Rough Trade Shops Bella Union 15: 15 Years of Bella Union Records

Bella Union


To honor its impressive roster of musicians and loyal customers, Bella Union has teamed up with Rough Trade Shops to celebrate Bella Union’s fifteenth year as an esteemed independent by compiling a 34-artist, 144-minute collection culled from the label’s quietly rich history. The artists here have never been million-sellers (Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut in 2008 was the first gold-certified album for the label), but the worth of their output is long-lasting and the magnitude of the influence of many these artists is vast.

As with any compilation that brings together 34 different acts, the output will be a bit diverse. However, Bella Union isn’t the average label; even with artists that seemingly vary from pensive folk to dream-pop to grungy instrumental, the streams of heartfelt songwriting and superior musicianship that roll along the lush landscapes of these 34 songs pool into a unified delta populated by kindred spirits that are impossible to split by genre.

In the two-disc, nearly 2.5-hour running time, there’s nary a weak song in the bunch. Some offerings are more striking than others, but none seem out of misplaced or serve as filler. It’s true that several of the songs from the artists selected here could have been traded for other tracks from the respective artists’ catalogs to a more potent effect, but those hypothetical alterations begs the question of whether such a compilation would prove to be as impressively cohesive this one.

Even on a full first listen, it’s difficult to fathom a better sequencing than the organization of this album. Sure, Bella Union could have decided to include any set list favorites from The Walkmen’s dense catalog in lieu of a Heaven b-side, just like the label could have traded in Beach House’s Teen Dream beauty “Lover of Mine” for any one of the nine other exceptional Teen Dream compositions (i.e. “Take Care” or “Zebra”) or songs from the Baltimore band’s flawless 2012 album, Bloom. Hypothetically switching out one work of pure excellence for another work of excellence in order to chase even higher excellence is bound to drive a listener crazy.

If you’re already a fan of The Walkmen, Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Dirty Three, Wild Nothing, M. Ward, or Laura Veirs, know that you will get every bit of what you pay for when you buy this collection. If you’re tempted to consider “What if?” by imagining one song swapped for another from an artist’s catalog, you’re allowed to; that’s half the fun with engrossing yourself in a collection as formidable and eclectic as this one. However, take satisfaction in knowing Bella Union has already spent far more time and energy agonizing over the arrangement of this glorious beast than you will in all your hypothesizing.

The album covers Bella Union’s rich 15-year history, but it’s heavily weighted in favor of its ultra-flattering teenage years. The oldest songs here are Van Dyke Park’s “Be Careful” (originally released in 1972 on Discover America and re-released on Bella Union this year with two other Van Dyke Park albums) and Dirty Three’s achingly beautiful instrumental “Everything’s Fucked” (originally released in 1995 on Touch and Go), while nearly half of the collection has been released within the past two years.

On the first few listens, it’s easy to characterize the album as front-loaded, thanks to the stretch of boundless superiority that opens the album for the first nine songs. M. Ward’s rolling piano pop of “Primitive Girl,” the groovy lovestruck confection of Veronica Fall’s “Stephen,” Andrew Bird’s artful, literate swooning on “Effigy,” and Fleet Foxes‘ gorgeously ruminative Helplessness Blues opener with an old soul, “Montezuma,” all comprise the first half of disc one. While it’s tempting to characterize this stretch as the strongest section, the deep rewards of every part of the sprawling collection hit you by the end.

The back half of disc one bestows the gifts of Explosions in the Sky’s unparalleled knack for wordlessly meshing bombast with transcendence on “Your Hand in Mine,” Cashier No. 9’s kaleidoscopic, jangly pop  of “Oh Pity” and Lawrence Arabia’s Chant Darling knockout “I Smoked Too Much.”

Essential disc two offerings include the aforementioned Dirty Three instrumental, as well as wondrous contributions from I Break Horses, The Czars, and Lift to Experience, with the ethereal and foreboding rapture-minded grunge-folk of “To Guard & Guide You.” Disc two also delivers six previously unreleased tracks from The Walkmen, The Low Anthem, Jonathan Wilson, Zun Zun Egui, Lanterns on the Lake, and Father John Misty with the help of Phosphorescent. Highlights include The Walkmen’s “The House You Made,” a gorgeous Heaven b-side that isn’t hard to fathom squeezing in fluidly on either side of that nearly flawless 2012 album, The Low Anthem’s exquisitely produced, muscular cover of Tom Waits’ “Down There By the Train,” and a Father John Misty duet with Phosphorescent on the magnificent FJM ballad “I Would Love You.”

If Bella Union is a label that routinely appears in your music collection, chances are you already own albums from the likes of Fleet Foxes, Explosions in the Sky, Midlake, Wild Nothing or Andrew Bird. For such an audience, the lone uncertainty that hangs in the air coming into such a collection is whether the songs from acts you don’t already own are worth the price of purchase. The response to such a concern is an unequivocal “Yes.” On this 15th anniversary celebration, Bella Union proves its deep roster of genuine artists is as melodic and essential as any label in music today.

Bella Union 15

Bella Union 15 Tracklist: 


CD One

1.  M Ward – Primitive Girl

2.  Veronica Falls – Stephen

3.  Wild Nothing – Shadow

4.  Beach House – Lover Of Mine

5.  Andrew Bird – Effigy

6.  Laura Veirs – July Flame

7.  Fleet Foxes – Montezuma

8.  The Acorn – Crooked Legs

9.  John Grant – TC & Honeybear

10. Stephanie Dosen – Vinalhaven Harbor

11. Explosions In The Sky – Your Hand in Mine

12. Hannah Cohen – Don’t Say

13. Poor Moon – Holiday

14. Treefight For Sunlight – Time Stretcher

15. Vetiver – More Of This

16. Lawrence Arabia – I’ve Smoked Too Much

17. Cashier no. 9 – Oh Pity

18. Marques Toliver – Magic Look


CD Two

1.   Van Dyke Parks – Be Careful

2.   Mountain Man  – Buffalo

3.   Peter Broderick – Colin

4.   Midlake – The Jungler

5.   I Break Horses – Hearts (RAR mix)

6.   Dirty Three – Everything’s Fucked

7.   My Latest Novel – Wrongfully, I Rested

8.   The Czars – Goodbye

9.   Our Broken Garden – The Departure

10. Lift To Experience – To Guard & To Guide You

Exclusive Bonus Tracks

11. The Walkmen – The House You Made*

12. The Low Anthem – Down There By The Train*

13. Jonathan Wilson – Journey from Eden*

14. Zun Zun Egui – Battlefield*

15. Lanterns On The Lake – Below It*

16. Father John Misty feat. Phosphorescent – I Would Love You*

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