Saturday, January 25, 2020

Best Of 2019: Out Of The Past

The flood of music from “out of the past,” representing both reissues and never-released music, is dominated by super-deluxe boxes with lavish packaging and extensive documentation. Some of those are represented below but conspicuous by their absence are certain high-profile fetish objects, such as the Abbey Road 50th anniversary doorstop and various Bowie boxes. In the case of the latter, these are certainly attractive, real shelf candy, but the lo-fi demos will likely only fascinate for one or two listens. As for the Abbey Road set, while there are some nice fly-on-the-wall moments from the outtakes, none of it captivates as much as the similar material on the White Album box. When it comes to Giles Martin’s remix of the album, I compared it to the 2009 CD and my vinyl copy - an original 1969 pressing - I found it added little. The CD still sounds, well, FAB, and even through the crackle, my $1 record sounds warmer and more cohesive - and isn't that what we want from The Beatles?

Press play on this playlist or below to listen along to selections from most of these albums while you read.

Reissue Of The Year

Peter Laughner For decades, he has just been a name to me, credited with writing Life Stinks on Pere Ubu’s debut album, The Modern Dance. I was dimly aware of his important role on the family tree of Cleveland proto-punk and art rock as a founding member of not only Pere Ubu but also Rocket From The Tombs, from which the Dead Boys spawned. Yet this labor-of-love box set reveals the man in full, or as full as possible for someone who died at 24 and never officially released any of his own music. Perhaps most surprising is the discovery that Laughner (pronounced “LOCK-ner, btw) was one of the greatest interpreters of poetic singer-songwriters that ever lived, turning in deep, passionate covers of songs by Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Tom Verlaine, and Van Morrison. He somehow enters the core of the songs, illuminating them from within even though the recordings are rough. He even digs into Robert Johnson with stunning effectiveness, further proof that he was an old soul. Laughner, a true believer in rock & roll as a musical and spiritual pursuit, also wrote some nifty originals and in Cinderella Backstreet came up with one of the best band names of all time. Unfortunately, his immersion in music was only exceeded by his immersion in hard living, leading to the pancreatitis that killed him. The music in this set, crackling with life, along with the lavish hardcover book, which includes his perspicacious music journalism, puts Laughner in my living room in an almost physical way. Invite him in. Note: this set is not on Spotify but you can hear samples here

Runners Up

Gene Clark - No Other Deluxe Box Set While it looks like 4AD outdid themselves with the packaging here, it sold out so fast I’ve never seen it in the wild. Demand was high as this is one of the great lost albums of the 70’s, buried by David Geffen after Clark and collaborator Thomas Jefferson Kaye burned through $100K with only eight songs to show for it. While the album as released is a beautiful piece of Americana, with songs, like Silver Raven, that seem to come from the earth itself, we now know where the money went. Clark and Kaye took their sweet time exploring a wide variety of approaches to the songs, probably racking up big studio bills in the process. We also now know that the takes they chose to assemble the final version were not necessarily the best ones, but simply the most accessible ones. Other versions explore a funky and soulful sound that is startlingly contemporary. Check out my playlist, The Other No Other, to hear what could have been. 

Bob Dylan - The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings Though not an official entry into the Bootleg Series, this was the only archival release I wanted from the man in 2019. I’ve been fascinated by the RTR ever since I stole my sister’s copy of Hard Rain and took Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook out of the library, devouring them both and willing myself into those legendary shows. And this is the motherlode, five complete concerts, fascinating rehearsals, and a disc of tantalizing odds and ends. If you already know every note of Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975 - or were mesmerized by the footage in the Scorcese “documentary” - you must acquire this handsome package. 

Classic Rock Lives - LIVE

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Live At Woodstock It was early in this century before I even knew CCR performed at Woodstock. Then I got a bootleg and was even more confused as they steamrolled through a set that left the crowd screaming for more. Chalk it up to John Fogerty’s legendary perfectionism - I’m glad he finally relented and allowed this storming set to be released. 

Allman Brothers Band - Live At Fillmore West ‘71 A few months before their iconic recordings at the east coast Fillmore, the ABB put on some smoking hot shows in San Francisco. They developed further by the time they got to NYC, but any chance to hear Duane'n'Dickey at their peak (not to mention Gregg) is one I’m going to embrace. 

The Yardbirds - Live and Rare I felt a little burned when all these tracks showed up on Spotify after I bought this set, but then I watched the DVD was glad I had laid down the cash. The footage is crystal clear, formatted for contemporary TVs with no loss of important information, putting Jimmy Page and his mirrored Telecaster right in your face. It’s a jaw-dropping feast for fans of the band. The discs are well-organized and packaged, too, a further bonus for getting the physical version. Also, while most of this is live material, the remastered mono of Happenings Ten Years Time Ago finally reveals the layers in this remarkable song. It’s like hearing it for the first time - and I’ve had an original copy of the 45 for nearly 40 years. 

Jimi Hendrix - Songs For Groovy Children Awesome to finally have all these sets in one place - the four versions of Machine Gun constitute one of the great American symphonies - even if a little Buddy Miles goes a long way.

Tin Machine - Live at La Cigale Paris, 25 June 1989 I’ve had a bootleg of this blistering show for years - now everyone can revel in Bowie’s art-punk freakout band at their best. It's a sharp cut above the Oy Vey Baby album, which was from a later tour and finds them indulging some regrettable instincts. For more Tin Machine fun, read my thoughts on the 30th anniversary of the debut album in Rock & Roll Globe.

Visionary Vocalists

Tim Buckley - Live at The Electric Theater Co, Chicago 1968 Not since Dream Letter: Live In London came out 30 years ago has there been as revelatory a live release from Buckley - and this one is even better. He is in rare incantatory form here, barely pausing for breath between songs, several of which feel like improvisations in the moment. His voice is at its most stunningly elastic, whether in the falsetto of Hi-Lili Hi Lo or the long notes of Wayfaring Stranger. The recording is quite good, mainly foregrounding Buckley and his 12-string guitar but the throb of the unknown bass player and Carter C.C. Collins's congas is an essential element. The road to Happy Sad definitely leads through this incredible performance. What other treasures remain in the archives?

Scott Walker - Live On Air 1968-1969 These TV recordings have been released before but it's great to see them back in print. Even with the slightly harsh sound, the sense of what it would be like to be in the presence of Walker unleashing that divine baritone on stage is impossible to ignore. With so few live performances over the years, this is something to savor over time, especially his own songs, which are the best here next to those by his beloved Jacques Brel.

Brazilian Gems

Ana Mazzotti - Ninguem Vai Me Segurar God bless Far Out Recordings for the unending flow of sparkling Brazilian music! This 1974 album deserves to be in the front ranks of any collection from that time and place. Mazzotti's languid and lovely voice is brilliantly supported here by most of Azymuth plus her husband, Romilo Santos, on drums and the results are just sublime. Also reissued is her second, and last, album. Her short, rich career deserves wide recognition.

Azymuth - Demos (1973-1975) Vols. 1&2 Speaking of Azymuth, they are in staggering form on these home recordings, all made before their first official album. I actually prefer these to some of their later recordings, which tended towards overproduction. Far Out to the rescue again!

Reggae Rarities

Brown Sugar - I'm In Love With A Dreadlocks: Brown Sugar And The Birth of Lover's Rock, 1977-1980 If that title doesn't already tell you what you need to know, how about the first complete collection of the sweet and sassy British vocal trio that included Caron Wheeler, later of Soul II Soul? How about 13 songs with Dennis Bovell at his best behind the boards, lacing each solidly rhythmic song with glistening guitar hooks and burbling keyboards? YOU will be in love with Brown Sugar.

Cornell Campbell - King Of Collie and I Man A The Stal-A-Watt A few years ago, I scooped up the out-of print-collection, Natty Dread, which featured recordings by Campbell from 1975-83 and introduced me to one of the sweetest, most versatile of all Jamaican singers. These recordings come from 1970-75 and are even more consistently great. The production, mostly by Bunny "Striker" Lee is also top notch - essential roots!

Various Artists - Do The Moonwalk In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing comes this 20-track collection of pure lunacy - some of the most fun ska and rocksteady you can imagine and a party platter that is out of this world.

Spiritual Soul Explosion

Various Artists - World Spirituality Classics Vol. 2: The Time For Peace Is Now: Gospel Music About Us With the first entry in this series from Luaka Bop focusing on the Ashram-based recordings of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, it was hard to know what they would do for a follow-up. Well, on this spectacular collection, they’re giving us the funkiest, most soulful gospel that you didn’t know you needed by artists you’ve never heard of, a flood of emotionally rich, spiritually nourishing tracks that expand on the message and music of The Staple Singers, Andrea Crouch, and others. As an act of scholarship infused with love, this set will likely never be bettered. 

Stax “Soul Explosion” Series As detailed here, the 50th anniversary of the Stax "Soul Explosion" has led to a tsunami of long lost records from the label’s storied history - get to know them from my playlist and then find your own favorites. 

James Brown - Live At Home With His Bad Self Finally! This is the full concert that the Sex Machine album was based on, free of overdubs and studio tracks. Brown was too angry at his JB’s - who quit over low pay and poor working conditions immediately after the show - to release it at the time. Fifty years later, it sounds as good as you would imagine, with seven performances seeing the light of day for the first time. 

Beverly Glenn-Copland - Primal Prayer Existing at some under-explored intersection of jazz, new age, funk, soul, and art song, Glenn-Copland might get his own Luaka Bop compilation someday. Until then, he’s doing a fine job of reintroducing his albums into the marketplace, including this gorgeous and expansive set from 2004, originally released under the name Phynix. Layers of keyboards are matched by Glenn-Copland’s vocal range, given full flight in inventive counterpoint through double and triple tracking. A trans man who made his first album in 1970, Glenn-Copland has been in the background offering succor to those in the know for decades. Let that exclusive coterie now include you. 

Post-Punk Glories
The Cigarettes - You Were So Young It seems like about every 10 years, some reissue label says, Hey, remember The Cigarettes? In the future they will turn to this collection, every song released by the razor-sharp British quartet from 1978 to their demise in 1981, plus some live sessions for John Peel. When you need some more of that Buzzcocks or Stiff Little Fingers vibe, it’s right here waiting for you. 

Ut - Conviction Angular, dissonant guitars, polyrhythmic drumming, tortured, slightly off-key vocals - it could only be No Wave, the downtown NYC movement birthed partially in reaction the creeping slickness of new wave and synth-pop. And Ut, the trio of Nina Canal, Jacqui Ham, and Sally Young, were one of the best of the lot. Stick a cassette of their debut album in your Walkman and get on line for the Mudd Club. 

Eclectic Ambiance

Ernest Hood - Neighborhoods By the time Hood assembled this one-off album in 1975, he had been incorporating field recordings into performances as a member of Portland, OR’s jazz scene for decades. Blending hyperlocal sounds (kids playing kick-the-can, people watching fireworks) with charming and bittersweet synth melodies puts his neighborhood somewhere between Brian Eno’s and Mr. Rogers’s. It’s a place you’ll want to visit often. 

Laurie Spiegel - Unseen Worlds The decade-plus gap between this and her classic debut, The Expanding Universe,is more of a reflection of the challenges she faced as a pioneer of electronic music - and a woman - than any lack of ideas. But there was no sense of struggle in the final product when it arrived in 1991, just the gleaming darkness of these beautifully polished soundscapes. Yet another reason to celebrate this extraordinary talent. 


Radiohead - Minidiscs [Hacked] I don’t know if I totally believe the back story about how these discs came to light, but I was more than happy to drop $18 (which went to Extinction Rebellion, anyway) for 16 hours of OK Computer demos and live recordings. While there are some incredible concert excerpts here, my favorite stuff is raw, intimate, fly-on-the-wall studio and home demos. Revealed is a group of sonic and emotional seekers of everything music has to offer - and they keep finding it, over and over again. 

Prodigy & Mobb Deep - Shot Down After Albert “Prodigy” Johnson died in 2017, I assembled a 25-song Spotify playlist to go along with an article I wrote for Mass Appeal about his legacy. As of today, there are only 14 songs left, a sign of the disarray his discography is in right now. That’s probably why this mixtape, assembled by DJ Whoo Kid in 2006, sounds so good. This was the controversial Blood Money era, when Mobb Deep signed with 50 Cent’s G-Unit, but the beats are mostly tight and Prodigy and others (even Fitty!) display a relaxed mastery in their flow. Maybe a time will come when Prodigy’s estate clears up any issues and we get the career overview this NYC legend deserves. 

Various Artists - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Quentin Tarantino’s extremely entertaining exercise in manic revisionist nostalgia exists outside the cinema almost as successfully as it does within, as proved by this brilliantly sequenced collection. Putting the radio announcers and ads in there was a stroke of genius, lending an authenticity to a landscape of pop and rock just that much different than what you might associate with 1969. Kudos to Tarantino’s longtime music supervisor, Mary Ramos, who deserves no small part of the credit. Learn more about their process in this compelling podcast from the BBC. 

What old sounds were making your year? There’s a good deal more in this archived playlist - and make sure to follow this one so you know what 2020 brings us from out of the past. 

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