Are Compilation CDs past their sell-by date?

Words by: Cila Warncke
Posted: 30/11/09 10:35

Are Compilation CDs past their sell-by dateDo you remember your first compilation? Mine was the Ministry of Sound Annual 2000, closely followed a speed garage mix I bought because it was cheap and I didn't know any better. My ropy CDs are long gone but they did what compilations are supposed to do: exposed me to new music so I could learn what I like and what I don't.

The survival of compilation CDs in the digital age is one of the minor mysteries of dance music. Who needs a pre-selected mix that comes in a box in a world of iTunes, Beatport, Trackitdown and a hundred and one other websites vying to offer us anything we want at the click of a button? The days of comparison-shopping in HMV, looking for your favourite tracks, are long over - in theory at least.

In practice, the likes of Ministry of Sound, Hed Kandi, Defected and Global Underground churn out compilations at a furious rate, clogging shelves with dozens of interchangeable covers featuring girls in bikinis, swirly graphics and "mixing" courtesy of high-price studio software.

These mass-market marvels are increasingly incomprehensible to anyone who has been to an actual party. Why, if you had, would you pay good money for the two-hundredth recycling of some inane late-90s house hit? Or for the privilege of owning a bastardised edit of whatever cheesy cross-over hit wowed the dancefloor at Pacha last summer?

That isn't the point of these albums, however. They aren't designed to appeal to clubbers who know what they like, and where to find it. This lot are designed purely for the pop market.

The labels don't seem to care if anyone takes these CDs seriously, as music. After all, the Ministry of Sound Annual 2010 is already on sale. Either MoS is now employing psychics to determine what records we will love next year, or that they're packaging a bunch of mediocre musical fromage. Like Hollywood filmmakers paying $20M for George Clooney, they blow the budget to licence one or two hits, which they push relentlessly in ads, then pad the rest of the album with cut-rate remixes and whatever inoffensive tosh they find lying around the studio. This lures over-30s and under-15s into buying their CDs, but offers nothing to real music lovers.

Not all label compilations are created equal though. Big clubs like Cocoon and Space offer fans quick-fix hits package. These are usually "safe bets" - decent tunes, but nothing you haven't heard before. Better quality CDs often stem from labels such as K7! (DJ Kicks) and Get Physical (Body Language) and have the advantage of being mixed by actual human beings.

The quality and style vary from volume to volume, but it is definitely preferable to dull and interchangeable. Take the never-ending stream of CDs from Fabric: some of their mixes are excellent (Jay Haze, Metro Area and James Murphy have come up with good ones in recent memory) and some of them are diabolical (Ricardo Villalobos ultra-indulgent 'artist mix' springs to mind) but every one is distinctive.

Still, given the ready availability of podcasts, digital radio and streaming from gigs, do fans really need a CD to hear their favourite DJ? Ultimately, the best case for continuing the quaint but tradition of compilations lies with the underground. The best compilations combine the 'music finding' element of mass-market CDs with the uniqueness of DJ mixes in a way that neither podcasting nor a trawl through Beatport can quite replicate. Podcasting is, by its nature, fairly fast and disposable - quick mixes or live sets.

Compilations invite artists to spend more time with their material and invest more energy to create a timeless record. This takes different forms. Joris Voorn, for example, mixed over 100 tracks to create the staggeringly brilliant Balance 014 mix. Tiefschwarz used their Blackmusik compilation as an excuse to showcase favourites they could never play in a club (Marianne Faithfull's Broken English, for one). The result? CDs that challenge, delight, and reveal something new to trainspotters and casual clubbers alike.

Compilations also offer a platform to young artists. You wouldn't randomly download a track from an unknown producer, but if it popped up on a Poker Flat or Cadenza mix you might.

And they provide snapshots of the sound of budding labels, as Anth Gaskill, who runs Leed's Forbidden Fruit Recordings points out: "A compilation CD is still the best way to let people know what you stand for."

With more musical outlets, and options, than ever, the old-fashioned compilation still has a place in the dance scene. Even though I never want to buy another Ministry of Sound Annual (much less a speed garage CD) there are plenty of niche artists and imprints whose ingenuity, music knowledge and creativity make mixes worth our while.

Classic Compilations:

  1. DE9 mixed by Richie Hawtin

  2. New Forms mixed by Roni Size and Reprazent

  3. Renaissance the Mix Collection Vol 1 mixed by Sasha & Digweed

  4. Journey's by DJs mixed by Coldcut

  5. DC10: Ibiza Monday Morning Session mixed by Cirillo & Tania Vulcano

Contemporary Classics:

  1. Balance 014 mixed by Joris Voorn

  2. Blackmusik mixed by Tiefschwarz

  3. Temporary Secretary mixed by Dixon

  4. Panoramabar 02 mixed by Tama Sumo

  5. Chaos Restored mixed by Justin Martin


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