I’m a bit late doing my Best of the Year lists, so I’ve decided to extend 2019 and add in the last four months of 2018.
So what makes a great DJ Playlist?
Being a DJ is no easy gig. It can’t be easy pleasing all the people all of the time, especially when we all have our own personal favourites as well as tracks we are a little bored by. It seems everyone has an opinion about the music that is played at class nights and freestyles. Most of the comments I hear are favourable, but from time to time the people are less than impressed. So what makes a great DJ playlist? Perhaps it’s simply when the DJ pleases most of the people most of the time. I’d like to think it is more than that.
A DJs playlist can be viewed as an art form and is worthy of the same kind of critical attention we might give to a painting or indeed any other work of art.
DJs can spend a considerable amount of time constructing their playlists, and they will often pick out tracks from record collections that have taken years to accumulate. But a great playlist is not just a series of tracks – the order the tracks are played in can play a part, but that still doesn’t explain why some DJ playlists stood out for me over the past twelve months.
It’s not just about setting the floor on fire either
When writing my reviews I’ll often write about how the DJ set the floor on fire, but while that will often make me take note, the craft of the DJ is more than that. If the skill of the DJ was judged simply on whether they created fire out on the dance floor, my list would have been unfairly dominated by the sixty minute DJ sets in The Thunderball Room at Southport Weekenders.
I also have to remember that not everyone wants to work up a sweat on the dance floor and lest I forget the many dancers who spend most of their time in Chill-out and Blues Rooms. So what were the criteria I used in compiling this year’s list? They are many and varied, and I do my best to explain why each playlist made a big enough impression on me to be included in my Top 5 List. I’m pleased to say that in the five DJ sets I’ve picked out, they illustrate some of the different ways that these guys and gals can create a memorable dance experience for us all.
I should say here that I’ve not considered any of the DJs I met on my Tea Dance Tour. I reviewed a lot of the music on that tour but I’ve already given credit to the very best DJs in my article The Tea Dance Tour: The Best Bits, where I recognised the work of DJs Caine Langford, Matt Cox and Kevin Hyde who provided the music for the Top 3 venues (see link below).
The Best of the Rest
It was never going to be easy to select just 5 Playlists when I’d danced to so many DJ sets over the sixteen months. So here are the Best of the Rest, with one of their standout tracks:
- Danny Gallina: Ceroc Jamfest, SILC Vibe (June 19). Danny served up a fabulous mix of ’70s and contemporary funk in The Boudoir, at this summer weekender, that illustrated just how much modern record producers owe to the funk masters of the past. Standout track: The modern FKJ remix of William De Vaughn’s ’70s hit Be Thankful For What You Got.
- Matt Cox: Friday night freestyle, Modern Jive World Champs, Blackpool (March 2019). Matt had the last slot of the Friday night freestyle before the Champs on the following day. Matt played a top chill-out set typical of his much-loved Serene Tea Dances. Standout track: The funk-infused Disclosure by Omen featuring Sam Smith.
- Neil Strugnell: Ceroc South Wales, Flava Tea Dance (April 2019). Neil’s contemporary music mix was one of the reasons that this Tea Dance is one of the most successful around. Sadly Neil has now emegrated to News Zealand, but his legacy lives on. Standout track: An old one that finds its way into contemporary chill-out mixes – Getaway car by Daryl Hall & John Oates. (see link below)
- Tony Riccardi: Ceroc Groove, Remembrance Freestyle (November 2018). To help create a retro feel to the night, Tony played a playlist based on his vinyl collection. The result was some fascinating old tracks: Standout track: That’s what I like, a mash-up of ’50s and ’60s tracks put together by Jive Bunny and The Mastermixers. The track opens and closes with The theme to Hawaii 5-O (see link below)
- Kate Burton: Music for Ceroc South West Champs (July 2019). A wonderful mix of contemporary main room and chill-out tracks with many older classics thrown in too: Standout track: Lie to me, a funk-infused contemporary track by Mikolas Josef that is now very popular in chill-out rooms. Pleasingly Kate put the playlist on to Spotify (see link below).
For each of my Top 5 DJ Playlists I’ve put a link to a fuller review and picked out one of their standout tracks.
5: Billy Cullen: Hogmanay, Glasgow (Dec 2018)
Remember the days when DJs spoke to introduce each new track? Nowadays the DJs rarely speak between records, other than to thank the people for coming or to announce when the buffet is open. I’d certainly forgotten how DJs could jack the atmosphere up on the dance floor by adding in a little commentary, but this is what DJ Billy Cullen did on New Year’s Eve with LeRoc Scotland’s Hogmanay party night. As the clock approached midnight Billy kept reminding everyone just how many minutes there were until ‘The Bells’, the Scottish equivalent of Big Ben, sounded.
The resulting atmosphere was the best I’ve ever experienced as the clock approached midnight on New Year’s Eve. But it wasn’t just the running commentary that I warmed to, it was the choice of tracks that Billy used to build the joyous atmosphere as ‘The Bells’ approached. Here was a DJ skillfully working the vibe out on the floor and showing the very best DJing craft.
Billy rocks Warmwell
I’m a great fan of Billy Cullen’s music, and I’ve written many times about his ability to create a great atmosphere on the dance floor. It’s one of the reason’s that Colin Shaul invites Billy to share the main room DJing at the Warmwell Weekender with Kane Jenner. These two created a great vibe on the floor for all three nights of this weekender, which contributed to me voting it my best for the year 2018/19. So good was Billy’s set at Warmwell that I wrote an appreciation of his playlists that weekend (see link below).
Swept away by the Scottish traditions
But let me get back to the Hogmanay party night. After midnight Billy made another great impression on me as he paid homage to the great New Year traditions that the Scots proudly maintain. In England, we usually get Auld Lang Syne and The Hokey Cokey and then it’s back to the regular playlist. Not so with Billy on the decks in Glasgow.
I won’t try to explain all the traditional songs and dances that Billy served up, as I tell the story of that wonderful night in my review below. However, I will say one thing. Even as an Englishman I became quite emotional as I got swept up by the hearty atmosphere that Billy created in that first half an hour after ‘The Bells’
DJ Ötzi is my pick from Billy’s Playlist
I have to pick the track that Billy concluded his run-up to Midnight when the atmosphere out on the floor was turned up to the max. It’s DJ Ötzi joyous version of Sweet Caroline. Never have I sung so loud as when I danced to this top party anthem. This was the perfect track to herald in ‘The Bells’. Getting the right track at the right time is a sign of the craft of the DJ at its best.
4: Paul Brooks: Music Videos, Jamfest (June 2019)
DJ Paul Brooks is one of Ceroc’s best DJs, and last year he rightly topped my Best DJ Playlists of 2017/18 with his music for the Ceroc London Champs at the Watford Colosseum. For that day Paul put together a playlist of unsurpassed variety for every single comp category and then showed his great craft as he generated even more excitement with his choice of the music for the prize giving.
This was the first time I had come across Paul’s fabulous music, but this year I seem to have had a regular dose. In February of last year he delivered the goods yet again at the Swish Weekender and in October I was reviewing his music at the mega Eclipse event in Gray’s Essex. But it’s his work at Jamfest that I want to recognise. What I love is when DJs do something different as they entertain us and that’s what Paul did at Jamfest in the summer of 2019.
Paul attempts a first for Camber
When I saw the programme for Jamfest, the summer Ceroc Weekender at Camber Sands, my eyes were drawn to Paul’s Saturday night set in the Thunderball Room. It was described as a Music Video Hour. On the Friday night I joined Paul as he did his first main room set and asked what it was:
I’m going to attempt to have the accompanying videos to my playlist projected on to every screen in the room.
Paul would explain to me that it was technically very challenging, and come Saturday night it nearly didn’t happen. Thankfully, after some last-minute adjustments, everything worked and all the large screens in the Thunderball Room lit up with the videos for an hour of classic tracks. It’s that Paul attempted to do something different that meant I had to have him in my list for the second year running.
A retro groove rocks the floor
Seeing the videos on all the screens gave added life to the dance tracks. In putting his playlist together, Paul had also thought about the videos themselves. Paul’s choices for his playlist meant that the hour had a retro feel with him featuring many Ceroc Classics and some fabulous tracks I rarely get a chance to dance to. The result was a joyous vibe out on the dance floor.
I’ve picked out Michael Jackson’s Don’t stop until you get enough as one of my favourites because it was great to see Jackson dancing in his unique style on the screens above me. This is a wonderful piece of ’70s Disco music underpinned by a funked up beat created by producer Quincy Jones for Jackson’s breakthrough album Off the wall.
3: Sheena Assiph: Tea Dance, Thrill (Nov 2019)
I’ve become something of a chill-out junkie and so I had to have a Tea Dance DJ set in this list. As I mentioned above, I had decided not to include any DJ sets from my Tea Dance Tour, but after that journey came to an end I would still enjoy some delicious chilled Sunday dancing. The best of these was the afternoon chill-out finale to the Ceroc Aberdeen Thrill Weekender.
This wonderful four-hour set was kicked off by DJ Tim Sant-Turner. DJs Ben Davies and Calum Martindale would do their bit and then it was left to DJ Sheena Assiph to play the last hour. Perhaps Sheena was lucky, for her fellow DJs had done a fabulous job creating a perfect vibe out on the floor before she took her turn on the decks. Now, Sheena just had to use all her craft to maintain the same relaxed groove and she did it with great style.
Sheena shows her craft in Stirling
Thrill was organised by Ceroc franchise holder Nicola do Folco. Nicola is a chill-out DJ of some renown herself, but she shows a lot of faith in Sheena by always asking her to run her second chill-out rooms. I recently picked Nicola’s Stirling Summer Ball as my top freestyle of 2018/19. Sheena played a very big part in the success of that event while DJing the second room. She served up Tango and Motown speciality hours followed by a fabulous chill-out finale. It was no surprise then when Nicola asked Sheena to bring Thrill to a close.
What impressed about Sheena’s playlist was the sheer variety of it and how much I had not danced to before. DJs take a bit of a risk when they play tracks that few of us have heard before. But it should be remembered that as dancers, we connect with the beat and all the new-to-me tunes were so easy to connect with. A sign of a DJ’s craft is the time they spend digging around for fabulous new tracks. It was the freshness of this playlist that impressed me.
Listen to Sheena’s entire playlist
Sheena has published her playlist on Spotify and it allowed me to relive that wonderful last hour. Having a second chance to listen to the wonderful array of tracks made me realise just how much variety there was in her list. There was every style of chill-out music including some fabulous contemporary funked-up grooves. I’ve put a link to the playlist below so you can make your own assessment of Sheena’s music, but it contributed to one of the best chill-out afternoons of dancing on my recent travels.
One of my favourites from her list – a new-to-me track – is Turn around a modern funk infused track from Sola Rosa, but I’m going to feature a delicious piece of contemporary music that is perfect for a smooth and relaxed dance. Sweet lie by Max Jury has that wonderful Niles Rodgers-Esque guitar lick underpinning its catchy chorus and some soaring strings that give it a dreamy vibe.
2: Tim Sant-Turner: Camp Attack, Southport (Sept 2018)
Every so often a DJ does something a little left field and it works fabulously. Back in September 2018, Tim Sant-Turner tried something very different for his Thunderball Room set at Ceroc’s Southport Weekender. So well did his Camp Attack go down that it has become a permanent fixture on this weekender’s programme.
Tim based his set around many popular Gay anthems. I got an idea of what Tim had in store when he opened his set with Diana Ross’ I’m coming out. Gay culture has underpinned dance music from the days in the ’70s when the Disco boom grew out of the Gay clubs in New York. Ever since those early days, Gay anthems have continued to find their way into DJ’s playlists and Tim filled his set with a whole load of them.
The dress-code is colourful Gay Pride
Tim had ensured that plenty of people knew what he had up his sleeve and they came dressed appropriately. The dress code could perhaps be described as Gay Pride and it instantly filled the Thunderball Room with a swath of vibrant colour. It wasn’t long before people were in party mode and Tim showed his great DJing craft by giving them exactly what they wanted, and then some!
Tim had some great dance anthems to work with, but that should take nothing away from the skill he showed on the decks. I’ve said it before, that a great playlist is not just a series of great tracks. It’s more to do with the way the DJ sequences the track, constantly keeping their eyes on the dancers on the floor, and if the vibe shows any sign of dropping they know just the right track to get it back to the MAX.
We love Gloria Gaynor really
Some of us might baulk at the idea of dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s I will survive, but as Tim controlled the atmosphere out on the floor he ensured that this track was received with great enthusiasm. I asked Tim if he could explain why his set of club anthems went down so well. He had this to say:
The music is so joyous, often cheesy, but the crowd love that they recognise the rhythms, know the words and the songs also hold a nostalgic sentiment for so many.
Tim’s right. Sometimes cheesy is just what we want from time to time. Dancing for so many of us is a form of escapism. Singing along to Gloria Gaynor is what is called for sometimes. The best DJs know when these cheesy tracks will be received with rapturous joy.
Gay hero Jimmy Somerville rocks the floor
Amongst Tim’s Gay anthems was Gala’s ’90s club classic Freed from desire, but I’m going to feature a track from the ’80s. One I think is the greatest from that decade. It was recorded by the Communards and features the voice of Jimmy Somerville, who in his previous incarnation with Bronski Beat, highlighted the struggle of the Gay community as it strove the acceptance of mainstream society.
The Communards version of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes Don’t leave me this way has appeared in my reviews more than any other ’80s anthems. It is one of those tracks that DJs use to set the floor on fire and Tim did just that as the party crowd gave themselves up to it’s driving beat.
1: John Baker: S’Funk, Breeze (Oct 2019)
I love Motown and Soul speciality Hours, but ever since I experienced Vince Silva’s Funk Hour at Southport my favourite speciality hours are those that feature funked-up vibes from the ’70s and ’80s when Funk came of age. I’m not alone. Whenever these speciality hours are presented the dance floor is packed, and not surprisingly, Vince’s Funk Hour made my first ever DJ playlist Pick of The Year listing.
So, I was interested to see how John Baker would approach his S’Funk (Soul & Funk) hour at the Ceroc Breeze weekender. Now, John has form when it comes to retro Soul music. Two years ago he did a Motown and Northern Soul set at Southport that showed his Soul Boy credentials, as he dug out a whole series of tracks that I’d long forgotten. That set was so good, I found myself writing an article about John’s musical knowledge. At Breeze, he was to show the unrivalled depth of his music knowledge as he dug out some real gems from the vaults of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s funk.
Funk runs through every track
In his sixty minutes behind the decks, John would play some well-loved funked-up tracks from the ’70s and ’80s but in between, he played some tracks that I’d long forgotten about and a few I’d just never heard of. Every one of these new-to-me tracks had Funk running through every groove, and hit a button in my dance brain.
As John hit the play button on each new track I was reminded of how the emergence of this new dance slower music format sounded the death knell for the faster Motown favourites that had dominated dance floors for so long. There was a dance floor revolution in the early ’70s as slower and funkier hits like James Brown’s I feel like a sex machine and Stevie Wonder’s Superstition began to dominate the dance floor.
I had to acknowledge John’s depth of music knowledge
This slower and earthier beat underpins a lot of contemporary music and funked-infused songs find their way into modern chill-out DJ’s playlists. I’ve come to love dancing in a smoother slotted style to this contemporary funked-up music, and what was so joyous about John’s S’Funk slot was that I now had a chance to dance in this style to a set of retro Soul tracks. So, it seemed did everybody else, and the Boudoir quickly filled to maximum capacity.
About a third of John’s tracks I had just not heard before, but everyone I recognised as having the same funk-infused beat I remembered from my days on the dance floor in the ’70s and ’80s. That so many tracks were new to me shows once again the depth of John’s musical knowledge. It’s because of this knowledge of fabulous retro dance music, and the joy it gave to me, that by the time it was over I knew that this would be my favourite playlist of the past sixteen months.
Have you got the funk?
Here is one of my favourites from John’s set. We got the funk by Positive Force is one of the tracks I’d not danced to before, but I instantly recognised it’s ’70s disco/funk vibe. It’s a vibe that instantly hit so many buttons in my dance brain that my whole body was soon connected to its infectious rhythm.