A Compiled List of Excellent 2021 Compilations

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I’ve had it in the back of my mind for a couple weeks to put together a list of compilations from this year I quite liked, but never was able to get it together. Anyway, as with most things I kept a running list all year and decided at the last minute to put this together. I love compilations. Ever since I was introduced to Shrimper’s Abridged Perversion back in 1995, I’ve been a sucker for massive weird-as-hell compilations. It’s especially great when someone puts together a winding, sprawling trip that still feels interconnected with purpose. That’s certainly what I was going for with The Jewel Garden’s 45-track compilation (not listed here, but #1 in our hearts), The Future Disintegrates. These compilations do that at times, but they’re all fantastic for a number of reasons. As always, this isn’t exhaustive and holistic, but just the collections I enjoyed most. 

Indaba Is (Brownswood)

There was a pile of incredible music coming out of South Africa this year and I ended up going down a number of jazz and improv (and adjacent zones) rabbit holes and learning about a whole host of artists that I wasn’t familiar with. If you’re just getting into that space, Indaba Is is essential! This compilation is so damn good that it pretty much pushed me to do this whole article. Every song is killer, but the opener, Bokani Dyer’s “Ke Nako” welcomes listeners into this incredible world.

Heisei No Oto: Japanese Left​-​field Pop From The CD Age, 1989​-​1996 (Music From Memory)

Every single tune on Heisei No Oto is an absolute gem. This music has such a distinct sound to it. Sure, there are some familiar touchpoints, but the arrangements and approaches on these songs are like a time capsule that’s so specific to Japan. It’s fantastic. Unsurprisingly it features productions from household names like Hosono and Shimizu, but everything has a bit of weirdness to it that really sets it apart. I genuinely love every tune, but I’ve probably listened to POiSON GiRL FRiEND’s “Nobody” the most.

Undercurrents (Oxtail)

Sydney’s Oxtail Recordings put out a bunch of lovely releases this year and this 15-track compilation is no exception. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from the label, full of cosmic electronics, rolling synth jams, and hypnotic sonic spells with a great mix of new and familiar names (plus a fantastic collaboration between Judith Hamann, Megan Alice Clune, and Anna Homler). I keep returning to Alexandra Spence’s “For a While,” though.

Christmas Dreamers: Yuletide Country (1960​-​1972) (Numero/Cuca)

You best believe I’m putting a Christmas compilation on here. I was thrilled this came out before we put together our Altar Eagle Xmas mix, but then I had to fight to not include half the songs.  Christmas Dreamers: Yuletide Country is not only everything I want in a Christmas collection, but it’s everything I want in a mid(ish)-century country compilation, too. Put those together? Thank you very much. Everyone should be buying this before Friday so it can be featured in your Xmas celebrations music rotation. Hell, just put it on repeat. A lot of great songs, but it’s gotta be Charlie Stewart’s “Santa Claus Ain’t A Hippie,” right?

Mansplained! (Commando Vanessa)

I remember hearing “Don’t go inside” by Pillbug Junction feat. Kelso Ashby for the first time (it’s the song that plays first on Bandcamp) and grinning like an idiot because I loved it so much. Commando Vanessa is one of the most interesting and original labels on the planet (even if it’s been quiet this year. Every single release is killer) and Mansplained! is a microcosm of what makes it so great: it’s all over the place but connected, bright, shiny, weird, sometimes creepy, sometimes sexy, and always utterly fascinating. Essential listening! Oh, and I’ve listened to HARRGA’s “Échos Obscurs de l’Orient” the most, I think.

Program 3: Sonic Communications from the Circle City, Midwest & Other Far Off Places (Medium Sound)

Sprawling document of a lot of the great projects and artists digging around in the channels of strange electronics, psychedelic weirdness, and general fuckere in and around the Midwest from Landon Caldwell and Mark Tester’s excellent Medium Sound label. A lot of gems, but Flanger Magazine’s “River by Land” is a stone cold stunner.

Essiebons Special 1973 – 1984 // Ghana Music Power House (Analog Africa)

Analog Africa will forever be the kings of this kind of collection (African Scream Contest Vol. 1 remains the undisputed champion. An utterly perfect compilation, that one). Anyway, Essiebons Special gets into some of those familiar grooves, but this more effervescent as it floats toward the outer atmosphere at the most relaxed escape velocity imaginable. Favorite tune? Probably Seaboy and Nyame Bekyere’s “Tinitini” for that bassline alone.

WAMONO A to Z Vol. III – Japanese Light Mellow Funk, Disco & Boogie 1978​-​1988 (Wamono)

I’m a sucker for these Japanese compilations from Wamono. 40 years on and this music still sounds like it belongs in some angular, bizarre neon world. This was the future we were promised, but it sure as hell isn’t the one we got. Get into that slap bass spy movie vibe of Hitomi Tohyama’s “Rainy Driver.”

Wallahi Le Zein! (Mississippi Records)

This could have gone on the reissue list, too, since it was originally released on 2CD in 2011, but it’s my site so I’m putting this here. Anyway, Mississippi did a fantastic reissue of this sprawling set of raw African guitar shredding. This is rip-your-damn-face off goodness. All of Kebrou’s tracks on here are total rippers, but “Banjey” is my jam.

Ritmo Fantasía: Balearic Spanish Synth​-​Pop, Boogie and House (1982​-​1992) (Soundway)

This one was a surprise. Venezuelan producer Trujillo dug deep to pull out this sprawling 21 set of deep funk bangers from the margins of Spain’s outer space underground. The title alone, Ritmo Fantasía, just gives off the perfect vibe. Hard to pick a favorite, but there’s something about Isamar & Compañía’s “No Estas” that gets me every time.

One Night in Pelican: Afro Modern Dreams 1974-1977 (Matsuli Music)

Another South African compilation, but this one celebrates the crucial Pelican Club in Soweto. This music is just infectious, so joyous. I can’t get enough of it and any time I put it on, my mood lifts and I can’t help but fly. Incredible. When those horns hit on “Sugar Pie” by Spirits Rejoice, I am gone for good.

Cameroon Garage Funk (Analog Africa)

Another Analog Africa belter, surprise surprise. Unlike Essiebones Special 1973, Cameron Garage Funk is more grounded. Get these grooves blasting and the air in the room warms up, sweat starts dripping, and the whole world lightens up. This is an incredible document. Right now I’m bopping to Los Camaroes’ “Ma Wde Wa” so I’ll go with that.

Sound Storing Machines: The First 78rpm Records from Japan, 1903​-​1912 (Sublime Frequencies)

Any of the Robert Mills anthologies on Sublime Frequencies are worth hearing and Sound Storing Machines: The First 78rpm Records from Japan, 1903-1912 is right up there. This scratchy collection of music is a time machine to another place and time. It has such an immersive, transportive effect that it can be overwhelming. Mills, as ever, does an impeccable job giving us a glimpse of a different world. I really love Kachiguri Mimasuya’s “Shiokumi Kasatsukashi (Collecting Water),” but like many of these collections it’s hard to pick a favorite.

Anthology Of Electronic Music From Scandinavia / Anthology Of Exploratory Music From India / Anthology Of Electronic Music From China / Anthology Of Experimental Music From Peru (Unexplained Sounds Group)

All of these compilations are worth exploring, though I’ll admit I was first drawn to the editions from China, Peru, and India first. We are always inundated with music from Western sources so I was curious to hear what I’ve been missing from other corners, but none of this disappoints. I’ve been going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole trying to find more music from a lot of these artists. How about a pick from each? China – gotta be the opener, Chunyang Yao’s “Hidden Meadows.” India – Sukanta Majumdar’s “Rites of Labour” is quite possibly the best field recording I’ve heard all year. Peru – Ivanka Cotrina’s “Yachag” has such an incredible mix of unfamiliar and familiar sounds that I end up completely lost in the best possible way.  Scandinavia – Jurko Haltuu’s “…” sounds like an ancient, frozen ritual and I want more of that. Of note, the USG label has released a bunch of these compilations through the years from all over the world (last year there were compilations from Mexico, Indonesia, etc) that are well worth your time.

Sounds of Pamoja (Nyege Nyege)

This one totally baffles me in such a good way. It’s music from another planet, it goes 1,000 mph, and in typical Nyege Nyege style, it’s completely, utterly brilliant. I don’t want to pick a single track, but to keep things above board, I’ll go with MC Kuke’s “Kwa Ajiri Yao,” but literally throw a dart at the tracklist and it’s gonna land on a winner.

Longing for the Shadow: Ryūkōka Recordings, 1921​-​1939 (Death Is Not The End)

This is as essential a historical document as it is an incredible collection of music and sound. Ryūkōka combined traditional/classical Japanese music with Western elements to create a theatrical, beguiling form. This collection is especially interesting because it shows the style before postwar US influences crept further in. Crucial. Listen to Ichirō Fujiyama & Masao Koga’s “Is Sake Tears or Sighs?” and try not to be smitten.

Ultimate_Collection ”hydrocycle on a lake” (_tokinogake)

I only heard this recently (even though it’s been out since May), but it’s such a strange mix of sounds and artists that I had to put it on here. I haven’t heard of most of these projects and, to me, that’s always such a bonus for a compilation. It’s all over the place but well put together so it works. Favorite tune is definitely Sachi Kobayashi’s “Chant.” Totally hypnotic and eerie.

Tour Mode (Superpang)

What would the last two years of music look like without Superpang? There are so many fantastic, fucked up gems in their discography and of course Tour Mode follows right along that path. I’m a sucker for anything France Jobin does and “A State of Equilibrium Obtained at a Point of Maximum Entropy” is as beautiful as ever.

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