Monday, December 07, 2015

Best Of 15: Out Of The Past

With year's end visible on the horizon, it's time to take stock of what the last (nearly) 12 months have delivered musically. As always, new music had to contend with a fusillade of sounds from the past: reissues, compilations, live albums, and the like. One trend that shows no signs of stopping is the juggernaut of super-deluxe packages, which perhaps reached it's apotheosis in the limited-edition 18 disc version of Bob Dylan's The Cutting Edge, which contains every note the Bard of Hibbing played in the studio during 1965 and 1966. 

Dylan's Bootleg Series has established itself as quality endeavor befitting a singular talent so hopefully this is not a bloated equivalent to Having Fun With Elvis On Stage. I'll probably never know, however, as there are likely 5,000 other people that will be able to afford the $600 before I can. There's also a two disc version and a six disc version that are worth investigating depending on your level of engagement. I will say that based on what I've heard, I'm not sure The Cutting Edge is as essential as Live 1975 and Tell Tale Signs, two Bootleg Series entries that I've played to death. 

More information on the Dylan release and other classic rock super-deluxe stuff from the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and those four lads from Liverpool can be found at The Second Disc, the definitive blog about reissues. Tell them AnEarful sent you.

Moving on...

Dreams of England As I drifted home from an extraordinary night of hearing The Clientele in a special appearance at the Bell House last year, it occurred to me that the band's remarkable career called out for a compilation album of some sort. So, prayers answered, as this year saw the release of Alone And Unreal: The Best of the Clientele, which contains a concise chronological overview of their career, right up to On A Summer Trail, the one-off single they released last year. It's a nearly perfect introduction, showing much of their range. But the fact is they never released a bad song so if you like what you hear follow through on their albums. A nice bonus is the download of The Sound Of Young Basingstoke, a series of proto-Clientele songs by an earlier version of the group. It's a wonderfully hazy set, the germ of the idea put forth on their mature records. 

The Clientele may be unsung but Michael Head & The Strands were very nearly unheard. I was vaguely aware of them in 1998 when their one and only album came out. But how to hear it? It was gone before I had a chance. Now, The Magical World Of The Strands has been reissued and is magically available on all services, leaving me envious of all who have been enjoying it all these years. The Magical World... Is a semi-pastoral Brit-folk song cycle with a touch of Forever Changes psychedelia and Nick Drake melancholia. In short, a classic - welcome back for the very first time. 

California X-Ray Speaking of Forever Changes, there's another Love reissue from High Moon Records, the same people who lovingly resurrected Black Beauty. Unlike that previously unreleased album, however, Reel To Real, was put out by RSO and was meant to be a bid for pop success in 1974. It's Arthur Lee and Love's funkiest album, with horns, clavinet, backup singers, the whole bit. But Lee was always on the real (not the reel) so it can't help but be an x-ray of all of his frustrations and disappointments. For example, there's an almost verbatim cover of William DeVaughn's Be Thankful (For What You've Got) that was apparently a spontaneous moment in the studio. It's convincing enough and shows off Lee's versatility, but also seems somewhat pointless. There's no way his soundalike was going to muscle DeVaughn off the charts. There's also a re-recording of Singing Cowboy that's pretty good but lacks the fire of the original on Four Sail. He insisted on including an irritating gunshot sound effect on You Said You Would that Makes me never want to hear it again. 

But those are just the few low points and oddities. The first half of the record is very strong. Time Is Like A River opens the album in an expansive and soulful way with distinctive horns arranged by Lee, a bit like an uptempo Hi Records number by O.V. Wright. The groove continues from there, with a touch of gospel on Stop The Music and hard funk on Who Are You? And keep listening - while the path to the bonus cuts may be rocky, there are four outtakes that are stronger than You Said You Would and the DeVaughn cover. In the end, it seems that Lee could still put it down but could have used a bit more self-belief. 

Live Legends It's a crazy world where a burning live album by Bob Marley comes out and barely anyone notices. The title, Easy Skanking In Boston 78, probably didn't help. It's actually not a relaxed album at all, with The Wailers tighter than a bank vault and Bob leaning in with revolutionary fervor. You feel satisfied with Live! and Babylon By Bus? Guess again. 

At least Live At The Fillmore East, featuring two ridiculously energetic Sly & The Family Stone concerts from 1968, got more notice. It's a more than fitting way to celebrate Sly winning back $5 million in royalties earlier this year or to mourn the recent passing of Cynthia Robinson, the exuberant trumpet-blowing heart of the band. It will also get the party started - and finish it, too.

As I tried to process the seismic ripples of the death of Dieter Moebius earlier this year I was pleasantly surprised to come across the reissue of Cluster's USA Live. Recorded on tour in 1996 (how did I miss that?), this is a series of involving and atmospheric improvisations each named for where it was recorded. While I wouldn't mind some of the playfulness of landmark works like Rastakraut Pasta and Grosses Wasser, there is an enjoyable dissonance to hearing sleek electronic music named after Eugene, Oregon. If you're unfamiliar with these Krautrock avatars you may want to start with those earlier albums or the absolutely brilliant Cluster & Eno.

Folk-ish Any new entry in Light In The Attic's Michael Chapman series is to be celebrated. Window, his third album, may be the slightest of his first four with one too many throw-away sing-alongs and wayward jams. But his wry voice, bruised-but-unbowed attitude, and sweet picking more than carry the day. The story goes that he meant to re-record the guitar parts after some time on the road, but it's hard to imagine them getting better. I'm not a Richard Thompson fan (sorry) but anybody who is, or who loves other British folk, should catch up with Chapman.

While Sam Beam has moved far beyond the hushed bedroom recordings of early Iron & Wine, it's still a template that hasn't been exhausted. Archives Volume 1 features more home-recordings from the same time that he made The Creek Drank The Cradle, his debut. These songs are even more hushed than those, creating a singular mood. Perhaps a bit too singular, as that mood doesn't vary much over 16 songs, but it's still a must for anyone who has taken comfort from Beam's musical journey.

Electric Eclectic Eccentrics John Foxx was quick to jump on the electronic rock possibilities posited by David Bowie's Berlin albums, releasing the near-classic Metamatic in 1980. 20th Century:The Noise covers his career from 1980-1998, mainly through the prism of rare and unreleased tracks. He's still going, so this is good way to get up to speed.

Adrian Sherwood is one of the great English producers, especially known for his devastating way with dub. Sherwood At The Controls: 1979-1984 compiles his era-defining post punk tracks like Hungry So Angry by Medium Medium or Man Next Door by The Slits, which means it's essential.

The Whole World Dances Some of the funkiest reissues in 2015 had a touch of what used to be called the "exotic." Take Rim Arrives/International Funk by Rim Kwaku Obeng, for example. Obeng was a successful Ghanian percussionist when he was invited to the U.S. by Quincy Jones. A series of reversals led to him being stranded in California, which eventually turned into an opportunity to record his debut, and most of it is Afro-disco gold. If you think Soul Makossa has been a bit overplayed, this is still guaranteed fresh. Then there's 1973-1980 by Amara TourĂ©, a senegalese keyboard player who recorded very infrequently during those years. Analog Africa has done us all a favor by compiling these compelling tracks, especially the first seven, which were recorded with Ensemble Black & White. The songs from 1980, backed by L'Orchestre Massako, are a bit slick for my taste but decide for yourself. 

Like many African musicians, TourĂ© took inspiration from the sounds of Cuba, sounds which became a global sensation with the release of Buena Vista Social Club in 1997. After a live album and many solo albums by Buena Vista stars, we may have finally reached the end of the line with Lost & Found, a collection of live takes and unreleased studio recordings that has more than enough charm to justify its existence. 

For a more indigenous American invitation to the dance, look no further than Disco 2: A Further Fine Selection of Independent Disco, Modern Soul and Boogie 1976-80, another essential compilation from Soul Jazz. Trust me, you will get on the floor if this is spinning. 

A Last Love Supreme When I bought John Coltrane's A Love Supreme for $3.99 on CD years ago, at first I felt triumphant. Then I felt like the cheap nice-price packaging somehow did not do justice to a work that was so much a part of the sax giant's spiritual journey. Now we have A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters, a three CD set with extensive notes, alternate takes, and a live performance originally released in 2002. While a few of the extras are somewhat negligible this nicely done set will give A Love Supreme pride of place in your collection, which is exactly how it should be.

Have a listen to the playlist and keep me in the loop on any music from the past that gave you a blast!

There were also several killer reggae reissues this year, but I'll cover those in an upcoming Reggae & Hip Hop edition of the Best Of 15. 

Coming next: Best Of 15: The Top 20.

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