of nothing, but a good listen to Immer illustrates that beneath it all there is a lot going on. And that alone justifies this album as worth investigating.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out (Castle 1997)

I tend to veer away from compilations on Castle or Spectrum labels. Not so much because they are bad, but there tends to be better, more lovingly compiled examples to choose from if you look a little deeper. That said, sometimes they get it exactly right and this is one such example. This encapsulates the divergent trends of late 60s counter-culture perfectly, with seminal and exact selections throughout. There are very few tracks that are new or surprising, but if you wanted the perfect example of what The Byrds brought to the party or Zappa or Velvet Underground or Love or even some of the lesser known bands like Vanilla Fudge, this CD has them. Ignore the dodgy cover and the perfunctory info, it does what it has to and no more.

Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly 2001)

There are a million great reggae compilations out there. Soul Jazz built their whole reputation digging through the Studio One vaults producing a series of great reggae compilations, Blood & Fire specialised on reggae, as did Adrian Sherwood's Pressure Sounds label. So why is this CD from a decidedly non-specialist label so good and the first reggae compilation I will highlight. Quite simply, it is a perfect mix of mid-70s roots and dub. It includes some of the most famous artists and recordings: Culture's classic 'Two Sevens Clash', Junior Murvin's 'Police and Thieves', The Congos' 'Fisherman'. Even when the track itself is not necessarily immediate, the artist is essential: Big Youth, Horace Andy, Lee Perry.

The mix itself is thoughtful and sensitive; offering something introductory for the newcomer but maintaining a solid entertainment value for the longtime fan of the music. This is exactly what we would expect from the compiler - the legendary Don Letts, who has spent a lifetime introducing and promoting reggae. He has even slipped in a few tracks that you might have missed - I was not aware of Sylford Walker's 'Deuteronomy' when I picked this up. Seven minutes of deep religious deejaying over a driving persistent dub. This is roots reggae to dance to, to meditate to, (if it is your thing) to smoke to. The mix has sprinkled in a few well chosen dubs, Augustus Pablo, King Tubby and Tappa Zukie appear in dub form. While it is a mix, not one track is compromised - another plus point. My only criticism is that to compensate for that last point, Letts inserts vocal clips from old movies or intros from other records between the tracks. These are mostly short and ignorable, but I'd rather he simply hadn't. All the same, this is highly recommended.

Black Roots: Funky and Abstract Directions in Jazz 1965-1975 (Atlantic/Ace 2001)

The subtitle of this compilation is, I think, a little overstated. I would say that while some of it is a bit funky, if you are coming to this expecting much in that direction you might be disappointed. Similarly, while some of it does deserve the epithet 'abstract', not all of it does. Atlantic were pretty liberal and generous about who and what was recorded, but I'd say 50% of this is fairly straight-ahead 60s jazz. 

So, with those caveats made, what is good about it? The general standard, even of those tracks that are more traditional, is very good. We have some solid players here: Eddie Harris, Yusef Lateef, David Newman. Consequently the standard is high - Lateef and Harris especially bring the good. Shirley Scott's cover of the Isley's 'It's Your Thing' is solid too. 

But then, there are solid tracks that do push the boundaries a little. Not really jazz, but awesome all the same is Dr. John's 'I Walk on Gilded Splinters'. The track summons up the swamp-like voodoo atmosphere of New Orleans more than anything else. Everything about it feels murky, dangerous, occult. But then there's Eugene McDaniel's ode to Mick, 'Jagger the Dagger'. McDaniels is an official genius in my book, having a solid mainstream career before writing classics for people like Roberta Flack ('Compared to What') and then releasing two of the most awesome albums of the early 70s ('Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse' and 'Outlaw'). 'Jagger the Dagger' has a sleazy lilting groove that lets Gene and the girls grind up against it. Awesome! British Joe Harriot-John Mayer Double Quintet fuses Jazz with Indian Raga and the result is spacey and sultry. Jim Pepper's 'Witchi Tai To', which could tilt a little too heavily into TV-theme territory if it wasn't so damned catchy and absorbing. 

In all, this compilation succeeds despite its limitations. As long as you take it as it is and do not get too caught up with the subtitle, it has more than enough to push open the gates. If you like your jazz a little out there, or even if you like your rock a little jazzy, there'll be something here to pique your interest. In all, in the 15 or so years that I have had this album, I have always been able to pop it on and find something new for my ears.

Sounds of the New West (Uncut 1998)

As a rule I ignore CDs that come from the front of magazines. In the attic I have a box or two filled with unlistened-to CDs from various magazines. I know that sometimes they will have things that will be interesting, or perhaps even revelatory. All the same, while I often followed the advice of the reviews within the magazine, the CDs on the front were left to gather dust. It doesn't quite make sense, but there you go....

Anyhow, there is one major exception and anecdotal evidence suggests that it was an exception for many many people. In fact, I would go so far as suggesting that the CD above had a massive impact on the musical tastes of the UK, introducing as it did a significant raft of the key bands in the genre that came to be called alt-country. While some of the bands included had been around for a while, and the precursors of the genre (Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown) had formed and split in the very early 90s, I am not even sure the term existed before 1998. The earliest reference I can find for the term is that year. Anyway, for me at least, this CD marked my introduction to a number of bands and artists that have burrowed deep into my psyche and I suspect will be with me forever.

Amongst these are two old-timers who significantly predate this movement; Gram Parsons (strictly, The Flying Burrito Brothers) and Emmylou Harris. Parson's 'Sin City' is probably the only song I would ever perform karaoke to, if it is even possible. As a starting point for Parsons' view of country as cosmic american music, it is perfect. Of course, Emmylou was a fellow traveller with Parsons until his death, whereupon she carried on, keeping his vision alive whilst embracing all that Country music could do. The track chosen here is one of the most divergent moments from the album by the same title 'Wrecking Ball'. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it has that other-worldly, reverb heavy sound that you'd expect. Also, it was written by another godparent to the genre (as was The Walkabouts' 'On the Beach'), Neil Young. Few songs ever are as beautiful or as heart-breaking or catch that universe in which Country Music is situated. The singer, as the song, embodies the soul and the heart of both Country and it's Alt-variation. 

Amongst the more contemporary bands, there is not one duff track. The Handsome Family bring their most depressing song and their most gorgeous, 'Weightless Again' - a song about the moments of faltering consciousness after suicide. Calexico, at the beginning of their sterling career, tell a story of accidental murder ('Trigger'). Neal Casal, a criminally under-rated songwriter, sings of  inevitable failure ('Today I Gonna Bleed'). Willard Grant Conspiracy offers a haunting and yet lush account of the loss of faith ('Evening Mass'). It's all pretty grim, to be honest, but never so uplifting. The mandolin solo in the latter track always makes me want to throw my hands in the air. Perhaps it is best summed up by outsiders, 16 Horsepower and their brand of gothic americana, who as deep southern preachers tell us that we have dug a hole, the hole of our own sin, a hole that we fell in (Coal Black Horses). I haven't even mentioned Lambchop or my favourite Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, here in his own name, Will Oldham. 

All of the above named artists are well represented in my collection. Several of their records would be counted amongst my favourite albums ever. This compilation has done more than any other to change my tastes. Not only that but it provided a serious push in my re-evaluation of country music. And all from a free CD from the front of a magazine...

This is Soul (Atlantic, 1968/2007)

This album is one of two compilations that have legitimately changed my life. (The other is, if you're wondering Sounds of the New West [above]). This is probably the most impactful purely by dint of when I encountered it. As a young record collector, the first port of call is always to ransack your parents' collection. My mother's stack of records was not that big but it had a few serious gems and amongst them was the original 1968 release of this album. Let me begin by reprinting the original track-listing:

A1 –Wilson Pickett - Mustang Sally
A2 –Carla Thomas - B-A-B-Y
A3 –Arthur Conley - Sweet Soul Music
A4 –Percy Sledge  - When A Man Loves A Woman
A5 –Sam & Dave - I Got Everything I Need
A6 –Ben E. King - What Is Soul?
B1 –Otis Redding - Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)
B2 –Eddie Floyd - Knock On Wood
B3 –Solomon Burke - Keep Looking
B4 –Aretha Franklin - I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)
B5 –Percy Sledge - Warm And Tender Love
B6 –Wilson Pickett - Land Of A Thousand Dances

I am willing to bet that even if your knowledge of soul music is not all that, you know seven or eight of these tracks without having to go remind yourself. Those that might be a little unfamiliar will likely become clear with a quick listen. My point is that as a primer of soul music, specifically Southern soul, this is perfect. While any soul fan can think of tracks or artists that they might prefer to see (especially with two Percy Sledge songs here?? ) this is a perfect point of entry and gives the newcomer ample reasons to see why someone might devote their lives to the genre. 

For me, even though a goth, it blew my mind. Friends would be mystified when they received a mix-tape from me, finding it with Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding amidst the Sisters or Alien Sex Fiend. No-one ever complained - more often than not, the surprise was welcome. This music has been the soundtrack to my life and in recent years has become a fully-fledged obsession - the energy, the feeling, the joy, the church, the depths, the sheer primal passion. Here is life put to music.

In 2007, Atlantic reissued this album on CD alongside a massive 17 bonus tracks. Again, the selection was exemplary; and it became even more so the first soul CD anyone (everyone) should buy. I don't feel like I need to write much about this music other than simply to say what's there - the tracks will account for themselves:

Sam & Dave - Hold On I'm Coming, The Bar-Kays - Soul Finger, King Curtis - Memphis Soul Stew, Otis Redding - Hard To Handle, Aretha Franklin - Save Me, Archie Bell & The Drells - Tighten Up, Wilson Pickett - Funky Broadway, Otis Redding & Carla Thomas - Tramp, The Mad Lads - Get Out Of My Life, Barbara Lynn - You're Losing Me, Soul Brothers Six - Some Kind Of Wonderful, Jeanne & The Darlings - Soul Girl, Arthur Conley - Funky Street, Eddie Floyd - Big Bird, Soul Clan - That's How It Feels, Johnny Taylor - Ain't That Loving You (For More Reasons Than One), Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay

What's not to love?

This gives me the chills...

Whine & Grine - Club Ska '67 (Trojan/Island 1967/1998)

Oddly, I came to ska a while after reggae. I was too young for the Two Tone thing in the late 70s/early 80s. I liked Madness and The Specials well enough, but I didn't really see it as any different other to pop music in general. Even the handful of reggae songs that caught my attention were not seen as very different. Perhaps that is as much about the radical changes that were happening in pop music at the time as anything else... Anyway, even when I did perceive reggae as reggae in the later 80s, I came at it via dub (specifically from On-U Sound records), rather than its chronological progenitors. In fact, by the time I caught this album in 1991, it might as well have been a wholly unrelated genre. Aside from its devotion to the off-beat, it seems to share relatively little with the hazy, dubby skank of Big Youth or Prince Far I.

So I moved to Birmingham and into a house with Lee and Sandra. They were a few years older than me and because Sandra was an actress, they tended to be away a lot. So I did what I often did when left unattended in other people's houses - I listen to their records. They had lots of interesting records and I picked up a lot from them. One of the high points was the original Club Ska '67 album. This was a very different year from the '67 I was familiar with. Sgt. Pepper and psychedelia or Monterey or Stax and Otis or Motown and Marvin seem a long way away. (I have since learned to see that the distance is not quite as far as it seemed, but anyway...) Again, like the This is Soul comp above, it is populated by some of the archetypes of the genre; The Skatalites' Guns of Navarone, Desmond Dekker's 007 (Shanty Town), Baba Brooks' Guns Fever, The Rulers' Copasetic (I always wondered where Delboy's catch-phrase came from).

Every track is vibrant, full alive. Even the slower ballads have an immediate energy and the status of this as dance music is unavoidable. A track like Dancing Mood by Delroy Wilson is a mellower track, only just mid-tempo. Like many mid-60s Jamaican music, it owes plenty to the early 60s R&B coming in radio waves from Florida (it is a cover of The Tams original). But the rhythm and musicianship is first rate; Jackie Mittoo plays piano and is it wishful thinking to propose saxophone by the legendary 'Deadly' Headly Bennett? Everything is understated but in its right place. Side two is full of these cool, sly monsters; Bob's wife Rita with the catchy Pied Piper, Justin Hines' single entendre Rub Up, Push Up, The Gaylads' Stop Making Love.

I suppose that it is the rowdier side one that is most typical. These are the tracks that were covered and were direct inspiration for Jerry Dammers and the Nutty Boys. In 1998, Island reissued the compilation and perhaps to drive the point home included one new track, Whine and Grine by the massive Prince Buster. This is street music, it is party music; it is dangerous but it is fun and impossible not to want to move. Another great and highly recommended compilation.

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