I’ve been mulling over in my mind and meaning to get round to writing up a few more musical lists for a long while now, but quite rightly, most of my spare time recently has been devoted to Dadding.
The wife and son have been down under for a couple of weeks though, so now is the time to get at least one of them out of my brain and onto the internet.
As tempting as it is to follow my headline and launch into a full-blown discursive essay on the slow decline of the DJ mix CD, other people have done far better jobs.
At some point I’ll pen a list of the best downloadable/streamable mixes online – given these are the main culprit for making properly-published compilations increasingly unviable – but let this be a celebration of the finest works produced.
Obviously there’s no substitute for seeing/hearing a DJ play for several hours in a club full of friendly fellow dancers, but then that was never really what official mixtapes were about. With the inherent time constraints of the format, plus the fact people can listen anywhere and at any time, artists are faced with different challenges than when in the booth.
It has become something of a tired cliché, but the listener wants to be taken on a journey. Presumably one that fits with the brand that’s distributing the CD, or the style the DJ has become associated with. Music that can recreate the best of their sets, but without the need for a massive soundsystem.
My favourites below cover a variety of genres and come from across the 15 or so years I’ve been into electronic music, but are all united by the same painstaking track selection and deft mixing that dictate the pace and feeling of the 70 odd minutes available.
Before the numbers start, just quick a note on their organisation. I decided to group mixes within the same series, so they make up the top nine, with one-offs starting after that.
40. RJD2 – Constant Elevation / Your Face Or Your Kneecaps
A couple of weird and wonderful mixtapes from one of my favourite producers, both spanning the range of hip hop, soul and funk that characterise his artist albums.
39. Dan the Automator – Wanna Buy A Monkey
Billed as a look inside Mr Nakamura’s musical mind and extensive record collection, this comp was both a reminder why he lets long-time collaborator Kid Koala do the DJing, and what supremely good taste he has. So while the segues between tracks are often clunky, it’s a beautiful blend of things like Doves’ ‘Firesuite’, ‘Bionix’ by De La Soul and Zero 7’s ‘Destiny’.
38. Danny Howells – 24/7
He’s got a few entries further up/down this list with Global Underground proper, but I feel like this offshoot deserves its own mention, if only for the amount of times the Day disc nurtured me through university hangovers and comedowns. Much like his musical mate Desyn Masiello, it’s Danny’s ability to unearth really unique tracks – like Honeyroot’s ‘Starshine’ or the Mescalito mix of Blackdog’s ‘Invisible Things’ – that makes his mixes so special.
37. Krafty Kuts – These Are The Breaks
I’m well aware that including someone like Krafty Kuts comes with a certain amount of embarrassment. But when the music and mixing is this entertaining, I’ll happily forgo any chin-stroking musical respectability I might have gained elsewhere.
36. Dixon – Body Language Vol.4 / Live At The Robert Johnson Vol.8
Now regularly voted as Resident Advisor’s favourite DJ, compilation CDs like these were key in elevating the Innervisions founder to his position of worship. On both, Dixon’s skill in track selection and sequencing are evident, while outside of a club, he can drop in a few more leftfield choices, while never losing a love of melody and vocals.
35. Chemical Brothers – Brothers Gonna Work It Out
The first time I saw the Chems play it turned out they were DJing rather than doing a full live show. But my initial disappointment that they wouldn’t be playing the hits quickly turned to awe at their skill as selectors. This compilation is less brutally acidic than when they play out, but is still a superbly genre-bending bag of fun.
34. DJ Food and DK – Now Listen
If Coldcut’s 70 Minutes of Madness mix set our Ninja Tunes’ stall, then this mix exemplifies all that is great about where the label went. My mate Jamie put it on at a house party and it went down an absolute treat – so much energy, diversity and fun squeezed in – I particularly love the fact I’ll never be able to hear The Beat’s ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ without those squelchy breakbeats underneath it. So good.
33. Ils – YK4
I bought this one for the tracklisting and was not disappointed. Dark, dirty, propulsive breaktbeat bangers from back when the genre was on top.
32. Dave Clarke – World Service
Two CDs of hard as nails techno and electro from the Don. About as close to one of his masterful Pressure sets as I’ll ever be able to get now The Arches is deid.
31. James Zabiela – Alive / Utilities
Another not particularly cool DJ, but still capable of creating sets of art. Many memorable moments exist between these two compilations, but his ‘mash-up’ of Underworld’s ‘Dark and Long’ with Rob Mello’s ‘Fantasize’ is still a thing of sublime afterparty euphoria.
30. Laurent Garnier – Excess Luggage
Three superlative live recordings – from Detroit, Sonar and Pedro Winter’s basement – go some way to doing this man’s live DJing prowess justice. Characteristically enough, there’s a huge variety of styles on show, but Laurent never seems at any risk of losing the dancefloor.
29. Sasha & Digweed – Northern Exposure / Expeditions
These two bridged the gap between epic trance anthems and propulsive prog house like no other, with their back to back sets and wildly popular mix CDs driving the superstar DJ bubble to bursting point.
28. Danny Tenaglia – Back to Basics 10th Anniversary
The legendary Leeds club night was as much associated with the tribal house movement as Tenaglia back in the day, so unsurprisingly that chugging, rhythmic style was the basis for this mix. Very fine it is too, covering off beezers like Sharpside’s ‘Belgian Resistance’, ‘Always’ by David James and the wonderfully over the top ‘Terror’ by Fused.
27. Erol Alkan – A Bugged Out Mix
I liked this mix so much I described it in great detail and interviewed Erol about it for Pulse Radio a few years back.
26. Adam Freeland – Tectonics / On Tour
Back when he was the baron of ‘nu-skool’ breaks, sitting atop his Marine Parade throne, it was through mixes like these that he asserted industry dominance. Less blatant than Finger Lickin’s output, Freeland’s sound was darker and deeper – exemplified by tracks like the brilliant Bushwaka mix of Leuroj’s ‘Isokora’ early on Tectonics.
25. Chloe and Ivan Smagghe – Kill The DJ
Weird and wonderful in equal measure, this indie/electro cross-over concept could have been the peak of pretentiousness, were it not for the cool bastards in charge. The tricky juxtaposition of these otherwise disparate tracks is handled brilliantly and makes for an incredibly engaging listen – bravo the dysfunctional family.
24. Coldcut – Journeys By A DJ (70 Minutes of Madness)
Widely hailed as one of the most seminal mixtapes ever, I bought this after reading some reverential article in Mixmag, and to be fair, it really did live up to the hype. Released in 1995 by the pair that would go on to found the Ninja Tune empire, it is the sonic imprint for that label and its offshoots, taking in hip hop, drum’n’bass, regae, techno, ambient and a lot more in-between.
23. Plump DJs – Urban Underground / A Plump Night Out
The second CD of Urban Underground is the CD that got me into breaks and still stands up as one of the finest distillations of the genre I’ve ever heard. So many belters: Buckwacka’s ‘Monster’, the Plumps mix of ‘Nine Ways’ by JDS, their very own ‘Big Groovy Fucker’ to name but a few.
22. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist – Brainfreeze / Product Placement
The one time I saw these two live was when they were touring the relatively disappointing Hard Sell and found themselves in T in the Park’s infamous Slam tent soon after lunch. It was objectively the wrong slot and consequently they bombed, but this only made me love their previous two mixtape entries more. Their crate-digging and scratch DJing skills remain almost unparalleled.
21. Damian Lazarus – Bugged Out Presents Suck My Deck / Futurism
Lazarus has always been a fine disc jockey and A&R man, so it was a shame he bore the brunt of the electroclash bubble bursting (his era-defining Futurism compilation has aged very well in my opinion). This Bugged Out mix went along way to restoring his reputation, as it spanned weird minimal cuts and the twisted tech house of the day. Great afterparty fare, many a brain has been melted by the I:Cube mix of Phonique’s ’99 an a Half’, Holden’s ‘Lump’ and the ecstatic encore of M83’s ‘Don’t Save Us From The Flames’ (the Superpitcher mix, obvs).
20. Ritchie Hawtin – DE9 Closer to the Edit
I’m no great fan of minimal techno, but my pal Michael introduced me to this mix and I fell in love with its intricacies over a winter season spent in Hawtin’s frozen Canadian home (although The Rockies, rather than Windsor, Ontario). There’s so much depth here, with funky elements, pounding rhythms and delicate melodies all given room to breathe.
19. Pete Tong – Essential Mix (2000)
Despite the Burberry tartan cover and Tongy’s mainstream reputation, this still stands out for me as the defining mix of that halcyon period for house music just after the turn of the century. I really love so many songs on this mix, it’s a travesty no-one’s uploaded a version to the Youtubes.
18. Tom Middleton – The Trip
The Party side of this double album is about as entertaining and inclusive an event soundtrack you could wish for. From the Star Wars start, through a bangra version of MJ’s ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’ and all the way to concluding with the theme tune from much-loved British children’s series Bod; this mix is accessible without ever being cheesy.
17. Desyn Masiello – OS_0.1
Several of my mates in Glasgow were fans, friends and even colleagues of Des, but I remained sceptical for quite a while, a preferring Pressure techno and Optimo oddities to his post-progressive house style. This was the mix that changed all that and convinced me that his obsessive search for great records no-one else had really paid dividends. There’s no one stand-out track, just a dreamy trip through his signature sound.
16. Justin Robertson – Imprint Vol.1
Still my go-to pump track before a big night out, I’d argue this has never been bettered, and clearly should have been followed-up. I love it so much I wrote several hundred words about the not-really-a-genre is spearheaded: funky techno.
15. Sasha – Involver / Fundacion
The Man Like’s modern efforts have shown the best, and worst, of the mixing technology he’s adopted. When Involver came out in 2004 it sounded like nothing else, with an already superb selection of emotive house music stretched and re-edited with Sasha’s already impressive mixing skill. Fundacion took things a bit darker and deeper, but more recent variations on the theme have – IMO – taken the whole thing a bit too far.
14. DJ Yoda – How To Cut And Paste
Up there with my favourite stoner soundtracks, this was one of a few LPs that made me realise how great hip hop can be. I had long been turned off by the frontin’ of gangsta rap, but Yoda’s combination of golden age, old school jams and funny skit sampling made the previously intimidating world fun.
13. Moving Shadow 00.1 – 10th Anniversary Mix by Timecode
I’m far from an expert on classic jungle, hardcore and D’n’B, but much of what I’ve heard, I absolutely adore. From this position, it seems to me that Moving Shadow was a byword for quality through that period, with Rob Playford’s roster counting Omni Trio, 2 Bad Mice and Deep Blue as masterful members. My adventures into dance music as a teenager consisted of often poorly-informed trips to Avalanche and Fopp on Cockburn Street in Edinburgh, coming home with many a dud CD. Thankfully, something made me purchase this collection of jungle classics and whenever I’m in need of pumping up, on it goes to get me dancing like a loon in no time.
12. Fatboy Slim – On the Floor at the Boutique / Essential Millennium
It has become painfully obvious in recent years that he’s been phoning it in in terms of production and DJing, which is all the more dismaying when you remember just how good Norman Cook was at his peak. From Brighton’s Big Beat (and later Beach) Boutique, to The Social up in London, and anywhere else he played during the mid-to-late 90s, he was the king of the short-lived genre his club night spawned. For some reason big beat became deeply uncool, but I’ve rarely heard anything more effective in making people lose their shit everywhere from club dancefloors to living room floors.
11. 2 Many DJs – As Heard on Radio Soulwax
Another musical fad in retrospect, but when they were good, mash-ups were great. Nobody merged seemingly inexplicable songs together which such daring deftness than the boys from Belgium. Plucked from the weird and wonderful Radio Soulwax archive, this is by far the best representation of what they did. I bought it on Mixmag’s recommendation, before lapping up the kudos after putting it on at several shindigs – still such a cool collection of music and technically impressive piece of work.
10. The Prodigy – Dirtchamber Sessions
So, given the format of this list, I’ve essentially chosen Dirtchamber as my favourite single mix. Much like what’s directly above it, the brilliance here is in the bold track selection and incredible mixing technique of Liam Howlett. Originally put together as a Breezeblock for Mary Ann Hobbs, the set clearly deserved a proper release, such is its party potency. Formative hip hop, funk, electro, techno and big beat are all thrown together for a heavy sonic statement and origins story for The Prodigy.
9. Late Night Tales – Zero 7 / Groove Armada (Vol.2)
I wasn’t sure whether to include this series, as there’s an awful lot of ‘my record collection is more obscure than yours’ virtue signalling on show. But looking through the back catalogue, there are a few really timeless entries. Any downtempo afterparty mix must include ’93 Till Infinity’, as Zero 7’s does, while Groove Armada’s second selection is just chock full of classics.
8. Ministry of Sound Masterpiece – Carl Craig / Andrew Weatherall / Annie Nightingale / Francois K
The wider Ministry of Sound oeuvre is rightly ridiculed for its mainstream cheese factor, despite the club being a great place to dance and there clearly being people with great taste at the helm of the organisation. This was only demonstrated in the last few years, when they started releasing multi-disc retrospective mixes by dance music luminaries like those listed above.
7. Renaissance – Sasha & Digweed Mix Collection / Dave Seaman Desire
Up for debate somewhat, but the brand claims that Sasha and Diggers’ Mix Collection was the first of its kind, released in 1994 and still exalted today. It properly launched their careers and started up a compilation collection that defined that era of house music for the better (and the worse).
6. Mixmag – Timo Maas Dirty Trancing / Armand Van Helden New York Loft Party / Slam 10 Years of Pressure / Plump DJs Elastic Breaks / Laurent Garnier We Are 25 / Road Trip
It’s had its ups and downs, but Mixmag is clearly the biggest and best dance music mag there is (they do pay me now and again, but I feel like this is demonstrable) and their covermount CDs have become the stuff of legend. Mixes like Timo’s Dirty Trancing and the Plumps’ Elastic Breaks are regarded – and now sold – as albums separate from the publication, and such is the worldwide circulation, most DJs really bring their A-game.
5. DJ Kicks – Kruder & Dorfmeister / Henrik Schwarz / Michael Mayer
K7’s mix CD series now stretches over 20 years, which is impressive by anyone’s standards. The Kruder and Dorfmeister mix – my particular favourite – dates back to 1996, but still sounds fresh now, proving the surprising longevity of their downtempo ‘loungecore’ vibe. Still one of my favourite CDs for car journeys through the countryside.
4. Balance – James Holden / Joris Voorn / Desyn Masiello / Henry Saiz
Australia has given a surprising amount to dance music, chiefly Resident Advisor and the Balance compilations. While more recent mixes have maintained their high quality of output, the inarguable peak was James Holden’s 2003 entry. Challenging only his other landmark mix below for afterparty dominance, it is an album to get lost in, wrapped up in cotton wool melodies and powered along by driving basslines. The 20 minutes or so between Nathan Fake’s ‘Outhouse’ starting and the Luke Chable mix of PQM’s ‘You Are Sleeping’ is among the finest listening experiences I can think of.
3. At The Controls – James Holden / M.A.N.D.Y
Resist’s compilation series has had its hits and misses, but these two are clearly among my favourites of all time. The M.A.N.D.Y mix is a Michael Mayer-esque journey through the diversity of their music taste and label mates, peaking with combinations like their mix of ‘Push Push’ by Rockers Hi-Fi into Booka Shade’s ‘In White Rooms’ and pairing Claude Von Stroke’s ‘Who’s Afraid Of Detroit’ with their mix of Lindstrom’s ‘I Feel Space’. Then finishing with the bewitching Trentemoller rework of Djuma Soundsystem’s ‘Les Djinns’ is just the icing on the cake. Holden meanwhile puts together the mix I’ve stuck on over the headphones more than any other. The first CD is as perfect for cutting through the drug fug at 6am in someone’s front room, as it is soundtracking a new city speeding by from the airport transfer train. Building gradually up through abstract noise and industrial ambient, it takes in Border Community classics like Petter’s ‘Some Polyphony’ and his own ‘ 10101’ before descending into the sheer bliss of Apparat’s mix of Nathan Fake’s ‘Charlie’s House’. I will never tire of this mix.
2. Global Underground – Sasha Ibiza / James Lavelle Barcelona / Nick Warren Brazil / Darren Emerson Singapore / Deep Dish Moscow / John Digweed Los Angeles / Danny Howells Miami
To say GU had a good run around the late 90s and early 00s is a serious understatement. I could list many more here and still miss out someone’s favourite, but entries like Sasha’s Ibiza have gone down in dance music lore. Rightly so, as its an absolute masterclass in how to make house music into a semi-spiritual experience. Just looking through the tracklist is an exciting experience – My Lexicon, Fibonacci Sequence, Xpander, Heaven Scent, Nothing Left; so many stone cold anthems. It’s well worth listening to Global Underground founder Andy Horsfield recount some of the fun that went into making these mixes happen and give his opinions on what’s happened to the market since at golden period.
1. Fabric – James Lavelle / Jacques Le Cont / Michael Mayer / Spank Rock / Adam Freeland /etc
For consistency of canon, nobody beats the boys and girls from Charterhouse Street.
Starting strong back at the end of 2001 with long-time resident Craig Richards lending a hand for the house and techno focused Saturday night Fabric mix, while a height-of-his promotional-powers James Lavelle took on the Friday night breaks and beats comp; it’s a staggering achievement for the label to have put out two CDs every month since.
I love this series so much, I’ve already written a blog detailing my favourites, but given the club’s recent troubles, it’s worth once again saluting their incredible consistency and commitment to quality dance music.