I have long loved sampler albums and I’m happy to have learned in recent years that the form seems to be making a comeback. Click on the highlighted labels here for my reviews of recent compilations by Numero Group, Jazz Dispensary and Colemine Records.
Sampler albums are nothing new. In the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, labels promoted up-and-coming artists through these collections, some even thematically linked. In the late ’60s Warner Brothers raised the bar with its innovative “Loss Leaders” mail-order-only series of two-LP collections (which only cost about $2 a piece!). These were often very creative affairs with clever artwork and thoughtful programming / curating done by none other than Barret Hansen (aka Dr. Demento!). Other labels tried this but Warner’s definitely cracked the code on these things, continuing into the 90s — via their hip Sire Records’ subsidiary, then run by 415 Records founder Howie Klein — with creative collections like the Just Say Yes series of CDs.
Fast forward to present times, I’ve often thought that it’d be cool to do a vinyl sampler of unknown new artists, kind of like the many collections put out on CD back in the 90s when the indie music universe exploded. Even those were largely un-curated listening affairs, fun but typically random collections of tracks which didn’t always hold together.
Enter Vinyl Moon, a newer record club I only recently learned about that has been successfully doing just this for the past five years, issuing curated thematic and beautifully produced mixtape type collections on vinyl. During the last year, subscriptions to their service have more than doubled!
Vinyl Moon sent me a couple of their collections to check out and largely I am quite impressed with what they are doing.
First, they look stunning, the packaging is exemplary and of very high quality. Each LP features beautiful original design by one specific artist that relates to the music inside. You get profiles of all the bands and musicians on the collections with contact information should you want to explore more of their music.
Artist driven, and global in scope, remarkably enough audio wise, these albums sound surprisingly consistent all things considered. There is no doubt in my mind that these are modern digitally produced tracks but the mastering is very good so there is consistency from track to track. The producers paid close attention to detailing so there aren’t lots of harsh edges getting in the way of the tunes.
All the albums are on lovely colored vinyl variants which for the most part sound good. As you know from my articles on that topic, there can be sonic anomalies depending on how intensely patterned the albums are. These albums I heard are generally quiet and well centered. Only one of them displaying some brief noises a few times across one album side, but it was no kind of deal breaker for me.
Following is a look at each of the albums.
Curating mixed tapes is two edged sword. In the quest to create a unified vibe musically and thematically, there is the danger the album could grow boring and same sounding. Additionally, many artists working from home studios are using similar drum programming sequencers, loops and such which can create a too-familiar sound. It is a two-edged sword.
Here, the artists are cut from similar cloth, yet sequenced carefully so it plays well end to end like an “actual album” and not just a random collection of tracks. Tracks on this album often remind me of Toro Y Moi, Ra Ra Riot and The Helio Sequence (all good touchstones, mind you!).
All of Side A holds together especially well, kicking off with one of my favorite tracks here, “Brother,” by Tommaso from Chicago. Germany’s Georgisound breaks things up a bit with the haunting guitar-and-beats instrumental “Dias.” Los Angeles’ Melpo Mene delivers a great side closer “Wrong At Last” (which sounds kind of like a lost track by The Helio Sequence)
The cover art by London’s Marija Tiurina is especially inviting, with windows and doors giving a sparkling peek into the fabulous odd world inside the album’s gatefold cover. This cover reminds me of some street artists I’ve seen around San Francisco, notably Sirron Norris (click here) who paints these kaleidoscopic cartoon universes that are a wonder. Here, Tiurina spins that concept through an Heironymous Bosch lens and the result is trippy fun!
And that is part of the point in this series, to give subscribers a fun and compelling viewing and listening experience.
My favorite of the two, this album has more of an epic feel to it, crafted amidst the pandemic. It tells a story of a sort of adventure story for a hero, no doubt enhanced by visual artist Shane Cluskey’s quite stunning illustrations which remind me of no less than Gerald Scarfe by way of Edward Gorey. You get a beautiful full color comic book (8” x 8”) as well.
This album seems to have more diversity of sounds including guitars and pianos. An acoustic flavored song like “Perfect Passions” by Benedikt (which includes an Accordion and horns, again, echoes of Beirut here). Opening track “Evergreen” by Bootstraps (aka writer Jordan Beckett who has written for Grey’s Anatomy and Power Rangers among others) is a piano based modern pop rock track mining classic songwriting forms and loop based constructs and driving it a haunting wistful vocal. Joel Ansett’s “Through” has a moody feel, a slight more soulful take on a songwriting flavor The Flaming Lips explored on some of their early 00s albums…
Many riches to explore here…
I think Vinyl Moon is on to something here, offering a platform for newer artists while creating a distinct series of albums that stand on their own. They’ve been around for 5 years or so and are on release #64 already so clearly there is a groundswell of support for albums like this.
I hope they’ll send me more releases to review. I’m enjoying this series.