The 40 Best Compilation Albums of All Time ~ Part Two

Welcome to the second half of our list, in which we survey the best compilations. We shall keep the introductory waffle to part one, but suffice to say – we have tried to be as comprehensive as possible for this article. We wanted to cover multiple genres and styles of compilation while keeping within the ACL remit as much as possible. We have dived deep into our collections and picked out records that had considerable influence on us. Sometimes, these discs introduced us to new styles, genres, or labels that we had previously been unaware of. Elsewhere, there are picks that contain music by some of our favourite artists: the bonus is that the compiler places the tracks together in a way that everybody stands out. It is, of course, possible that across these 40 titles, we have omitted your favourites: please let us know in the comments if there is something we have overlooked. Thanks for reading – and happy exploring!

Isolationism: Ambient 4 (Virgin Ambient Series, 1994)
The first three volumes of Virgin Records’ A Brief History of Ambient embraced the warm, fluffy and accessible end of the genre, drawing on the label’s expansive back catalogue. The fourth in the series pulled a complete 180. Compiled by Kevin Martin, Isolationism redefined a genre: this is the cold, jagged, brooding dark side of ambient that unnerves rather than comforts. It’s probably best experienced alone, at night, with lights dimmed and all the doors locked. The mood here is relentless; there’s scarcely time to breathe between the grinding intensity on display here. Martin was able to jettison Virgin’s artists and draw on a much wider spread of artists, from recognisable ‘ambient’ names such as Aphex Twin and Labradford to the more esoteric areas of improv, noise and abstract metal. All understood the assignment: to show that ambient isn’t merely a musical comfort blanket adrift in the mainstream but can unsettle and disturb equally effectively. (Jeremy Bye)

 

Kaleidoscope (New Spirits Known & Unknown) (Soul Jazz Records, 2020)
Some record labels have established themselves as compilation and reissue specialists. They dig deeper into the crates, delve into older labels’ lost recordings and come up with releases that are full of fresh (but old) tracks. Soul Jazz gained its reputation through a series of albums piecing together Studio One’s sprawling catalogue before branching out across the genres – including post-punk, hip hop, and krautrock. But what if a scene is happening right here, right now, on your doorstep? Wait for twenty years for a historical re-appraisal, or get it compiled straightaway? Thankfully, Soul Jazz chose the latter for Kaleidoscope, a two-hour journey around the new wave of (mostly) British Jazz – some names you will know, others you will discover. The creativity is bursting at the seams here, with a broad variety of influences channelled into these tracks; as a view on the ground of a scene evolving, it is hard to beat. (Jeremy Bye)


Available at Sounds Of The Universe

Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990 (Light in the Attic Records, 2019)
Whether you are a neophyte or a connoisseur of Japanese ambient music, this stylish double-disc offering is worth the ticket price. Most listeners will find familiar names (Yellow Magic Orchestra and Joe Hisaishi, perhaps) alongside new discoveries. However, the real beauty is the curation of all this material. Through the selection and ordering of its twenty-three tracks, this release offers a stellar listening experience that effortlessly traverses interrelated styles of minimal instrumental music. There are too many highlights to name, spanning resonantly abstract percussion, reverberating worlds of water and chimes, music box meanderings, spacious gong soundings, brightly looping piano refrains, spritely bursts of organic life, solemn hymns, utopian Wurlitzer melodies, and multi-layered fourth-world visions. Many of these tracks are sophisticated studies of environmental and lived space. It may therefore surprise listeners to learn about the unabashedly corporate context in which many of these works were commissioned. If Brian Eno can make art into a Windows 95 jingle, we can hardly grumble at his Japanese peers making soundtracks to air conditioning units. (Samuel Rogers)


Kompilation (Kranky, 1998)
A simply foundational collection documenting the early years of Kranky, leading with Godspeed’s now classic “Dead Flag Blues.” The 14-track CD was designed to fill up the entire disc and was specially low-priced to introduce the European market to the genre-defying work being released by the venerable Chicago label. Much of the Kranky aesthetic, as much as one can speak of such a thing, was influenced by European artists (the now familiar stew of krautrock, free improv, psychedelia, etc etc) and connections with the UK, in particular, were crucial to the label’s early success. Labradford are conspicuously absent from this comp, but as the label’s first signing they had already established a reputation across the pond. Amongst perpetual favorites such as Stars of the Lid, Low, and Pan•American, Kompilation also features tracks from criminally underrated artists including Amp, Magnog, and Jessica Bailiff. Still a kaptivating listen nearly 25 years later. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Available at Discogs

Minute Papillon (Second Language, 2013)
The mixtape era may be over, but once upon a time, home recordists were often desperate to fill the last minute on the side of a tape. Second Language’s Minute Papillon is the perfect compilation to fill that need. With Plinth, Wixel, Jasper TX, Roll the Dice, Machinefabriek and 55 more artists, each recording 60-second songs that either end or fade away (instead of being cut off), the set produces more winning tracks than any other in a shorter period of time. From ambient to folk, chamber to post-rock, there’s something for everyone, and the brevity of the tracks guarantees that listeners will wander down paths they might have otherwise avoided. The liner print is so small one needs a magnifying glass to read it; thankfully, one is provided. (Richard Allen)

 

Mono No Aware (PAN, 2017)
An often under-appreciated element of the compilation is the ability of the curator to assemble multiple artists into a coherent whole. Doing the job well can make the difference between an album languishing on the ‘maybe’ pile or becoming a staple listening experience. It is fair to say that Mono No Aware is an example of the latter – it is already on its fourth repress, just five years after its first release. Credit then to Bill Kouligas, founder of PAN and compiler of this album. The music is nominally ambient in nature, but there are wide varieties within that – from glassy, tranquil pieces to noisy disruptors. It is a range of music that reflects the scope of artists involved, most of whom have featured on Pan at one stage. It could have been an incoherent clash of styles: instead, the tracks are assembled in a sequence that makes every piece a standout. (Jeremy Bye)

 

Monsters, Robots And Bug Men: A User’s Guide To The Rock Hinterland (Virgin Ambient Series, 1996)
The title may make you think this is an album of twangy guitar instrumentals from the ’50s. But Monsters, Robots And Bug Men is a compilation where the subtitle does all the heavy lifting. This captures the nascent era of post-rock, collating music from both sides of the Atlantic, circa 1995. Bands from God to Godflesh are the open-minded explorers before Mogwai and Godspeed unwittingly created the quiet-loud template for every other act to follow. There is surprising scope and contrast in the choices, with relentless, dubby explorations sitting alongside tranquil bliss-out moments. The good news is that (if you want to stick to one style) compiler Simon Hopkins has created some playlists in the sleeve notes. The bad news is that the crossfades of the two discs render a pick ‘n’ mix approach redundant. That’s a minor quibble: as an overview of the post-rock world, it is hard to beat. (Jeremy Bye)

Available at Discogs

Music From Saharan Cellphones (Sahel Sounds, 2010)
The compilation that put Sahel Sounds on the map made us think differently about the cellphone as a medium for music. For more than a decade digital music and peer-to-peer file sharing (and file selling) had been associated with the internet, but Christopher Kirkley’s collection of tracks from cellphone memory cards provided a window into a vibrant West African musical ecosystem with the mobile phone as ’all-purpose multimedia device.’ Looking back more than a decade later, with Mdou Moctar now a global guitar superstar, it is hard to believe that upon initial release, his group was identified only as unknown artists hailing from Niger. Sahel Sounds has since gone on to release stunning records from the likes of Wau Wau Collectif, Les Filles de Illighadad, and Luka Productions, but this is the record that started it all. (Joseph Sannicandro)

 

New Chronologies Of Sound (Life Is A Vic Nic, 2021)
Only a year has passed since the release of this compilation, part of a multi-media project that includes essays, an exhibition and a sound bank. Yet we are quietly confident that its historical significance will enable it to stand the test of time. While many compilations were released during the pandemic, New Chronologies of Sound looks both forward and back, remembering lost sounds while taking inventory and imagining possible trajectories. Field recordings and soundscapes form the basis of these works, posing questions of how humans experience and process what they hear. Now that we are no longer in forced isolation, are we paying as much attention to sonic cues? This priceless project is a score to an altered aural environment, one that we are still struggling to comprehend. (Richard Allen)


Ocean Of Sound (Virgin Ambient Series, 1996)
We will cover the book in a future article, but it is hard to overstate the importance of Ocean Of Sound to impressionistic music fans. Some of whom would later write for A Closer Listen. It isn’t a road map through ambient music but an entire atlas of possible directions. The double CD that David Toop compiled as a companion piece dips into almost every experimental music movement of the 20th century, and does in a way that – improbably – makes sense. My Bloody Valentine sit next to 50s exotica king Les Baxter. A recording of Howler Monkeys gives way to Peter Brotzmann’s muscular free jazz. At a 25-year remove, the lack of solo female artists is a striking flaw; it’s pretty much just Javanese singer Detty Kurnia, and Pauline Oliveros with the Deep Listening Band. But as a sampler for a century’s music, it is unsurpassable. (Jeremy Bye)

Available at Discogs

One Minute Older – Virgin Babylon Records 5th Anniversary (Virgin Babylon, 2015)
Unlike Minute Papillon above, some of these songs run a little over a minute, producing sprawling entries as long as 1:31.  With 70 tracks in 89 minutes, the listening experience is as vibrant as the Japanese culture, pulsing with technicolor lights and clashes of orchestral and synthesized sound.  The energy level is high throughout, as if the label had gathered film cues from 70 action films and video games and created a collage.  A fifth anniversary is meant to be fun, happy and loud, and the compilation fulfills all three wishes, sounding like an arcade block party fueled by Kit-Kats, cotton candy and cake.  Most importantly, the album sounds great on repeat.  Instead of a beautiful mess, it’s an inspired collision. (Richard Allen)

 

Return Of The DJ (Bomb Hip-Hop Records, 1995)
So you thought playing a record was just a matter of dropping the needle? These DJs have returned to their booths to prove you wrong. They juggle, scratch, and cross-fade the detritus of twentieth-century sound to create a whole new culture. From groovy party cuts to stop-start showcases of technique, this compilation has it all. Funk and soul are strongly present in the source material, but a kaleidoscope of sounds can be detected in the mix. Though the music is instrumental (and solidifies the status of the turntable itself as an instrument), fragments of sampled vocals crash together in a polyvocal mash-up. This includes odd film and TV reference points, in addition to hip-hop luminaries from Slick Rick and Audio Two through to Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys. Another obvious choice for golden age turntablism is Deep Concentration (OM Records, 1997). However, Return of the DJ shines brighter – and has a greater number of sequels! (Samuel Rogers)

 

Ringtones (Touch, 2001)
Comprised of 99 tracks mostly under 10 seconds, this CD of 177 ringtones is something of a curiosity, firmly rooted in the early ’00s era mobile phone ringtone trend. At the time, personalized ringtones were emerging as a means of publicly announcing one’s taste as a means of distinction, but the options provided by the big corporations left a lot to be desired. Like Brian Eno designing the Windows 95 startup sound, the short duration of each ringtone presented the artists an opportunity for formal experimentation that remains intriguing today even as ringtones have largely faded from use. Participants include Oren Ambarchi, Evan Parker, Gen Ken Montgomery, CM von Hausswolf, Main, Mika Vainio, Ryoji Ikeda, Zbigniew Karkowski, as well as uncredited field recordings – but the tracks from lesser known artists are just as likely to captivate. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Available at Discogs

Road Kill Vol. 1-3 (Hit+Run, 2012-2016)
My personal path into electronic music was the result of exposure not only to IDM but also to hip-hop, though it took me some years to realize that this was the case. I was largely turned off by the electronic production of the post-sampling era, until I discovered El-P’s productions for DefJux, and of course the beat tapes of the late J Dilla. The so-called LA Beat Scene of the ‘00s exploded onto the global stage, as producers like Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, and Ras G rose to prominence after producers like Dilla and Madlib demonstrated that producers didn’t need an MC to shine. These Hit+Run compilations serve as an excellent document of the diversity of that scene, encompassing broken beat, bass, dubstep, and experimental approaches. Producers featured include Carlos Niño, Purple/Image, Kutmah, Dibia$e, Mono/poly, Jonwayne, Daedelus, J Rocc, Rhettmatic, Matthewdavid, Mndsgn, and many more. (Joseph Sannicandro)


RRR-1000 Lock Grooves (RRRecords, 2009)
Ron Lessard’s Lowell Massachusettes record store and label RRRecords has built an incomparable reputation since the 1980s as the source for American, European, and Japanese noise and experimental music. Even amongst this impressive catalogue, the Lock Groove series endures as a conceptual highwater mark. The RRR-100 7” (1993) established Lessard’s concept, while RRR-500 12” LP expanded to a remarkable 500 participants, a logistical challenge for the curator but also nearly impossible for the listener to locate a particular groove. And while that may be part of the appeal, with RRR-1000 Lessard invited 20 artists to contribute 50 nano-compositions each. Still exploiting the unique physical quirks of a medium, the additional grooves allow the artists to make a more complete artistic statement with their 1.8 seconds of sound. Each cover is hand-assembled, adding to the experience and making each record a unique work of art. (Joseph Sannicandro)


Available at Discogs

Song Of The Silent Land (Constellation, 2004)
Montreal’s revered Constellation Records quickly made a name for themselves in the late 1990s with the success of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and later Toronto’s Do Make Say Think, two bands that owed a lot to the ‘post-rock’ sound emerging out of Chicago at the time. By the release of their second label compilation, Song Of The Silent Land, DMST had long since moved out of the shadow of Tortoise, and Godspeed had gone on indefinite hiatus the prior year. This comp then serves as proof that Constellation is and remains much more than its two biggest names, carving out a unique identity for the label and for the city of Montréal. In addition to DMST and Godspeed, Song features mostly rare and unreleased tracks from Silver Mt. Zion, Exhaust, Hangedup, Polmo Polpo, Black Ox Orkestar, and a personal favorite Fly Pan Am remix featuring Tim Hecker & Christof Migone. (Joseph Sannicandro)

 

Spire: Organ Works, Past, Present & Future (Touch, 2004)
The pipe organ wasn’t perhaps the most fashionable or obvious instrument to engage with when Spire was first mooted. Taking inspiration from the sounds he heard in the chapels and churches of his youth, Touch founder Mike Harding invited artists on the roster (including BJ Nilsen, Z’EV, and Fennesz) to take the sounds of the organ as a starting point and see what happened. Some decided to embrace the instrument in full naturalistic flow; others opted to experiment with eking out softer, less traditional tones. Swathes of fuzz and feedback were frequently present in the results – this is a Touch release, after all – but this was, in general, a softer, more respectful approach to the ‘Emperor of Instruments.’ Spire  caught the imagination beyond the usual Touch audience: concerts and live recordings followed, and experimental musicians such as Kit Downes and Kali Malone are once again exploring the pipe organ’s possibilities. (Jeremy Bye)

 

UR Battlepak Vol. 1 (Underground Resistance, 2005)
The politically militant second-wave of Detroit techno is best represented by the sprawling anonymous collective Underground Resistance, founded by luminaries “Mad Mike” Banks, Jeff Mills, and Robert Hood. Longtime UR DJ Buzz Goree selected 16 tracks from the label’s catalogue for this compilation, designed especially for vinyl DJs. Each selection is just a minute long, however UR Battlepak Vol. 1 included two identical records so that DJs could loop and extend Buzz Goree’s edits, encouraging the development of traditional DJ skills. Most selections are credited to UR, as well as Mad Mike, Pervtech, Remote, and others. By 2005, many DJs had begun to switch over to CDJs or Serato, to mixed results. Battlepak attests to the continued relevance of vinyl to the culture of techno. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Available on Discogs

Voyager Golden Record (Ozma Records, 2017)
Once upon a time (1977), we launched a compilation into space.  Ironically, the Voyager Golden Record was not available on earth until its 40th anniversary.  Ozma Records’ package is now in its third edition, scheduled for release this October.  The package includes a generous serving of field recordings and song (both instrumental and vocal), along with a book, print, pin and slipmat.  The historical significance of the compilation – apart from its current location beyond our solar system – is the fact that these were the sounds chosen to represent Earth.  Should extraterrestrial life exist, and be intelligent enough to decipher the directions, we may find that our future fate depends on this depiction.  Imagine if the whale song were the piece to save us from world destruction!  As a snapshot of our sonic history, this compilation is unparalleled.  (Richard Allen)

Available here

Warp20 (1989-2009) (Warp, 2009) 
Warp’s legacy was already cemented by the release of this anniversary compilation, but the reminder was well-timed. After twenty years of releasing classics, Warp showed no signs of slowing down, demonstrating the label had long since transcended cliched tags like IDM. The likes of Boards of Canada, Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Squarepusher are well-represented, as are Broadcast, Seefeel, Battles, FlyLo, Mira Calix, Prefuse 73, and so many others. A simple compilation couldn’t serve as a sufficient tribute, but instead a mixed-format boxed set matched quality music with outstanding packaging. Warp20 includes unreleased tracks, fan selections, reinterpretations, locked groove loops, a 65-song mix CD, and a 192-page book detailing the label’s entire catalogue. While other labels had been less able to stay relevant, Warp managed to continue to diversify without chasing trends, and continues to release relevant and critically acclaimed music to this day. (Joseph Sannicandro)




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