Essential albums: Big Chill Recordings

The Big Chill didn't invent the chillout compilation but it did create a unique musical scene of its own in the UK. And unlike the generic blends that were being churned out by the end of the 1990's, most of the label's compilations of songs and instrumentals are eclectic, often surprising and sometimes wonderfully obscure.

Big Chill Recordings

country of origin:

Ambient, cinematic, nu jazz, trip hop, folk, ambent techno, ambient pop

decades active:
90's - 00's

essential compilations:

  • Enchanted 01 (1999, Big Chill)
  • Enchanted 02 (2000, Big Chill)
  • Glisten (2001, Big Chill)
  • The Big Chill Loves You (2002, Big Chill)
  • i-Chill (2003, Big Chill)
  • Big Chill Classics (2004, Big Chill)

Reviewed by Mike G

Today's concept of chillout music was originally an extension of the all-night clubbing experience that grew out of the UK outdoor rave scene of the late 1980's and early 90's. By the turn of the millennium UK record label, festival promoter and East End bar The Big Chill took it several steps further.

Founders Pete Lawrence and Katrina Larkin looked beyond the question of "what do you listen to after a big night out". They cultivated eclectic and downtempo sounds in more general terms, thinking about how people could enjoy art differently in a Western world that's living at hyperspeed. If that sounds a bit new age, the quality of music on show at their annual multi-media festivals and on their album releases suggested an unshakeable respect for music on its own terms. The Big Chill was neither a dance culture gimmick nor shambolic hippie love-in. Up until Lawrence sold the festival to another company in 2007, careful management and a strong vision ensured that, as The Face pointed out, "you are looking at evolutionary entertainment, rather than a temporary blip on the club scene."

Setting a standard

As for the albums, while The Big Chill didn't invent the chillout compilation, it did set a standard.

Unlike the generic blends that were being churned out by the end of the 1990's, most of the label's compilations of songs and instrumentals are eclectic, often surprising and sometimes wonderfully obscure. This reflects both Pete Lawrence's personal quirks and more broadly the anti-pigeonholing, all-inclusive ethos that defined the outdoor festivals. The tendency towards slower tempos - or at least atmospheric tunes - is about the only thing that unites these albums. The anything-goes ethos is naturally risky. How far can you stray into straight soul, hip hop, jazz or vocal pop without losing the mysterious, subjective qualities and atmospheric magic of great ambience? The best Big Chill comps strike a brilliant compromise.

The classic compilations

While the record label has now folded and the last festival was staged in 2011, the music lives on. The following compilations are the cream of The Big Chill's various-artist collections, all dating from 1999-2004 when the brand was at its creative zenith.

Release-wise things kicked off in 1996 with a series of compilation albums on various indie labels, now very hard to find. Then in 1999 came Enchanted 01. Mostly instrumental, it  segues effortlessly between bossa beats, jazzy breaks and muted 4/4 house and electro grooves on one disc, and lush strings and electro-acoustic ambience on the other. The deeper second disc is compiled by Tim Middleton (aka Global Communication) and has lots of lush classically-influenced sounds. String sextet Instrumental do a lively cover of The Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds", while deep cinematic strings on beatless tracks like Chilled By Nature's "Green Shade" are pretty and disarming without any blandness.

Enchanted 02 (2000) is again mostly instrumental and with a similar structure to the first volume. CD1 leans heavily on jazzy drum breaks, gently funky basslines and lo-fi string sounds, mainly via the cut-and-paste sampling techniques of hip hop. Touches of downbeat synth pop like Hextatics "Robopop" somehow fit amongst it all and are inspired choices. CD2 downplays the sampled hip-hop sounds in favour of prettier ambient and cinematic moments, from beatless Balearic like "The Big Dream" by UK chill icon Chris Coco to deep ambient techno from Biosphere.

Also from the same year is the single disc Beach (2000), a journey down the well-trodden path of what you might call Balearic downtempo. Pleasant but non-essential.

Glisten (2001) returns to the diversity that BC does so well. On CD1 the experimental moments from names like Grantby and Another Fine Day add necessary balance to a handful of slick pop-lounge tracks that border on over-familiar like Gerd's "Faraway Places". This was 2001 after all, a year in which chillout comps from both the majors and independents flooded the UK and European markets and The Big Chill found itself beset my imitators. CD2 of the set is the one that really defines its own territory with a clever blend of stoned retro lounge from trip hop producers Quantic and Bonobo, dreamy ambient pop ballads (Lol Hammond, Yam Yam) and jazzy soundtrack strangeness.

The Big Chill Loves You (2002) compares easily in quality to any of the previous 2-CD sets. It's probably the most daytime-sounding of the Big Chill albums to date, a sun-kissed collection of folksy melodies, warm landscapes and pop-soul-world flavours all infused with subtle electronica and drones. "Venice Beach" is a brilliant Balearic beauty with its uplifting mix of liquid synth, crying pedal-steel guitar and long arcing string washes riding over a mid-tempo drum break. Lawrence's early love of Anglo-Irish folk music adds a much welcome dimension to the album via Nature Boy's accordion and dreamy vocals, and Cornhead's bagpipes and fiddle.

i-Chill (2003) similarly stands its ground in face of the generic chill compilation onslaught of the time by sticking to the brand's original values: open-endedness, accessible tunes with experimental moments, and a sense of discovery that invites you actively engage despite the laid-back tempos. Finally, Big Chill Classics (2004) collects 33 tracks from the previous 10 years and contains enough otherwise hard-to-find gems to also make it well worth the purchase.

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