In-depth: Little help from my friends: the magic of compilation albums

Little help from my friends: the magic of compilation albums

With The National’s Grateful Dead tribute album ‘Day of the Dead’ featuring just about everyone in music right now, we pick out some of the best compilations going.

Once the only go-to destination for teenagers to get their fix of pop smashers from top legends like Atomic Kitten, Liberty X, and S Club (a big shout out to ‘Now That’s What I Call Music! 54’) compilation albums are no longer annual rituals, or car stereo fixtures. Nicking your dad’s copy of ‘The Trip’’s grunge compilation in order to get acquainted with Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and Mudhoney is no longer a teenage tradition, either. And why would it be? Years on from the heady days of Ministry of Sound dubstep collections and getting copies of the now defunct ‘Hits’ series for Christmas, musical recommendations are hand-delivered to our phones every single week thanks to Spotify’s weekly Discovery playlists, and delving into deep-cuts from every single band imaginable is possible with a couple of mouse-clicks.

Despite all of this, compilations are still as influential as ever, albeit taking on a completely different form. While Various Artist albums used to be largely concerned with slinging as many mega-hits as possible onto the same record, they’ve become a platform for musicians to give fans a glimpse into their own record collections; a place where artists can curate album line-ups with some of their most influential pals. While the Internet hurls out overwhelming quantities of brand new music like it’s slinging spaghetti at a wall, compilations still create something taut and digestible in one sit-down.

Just this month The National announced that they’re slinging just about every musician in existence onto an upcoming Grateful Dead tribute album, ‘Day of The Dead’. From Courtney Barnett, Perfume Genius, and The Flaming Lips, to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Real Estate, and Mumford & Sons, it’s easier to list the influential musicians who don’t appear on the five-hour epic at this point.

With this in mind, we’re taking a look at the compilation albums continuing to rule the roost.

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Dark Was The Night

‘Dark Was the Night’ was put together by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner to raise funds for The Red Hot Organization - the same squad behind this year’s planned ‘Day Is the Dead’ album. The 2009 compilation raised a whopping $1.6 million for the HIV and AIDs charity, and at the same time, served as a who’s-who in alternative music at the time. Bon Iver - still fresh from his debut album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago,’ and early on in his career - featured alongside heavyweights like Arcade Fire, and The National. Everything from Shuggie Otis to Vashti Bunyan came under the album’s massive umbrella - both artists being covered with spectacular results. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, meanwhile teamed up with bluegrass singer Gillian Welch for a super-sparse version of ‘Lua,’ while Dirty Projectors hopped on a track with none other than David Byrne (as you do..) to bring some shelved lyrics back to folksy, jolting life. ‘Dark Was the Night’ felt - and still feels - like one big party of mates making music at the imaginative limits.

Jam Kids: 20 Years since Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

For tonnes of kids growing up in suburban sleepy-towns, getting a fix of Pavement (yep, usually from battered old rock compilations) was a serious escape route. That was certainly the case for the two self-proclaimed “goofy teenagers” who started up the DIY label Art is Hard Records, and so naturally they repaid the favour years later. Their Pavement tribute compilation gathers together a whole bunch of fine noise-makers to pay homage to one of the most influential records out there; ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’. ‘Jam Kids’ sees Trust Fund play a minimal, falsetto take on the meandering ‘Range Life,’ and a typically raucous romp through ‘Hit The Plane Down’ stomps into the equation courtesy of The Black Tambourines. Oh, and to top it off, Art is Hard donated all their profits to the then-nonexistent DIY Space for London. The new non-profit venue is in full swing, and thriving. If that’s not a happy ending to the story, then what is?

Late Night Tales

For anybody who ever fancies rifling through their heroes’ record collections, ‘artist-curated’ album series Late Night Tales is the blissed out, twilight-minded answer. Inviting a different act to pull up the director’s chair every time, the series has invited the likes of Belle & Sebastian, Flying Lotus, MGMT, The Flaming Lips and Django Django to oversee proceedings in the past; sticking whatever they fancy on the resulting album. It’s a bit like a lovingly crafted home mixtape, then, except this is mixed properly, and there isn’t a glitterpen-drawn loveheart in sight.

Late Night Tales have been at it for a long time now - since 2001, in fact - and their compilations have become trustworthy, faithful labradors armed with outstanding music taste. The Cinematic Orchestra’s turn in 2010 saw the unlikely but ace combination of Burt Bacharach and Flying Lotus on the same mix, and Röyksopp’s edition taught us all that the Norwegian dance-heads are super into Acker Bilk’s rockin’ clarinet jam ‘Stranger on the Shore’. Who knew?! You don’t get that on Spotify.

Dark Night of the Soul

In isolation, both Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse are powerhouse musical forces in their own right. While the late Mark Linkous and his band released cultish alternative records since the mid nineties, prolific production maestro Brian Burton is one half of both Broken Bells and Gnarls Barkley, and manned the desk for Gorillaz’s ‘Demon Days’ and ’Guilt’ by Beck. Having worked on Sparklehorse’s 2006 record ‘Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain,’ he and Linkous joined forces for a wholly collaborative new album, ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. Delayed for several years due to various boring copyright tiffs, the artists’ compilation became something of an internet legend over time; fans hankering after the collection, and getting their mitts on a copy by less than legal means. ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ would, tragically, turn out to be Linkous’ last album, too; coming out posthumously following the Sparklehorse leader’s suicide in 2010.

From the sinister merry-go-round ditties of ‘Little Girl’ - which features The Strokes bloke Julian Casablancas - to the Flaming Lips’ turn on the twinkling fuzz of ‘Revenge,’ this is a haunting, shivering record that celebrates collaboration at every turn, wrenched straight from the shadows. Wayne Coyne, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, Gruff Rhys, David Lynch - the list of artists involved goes on and on - all sound alien and removed from their best known projects; lost in the murk of Linkous’ songwriting but enjoying every single nanosecond. And isn’t that the appeal of compilations? They ferry our favourite artists to new unfamiliar universes and surprise us, time and time again.

With a Little Help from My Fwends

The Flaming Lips ringleader Wayne Coyne is evidently a bit of a fan of compilation albums. From guesting on ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ to hopping aboard The National’s upcoming ‘Day of the Dead’ epic, he’s also - you guessed it - curated his own effort. An at times bizarre homage to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club,’ 2014’s ‘With a Little Help from My Fwends’ is a Beatles tribute album featuring Miley Cyrus, Tegan and Sara, Moby, and Foxygen. Because of course it is! Oh, and as an extra bonus, all the profits go to Oklahoma’s Bella Foundation to help owners pay for their pet’s vet care. Very nice indeed.

‘Day of the Dead’ is out on 20th May via 4AD.