It typically comes as a shock to discover that an active and often forward-thinking independent record label has existed for two decades or more. Based on its own history, roster and discography, Luaka Bop is the sort of label that seems somewhat timeless, existing in the ether before sound was committed to wax 100 years ago. Its reach is broad, and its reputation is legendary. And yet, it still comes as something of a surprise to discover that it has been around as long as Sub Pop, and longer than Merge or Warp. As of 2009, Luaka Bop is 21 years old, a ripe age for a margarita, or in their case, a compilation celebrating tracks plucked from throughout its 21 years of existence.
From the beginning, label founders David Byrne and Yale Evelev maintained a fairly wide-open scope in terms of the label’s talent. Leaning heavily upon artists from Latin America, Luaka Bop was a ‘world music’ label without any specific geographical pathway. From France’s Nouvelle Vague to the Afro-pop of Zap Mama and the oddball Brazilian pop of Tom Ze, practically anything goes for the now-adult imprint, and 21st Century is a wonderful roundup of tracks that not only shows off how diverse the label’s acts are, but serves as an awesome mixtape that flows too well to be a mere promotional item.
The compilation is bookended by Brazilian artists, kicking off with the Jorge Ben’s funky jam “Ponta de Lanca Africano (Umbabarauma)” and closing with Os Mutantes’ 1968 classic “Baby.” In between, 21st Century veers into 13 other unique directions, including “Fuzzy Freaky” from label patriarch David Byrne. As with Os Mutantes, Luaka Bop has shown itself an essential conduit for reviving and reissuing classic, obscure music, and as such, this compilation features “Aht Uh Mi Hed” from Shuggie Otis’ amazing Inspiration Information. One of Luaka Bop’s newer signings, Marcio Local, shows off his soulful samba on “Samba Sem Nunhum Problema,” while one track later we cross continents with Moussa Doumbia’s hard-grooving Afrobeat. Los Amigos Invisibles flex their Latino disco on “Sexy,” Nouvelle Vague do Blondie lounge style on their cover of “Heart of Glass,” and Susana Baca offers up the sexy and seductive “Valentin.” Geggy Tah’s hit “Whoever You Are” also makes an appearance here, as does the avant garde Americana of Jim White on “Static on the Radio.”
Considering Luaka Bop started out as a vessel for David Byrne’s mixtape collections, it’s only fitting that on this anniversary, they release a compilation that’s, essentially, one fantastic mixtape. Quite frankly, every track on this set is a delight, and while all of them are available elsewhere, that doesn’t take away from a great listen. It’s a great introduction to Luaka Bop for those who may not be familiar with all of its unique acts, but even longtime listeners should find plenty to love.
Various Artists – Zero Accidents on the Job: Luaka Bop 10th Anniversary
Various Artists – Tropicália: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound
Various Artists – Nigeria Rock Special: Psychedelic Afro-Rock & Fuzz Funk
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.