One of the aspects of the 90’s which tends to get overlooked nowadays was the fact that it was the heyday of the house and techno compilation album. If I was to do nothing more in Friday Night Tunes from this point on than cover music and artists that I first heard in some comp or other, I would have enough material for another 20 years. Going through my record collection recently, I was startled by how many of them I owned. Some – many – were awful; cheap attempts to cash in on a passing fad or milk a few quid out of a movement that retained its best music for proper 12″ releases. Many others though were brilliant, and a handful attained an importance far beyond the quality of the music contained within.
One of the first compilations to achieve a real level of fame was probably ‘Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit’, a compendium of motor city music put together in 1988 for a Virgin sub label by a northern soul DJ that even now looks amazingly prescient. There are the obvious heroes in May, Atkins and Saunderson, a clutch of names all but vanished from the history (A Tongue and D Groove, Mia Hesterly) and others (Blake Baxter, Eddie Fowlkes and Shake Shakir) who were massively important to the original sound, but overshadowed by the Belleville Three and somewhat unknown on this side of the pond. It also represented the first real use of the term ‘techno’. For that alone its fame is probably assured.
In Britain there had already been a run of compilations on the back of the acid house revolution. Often they represented the cheesiest end of the spectrum, and many of comps that were dedicated to the original American artists regurgitated the same tunes over and over. Find anyone with a number of these albums and I guarantee they’ll have Acid Tracks by Phuture on nearly every one. But even then you took a punt. It was always possible you’d end up with something special hidden away amongst the obvious tunes.
By the early nineties they were coming thick and fast, and improving in quality as the burgeoning scenes began to evolve, splinter into differing genres and spiral away into their own worlds. Warp’s Artificial Intelligence comp is still one of the best techno albums ever released, a solid, clever primer for what would eventually be called IDM. Artificial Intelligence was matched, perhaps bettered, by New Electronica’s run of albums. These remain a high point of the compilation game, bringing together an amazing collection of artists from Detroit luminaries to prime exponents of ambient and experimental weirdness, and everything in between, from a time before the rules were codified. They’re still worth it. Check them out.
My favourites (at least in terms of how often they got played) were the peerless label samplers put out by Tresor which brought together the cream of US and European techno and showed ever more clearly as the series advanced that the flow of information was not just a one way street, that the US greats were as willing to learn as they were to teach. The X-mix comps were an education as well, albeit of a slightly different sort. Originally a series of mix CDs, they were each accompanied by a vinyl release of unmixed tracks. They were every bit as important to our education as the purer compilations, providing a sort of snapshot of each DJs work, throwing light on the workings of their mystery cult.
The one I probably played most of all was from a Kickin’ Records series called Techno Nations. I only ever owned one of these, the 6th volume, but it was spectacular. Dial by Clark, Lights by Space DJs, Black Sea by Drexciya and a host of others – it was an incredible document of a particular point in techno’s history. The Paul Mac tune, Outerspace Obsessive, remains one of my favourites. Subtly subversive, it blends haunting, evocative Detroitisms with a grittier edge. It’s a beautiful, golden moment in time, endlessly flowing and always just on the edge of breaking apart. I might well have never picked up on it had it not been for this compilation.
And that was probably the best thing about compilations. They provided a way into an artists work, a means of getting an idea, a feel for what they did, without having to splurge on expensive 12″s. I suspect one of the reasons their day has all but past is that it’s so easy to do that now. Anyone can go online and buy a single track. It’s even easier to simply head to Youtube and check out everything a producer’s ever done. In the space of a few years the need and the space for compilations and samplers has been diminished except as something for sad, old obsessives like us who still enjoy owning a well curated collection of tracks, put together with a love of the music, and an understanding of their place in the greater scheme of things. Everything changes, maybe not always for the best. I’m just glad I got the chance. I doubt I would have learned half as much without them.