The best compilations can be likened to the mixtape. Scoring the track list, and getting it right so it flows flawlessly, requires an impeccable level of detail. I think Nick Hornby was spot-on in High Fidelity:
The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do, and takes ages longer than it might seem.
I used to struggle with it, but now that I have half a dozen years under my belt planning weekly 2-hour radio shows (which can also be likened to the mixtape and the compilation), my confidence has grown.
Why all this talk about compilations, mixtapes and radio shows?
Because I got my hands on a little-known, near 20-year-old compilation that I found to be very well made. It’s called I’m A Cult Hero Chapter 2, and it was released in Germany on the label Living Legend Records back in 1999.
I snagged the copy above for a cool $15. At the time of purchase, it was unopened and in mint condition.
I’m not entirely sure what song or artist led me to this compilation. I think it was the early shoegaze kick I’ve been on since last year. That and the fact that 2017 has seen several of those artists make a return, in many cases their first releases in two decades (examples: The Jesus and Mary Chain, RIDE and Slowdive).
As I started to check out the songs, I knew I had to have it.
The Making of a Great Compilation #1: Song Transitions
Actually listening to the release on vinyl and hearing the songs online are two very different things. Other elements become quite readily apparent when you listen to something in its physical form. Things like the overall flow and the transition between songs.
For example, this is a four-sided compilation: it has two LPs. Each side can be looked at as a whole, flowing very well from one track to the next, each one complimenting the song or songs surrounding it. Likewise, it flows well from one side to the next.
A great example is Side C, which starts with the dreamy electro-pop sounds of the infamous Sarah Records band The Field Mice doing the song “Missing the Moon”.
Following that is Chapterhouse’s “Mesmerise”, which goes into The Heart Throbs and RIDE. All of these songs work well together.
The Making of a Great Compilation #2: Finding the Unexpected
One thing I love about I’m A Cult Hero Chapter 2 is that, while cohesive in overall sound, it’s also quite unexpected in some of the artists included. Musically, it’s a very cool, quite mellow collection of songs.
The artists, though, extend their range into other areas. For example, the second song is a remix of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” by The Orb. My hopes weren’t high. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a great song, but I questioned its presence. However, sandwiched between Tranquility Bass and Kestrel, it works. The Orb changes the instrumentation and backing music just enough for it to round out the A side quite nicely.
Several examples can be found on side B. Tuxedomoon is perhaps best known for their work with A Cult with No Name; the two artists joined together to score David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Here, Tuxedomoon lends “In A Manner of Speaking” off their 1985 LP Holy Wars. The band is known for creating avant garde electronic music.
This one is followed by Patrik Fitzgerald, an artist often considered the originator of folk punk in the late 1970s with his album Grubby Stories. “Island of Lost Souls” by Patrik Fitzgerald is off his 1982 LP Gifts And Telegrams.
I love the video for this song, though on the compilation, it only has the song itself which begins in the video at about 1:18.
The Making of a Great Compilation #3: Follow the Rules
Alright, this is where there’s some slight discrepancy. Several blogs, publications, et cetera, have compiled lists of rules on making great mixtapes, and I feel comfortable saying that these rules absolutely apply to compilations.
One of the best lists I’ve seen (and it probably has elements lifted from multiple sources) is from the New Zealand site Get Frank in which they list 15 Foolproof Rules for Creating the Perfect Mixtape.
This compilation falls short on a few (two to be exact) of the rules.
First up is Rule #6: Start and End with a Bang. I get why things kick off with “Cantamilla” by Tranquility Bass and end with “The Anal Staircase” by Coil, but they aren’t the “bang” I would want to see from a mixtape rule standpoint. Neither has that “wow” factor, at least in my opinion.
Then again, the audience rule is where mixtapes and compilations differ. Audience is still quite relevant in comps, but it’s not the individual level of personalization you find in a mixtape.
Next is Rule #9: Mix it Up. OK, so they don’t follow this rule as described by Get Frank. This compilation is almost entirely mellow and laid back. All of the songs, to some extent, can be likened to shoegaze or dream pop or whatever. Even Spacemen 3’s psychedelic-tinged “2:35”.
A simple edit to Get Frank’s rule is in store: I’d say that it’s OK to have a compilation of like sounds and songs if the variety of artists is what mixes it up. The sheer range of musicians and that the songs do have a similar sound is what makes this record so great.
- I can listen to Arthur Russel transition to The Field Mice and not cringe.
- We stack up Brian Eno and Chapterhouse in the same mix.
- The Jesus and Mary Chain can be found complementing a Pink Floyd remix? It’s great!
Granted, everyone has their own rules to creating the perfect mixtape or compilation. Sometimes a light edit to the rules is necessary. And sometimes that’s what makes or breaks it.
IMHO, if you’re looking for a great compilation that has a dreamy, borderline-shoegaze sound, look no further than I’m A Cult Hero Chapter 2. You’ll thank me.