Summer Soundtrack: EMI’s Balearic Compilations

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 07.26.13 in Collections

Like Krautrock and Northern Soul, Balearic Beat is a genre not recognized by those who created it. And, like the aforementioned musical categories, it was the Brits who bestowed this name on the sound they “discovered.” As the story goes, UK DJs Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling and Trevor Fung holidayed in Ibiza, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands, in 1987. Chicago’s thumping house beats were sweeping clubland’s most forward-leaning dancefloors while aggressive, four-to-the-floor house remixes started streamlining and homogenizing records originally recorded as R&B, Latin freestyle and synthpop.

But in Ibiza, dance music was still all over the board: Quirky recent Europop hits, New Wave oldies, early house, offbeat disco, art-rock, jazz-funk, world music, dub reggae, near-ambient cuts — nearly any ’70s/’80s style with a syncopated rhythm that felt good in warm weather and got tourists dancing — were all being played at clubs like Amnesia, which sported an open-air dancefloor that heightened the free-spirited Mediterranean vibe.

Oakenfold, Rampling and Fung then brought Ibiza’s eclectic programming philosophy back to London. Unlike other genre trends favored by the DJ cognoscenti, the resulting Balearic Beat didn’t take hold because it was intrinsically pan-genre and anti-trend — like Northern Soul, the name referred to the region that claimed certain records as its own, and not to their place of origin. Balearic’s embrace of anything-goes grooves slower and gentler than house’s pounding 120-and-up BPMs paved the way for massive international hits by Soul II Soul, Enigma and other acts that went on to inspire chillout and trip-hop. As the current wayward programming of Lindstrøm, Aeroplane and other recent EDM fusionists have proven, Balearic is arguably hipper than ever today.

We’re explaining all this because we’d like to share our enthusiasm for a ridiculously entertaining series of compilations that have been in our library since last fall but feel particularly right for this summer. Compiled in Sweden by EMI staffer Jens Peterson Hällefors, the Balearic series is arguably the most out-there digital-only collection of music ever presented by a major label. At 11 volumes specializing in house, rock, soft rock, leftfield dance, electronic, world, reggae, pop, ambient, progressive rock and “blend” (an introductory sampler), Balearic goes deep, deeeeeep into the aesthetic to embrace both familiar cuts and oddities that will delight even the most dedicated diggers. Some are bona-fide Ibiza classics while many are choice cuts presented in the same boundary-crossing spirit, yet with a Scandinavian slant: This is the first time that most of the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish acts presented here alongside their American, English, German, Jamaican, Japanese, Brazilian, French, Belgian, South African, Australian and Spanish brethren have ever snagged a legitimate international release. (We’re crossing our fingers that Hällefors’s latest three Scandinavia-specific Balearic comps will sometime soon be released here.)

So pour a cool beverage, dance around the pool, throw a roof party, head to the nearest beach or simply imagine yourself on vacation with similarly inclined celebrants, and stretch out with these everything-but-the-kitchen-sink collections. If you’d just like to dip your toe (or even shake them), may we suggest our own 30-track playlist that’s sequenced like a Balearic DJ set? Prepare yourself to hear everyone from Simple Minds to Peter Tosh in a way you may never have heard before.

Balearic Blend

Various Artists

The most eclectic of EMI staffer Jens Peterson Hällefors's Balearic collections serves as an introduction to the Balearic series. Encompassing the folky classical minimalism of Penguin Café Orchestra, various permutations of UK New Wave and art-rock (Simple Minds, Spandau Ballet, Kajagoogoo, Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry), funky prog from Germany's Eloy, funky EDM from Japan's Logic System, Marcos Valle's Brazilian jazz with Bond-like strings, Working Week's gentle bossa nova, and much more, Balearic Blend emphasizes that Ibiza's dancefloor aesthetics are far more concerned with mood than beats. Much of it is happy: You can't get more light-hearted than Sly Dunbar's reggae variation on the Sesame Street theme. But other tracks aren't exactly perky, as the "Death Disco" of Public Image Ltd. makes abrasively clear. The warmly inclusive result is only nominally club-friendly, and that's as it should be: This is what people dance to only when they're on vacation and/or very, very drunk.

Balearic Leftfield

Various Artists

Balearic Leftfield focuses on offbeat dance records of the '80s, which is basically what this Balearic series is about. It's where the eccentric and disco-centric circles of UK New Wave (and their European cousins) overlap. Of course that includes Thomas Dolby's biggest hit, Duran Duran's first Giorgio Moroder-aping single, oft-overlooked Human League (and their pseudonymous spin-off, the Men), and Simple Minds at their most hypnotic. But it also includes Laid Back's club classic, buried disco-not-disco treasure from Belgium's Telex and Allez Allez, Germany's Deutsch Amerikanische Freudschaft spoofing anti-immigrant phobias, a strikingly erotic UK hit from Hot Chocolate and some arty funk from prog guitarist Steve Hillage. And if you're looking for Swedish dancefloor esoterica, Diggy Tal & the Numbers, Micke Hagström and Ragnar Grippe have your number.

Balearic Electronic

Various Artists

Although much of the Balearic series is a forerunner to today's EDM, Balearic Electronic is where its sounds are most pointedly synthetic. This is synthpop, unabashedly robotic for its time, yet also elegant in its emphatically European, quasi-symphonic alienation: '80s dance music doesn't get more estranged than Anne Clarke's poetically pained cult club hit "Our Darkness." An apt remedy to the summer heat, nearly everything else here is refreshingly chilly: OMD's 1980 early UK breakthrough "Messages" remains the coolest in its long discography. As with most other installments, there's a US pop smash here, When in Rome's deeply romantic 1988 single "The Promise," but a lot more from the margins, courtesy of B-sides, album cuts and should-have-bit-hits by early Heaven 17, China Crisis, Ultravox and other staples of the decade's alternative dancefloors.

Balearic House

Various Artists

Leaving behind the synthpop era, Balearic House focuses on the late '80s and '90s to explore how the sound of Ibiza changed after it initially captured the UK imagination. House music may have ultimately lost much of its early quirks, but this installment of the Balearic series still packs plenty of diversity. There are the requisite divas — Judy Cheeks, Inner City's Paris Grey, Kym Mazelle, Soul II Soul's Do'reen, Loose Ends' Jane Eugene and, of course, Adeva — but there is also plenty of textural, tonal, melodic and harmonic variation that far exceeds the house norm. Norway's Mental Overdrive goes on for 15 minutes in "About Erot," but the ever-evolving cut builds like a mini DJ set, encompassing ambient, jazz-funk, Afrobeat, and other flavors along the way. The Land of Oz mix of Frazier Chorus's "Nothing" captures Paul Oakenfold at the early '90s peak of his remixing powers, and Sasha's Quat Mix of Cheeks' "So in Love (The Real Deal)" is similarly shaded with emotional nuance. There's so much passion here.

Balearic World

Various Artists

Given Ibiza's status as a tourist destination, one that was decidedly more esoteric in the '80s before its nightlife reputation exploded, it's totally appropriate that its club-music approach would be emphatically international. Balearic World combines two distinct takes on world music — native expressions of local styles, and appropriations from outside. Recorded under his short-lived Jesus Loves You moniker, Boy George's "Bow Down Mister" celebrates the Hare Krishna spirituality that helped the star overcome his heroin addiction; it's wacky, but oddly moving. The Brazilian acts on the other end of the authenticity spectrum — Quarteto Em Cy, Os Borges, Evinha, and Elza Soares — all combine indigenous vibes and language with boundary-crossing sounds. The rest embrace exotica that's sometimes campy, sometimes sincere, but nearly always soothing.

Balearic Reggae

Various Artists

A defining feature of the Ibiza DJ-ing approach is individuality through diversity, so it makes sense that Balearic Reggae is not only of the broadest collections of Jamaican (and quasi-Jamaican) music you'll hear, but also one of the most idiosyncratic. This is probably the only place where roots reggae, dub reggae, reggae-disco, reggae hip-hop, reggae trip-hop, a chart-topping reggae-ska smash and a Culture Club B-side all come together. As the inclusion of the Mighty Diamonds, Burning Spear, Culture and other purists attest, there are plenty of authentic island sounds — no Swedish reggae here. But Sly Dunbar, Peter Tosh and Keith Hudson all mix their grooves with angular funk to rump-shaking effect. As their song goes, one-hit-wonders Althea & Donna are "strictly roots," but that didn't stop this female teen duo from topping the UK pop chart in 1978 with an unpolished gem that unjustly flopped in the US, "Uptown Top Ranking."

Balearic Pop

Various Artists

Flaunting some ultra-mainstream names ordinarily anathema to other exhaustive catalog exhumations, Balearic Pop combines the familiar with the obscure to make the point that great music is great music, no matter who sings it or how it's marketed — a key tenant of Ibiza's club philosophy. Adult contemporary queens Kim Carnes and Sheena Easton rub shoulders with the far artier likes of Talk Talk and It's Immaterial, yet the whole set flows smoothly from start. Don't be ashamed — you know you love Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy," particularly in Mark Kamins's 12" mix. Eighties pop doesn't mix sonic sophistication and psychological rawness better than the Blue Nile's "Tinseltown in the Rain," a taster from an album waiting to be rediscovered by today's fans of Rhye and Jessie Ware.

Balearic Rock

Various Artists

Combining glam, punk, post-punk, New Wave, Neue Deutsche Welle, space rock, alt-rock and several spaces in between, Balearic Rock is way hipper than its title or even its lineup implies. The oft-bootlegged "Theme from Great Cities" is a genuine Ibiza classic hailing from those pre-Breakfast Club days when Simple Minds proved themselves unlikely masters of trippy quasi-Eurodisco — just listen to that rattling bassline rip. Suzi Quatro gets sultry on an overlooked, keyboard-led cut from her otherwise rowdy 1974 debut album while late '90s Norwegian surf rock revivalists Kåre & The Cavemen aka Euro Boys here suggest caffeinated Air.

Balearic Soft Rock

Various Artists

Much of what's here isn't exactly soft: Would someone tell that guitarist in the Little River Band's otherwise lovely opus "It's a Long Way There" to just knock it off already? But there are mellow cuts from typically more anxious acts (Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music, Billy Idol, Kevin Ayers), funkiness from the otherwise folky (Julie Felix), a ridiculously catchy ditty from Shakespearian actor Brian Protheroe ("Pinball"), the Waterboys' horn-blasting hit ("The Whole of the Moon"), and striking sensual balladry from the usually corny (Bobby Goldsboro). As usual, Scandinavians generate the most alien cuts: The voice of Woody in the Swedish edition of Toy Story, Blue Swede leader Björn Skifs steals the show with his jazzy translation of Carole King's classic "It's Too Late."

Balearic Prog

Various Artists

With the exception of Babe Ruth's "The Mexican," a DJ staple on NYC's disco and hip-hop scenes, this brazenly esoteric set wanders furthest into murky areas of the European EMI catalog where the US could not follow. It also strays significantly from the smooth and sunny sounds commonly understood as Balearic; it's hard to imagine most of this unsteady stuff generating much action on any dancefloor. But even the gnarly bits sometimes give way to unexpected grooves — dig that savage drum break in Swedish band Storm's crazy "Lt. Calley Bjuder Upp," a sonic blueprint for today's indie freakout favorites Goat.

Balearic Ambient

Various Artists

Dance music for the very confident and/or very stoned, Balearic Ambient is, of course, low on beats and high on underwater vibes. Slow, sustained notes abound, and although there's often still too much going on here to qualify for Brian Eno's strict sense of what's ambient, much of it comes pretty close. Japan's brooding and strikingly beautiful "Ghosts" was a No. 5 pop hit in 1982 England; Talk Talk's even more abstract "The Rainbow" signaled the band's 1988 break from its New Wave past. The rest is all instrumental and more minimal. Klaus Schønning and former the Soundtrack of Our Lives member Björn Olsson supply the Scandinavian connection; the former's 1982 cut "Cygnus" suggests the smoother side of current Daft Punk.