Rock’s emphasis on individual artists means that indie-label comps tend to be souvenirs and not much more. Electronic dance music is a different kind of label culture, and it demands compilations—ideally, ones that sum up an imprint’s vision the way an album should an artist’s.
Retrospective collections can be particularly tricky: How long is too long? What is the obvious-classic/hidden-gem ratio? To mix or not to mix? But Detroit dance legend and Movement Festival founder Carl Craig has always been blessed with good instincts, as his label’s recent 20 F@#&ing Years of Planet E: We Ain’t Dead Yet (Planet E) testifies. (The digital version came out in February; a limited-edition vinyl box came out last month.) Leaving aside Craig’s own work (he’s on eight tracks under various guises: Paperclip People, 69, Tres Demented, Innerzone Orchestra, C2), Planet E has a remarkable track record, largely from artists whose work shows a hefty debt to Craig’s. Tracks like Martin Buttrich’s “Full Clip” and Lazy Fat People’s “Club Silencio” build slowly and patiently, occupying their lengthy spaces with full assurance. And while the compilation isn’t mixed, its 25 tracks are sequenced nicely enough that you won’t even miss Craig’s (and maybe techno’s) greatest record, Paperclip People’s “Throw,” a 14-minute workout from 1994 that essentially erased the line between house and techno. (LCD Soundsystem covered it as the iTunes bonus track for This Is Happening; Craig liked it so much he issued it as a 12-inch, backed with the original.)
In contrast to Planet E’s color and variety (and longevity), Belgian producer-DJ Peter Van Hoesen’s three-year-old outlet, Time to Express, operates on a far more limited-by-design palate. Return to the Center (Time to Express) makes it clear that Van Hoesen and his crew grew up on Basic Channel’s thousand-shades-of-flickering-gray, machines-do-the-work dub techno; Van Hoesen’s own “Hope in Honesterror,” the compilation’s centerpiece, reads as an 11-minute audition to join the Basic Channel roster circa 1997. That crisp, slurry quality imbues much of Center: Object’s slow, menacing opener, “113,” evokes the machines being used to make it waking up; Sendai’s “SystemPolicy Variant” is flecked by skating-on-black-ice synths; the clicks and pops of Lucy’s remix of Van Hoesen’s “Defense Against the Self” shade gradually into menacing bleeps before coming to a sudden stop.
Hamburg’s Dial Records has a sound of its own, too—low-lidded, atmospheric, bell-heavy house, a sound summed up by the label’s big crossover graduate, Pantha Du Prince, whose recent remix disc XI Versions of Black Noise essentially functions as a Dial showcase. Like a lot of dance labels with a readily identifiable style, Dial also has a reverse-worded sub-label. Laid’s focus is barer, more classicist U.S.-style house (sometimes by actual Americans, such as Detroit veteran Rick Wade), rather than the heavier, foggier Black Forest feel of the main imprint—which means that the 12 inches collected on Laid Compilation (Laid) have more space in their arrangements (e.g., the sparse, clear synth lines of Christopher Rau’s “Soulful”) and largely run on a subdued jackin’ Chicago pulse: Wade’s “Ricky’s Groove,” with its drifting spoken vocal, or the deliciously phased, unremitting hi-hat programming of Kassem Mosse’s swirling “Untitled.” All together, it doesn’t prove much more than that Dial has been keeping up with house’s recent roots movement (and, on Temporary’s “Blue Box,” nodding toward dubstep’s experimental wing), but the above-named tracks are all worth getting to know. And there’s not a bell in earshot.
There’s a lot less reverence and a lot more attitude on Lee Foss and Jamie Jones’s London label, Hot Creations. It’s got a sound, which is the same as its attitude: cocksure, lubricious tech-house steeped in early-’80s funk and R&B, but minus the over-reverence that sometimes hamstrings house labels operating within those parameters. (A lot of new-jack house has a similar love affair with R&B: Soul Clap and Wolf + Lamb’s recent, jointly mixed DJ-Kicks, for example.) Only a year old, Hot Creations has strutted right to dance music’s center: “Forward Motion,” Foss and Jones’s recent monster-tune under the moniker Hot Natured, with Ali Love singing two indelible hooks for the price of one (“No I can’t [pause] go back” and the stuttered title chorus) is the night person’s Summer Jam 2011.
“Forward Motion” isn’t on Hot Waves (Hot Creations), which makes sense—the comp (allegedly the first of what will be a quarterly series; good luck, guys) is intended to focus on newer names. Foss, Jones, and Hot Natured all make appearances, though; the latter’s “Nino Brown” makes moves toward deep house, like the flipside “Forward Motion” deserved but didn’t get. It points to the comp’s main appeal: Even the cooled-down stuff, such as the pensive synths and fried-timbre drum machines of Foss’s “Stringer Bell” or Maceo Plex’s swelling Larry Heard nod “Alpha,” seems amped. (Plex, along with Deniz Kurtel and Art Department, have released superb albums on Crosstown Rebels, the only label this year to rival Hot Creations’ savvy.) Nevertheless, this is a singles label, and Hot Waves is not a singles comp, so adjust accordingly.
The trend in dubstep comps has been double CDs that put the hits on the second disc while showcasing new music on the first. Hyperdub and Hotflush have done it, and now so has Hessle Audio, which is run by three genre giants, Pangaea, Ben UFO, and David Kennedy, a/k/a Ramadanman and Pearson Sound. And like 5 Years of Hyperdub and Hotflush’s Back and 4th before it, 116 & Rising (Hessle Audio) is both a summing-up and a looking-forward. Like a lot of its peers, Hessle’s leaning toward straighter house and techno rhythms lately—Cosmin TRG’s “Bijoux” cuts and fogs up Photon Inc.’s “Generate Power,” an early Strictly Rhythm standard—but it’s not dominated by them. Most of the new keeps the rhythms frisky and lopsided, so much so that it skirts IDM, as on (who else?) James Blake’s “Give a Man a Rod (Second Version),” which shows he can still make off-kilter beat records with anyone. Accordingly, Hessle’s a very headphone-friendly label, even on the dance-heavier best-of disc: Ramadanman’s “Don’t Change for Me” was the hottest jungle track of 1995, I mean 2010, while TRG’s “Broken Heart (Martyn’s DCM Remix)” sounds like its Planet E string pads are echoing around the insides of Dial’s bells. But there’s only one label it could have come from—and only one of these compilations it could have fit on.