The Dummy Guide To DFA records

John Power looks back over a decade of DFA, and selects a record a year from James Murphy's instrumental punk-dance label.

This Friday former LCD Soundsystem man James Murphy brings his big box of disco records to XOYO in London to celebrate his label DFA’s 10th birthday. Founded by Murphy, former Unkle member Tim Goldsworthy and Jonathan Galkin, DFA Records has provided the soundtrack to the first decade of the 21st century and a home to artists such as Murphy himself, The Rapture, Hot Chip, Holy Ghost and many more.

From art rock and electronic noise, through to straight up house, electro and, the sound that is most synonymous with the label, disco punk, DFA has a consistency, of quality if not sound, that few other labels can match and the DFA back catalogue is one of the best around, with almost every release on the label is worth dipping into. Still for the sake of a feature and to celebrate Murphy’s appearance this Friday I’ve selected ten personal highlights, one for each year, that for me sum up one of the most interesting labels around today.

2002. The Rapture House of Jealous Lovers
To be honest I should probably include Losing My Edge here, LCD Soundsystem’s astonishing debut, but firstly I desperately want to avoid making this all about James Murphy (and have probably failed) and The Rapture’s DFA debut probably had more of an impact on the wider music scene at the time.

Coming just after the dance music boom and bust at the start of the new century, music was in a wonderful state of chaos and flux. In New York the electroclash scene was mining the early eighties for undiscovered new wave and electro joints, and more and more people were looking to that time after both punk and disco had had their moments in the sun for inspiration.

It was in that fertile period where the boundaries between indie, post punk, electro and disco were again being blurred that Murphy first collaborated with The Rapture for 2001’s Sub Pop release, ‘Out of the Races and Onto The Tracks’. If that EP was a fun if flawed proposition, the follow up, and DFA’s first release was an altogether different beast, a track whose taut rhythms, squawking horns and scratchy guitars pretty much set the disco-punk blueprint for years to come. The Rapture went on to release one of the best albums of the early 00s, but for many it was this 12” that opened the door to a whole new world of possibility and, of course, cowbell abuse.

2003. Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom – El Monte / Rise
Possibly one of my favourite twelve inches, this single and the subsequent ‘The Days of Mars’ album were a sure signpost that DFA wouldn’t let themselves become pigeonholed by the disco punk tag. 2 tracks, lasting nearly 30 minutes between them, Rise and El Monte, are staggeringly beautiful if disarmingly simple tracks. Layer upon layer of arpegiated synthesized noise that build up to something approaching the sacred and devotional. I’ve had the pleasure of clearing a club’s dancefloor locked in a DJ booth playing Rise in its entirety and it was worth all the subsequent hassle just to hear its stately hymn to machines played out over a proper soundsystem.

2004. Black Dice – ‘Creature Comforts’
Again like the Delia & Gavin album, Black Dice were a world away from the more cowbell disco punk cliche that many would pin on DFA. Fractured noises, found sounds and snatches of cosmic americana, Creature Comforts sounded like the KLF’s ‘Chill Out’ re-recorded in Williamsburg and is probably one of the least DFA sounding releases you’ll find on the label. That’s not to say it actually sounds that out of place and instead just highlights another more experimental strand of New York’s musical heritage, that’s run through everyone from Steve Reich to Sonic Youth and beyond.

2005. Various – ‘Holiday Mix 2005’
Of course despite releases like the Black Dice and Gavin & Delia albums DFA are at heart a dance label, who make music for DJs to make people dance to. I was working in a record shop when this came out and it was a welcome break from my colleagues non-stop, ear splitting drum & bass. Featuring tracks from the likes of The Juan Maclean, Black Dice and LCD Soundsystem, it’s probably a bit of a cheat to include it here, but as snapshots of a label finding its feet go it’s on the money and well worth hunting down, plus of course it allows me to conveniently ignore LCD’s debut album also released this year…

2006. DFA – ‘The Remixes’
By the middle of the decade Murphy and Goldsworthy were, as The DFA, one of the most in demand production/remix teams around. in 2006 they released 2 compilations bring together the best of their refixes for everyone from Le Tigre and Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion to The Chemical Brothers and Nine Inch Nails. Along with the similar Playgroup remix albums released at the same time, there 2 compilations not only showed off the art of the remix as its best but provided lazy Shoreditch DJs with a whole set’s worth of material on 2 easy to carry discs. For that reason alone, and the subsequent savings on chiropractic bills that they have saved they still sit happily in the ‘Break in case of emergency’ section of many, including my own, record bags.

2007. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
If LCD Soundsystem’s self titled debut felt more like a collection of, admittedly amazing, tracks rather than a fully cohesive album, the follow up, Sound of Silver, took things up several levels and revealed Murphy as not just one of the pre-eminent producers of his generation but was one of the best songwriters too.

Prefaced by the, largely, instrumental 45:33, Sound of Silver was, from start to finish, simply a tour de force and in the shape of All My Friends and Someone Great, two of the best songs of the decade to be released on any label. From hard edged punk funk, through to boozy sentimentality Sound of Silver was a triumph, deserving of a ticker tape parade through Times Square.

2008. Hercules & Love Affair – Blind
Whilst 2007’s Classique #1/Roar remains to this day my favourite Hercules & Love Affair twelve inch there’s no denying the brilliance of Blind, the single that really propelled Any Butler & Co into the collective consciousness of the world’s dancefloors. Tragic and beautiful, this was house music going right back to it’s gay roots with Antony Hegarty’s lovelorn vocals, combining with the muted horns and baseline to create a track that would have held it’s head high at New York’s Paradise Garage or The Warehouse in CHicago. Indeed on the 12” former Warehouse resident and house legend Frankie Knuckles gives the track his stamp of approval turning in a stripped down remix that still occupies a pride of place in my record bag.

2009. The Juan Maclean – Happy House
Talking of house music if one track dominated 2009 it was The Juan Maclean’s ‘Happy House’. A former member of Six Finger Satellite, the band Murphy had sound engineered for in the nineties and whose infamous Death From Above live PA gave the abel its name, Maclean had been part of the DFA family from the start delivering everything from percussive punk funk through to Kraftwerk’esque electro.

With ‘Happy House’ though Maclean produced a track reminiscent of the rough and ready late 90s house music released by labels like Henry Street and Muggsy, and it sounded incredible. With a euphoric piano line and vocals from DFA veteran Nancy Whang that are guaranteed to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, ‘Happy House’ was an instant classic. Still much as I love the original, the plaudits must go to Prince Language and his peerless remix. Having already established himself with a series of essential re-edit bombs on the Editions Disco label, the NY producer took Nancy Whang up on her request and launched the track into the outer reaches of space, utterly beautiful.

2010. Peter Gordon & Love of Life Orchestra – Selected Works
Topping and tailing Murphy and Pat Mahoney’s essential Fabric mix CD were two tracks from Peter Gordon, a student of Terry Riley, and who had been a permanent fixture in the early 80s NY scene often collaborating with the likes of Arthur Russell and Laurie Anderson. In 2010 DFA released ‘Selected Works’, a long overdue collection of the avant-garde composer’s ‘hits’ and a 12” that included the gorgeous Beginning of The Heartbreak and Don’t Don’t whose refrain formed the coda to the aforementioned Fabric release, and provides an easy introduction to an often overlooked artist.

2011. The Rapture – How Deep Is Your Love
And so finally to 2011, and despite Murphy calling quits on LCD Soundsystem, DFA the label is still going stronger than ever. Ten years is a long time for any label to remain relevant and consistent, especially one so associated with a particular time and place, but today the labels increasingly diverse roster manages to incorporate everything from sometime The Knife collaborator Planningtorock, through to the cosmic pop of YACHT and Benoit & Sergio’s sublime tech house.

The Rapture – How Deep Is Your Love by DFA Records

Conveniently for the sake of symmetry 2011 also saw The Rapture return from the wilderness, a man down, but with new single ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ (sadly not a Bee Gees cover) showing the kind of form that marked their early years. A propulsive blast of pianos, thumping disco beats and a breakdown that provides the perfect backdrop to both Luke Jenner’s wailing and those who fancy having a bit of a moment on the dancefloor.

Here’s to the next ten years!

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