What’s the phrase? Better late than never? Yes, 2015 might be over, but below are 33 1/3 essential reissues and archival recordings from last year that stormed back into the present with striking authority.
Featuring music from around the world and stretching back decades, the music below confirms that even as we move headlong into the new year we’ve still got a lot of catching up to do.
Many of these are available through the various streaming services, but the analog-curious should know that most were issued on vinyl as well. That said, those looking for a soundtrack for this read can check out the accompanying Spotify playlist.
Nuno Canavarro, “Plux Quba” (Drag City). This beguiling late-1980s instrumental album from the Spanish composer is one of my desert-island records. A curious ambient work rich with brief pieces, each piece breezes into the room with delicacy. Its electronic wisps and whispers draw on Brian Eno’s ambient work, but are more active, like Erik Satie’s sublime miniatures for piano. Canavarro’s early solo record saw earlier reissue through Drag City subsidiary Moikoi, but that’s been long out of print. This new issue corrects that.
Ata Kak, “Obaa Sima” (Awesome Tapes from Africa). The lone cassette by Ghanaian Canadian rapper Ata Kak, issued in the early 1990s, arrived into 2015 with a jolt. Snatched from the maw of the past by collector and musical explorer Brian Shimkovitz and reissued on his Awesome Tapes from Africa label, “Obaa Sima” grooves like a Monie Love jam, but as channeled through West African beats.
Lizzy Mercier Descloux, “Press Color” (Light in the Attic). As a French expat in New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s, Descloux united with the influential Ze Records imprint to issue a series of minimal underground disco and post-punk tracks. The mercurial Descloux ran with Patti Smith during the CBGB days, but her lyrics lack the poeticism of her more famous peer. On the contrary, Descloux made songs that were as choppy as her self-scissored haircut.
Fleetwood Mac, “Tusk” (Rhino Records). The 1970s were an era when big budget studio albums cost almost as much to make as Hollywood movies. “Tusk” was the beefiest of the lot, and Rhino’s massive new exploration delves into the creation of Fleetwood Mac’s most famous spectacle. Bloated with cocaine-fueled gusto, melodies galore and the USC marching band, “Tusk” is the oddest Mac record — and to these ears the best. This five volume set revels in the bloat.
Doug Hream Blunt, “My Name Is Doug Hream Blunt, Featuring The Hit ‘Gentle Persuasion’” (Luaka Bop). The bawdy disco technician Doug Hream Blunt likely didn’t have many fans outside of his San Francisco neighborhood when his music came out in the 1990s. But as illustrated on this Luaka Bop collection, such exuberant expressions of joy can jump decades if the Technotronic-suggestive grooves are alluring enough and the sexualized odes amply celebratory.
Jackson C. Frank, “Remastered and Unreleased” (Ba Da Bing). It’s fitting that the first track on Ba Da Bing’s two-volume collection of folk singer Frank is called “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.” Like most of the dozens of songs on this two-volume set, it captures Frank in a room with a guitar and a tiny crowd playing old folk songs.
Best known for one magical song, “Blues Run the Game,” which was produced by a young Paul Simon in 1965 and has since been covered by Bert Jansch, Mark Lanegan, Laura Marling and John Mayer, Frank suffered from mental issues that made any career impossible. Despite an early romance with Fairport Convention chanteuse Sandy Denny, his life was pocked with debilitating isolation. That suffering permeates this revelatory document.
That isn’t this, though. Robin’s work here was rich with anglicized melodrama. Like kindred spirits the Walker Bros., Gibb embodies lyrics with longing and lots and lots of overwrought emotion. “You are the worst girl in this town,” sings Gibb at one point while Hallmark strings, acoustic guitar and echoed beats offer minor-key foundation. Stranger are the demos, many which feature electronic drum beats laying out basic rhythms.
Various artists, “Folksongs of Another America” (Dust-to-Digital). This fascinating book as well as four-CD and DVD collection compiles field recordings made in in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Who knew that the songs of Wisconsin lumberjacks were as odd and singular as the stuff being made in Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta? Compiled by James P. Leary, it features rural music from first-generation immigrants and communities — African American, German, Finnish, Icelandic, Scots Gaelic, Serbian and Swedish and more — exploring their new homes while refusing to abandon their musical roots.
Roy Orbison, “One of the Lonely Ones” (Roy Orbison Records). This heart-wrenching 1969 album lay dormant for 46 years. Recorded a few months after Orbison lost two of his sons in a car crash, “One of the Lonely Ones” got lost amid Orbison’s busy recording schedule and landed in a vault somewhere. Recently rediscovered by his estate, “One of the Lonely Ones” features Orbison’s trademark weepers, but mixed in are late-1960s psychedelic flourishes that add a certain mystical weirdness to the proceedings.
Frankie Knuckles, “House Masters” (Defected). The great DJ and remixer Frankie Knuckles, who died in 2014, helped push dance music into the remix era with his work for artists including Rufus & Chaka Khan, Pet Shop Boys, Sounds of Blackness and Inner City, all of which are featured here. Mixing his deep knowledge of soul and disco with new sample technology and an inherent funkiness, Knuckles’ extended remixes move through labyrinthine breaks, dotting each measure with inventive percussion and propellant piano runs. His remix of Hercules & Love Affair’s “Blind” is particularly hot.
Savant, “Artificial Dance” (RVNG). Recorded in Seattle in the early ‘80s, Savant was the project of the avant garde instrumentalist Kerry Leimer, whose solo work was the focus of an earlier release by RVNG. Thirty years later the stuff on “Artificial Dance” sounds as out there as when it was issued. Operating at a moment when sample culture was still finding itself, Leimer explored these new frontiers, but did so with the aid of a loose confederation of collaborators. One touchstone is “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” by David Byrne and Brian Eno, but “Artificial Dance” is more scattered, less structured.
Them, “The Complete Them 1964-1967" (Sony Legacy). Before he was the iconoclastic crank and blue-eyed soul master, Van Morrison hit with a maximum R&B band called Them. Featuring a rotating cast of session musicians supporting the electrifying Morrison, “The Complete Them” delivers on its promise. Them mostly recorded versions of old American R&B songs -- “Bright Lights, Big City,” “I Put a Spell On You,” “I Got a Woman” -- but when Morrison tackled Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” he offered a hint at his future direction. The BBC recording of Them doing “Here Comes the Night” is particularly great.
Various artists, “Extermination Nights in the Sixth City, Cleveland, Ohio: Punk and the Decline of the Midwest, 1975-1982.” (Soul Jazz). New York and Los Angeles punk bands get all the ink, as though the youth there were the only ones feeling isolated, angry and hungry for musical change. Midwest punk was its own beast, though. “Extermination Nights ...” compiles 15 sharpened songs from Cleveland bands the Pagans, X_X, Electric Eels, the Mirrors and more. Unsung jams by Human Switchboard and the Poli Styrene Jass Band are highlights.
Jorge Ben Jor, “Ben” (Real Gone). Prime work from a Brazilian master, “Ben” (1972) is best known for “Taj Mahal,” whose melody Rod Stewart admitted to copping for “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” At least the thief had good taste. “Ben” pushes regional “tropicalia” and samba music in new directions, suggesting that assimilation with Western rock needn’t dilute the grooves one bit.
Chris Knox, “Seizure” (Flying Nun). New Zealander Knox is a woefully underappreciated guitar pop master whose 1988 album “Seizure” owes equal debts to “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”-era Pink Floyd, post-punk guitar pop band the Soft Boys and twisted “Sgt. Pepper”-era Beatles. Both as a solo artist and as half of the Tall Dwarfs, Knox builds melodies that are both hummable and memorable — and often somehow twisted, distorted or confused. “Seizure” contains Knox’s best straight pop song, “Not Given Lightly.” The others are equally engaging.
Dion, “Live at the Bitter End - Aug. 1971” (Ace Records). In the early ‘70s Dion DiMucci was a decade past his biggest years as a doo wop-inspired hitmaker. His voice was still brilliant, though, and the proof is this recording of a gig in New York for a small hometown crowd. With just an acoustic guitar, Dion reworks his biggest hit, “The Wanderer,” as a folk-blues jam. His take on Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” will curl your hair, and the way he elasticizes the sound and structure of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” suggests inspiration from West Coast folkies Joni Mitchell and Tim Buckley.
Staple Singers, “Freedom Highway: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church.” (Sony Legacy). If the best reissues serve as time machines, the Staple Singers’ recording from the New Nazareth Church in Chicago is as accurate a machine as they come. Recorded during the 1965 civil rights actions occurring in and around Selma, Ala., “Freedom Highway” offers listeners a seat in the pews. Fifty years later, this miraculous document is as exuberant as it is instructive, with Pops, Mavis, a sparse backing band and the entire congregation rejoicing while protesting.
Sun City Girls, “Torch of the Mystics” (Abduction). “Torch of the Mystics” is the most accessible record by a trio of avant-rock explorers whose work both as creators and traveling archivists generated a bounty of recordings. Mixing genre and geography, the brothers Alan and Richard Bishop and late drummer Charles Gaucher issued records inspired by their journeys through the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Some of their records feature improvised, avant-noise insanity, but this album is tight, dense and relatively minimal. Don’t believe me? Pull up “Radar 1941” on your platform of choice.
Various Artists, “Sherwood at the Controls.” (On-U-Sound). For decades the producer, musician and label head Adrian Sherwood has bridged British and Jamaican culture and music. As founder of On-U-Sound, African Head Charge and other rhythm heavy ensembles, Sherwood merged electronics, bass music, post-punk and dubbed-out reverb to build visionary tracks. This Sherwood-curated collection gathers his production work for acts as varied as the Fall, Shreikback, Prince Far I and Vivienne Goldman. One highlight? Shreikback’s “Mistah Linn He Dead.”
Magnetic Fields, “69 Love Songs” (Merge Records). This limited edition vinyl reissue of Magnetic Fields’ 1999 tome is an avalanche of melodic adoration. Featuring the many wry ditties of Stephen Merritt, it’s deep with singalong gems including “Papa Was a Rodeo,” “The Book of Love,” “Come Back from San Francisco” and “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” Those who have never heard it will find tons to love. Those of us who have understand the scope of Merritt’s achievement.
Led Zeppelin, “In Through the Out Door” (Atlantic/Rhino). The least celebrated of Led Zeppelin’s studio albums is my favorite. Richly arranged but less gluttonous than the band’s early studio work, “In Through the Out Door” features minor Led Zep hit “All of My Love,” which you’ve likely heard. What maybe you haven’t heard is the song’s odd, synth-heavy centerpiece, “Carouselambra,” which moves on the back of keyboards seemingly borrowed from Styx.
Various Artists, “Strong Like Sampson: Linval Thompson Presents the 12” Mixes” (Hot Milk). Producer Linval Thompson entered the Kingston studio scene as smooth, languid 1970s roots reggae was gaining worldwide attention through Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear. Singer-turned-producer Thompson’s work from 1979 and ’80 on his Strong Like Sampson imprint might be a footnote, but it earned its 2015 renewal on this Hot Milk reissue. Featuring a mostly B-list roster of singers who drag down a few of Thompson’s better productions, “Strong Like Sampson” nonetheless serves as a reminder of Thompson’s ear for reggae. Bonus: Thompson was aligned with the great Roots Radics rhythm section, who contributed dub versions of many of the tracks.
Velvet Underground, “Loaded” (Atlantic/Rhino). The most polarizing of the four classic Velvet Underground albums is a toe-tapping gem that sounds more like the Haight Ashbury than the Lower East Side. Containing the band’s most commercially successful song, “Sweet Jane,” “Loaded” finds singer and songwriter Lou Reed in good spirits. The extra stuff is terrific, too, especially the blistering other version of “Cool It Down,” arguably better than the official take, and two full live sets that shed light on the band’s final years.
Bikini Kill, “Revolution Girl Style Now” (Bikini Kill). Blame whomever you want for the lack of attention paid to this great Bikini Kill reissue — the patriarchy is the most logical place to start. But the band built by Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren inspired as many bands to take up arms as the grunge dudes up in Seattle. “Revolution” features the band’s first demos. They’re short, smart and intense.
Various artists, “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Yep Rock). Those looking for a primer on the visionary producer who changed the course of American popular music should do two things. Grab a copy of “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the recent biography of the producer-label head who helped discover Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and dozens of others.
Written by Peter Guralnick, the tome reads like a history of American culture in the 20th century. While devouring it, reference the accompanying two-volume compilation of songs that Phillips helped bring to life. The collection features 55 killer sides by artists working in and around Memphis, Tenn. In addition to those mentioned above, songs by artists including Charlie Rich, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, John Prine and Billy Riley are represented.
Unwound, “Empire” (Numero Group). This revelatory final installment in Numero Group’s expertly imagined series of Unwound reissues focuses on the Olympia, Washington trio’s final years. They’d been playing together for nearly a decade, and it showed in the ways in which they rebuilt post-post-punk in their own image. Featuring “Challenge for a Civilized Society,” “Leaves Turn Inside You” and outtakes, the set highlights a group that chugged its way through the grunge decade while too many were unaware.
Rolling Stones, “Sticky Fingers” (Rolling Stones Records/Universal). The Stones’ country-rock gem can hardly get any better than the original 10 songs — “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” “Dead Flowers, “Moonlight Mile” among them — but the new reissue ups it with instructive early takes, demos and a live set. The acoustic version of “Wild Horses” is there for the taking, offering an unseen angle on a classic romancer.
Various artists, “This Record Belongs to …” (Light in the Attic). Don’t call this collection, which features prime 1970s rock, soul, folk and country songs made for adults, a kids’ record. Rather consider “This Record Belongs To …” to be an introductory argument to the digital youth that music can be listened to for fun. The record stars songs by Bobby Bare, Carole King, the Pointer Sisters, Van Dyke Parks, Harry Nilsson and others, and comes with a playful illustrated book that explains the magic and beauty of analog music.
Various Artists, “Excavated Shellac: Reeds” (Dust-To-Digital). Few records issued last year delivered further-out sounds than “Excavated Shellac: Reeds.” Gathered by Grammy-nominated musical miner Jonathan Ward, whose website Excavated Shellac focuses exclusively on non-Western 78 records, “Reeds” features old reed recordings from Kurdistan, North Korea, Tanzania, China and Albania. Music that sounds utterly alien to Western ears, the old music found on “Reeds” serves as a keyhole to a whole world of yet undiscovered sounds.
Edith Piaf, “Integrate 2015" (Parlophone). In celebration of Edith Piaf’s 100th birthday, her French label issued a 20-CD, 350-song box set retrospective, featuring her best known work, concerts, interviews and alternate takes. Taken together, music offered by France’s so-called “little bird” is as imposing as a hawk. The package itself is a wonder of design, and features three picture book pop-up illustrations and extensive liner notes.
As for Piaf being No. 33 1/3? Also included in the package is a 10-inch vinyl album, which is about a third smaller than an LP.
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