Music compilations are one of life’s great guilty pleasures. Someone else put in the work to gather together all the best of something, and you get to enjoy each hand-picked cut without having to invest much.
But, like a good mix made by a cool friend, compilations can open the door to entire musical worlds and lead to further discovery. Here are ten great compilations to help any jetsetter discover some of the best new music in the world.
1. No One Knows About Persian Cats – Music From the Motion Picture
Iranian indie rock is a little hard to come by — whether you are in Iran or not. The 2009 Bahman Ghobadi directed film No One Knows About Persian Cats reveals why. With his unlicensed camera he journeyed into the hidden world of musicians in Tehran. In a country where music must gain government approval and even music journalists can disappear, nearly all music is underground music. The soundtrack, released this year, includes hip-hop, rock, metal, and traditional Persian songs by the artists who played themselves in Ghobadi’s only slightly fictionalized movie. Like the illegally shot film, the soundtrack moves fast and seethes with exuberance.
2. Ayobaness! The Sound of South African House
This year the world’s eyes were on South Africa and the world’s ears were filled with its vuvuzelas. This was also the year that the world become aware of South African house music. It started with DJ Mujava’s 2009 global club hit “Township Funk,” but that was only the beginning. Though that track isn’t on Ayobaness, there are plenty of kwaito-inflected dance floor burners on here from Mujava, Pastor Mbhobho, and other kings of the South African scene. It’s hard, joyful, crazy, and not what most people think of when they hear the words house music. Must hear.
3. Listen To The Banned
It’s a known fact that censorship makes music sound better. (See also: No One Knows About Persian Cats) All of the artists on Listen To The Banned are talented but they’re on this compilation because they have faced persecution for their music, or their tunes were banned from the airwaves. A lot of it is pretty traditional-sounding Middle Eastern stuff — the kind of global pop that files under “world music” — but it’s not some hippie lullaby Putumayo noise. There’s some incredible tracks on here, many of them ragged, impassioned cries for change. “Rebel Woman” by Chiwoniso Maraire will give you chills. Then there’s all the irresistible Francophone African reggae. But it almost wouldn’t matter what any of it sounded like. It’s on this compilation because it pissed off someone powerful, which is reason enough to give it a listen. Don’t think of it as an album, think of it as an important transmission from the global music underground!
4. Blow Your Head Vol. 1: Diplo Presents Dubstep
From the opposite end of the spectrum comes the nihilistic buzz and wobble of this Diplo-presented dubstep compilation. The global dance music impresario has ambitiously curated this entire slippery genre in one tidy compilation that represents a rapidly evolving sound. What emerges is a portrait of a style that comes the closest mankind has ever come to replicating the mind state of an unhinged, drug taking, urban youth. And it doesn’t need to be said how long musicians have been trying to perfect that. Rusko’s on here, along with some less mainstream names, and Diplo himself is on an astounding track with Lil Jon. The moody, unpredictable beats and dark, twisted samples on Blow Your Head are truly menacing at their best. They’re also incredibly fun, making the collection a treat for aficionado and newcomer alike.
5. New York Tropical
This compilation was created to commemorate Dutty Artz’s discontinued underground dance night of the same name. Not only does that make it a nifty historical document of sorts, but on its own it is a landmark of global bass and electro tropical sounds. You’ll find mutated versions of everything from merengue to house on here, not to mention a pretty sweet Rita Indiana remix. Oh, and that Lido Pimienta remix? Yowza. File New York Tropical next to Diplo’s taste-making Decent Work For Decent Pay compilation.
6. Cumbia! Bestial
Cumbia! Bestial is a solid white hot slab of cumbia’s new school. It’s got Iggy fave Solar Systema, Iggy number one fave Bomba Estereo, and the words “dance party” written all over it in Spanglish. If Bomba Estereo makes your knees go weak and your heart race, and if you like your cumbia with more than a dash of hip-hop and electro in the mix, you will find every single track on here indispensable to your future happiness.
7. I Love J-Rock
There are exactly five artists featured on this album, so as compilations go, it’s really more of a Good Charamel Records sampler. That said, two of those artists are certified Iggy obsessions. All-girl Japanese bands Shonen Knife and TsuShiMaMiRe, who both came out with albums this year, take center stage…and you won’t hear us complaining. I Love J-Rock also includes tracks from soon-to-be Iggy all-girl J-rock obsessions Molice, LAZYgunsBrisky, and DJ Sashimi. Sashimi’s “Japanese Girl in New York” closes things out on a charming and droll note. Not that we ever need to be reminded that Japanese girls rule rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s good to have this around just in case.
8. Tribute To Os Mutantes – El Justiciero, Cha Cha Cha
This frisky tribute to the legendary Brazilian psych band Os Mutantes is a testament to their enduring influence on Latin music. Much is made of the Mutantes influence on American artists like Beck, but their delightfully inventive work has had more far reaching effects. This collection of Latin alternative reinterpretations of their music functions as a double cheat sheet too. If you’re a rock en Español fan who’s never gotten into Mutantes, let Cafe Tacvba and Aterciolpelados take you by the hand. If you’re a Mutantes fan bewildered by the sprawling landscape of Latin alternative, well, here’s a who’s who. If nothing else, download Fito Paez’s bluesy, funky version of “A Minha Menina.” Oh, and founding Os Mutantes member Sergio Dias joins Aterciopelados on “Vida de Cachorro.”
9. Tradi-Mods Vs. Rockers – Alternative Takes On Congotronics
Indie musicians of the more experimental variety contributed to this two-disc tribute to Congolese modern traditionalists Konono No. 1 and Kasai All Stars. Juana Molina, Michachu and the Shapes, Andrew Bird, Deerhoof, Animal Collective, Jolie Holland, and Megafuan all pay their eccentric respects to the likembe masters with covers or songs inspired by tracks from Crammed Discs’s Congotronics series. It wasn’t originally meant to be such a packed roster but — such is the influence of Congotronics — everyone contacted about the project said yes. For sheer imagination and variety of sound, Tradi-Mods Vs. Rockers is not to be slept on.
10. Shangaan Electro – New Wave Dance Music From South Africa
Two compilations of South African dance music? Yes. You need both of them. This one from Honest Jon’s Records highlights several artists in the Shangaan genre. Most of the tracks were recorded at the Nozinja Music Productions studio in Soweto. Shangaan sounds like sped up 8-bit video game soundtracks being played on thumb piano and synthesizer. It’s fantastic, but at 180 beats per minute, it helps to be in shape if you want to dance to it.
Honorable Mention: Music From Saharan Cell Phones
Available as a free download at Sahel Sounds, website of Portland blogger Christopher Kirkley, Music From Saharan Cell Phones isn’t a proper release per se. It is, however, one of the most interesting things to listen to that appeared this year. Kirkley went to Mali to make field recordings but ended up swapping a lot of tracks with the Malians who keep their music collections on their phones. When he got back to the states he made a mix. It’s got songs by Tuareg psych legends Tinariwen and many less well-known pop artists from West Africa who have a wonderfully unrestrained approach to Auto-Tune.