The 40 Best Compilation Albums of All Time ~ Part One

 You may not think of compilations with the same nostalgia that you treat the first record you bought in a shop. But there is a good chance that your first opportunity of experiencing music in a physical form, be it LP, tape, or CD, was a compilation. It could have been a present from a grandparent, uncertain what a child might like. It could have been a magazine’s cover-mounted CD; maybe an old one lying around the house and caught your eye. It may have been a mixtape passed on by a friend. But the variety of names and song titles, with a design that caught the attention said the same thing. Listen to this – it will change your world.

We mention ‘mixtapes’ above because – in a sense – a lot of these compilations operate in the same field. Instead of a tape compiler spending hours picking out the right tracks to go in the correct order, and then sweating over a tape deck to ensure the volumes stay consistent, it’s a record label doing the same thing. Ultimately, they seek to achieve the same goal. If you or I make a compilation, it is to impress a friend with our breadth of taste or – maybe – express our depths of emotion to that girl we have a crush on. This is who I am! these tapes say. Please like me! But where we are concerned on this list, it is Kranky and Constellation who are projecting the same sentiment. And, as it turns out, the whole planet: we sent a compilation into space on the Voyager probes. This is who we are! Check out our record collection!

This list is not just about record labels or friends – or planets – seeking to attract fresh new music fans. There are a couple of other areas where we can detect a theme. The first is the attempt to define a musical style, to pull together a collection of tracks that share similar features but might not have previously sat next to each other. Pool your selection and give it a genre name: breakcore, post-rock, turntablism, etc. If you are a label with a creative and inventive roster (pretty much the only sort of label we review at ACL), then you can task them with making something special: locked grooves, ringtones, pieces for pipe organ, for example. Pick your theme wisely and time the compilation’s release well, and suddenly you have produced a work that defines an era.

The other style of compilation is retrospective curation: this is where record labels really do the work. Thorough research, proper licensing, and eye-catching design work are contributory factors. The trick is to detect an area of music that hasn’t been raked over thoroughly before. Analog Africa, Light In The Attic, Numero Group, and Soul Jazz are all labels that excavate the past with welcome levels of care and sensitivity; shining a spotlight on previously ignored areas of music. You might not like everything they uncover, but they often find a gem that points you off in a fresh musical direction.

We’ve listed 40 compilations here, although there has been a bit of rule-stretching, so some entries include multiple titles. There are 20 today and 20 tomorrow, listed alphabetically; we’ve included links to Bandcamp where possible, YouTube or Discogs where it isn’t. One of the drawbacks with compilations is that ones that feature multiple licenses go out of print and don’t reappear, and some that we have included are tricky to track down. Happy exploring!

Angola Soundtrack – The Unique Sound Of Luanda 1968-1976 (Analog Africa, 2010)
A friend passed me the three-volume Buda Musique compilations a few years before this came out, igniting a deep love for Angolan music. While I had some grounding in Brazilian music and knew a bit of African jazz and funk, genres which seem to make up the roots of much Angolan music, this music transcends shared rhythms and triads. So I was primed for the release of Analog Africa’s Angola Soundtrack, which is impeccably curated to present the best of the best, including pioneering artists Os Bongos, Africa Ritmos, Os Kiezos, and the truly exceptional David Zé. Recorded during Angola’s war of independence from Portuguese colonization and the first years of the subsequent decade’s long civil war, these songs largely eschew melancholy in favor of dance floor-ready celebration in the face of the trauma of war. While the more psychedelic 2013 follow-up might more readily appeal to our readers, Angola Soundtrack remains the best introduction to the music of this era. (Joseph Sannicandro)

 

Artificial Intelligence (Warp, 1992)
Warp had a tradition of compiling their early club-focussed 12” releases into handy compilations with the word ‘groove’ in the title. So the arrival of Artificial Intelligence in 1992 was a conscious repositioning of the label. This was a prelude for a new series – of albums, no less, for home listening. Aside from Alex Paterson, whose “Loving You Live” creates a bridge between Warp and The Orb’s ambient techno, all the artists featured would be part of the Artificial Intelligence series. There were a few name changes along the way, but Aphex Twin, Autechre, B12, Richie Hawtin, Speedy J, and Black Dog Productions would be part of this highly influential wave of ‘electronic music for the mind.’ The series would draw to a close with the second Artificial Intelligence compilation that is track-for-track the stronger release but lacks the audacious shock of the new of the first edition. (Jeremy Bye)

 

Bangs & Works, Volume 1: A Chicago Footwork Compilation (Planet Mu, 2010)
Gradually over the last decade or so, footwork seems to have gained a foothold in popular consciousness. Nowadays, it seems an increasing number of electronic musicians are influenced by its rapidly fidgety beats, moody sub-bass, and bizarrely abstract vocal snippets. However, footwork already had a ten-year history when Planet Mu released this compilation in 2010 (and the second instalment the following year). This genre grew from the underbelly of Chicago house, serving the needs of competitive dance battles. Though late to the party, this primer is still a worthy competitor for our listening time. It is a compelling initiation into an understated, but uncompromising music whose idiosyncrasies show it was in no hurry to court mass appeal. Including multiple tracks per artist may break compilation etiquette, but allows listeners to develop a taste for individual styles – those of lesser-known artists, as well as the best-known trailblazers like RP Boo and DJ Rashad. (Samuel Rogers)

 

Berceuses (Albin Michel Publishing House / CIRM / Museums of Paris, 1991)
Even after 30 years, the pitch for this album is still unique: lullabies and music for children composed by cutting-edge avant-garde artists. Mostly from Europe, these composers bring atonality, complex rhythms, electroacoustic methods, collage techniques, and highly irregular approaches to the lullaby form. Considering the people involved, some efforts are surprisingly tame, like Robert Ashley’s “Giving Love Away”, which has a dreamful, impressionistic quality; others retain a certain radicalism, such as Georges Aperghis’ “Berceuse”, an atonal exercise that reframes the freedom of wonder less as a Romantic flow of imagination and more as an organizational principle for endless sequences of sound. Accompanied by a book of paintings by modernist Dutch artist Corneille, who was committed to vanguard art education for children, this multimedia work of art records a special moment in modern composition, an experiment in truly bringing enriching, difficult art to all. (David Murrieta Flores)

 

Birds of a Feather – Boxed Set (Flaming Pines, 2014)
We hope it’s not cheating to include a boxed set that was originally 12 separate CD3″s. The set also appears on A Closer Listen’s Best Field Recording & Soundscape Albums of the Decade. The fact that the compilation is now a dozen tiny discs in a tiny birdhouse is a visual and tactile bonus, but the music is the selling point. Whenever possible, the artists include field recordings of the birds in question; when the birds are extinct, they make do with aural inventions. The subjects span science and folk tales, from the common crow to the legendary phoenix. Each piece ends up being a meditation on nature’s beauty and fragility. With 460 avian species now classified as endangered, the survivors need all the love and attention they can get. (Richard Allen)

 

Brain in a Box: The Science Fiction Collection (Rhino Records, 2000)
For over two decades, visitors have asked about the holographic brain in my music room. It’s Brain in a Box! Inside the box are a book and five discs, which collect Movie Themes, TV Themes, Pop, Incidental/Lounge, and Novelty songs. To listen is to travel through time and space, spanning the generations of what people once imagined as “future music.” From the classics (The Day the Earth Stood Still) to The Matrix, combining well-known tracks (“Telstar”) with lesser-known gems, the box set is a real treat. Considering how scary some of these shows and movies once were, it’s amazing to see fear translated into fun. While we’re at it, a happy 65th anniversary to The Blob, as viewing parties have sprung up across the globe this year, reenacting the rush from the movie theatre! If Amazon is sold out, look for copies on eBay. (Richard Allen)


Chain Reaction … Compiled (Chain Reaction, 1998)
Released five years into the existence of the defining minimal techno label’s decade-long run of genre-defining 12”s, These nine tracks compiled from vinyl, remastered and collected on one CD, serve as a document of the best of European minimal techno. Under the monikers Basic Channel, Rhythm & Sound, Maurizio, and others, Berlin-based production duo Mark Ernestus and Moritz Von Oswald transformed the sounds of Detroit techno with Jamaican dub techniques. Their labels were always shrouded in mystery preferring the attention fall on the music itself, so it’s fitting that this rare CD edition goes beyond the obvious classics. Porter Ricks and Monolake are the best known of the artists featured here, and deliver what are probably still the strongest cuts, but the lesser-remembered artists such as Vainqueur shine as well, often in varying permutations, solo outings or new duo combinations. (Joseph Sannicandro)

 

Compilame’sta (Híbridas y Quimeras, 2019)
The noise scene and its ways of performing have been customarily associated with a type of masculinity, its aggression, violence, and freedom coded through virile forms of negation. The queer & feminist collective Híbridas y Quimeras (‘Hybrids and Chimeras’), from Mexico City, has since 2017 laid claim to noise and experimental electronic music as cyborg practices that affirm life: ‘Noise is witchery. Noise is magic. Noise is pleasure’, they state. The collective’s understanding of noise is an expansive one, freeing it from the restraints of pure aural negativity. Whether it’s the meditative minimalism of Alina Sánchez’s “En el agua” or the grinding electronics of Magenta’s “Time Illness”, this music is framed as confrontation, the anthology’s title a common word-game in Mexico meant as an insult. This witchery, magic and pleasure are not meant for peace, but a life-affirming war, a battle for freedom and equality that will surely define our age. (David Murrieta Flores)

 

Cosmic Machine: A Voyage Across French Cosmic and Electronic Avantgarde (1970-1980) (Because Music, 2013)
In the title of this wonderful compilation, two details risk misleading us. ‘1970-1980’ gives the sense of an archival retrospective – but this music is so tantalisingly fresh it could be recorded tomorrow. Meanwhile, ‘avantgarde’ these musicians may be, but pop sensibilities are not far away. Rather than cold and menacing synth textures, this record tends toward shimmering brightness. Its catchier moments would not seem amiss beneath a chart-topping love song. Taking a broader listen, the component parts include spacey vignettes, cinematic synth, lite electro-funk, lush and airy disco, over-saturated string arrangements, plasticky TV soundtracks, and vocoder-wielding robo-pop. The line-up stretches from new age to new wave, yet astonishingly it hangs together perfectly with a coherent palette of joyfully synthetic sound. (Samuel Rogers)

 

Diggin’ in the Carts: A Collection of Pioneering Japanese Video Game Music (Hyperdub, 2017)
Perhaps because of its commercial context as part of a product, videogame music has pretty much never been the subject of anthologies. This compilation, made after the documental mini-series by Red Bull Music Academy, single-handedly pushes forward the notion that, far from an afterthought, these pieces seamlessly cross musical contexts, enriching the historical panorama of electronic music in Japan (and beyond). These chiptunes from the 80s and 90s show the potential creativity of new, surprising sounds, as well as of the synthesis of altogether familiar ones converted into aural data; an 8-bit orchestral piece’s merit does not reside in its fidelity to acoustic instruments, but in their utter transformation. There is an entire world of creativity in the chipset that is constantly reacting to the pressures of the game industry and the musical artworld, producing works that are often as simple and fun as they are innovative. (David Murrieta Flores)

 

Earth, Volume One: LTJ Bukem Presents… (Earth, 1996)
Drum n’ bass was a music forged through 12” singles, dubplates, and limited pressings. Only a handful of producers were bold enough to make an album-length statement – and the success rate was not particularly high. However, drum n’ bass flourished in the field of compilations, although – again – the results were often mixed. One name stood out – when LTJ Bukem ‘presented’ a release, you could be assured of quality. Although Logical Progression is arguably better known, we’ve gone for Earth Volume One., which tempers the drum n’ bass with fusion-inspired grooves: across ten tracks, there’s a lot more variation than you might expect. The influence of jazz here is palpable: Poets Of Thought seem less interested in an Amen Break than a funky bassline and latin percussion. Their three tracks contrast the frantic jungle rhythms elsewhere: and the compilation ends on its strongest moment, Doc Scott’s “Tokyo Dawn.” (Jeremy Bye)

 

Ecomodern series (Eco Futurist Corporation, 2015-2018)
Through conceptual eclecticism, the Ecomodern compilations made their mark on electronic music as a neo-avant-garde project, picking up on the lost trail of green modernism co-opted by technocrats and extremely rich world-swindlers. Against their dreams of sustainable exploitation – keeping the outmoded nature/culture divide alive – the Eco Futurist Corporation presented hybrids of various kinds, in which said divide becomes completely muddled: natural sounds from field recordings merge with computer-generated natural sounds, while grime beats are built through the techniques of musique concrète. The artists gathered here are equally diverse, adapting the principles of an ecomodernism guided by utopian science fiction to mould genres as distinct as vaporwave and drone into a series of interesting exercises in futurist world-building. This alternative ‘fictioning’ of sounds weaves another, hopeful meaning for the digital means of production that, whether we find ourselves in agreement or not, does encapsulate the urgency of the problems of our time. (David Murrieta Flores)

 

Field Works Metaphonics: The Complete Field Works Recordings (Temporary Residence, 2018)
In competitive terms, this project was always going to have an edge on a list of Best Compilations, because it’s a massive offering: seven LPs and a book, including a healthy amount of music from Matmos, Mary Lattimore, Eluvium and many more. Stuart Hyatt’s field recordings are the starting point for this series of explorations, which travels from the subterranean caverns of earth to the outer reaches of space, making many stops along the way: a state fair, a waterway, a cave without a name. Bernie Krause writes the introduction to the book, which is itself inspired by his writings, a beautiful feedback loop. Since its initial publication (and billing as ‘complete’), the series has continued with a new round of laudable entries. (Richard Allen)

 

Fluxus Anthology: A Collection of Music and Sound Events, Edited by Maurizio Nannucci (Recorthings & Zona Archives, 1989)
The avant-garde international movement and organization known as Fluxus was crucial in defining what we know today as sound art. Cutting across borders, political and aesthetic alike, its multidisciplinary practice interwove performance and music with a confrontational, yet playful ethos: ‘take a record and eat it’, says Ben Vautier in “Some Ideas for Fluxus”, and ‘if it’s too hard, throw it out the window’. A profound questioning of music as an institution and the categories that support its status is but one of the results produced by Fluxus’ incisive explorations of the limits between art and life. This veritable archive of a compilation, then, fruitfully brings together artists that did not reduce themselves to either the visual, the poetic, or the musical, but often, like Nam June Paik, pierced through all of them. Claim this piece of history as yours, and let it claim you as well. (David Murrieta Flores)

 

Folklore Tapes Calendar Customs Box-Set (Folklore Tapes, 2017)
How helpful to have four compilations compiled into one! This box set includes Crown of Light (Mid-Summer Traditions and Folklore), Fore Hallowe’en, Mid-Winter Rites & Revelries and Merry May, and now we don’t have to decide between them! The label is known for reflecting its name, and we recommend a romp through the entire catalog (with a special stop at Black Dog Traditions of England). The joy is not only in the listening, but in the reading, as one learns the right time of year to send burning wheels into the sea, and why ghost stories are told at Christmas. While the music can be spooky (there is a Halloween entry, after all!), there’s even more bucolic fun to be had, as birds sing, children dance around the May Pole, and a new generation rediscovers the joy of Saturnalia ~ to which Santa is invited. (Richard Allen)

 

4 Women No Cry Vol. 2 (Monika Enterprise, 2006)
Three volumes of 4 Women No Cry were produced between 2005 and 2008 on Monika Enterprise, the label run by Gudrun Gut. The premise was pretty simple: allocate four musicians approximately 16 minutes to showcase their work: a side each for the vinyl edition. It should not have been noteworthy that all 12 artists featured were female, but electronic-based music was even more male-dominated then. It is a situation that has improved slightly in the last 15 years but obviously still not enough. Most of the women here had only one opportunity to make an album, before – we hope – exploring other artistic avenues. There was some success: Lucrecia Dalt and Julia Holter both appeared on the third volume. We’ve picked out Volume 2 as the one to go for though, as it is a wealth of avant-pop, electronic exploration, and female energy. It’s a genuine shame that all four musicians have faded from view since. (Jeremy Bye)

 

The Gamelan Music of Bali (Seven Seas, 1991)
Although it’s cheating, our recommendation is really for the entire World Music Library in which this enthralling recording appeared. Issued throughout the 1990s by Japanese sub-label Seven Seas, the series contains countless gems that are worth dusting off. This disc surveys the dazzling, metallic percussion of Balinese gamelan ensembles (most of whom remain unnamed in the track listing). According to the liner notes, one of these compositions is subject to an evil spell, whilst another is so close to divinity that recordings were taboo. Thankfully, the musicians and label overcame the supernatural odds to collect these tracks, guiding us through important styles within the genre. A forceful, energetic example of gamelan gong kebyar gives way to two tracks of gamelan semar pegulingan, dizzyingly uplifting with light rapidness of touch. The thumping, processional sound of gamelan gong gede stands in stately contrast against the intimate, chamber instrumentation of gamelan selonding. This is surely a tourist’s way of experiencing gamelan – but you will return to its hypnotic beauty for visit after visit. (Samuel Rogers)

Available on Discogs

Headz (Mo’Wax, 1994)
This wasn’t the first Mo’Wax compilation, but it arguably defined the label and created a genre – trip-hop – in the process. The cover by Massive Attack’s 3D, the typography by Swifty, the inspirations listed on the sleeve – it all amounted to James Lavelle making a statement. Headz included artists who had paved the way, such as Nightmares On Wax and musicians who shared a similar sound (albeit briefly in the case of Autechre). However, the majority of the selections here were drawn from the Mo’Wax roster – RPM, Attica Blues and La Funk Mob would all release singles on the label. It was fresh, exciting and new music that made the provincial customer feel several degrees cooler by association. The most influential name on Headz was DJ Shadow, who contributed two lengthy excursions on the second CD, paving the way for “What Does Your Soul Look Like” and Endtroducing. (Jeremy Bye)

 

The Holidays Don’t Have To Be So Rotten (Flannelgraph Records, 2010)
What options does one have if one enjoys Christmas music, but is sick of hearing the same old Christmas songs?  In 2010, Flannelgraph Records came to the rescue with The Holidays Don’t Have to Be So Rotten, capturing the mingled joy and melancholy of the season with intelligent, nostalgic, mostly instrumental pieces.  Volume One even includes Foxhole, a post-rock band diving into pop for the occasion.  Due to their instrumental nature, many of the entries are also perfectly suited for winter.  The series would eventually last four volumes and offer 89 tracks, each volume featuring songs that provide the same amount of relief and distraction today.  All four are still streaming, offering hope for the times when the spiked eggnog isn’t enough and one needs to survive the holidays with dignity.  (Richard Allen)


 

Invasion From xXx Dimension (Mutant Sniper, 2004)
From the late 1970s, DJs began excerpting drum breaks from old records as a source for new music. They cannot have foreseen the sheer range of innovative styles that would pump breakbeats as their lifeblood. At one extreme of this spectrum, somewhere beyond drum and bass, is breakcore. Released on Mutant Sniper (an imprint of French electronic label Peace Off), this compilation is an admirable gateway to the genre. It showcases breath-taking programming of drums, typically cribbed from the Amen break and reconstituted into endless new shapes. This music is a thrillingly shifting terrain – but a full-length album can feel like an exhausting pummelling. Compilations give us one way of looking past the monolithic thumping (and the obnoxiously infantile humour) to discern the variety of techniques and aesthetics these artists employ. My personal highlight is Dev-Null’s contribution, which happens to have the best title: “Fuck Anyone Who Wasn’t Into the Stuff I’m Into Before I Was”. (Samuel Rogers)

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