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Best of 2012 Pop Music: Reissues

As much new music as was released in 2012, a large volume also came from the vaults, dredged up to be remarketed and reexamined. Below are 10 historical recordings -- a combination of reissues and/or archival releases -- that brought to the surface old music as fresh as the new stuff. They’re listed in no particular order.

Carole King, “The Legendary Demos” (Rockingale). God bless the song: the 3 1/2-minute burst of structured yet unpredictable joy. These early tracks by master-of-the-craft Carole King were made as demonstration records -- casual takes to give artists such as Aretha Franklin, the Monkees, James Taylor and others a sense of the song with the hope they’d record them. “The Legendary Demos” features King and a piano in a rehearsal room banging out her songs: “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “It’s Too Late,” "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” and 10 others. These pieces, some of which we’ve known our whole lives, are as pure and true as heartbeats.

Various Artists, “Only 4 U: The Sound of Cajmere and Cajual Records, 1992-2012" (Strut). The Chicago house music movement of the 80s spawned a worldwide phenomenon that continues to thrive today, but the music that echoed out of the city in the ‘90s, following that initial burst is often overlooked. Enter Curtis Jones, who revived house in the city when, under the pseudonym Cajmere (and, later, Green Velvet), he started dropping minimalist, funky house tracks made by him and others on his label Cajual. Listen and understand where the EDM thump permeating 2012 radio was, in part, born.

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Karen Dalton, “1966" (Delmore). This is my favorite resurrection of the year: A recording of Karen Dalton, the late folk singer whose haunting work in the ‘60s and ‘70s has captivated a new set of ears drawn to her raw, Billie Holiday-suggestive tone, and her beguiling way around the guitar. Dalton came up in the New York City folk scene alongside Bob Dylan, but heroin took hold and never really let go. This recording, from 1966, is a rehearsal for a gig. It shows a rough-and-tumble singer, her voice still solid and wonderfully unrefined, conjuring beauty through interpretations of songs by Tim Hardin and Fred Neil, along with blues and folk standards such as “Mole in the Ground.”

Lee Hazelwood, “A House Safe for Tigers” (Light in the Attic). The soundtrack to a Swedish TV movie of the same name, “A House Safe for Tigers” plays as a strange concept album. Hazelwood’s rich bass voice singing, as usual, about despair and loneliness, with grand-gesture strings and big-bang timpani climaxes. Released in Sweden with the film in 1975, this s the first in a series of Hazelwood recordings to be released by Light in the Attic. “A House ...” bodes well.

Massive Attack, “Blue Lines” (Virgin). More a beefed-up repackage than a historical revisit, Capitol’s reissue of Bristol, England, production team Massive Attack hasn’t aged a bit in the 21 years since its release. Dark, moody, hip-hop-inspired beat music, “Blue Lines” set a course that combined rhythm, dub and song in deep new ways.

Various Artists, “Golden Gate Groove: The Sound of Philadelphia in San Francisco, 1973" (SonyLegacy). The constant chase for the wildest lost African, Indian or Thai funk recordings often ignores the untapped work that propelled the whole movement first. For example: “Golden Gate Groove” features an all-star cast of indie soul label The Sound of Philadelphia captured live. Don Cornelius is the master of ceremonies (enough said?), and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, M.F.S.B., Billy Paul, the O’Jays and others offer pre-disco dance grooves. The result is two hours of extended soul funk at its finest.

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Laurie Spiegel, “The Expanding Universe” (Unseen Worlds). Shot as if down from the cosmos, this remarkable reissue of music made by Laurie Spiegel between 1974-77 on an early computer composing software called GROOVE brings to life eloquent and visionary computer music of the ‘70s. The four pieces on the original 1980 record “The Expanding Universe” as well as work composed around the same time” show Spiegel’s compositions humming with mechanical energy. One of these tracks, “Kepler’s Harmony of the World,” is traveling through space on the Voyager spacecraft, part of the “Golden Record” launched with the roaming explorer in 1977 that shares music and sounds of Earth. Thankfully, with “The Expanding Universe,” Earthlings too have a new chance to experience the music.

Feedtime, “The Aberrant Years” (Sub Pop). What a relief: the rolling, single-minded grunt punk of Feedtime, which between 1978 and 1989 made some of the most purely primal rock this side of the Ramones, has risen from the grave just as it should: Three dudes who sound like angry cavemen or drunken mechanics sweating out songs about Buicks and Plymouth limousines, valves, motorbike girls and possums. This Sub Pop Records reissue features 65 songs.

Can, “The Lost Tapes Box Set” (Mute). Few in the history of avant-rock have jammed with the metronomic swing of Can, the German group that, starting in the late 1960s, created some of the funkiest, most danceable European rock of the era. As its name implies, “The Lost Tapes” features missing jams from back in the day and over three discs and 30 tracks the group explores a sound that went on to influence rap, techno and indie rock.

Francis Bebey, “African Electronic Music,” 1975-1982 (Born Bad). This stuff is a trip, built by a Cameroonian genius hellbent on experimentation in Paris. Bebey, a writer and producer, mostly worked in traditional Makossa songs, but for nearly a decade he experimented with synthesizers and rhythm boxes. Collected in one package, some of it sounds like mid-period Devo channeled through West Africa, others like wobbly living room disco built for shag carpet breakdowns. Over the music, Bebey preaches political change on some tracks, on others he gets romantic. Combined, it’s a revealing look at a relatively unexamined movement.

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Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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