Monday, 19 December 2011

2011 In Review - Part 5: Top Compilations of 2011

With the advent of Soundcloud and podcasts there really isn't an inherent need for commercial mix albums anymore. In addition, thanks to sites like Beatport, Boomkat, Juno and iTunes, music has never been more accessible and available. If a label wants to put out a compilation, it almost has to include a majority share of unreleased material, just to keep up with it's own fan base. Indeed, the compilation has become discounted in recent years.

But despite all this, many labels and clubs soldier through the saturation era and continue to not only release mixes, but release them frequently. Rinse has released 17 mixes in the last four and half years, and fabric releases them at the break-neck pace of one a month. Of course, fabric has become an institution, not only in it's walls and on it's dance floors, but through it's catalogue of mixes. Rinse FM too, is an institution of fresh urban UK dance music.

Certainly, it would be difficult for any newcomer to start a successful series of compilations in todays internet age. With top-notch and quality podcasts from big-name producers and DJs readily available on a myriad of high traffic music sites, and for the low, low price of absolutely nothing, the commercial mix is a hard sale to make indeed. Not to mention all of the mixes that float around for free on Soundcloud, or other blogs. In fact, its so easy now for anyone to make a relatively high-quality mix, some bedroom DJs have actually ousted their former idles from the spotlight completely. Every other week it seems that we are hearing about some plucky young 22-year-old, still living at home, who has risen up to prominence, simply by being able to showcase his or her music and mixes on the internet. What can the commercial mix do to catch up?

One thing that can be said about this surge of mixes is that they keep the big boys on their toes. Quality now becomes paramount when publishing something that people will have to pay for. Also, a shift must be made when deciding who it will be that mixes for your series. Big labels now have to cater to the needs of the same younger generation who want everything fresh and free. This paradigm shift has resulted in a changing of the guard when it comes to how a commercial mix is approached. The following is a list of mixes and compilations that I felt reflected this mantra from the past year. Apparently me and Resident Advisor agreed on this list.

10. Hessle Audio: 116 & Rising

What is bass music? Besides a catch all term for the bastard spawn of dubstep, it really doesn't have any specific rules in place. Beats are often syncopated, but not always. Heavy low-end and prominent 808s are associated with the UK flavor of bass, but not always; and sometimes the North American sound converges with the UK sound. Sometimes it comes from bizarre places in the world and sounds nothing like anything heard before.

116 is a bass record. It is an unmixed collection of tracks from the label Hessle Audio. It features a disc of brand new material, and a disc of older, back catalogue stuff. Producers like Pearson Sound, Blawan, Cosmin TRG, Pangaea and Untold all make appearances. This is not a cross-over compilation, these are very raw and real cuts that will probably satisfy only the most hardened of bass-heads. However, it is a very important look at some contemporary UK music.

9. TKOL RMX 1234567

A Radiohead remix album should be a joyous event in music. Especially when this lineup of remixers is assembled. But when the album is question is The King of Limbs, is isn't hard to understand why TKOL RMX has been maligned since day one. Every single major music publication reviewed it, and they all basically gave it the same score. It is hard too imagine a list of producers that includes so many talented names, could not live up to it's billing, despite the resounding "weak" source material that they had to work with.

While "The King of Limbs" the album was disappointing and sparked several discussions about the "beginning of the end" for Radiohead, the remix album that it spawned show us exactly where Mr. York is right now, and what sounds he is digging. I think that as long as Radiohead fans embrace the current direction in which music as a whole is going, and as long as they keep an open mind, no one should be worried about Radiohead. I hope to maybe see some collaborations with some of these remixers.

8. Rinse 16: Ben UFO

Ben UFO has quietly become on of the most important figures in electronic music today. That is one thing, but the more phenomenal thing is that he doesn't produce at all. You will not find one production credit to his name. He is a DJ, and only a DJ. That alone should tell you that he obviously has skills behind the decks, and while that may be true, it isn't his main draw.

Ben is a Rinse FM DJ who is privy to some special things. He obviously has an extended network of friends who provide him with exclusive tracks , months before they are released, if they are even released at all. The man always has a healthy supply of dubplates everywhere he goes. Rinse 16 however, focuses more on joining the sounds that are percolating and gestating together at them moment.

He mixes classic house and techno right along side the fresh sounds of Jam City and Dro Carey. He throws in old favorites from Shackleton and Kode9, with contemporaries from Pangaea and Objekt. Rinse 16 throws many curve balls, and crosses many barriers. But what makes it so special is how in the context of a mix, and in Ben UFO's capable hands, all these songs that sound like they shouldn't be together, end up complimenting each other.

7. Hotflush: Back & 4th

It should be no secret how I feel about Hotflush. The brilliant compilation that come out early this year features mostly exclusive and unreleased tracks from many notable members of it's roster. The title Back & 4th can be taken a few different ways as well. It could be that this album looks back at some tracks, and forward at others. Or it could be the general shift towards more 4/4 material being released on the label.

Whatever the reason for the title, it is a perfect look at Hotflush. If you are new to the label and want a place to start, it serves wonderfully as a start up point. But if you were, like me, looking for something new and exciting, it is able to do that too.

6. Fabric 55: Shackleton

With a late release date last year, this has had the benefit of a whole calender year to work it's way into me. That is pretty much what a Shackleton track does, it acts as a liquid that soaks through the porous surface that is your brain, until it has saturated your entire mind and psyche with it's grooves. This mix works in much the same way. Exotic rhythms and percussion dance throughout this Shackleton-productions-only mix.

5. Shogun Audio: Way of the Warrior

Aside from being an awesome Samurai-themed label, Shogun Audio is one of the leaders when it comes to creative drum and bass. Shogun boasts a roster that is as strong as any drum and bass label: Rockwell, Alix Perez, Friction, Spectrasoul and Icicle, all of whom are featured here. But WotW also features cuts from other prominent drum and bass producers like Break, D Bridge, Commix and a dark dubstep cut from Distance.

4. Exit Records Presents Vol. 1

Last year Autonomic sounded like it was going to be the next big thing. Drum and bass was going places again, things were exciting. D Bridge and Instra:mental looked poised and ready to take the world by storm with their new sounds. Then Instra:mental left the picture only a year after their groundbreaking FabricLive was released. Listen to an Instra:mental track from 2011 and you will instead hear techno and electro. And that's only if they are producing together, as both members have created other monikers to produce... more techno and electro.

This left D Bridge to carry the flame of this new stripped down sound on his own. This was something that the Rinse FM DJ seemed to embrace this year as his label Exit has become the go-to for chill d n' b. Mosaic features tracks from some of the veterans (if you can call them that) of the Autonomic scene, and some from newcomers that have no official release.

All in all, 22 unmixed songs, across 2 discs gently perforate the notions of what drum and bass should and can be. There are a few that maybe don't stand up as well as others in the unmixed form, but most of the two discs are an overwhelming success, and proof that this sound should be here to stay, for at least a little while.

3. FabricLive 59: Four Tet

When a DJ decides to use only his own productions in a commercial mix... it is a brave move. Three times in Fabric's history has this occurred, all three times have been successful. When it was announced that Four Tet would be mixing a FabricLive, people wondered if maybe this would be the fourth. And indeed it could have been. The mix could feature unreleased Four Tet productions, it could resemble his wonderful live sets, it could be fresh and groundbreaking it was immediately given unprecedented hype.

Instead, Kieren went completely the other way. Rather than focus on his own material, Four Tet instead focuses on the club itself. He contains field recordings from the club as intros and interludes throughout the mix. He conveys the feeling of waiting in line at the entrance, and traveling from room to room. The mix isn't about him as a DJ, but rather a collection of great tracks that have probably all graced the Fabric's walls at some point, along with others that are rare and possibly unheard of by even the most enthusiastic vinyl connoisseur.

The mix is also 100% vinyl. Some of the tracks are rare garage cuts from the 90's, which seems to be the ethos that is being displayed with this mix. The front portion contains aging UKG tracks, juxtaposed with new tracks from Floating Points and Caribou. In the context of the mix, everything seems to work. The second portion is house, and slowed down. But everything keeps in line with the 2-step feel. What makes FabricLive 59 so special is how despite the fact that many of these tracks are decades apart in age, they all feel as though they were meant for each other.

2. FabricLive 56: Ramadanman/ Pearson Sound

David Kennedy really rose to the forefront of everyone's attention this past year. As Ramadanman, his productions were sparse and majestic. As Pearson Sound, his productions are percussive, up front and aggressive. As a DJ however, David Kennedy is more of a mixed bag. He isn't opposed to playing house or techno, two things that he normally doesn't produce. But it is the way in which he blends these styles together that sets him apart. In many ways, it is almost a more contemporary-centric version of Four Tet's FabricLive.

The tracks selected are top-notch, but what makes this mix so great is how each track is used. "Battle for Middle You" blends into "Grab Somebody" which then creates an interesting blend with the Carl Craig edit of "Void 23". The juke-happy beat of "Fuk Tha 101" is brought into Mala's rolling "City Cycle". The finest moments, arguably, are the classic cuts from Burial and Pinch, which somehow fit perfectly with all the new and cutting edge sounds that inhabit the mix. All in all, this is one of the best Fabric/ FabricLive compilations ever conceived.

1. DJ Kicks: Scuba

Sometimes a DJ mix comes along that not only breaks ground, it transcends what the notion of a conventional mix can be. Scuba's DJ Kicks is such a mix. One of the biggest draws for the series Balance, or DJs like Magda, John Tejada and Richie Hawtin, is that they create and symphonies of electronic music. Producers create elaborate blends of harmonies and poly rhythms using Ableton. They skillfully weave tapestries out of various sources to create something holistically better, or at least vastly different, than its original parts.

The thing that truly makes Scuba a great DJ, is that he accomplishes this same feat not with Ableton, but with rotary mixers. There is rarely a moment on this mix where two, maybe even three tracks aren't playing side by side to create something spectacular. The blends and transitions become songs themselves. If one quickly surveys the tracks individually, it becomes very apparent that while they are great tracks, many of which were exclusive to this mix at the time of release, they feel as though they are missing something on their own.

32 tracks in a mix of this length might sound a little superfluous, but because each track is given the opportunity to unfold and develop, even if it is along side another track, the mix never feels rushed or remotely gimmicky. Instead, Scuba delivers a masterful take on the infusion of techno and bass music that showcases his ability as a DJ, just as equally as the material with which he has chosen to craft his masterpiece.  

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