L.A.’s summer now stretches well into November, so what better way to kick off the sweaty marathon season than by celebrating the most summer-specific school of music there is: balearic.
While any musical movement can be difficult to nail down, the balearic style is perhaps the most elusive as it covers many genres of music under its broad umbrella. A balearic record is everything that a tropical house record wants to be but isn’t. It’s patient music for “adults.” The simplest definition might be: music for pools and islands (or an island state of mind). But even that doesn’t really cut it.
A balearic record can come from any country, any time, any culture. Balearia is a language-less Babel beach bar of the mind. The tempo is often slow but certainly not always. Balearic music is timeless, a gentle zephyr that tickles your ears or a tricksy water sprite that transforms you into a Greek goddess.
The most popular balearic pastime is trying to define what is and is not balearic.
Is Enya balearic? Yes.
Is Prince balearic? Of course.
What about Dolly Parton? YES.
Are the Beach Boys balearic? Yes. (But not Mike Love; he’s just an asshole.)
The style takes its name from Spain's Balearic Islands, but it originates from one spot in particular: Ibiza. Before Ibiza was overrun by V-necks and D-bags, it was a magical place for centuries, acting as a magnet for weirdos, hippies, shamans, transients and spirituality seekers from Europe, Northern Africa and beyond. In the early 1970s, DJs like Alfredo and Jose Padilla played eight-plus-hour sets at clubs such as Amnesia, Pacha and Cafe del Mar. They soundtracked sunsets, long nights and early mornings for the beautiful people on pills and psychedelics, and tapes of their sets become the stuff of legend around Europe.
In many ways balearic DJs mirrored their Italian cousins, the Afro-cosmic jocks who championed the truly open format: a mix of funk, soul, rock, jazz, disco, Afrobeat, Latin, new age, Northern Soul, sleaze, pop and, by the '80s, EBM, Italo-disco, house and techno. Intentionally playing records at the wrong speed (often 33 RPM instead of 45) is a common technique of both the balearic and cosmic DJ.
Several British DJs “discovered” the balearic style on holiday in the '80s and brought the records and attitude with them back to the U.K. A perfect storm of ecstasy, techno and balearic music all collided into the second summer of love, as acid house gripped a nation.
These days the balearic torch remains lit by a small but devoted group of vinyl mongers, particularly DJs from the British isles (much of the scene's best DJs and memories collected here) but also several right here in L.A. and sprinkled wherever people party in the sunshine. DJs like Moonboots, Harvey, Lovefingers, Jan Hammered and Andrew Weatherall are constantly introducing new records to the canon.
While the question of “What is balearic?” has been a running gag in the scene, a great balearic DJ can theoretically make any record balearic in the proper context. However, for the following classic platters, there is no dispute. They are balearic in anyone’s hands.
10. Tullio de Piscopo – “Stop Bajon (Primavera)”
List-making isn’t very balearic, but let’s kick this off with an obvious one. Neapolitan drummer-singer Tullio de Piscopo released this beaut in 1984, but it wasn’t until 1987 that it broke the U.K. singles chart. When that snare comes in at 2:23, time doesn’t really matter anyway, does it?
9. Herb Alpert – “Rotation”
If this song doesn’t put goosebumps on your arm, you may want to check your pulse. Notice Herb’s smile at 3:40. In four minutes he’s doing more blowing air into a piece of brass than most of us will ever do in our entire lives. But that’s OK. And he knows it.
8. Jasper van’t Hof’s Pili Pili – “Hoomba Hoomba”
Dutch pianist Jasper van’t Hof teamed with African singer Angélique Kidjo to form this formidable Euro-African jazz/rock combo. “Hoomba Hoomba” perhaps best connects the dots between Africa and Europe back to Pangaea, and the piano line is nothing less than life-affirming.
7. Antena – “Camino del Sol”
Soon after they gender-bended “Girl From Ipanema,” French-Belgian group Antena put out this absolute killer in 1982. Thanks to a reissue by the saints at Numero Group a decade ago (and a later Todd Terje re-rub), this songs has lived several charmed lives.
6. Chris Rea – “Josephine”
Chris Rea is like the British Chris Isaak, before Chris Isaak. Almost everything the gravel-throated crooner touches is balearic gold, but this one is his real gift to the world. See also William Pitt's “City Lights.”
5. Double – “Woman of the World”
This song from Switzerland’s Double is on some beautiful, sleazy tip. See also: “The Captain of Her Heart,” the group’s biggest hit.
4. Nami Shimada and Soichi Terada – “Sunshower”
Gamers will recognize Soichi Terada from his soundtrack work on the Ape Escape series. Record nerds will recognize this track as an unimpeachable classic. Terada’s trademark smile can be found in this track's waveform if you look closely enough, and the vocals by Nami Shimada have been rinsed everywhere from Ibiza to the Paradise Garage. This is still one of the most balearic records from the island that gave us Totoro. Is Totoro balearic? Sure.
3. Jon and Vangelis – “State of Independence”
Vangelis is a wizard who walks among us. Though recently satirized in the laughless “Lords of Synth” parody, the Greek composer is no joke. He’s the one who gave the world the original score to Blade Runner, one of the most influential soundtracks on producers making music in 2016. Jon is Jon Anderson of Yes fame. Together on the album The Friends of Mr. Cairo, they created one of the most balearic long-players human will ever hear. Donna Summer would go on to cover the song and move more units, but the original is still at the top of Smooth Mountain. See also: “Outside of This” and the titular “Friends of Mr. Cairo.”
2. Mandy Smith – “I Just Can’t Wait (The Cool and Breezy Jazz Version)”
You can smell the salt in the air on this one. The vocals are dripping in reverb. The bass line feels like it’s swerving off the road and into the sand. Mandy Smith is also notorious for dating 47-year-old Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman when she was 13. They would later marry. That’s not so balearic.
1. Ned Doheny – “Get It Up for Love”
And we’re bringing it back to L.A. for this last one. Ned Doheny, the oft-overlooked Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter, is responsible for mining AOR gold. “Get It Up for Love” is a no-brainer for the balearic-minded. Its PLUR messaging and hippie campfire aura always work.
Want the disco version? Or a David Cassidy interpretation? Or the Average White Band cover? No matter how you dice it, this song’ll melt the irony out of your digitally encrypted, social media–addled soul.
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