Saturday, January 28, 2017

Best Of 2016: Reissues

While 2016 had few precious moments of downtime between great new records, there were still a few reissues and other sounds of the past that forced their way into my listening. The jury is still out on Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, however. Thirty-six discs of concerts from that earth-shattering year might just be overkill even for a massive Dylan fan like me. Granted, it's a bargain at less than $3/disc, but what I'v heard so far was not as strong as Bob Dylan Live 1966, which was released nearly 20 years ago. Let me know if you plow through all of it and feel differently. There's also the matter of The Beatles Live At The Hollywood Bowl - while I'm still desperate to see the movie, I'll stick with Atlanta 1965 when I want a blast of the Fabs at their best. From performance, to sequencing, to over-done remixing, Hollywood Bowl is a highly compromised document.

The Big Boxes

Erik Satie & Friends - Original Albums Collection Like the Dylan live box, this is also a bargain, 13 discs for about $30, and it's filled with wonderful music. First of all, you get several different recordings of Satie's best-known piano pieces by under-recognized artists like William Masselos and Daniel Varsano. Second, you get many rarities, like Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhome en bois (Sketches and Enticements of a Fat Wooden Man), a three-movement suite for piano. You also get valuable context, with compositions by mentors, colleagues, and proteges like Debussy, Milahud, Ravel, and Poulenc. With recordings spanning 1930 - 1979 you can compare and contrast performance styles over the decades. The packaging is also great, made up delightful miniatures of the original albums. Squint your eyes and read some of the liner notes to marvel at the fact that once a case had to made for Satie's value as a composer. That he was far ahead of his time is not in doubt. As Jean Cocteau said "Satie teaches the greatest audacity of our epoch - that of being simple," which is one reason he resonates so much with the great popular music of our epoch.

Pink Floyd - The Early Years 1965-1972 Nothing simple about this massive undertaking, which includes 11 CDs, 8 Blu-ray Discs, 9 DVDs, 5 seven-inch vinyl singles, and over 40 items of memorabilia. All of this material gives ample opportunity to focus on both the achievement of Syd Barrett but also Pink Floyd's least understood period, the time between their debut album and Dark Side of the Moon. The new remastering I've heard is fantastic, sharpening up the sound, but also making it somehow more accessible. The live and alternate takes seem to have been chosen with care, and even with all the bootlegs I have, there is plenty that I've never heard before. The set also contains the first ever official audio only release of Live At Pompeii, which is a beautifully recorded snapshot of their performance style on the eve of DSOTM. Here's hoping the next set is as generous with the amazing concerts where they road-tested that album months before it came out.

Cluster - 1971-1981 Although they never crossed over into popular success like Kraftwerk, Cluster was certainly one of the most important German bands of the "Krautrock" movement. This crucial nine disc set puts all of their marvels in one place and allows one to trace their evolution from Art Gallery experimentalists to creators of music of great beauty and wit. One can even hear echoes of Satie in the limpid piano playing of Hans-Joachim Roedelius. The glossy surface of Cluster & Eno, the first of two albums they made with that avatar of ambient, is still stunning after all these years, and the second, After The Heat, contains Eno songs as good as on Before And After Science. The final disc of the set contains two previously unreleased live recordings, from 1972 and 1977, which proves how closely they clung to first principles throughout their career, even as the albums embraced more rock elements. The liner notes by Asmus Tietchens are also a treat. For example, discussing 1979's Grosses Wasser,  he writes: "Whilst nothing is left to chance, each of the six Cluster pieces effervesces with a certain joie de vivre, providing ample scope for artistic spontaneity. Above all, one can hear that, as the saying goes, less is more." When you consider that Roedelius and his partner Dieter Moebius were also mainly responsible for the output of Harmonia, which had an enormous influence on David Bowie, it becomes ever more obvious how important they were. Kudos to bureau b for this landmark collection.

Rock & Pop

Led Zeppelin - Complete BBC Sessions It's hard to imagine anything improving this set, which lived on my iPod for years in its original two-disc incarnation. But if you haven't heard it yet this new three-disc version is a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with some of the most seismic music ever. OK, Jimmy, how about some 1975 concerts now? Or new music??

Big Star - Complete Third Take the full ride to the creation of one of the great almost-was albums of the 70's. I've heard the packaging is less than stellar but the liner notes are well worth your time.

Arthur Lee & Love - Coming Through To You: The Live Recordings 1970-2004 I always say if you're a fan, you can add one star. I'm a huge fan of Love so I would give this uneven set four stars if I used them - but I would hardly recommend a new listener start here. Lee is one of the most contradictory figures in rock, mainly because he seemed to turn his back on the delicate chamber psych of Forever Changes to embrace a harder-edged sound heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix. The fact is that if you look at his career as a whole, it's Forever Changes that is the anomaly, but one he returned to in the 2000's, performing it with expert replicators Baby Lemonade and a chamber orchestra. That's on disc three and some of it is quite good. Vocal inconsistencies mar some of the songs but he seems to be enjoying the adulation for his lost masterpiece, without any of the contempt I've noticed on other concerts from this period. Disc one is my favorite, though, focusing on the vital period following the release of Four Sail, which I hold in as high a regard as Forever Changes. If you're a lover of Love this is essential, just be prepared for some patchy sound quality and shaky performances throughout. 

Elliott Smith - Heaven Adores You (Soundtrack) It's hard to listen to any Elliott Smith without retroactive foreshadowing of his tragic early death, but that's even more true of this sensitively compiled album of fragments, demos, and live recordings. I still need to see the movie but this collection serves as a good reminder that there was always more to him than the mopey troubadour. Like Kurt Cobain, the angst wouldn't have meant much without an astonishing gift for melody. 

Gary Wright's Wonderwheel - Ring Of Changes Don't laugh - I still rock Love Is Alive on a party mix and Dreamweaver is deathless AM radio psychedelia and proto synth-pop. This previously unreleased album is from a few years before those 70's juggernauts and finds Wright and future-Foreigner Mick Jones pursuing an almost cookie-cutter classic rock sound, only the format hadn't been invented yet. This is in no way unfinished, but is rather a fully polished production with layers of keyboards, guitars, and backing vocals. Based on the sound alone, I would say it's nearly as much Jones's album as Wright's. If I were going to put on my A&R hat I might say I don't hear the killer single, but Goodbye Sunday is filled with yearning and has some tasty George Harrison slide guitar, almost sounding like a more polished Big Star, and Creation is a mini-epic with some great harmonies, a soaring chorus, and guitar riffs galore. Take a great trip to a past that never quite existed. 

The Clientele - A Sense Of Falling: Strange Geometry Outtakes When one of your favorite bands goes quiet, you depend on little bonuses like this. Featuring five unreleased songs and an instrumental version of Losing Haringey, this is about as exquisite a 22 minutes of music as you will find. Standouts are When We Last Spoke, which has that wonderful conversational style Alasdair MacLean perfected, and Spanish Night, an intensely delicate skein of acoustic guitars. Come back, Alasdair!

Various Artists - New York Noise: Dance Music From The New York Underground 1977-1982 Sometime in the early 80's, Mike Diamond and I worked our connections to gain entrance to the apartment of rock critic Chip Stern. We heard he was selling promo copies for cheap - and it was true. I remember scoring a white-label advance copy of Remain In Light and Soapsuds, Soapsuds by Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden (you gotta hear their take on the Mary Hartman theme!) but Mike was quick on the draw and grabbed up No New York, a landmark collection of punk funk produced by Brian Eno. I was jealous at the time but this is even better - one song each from DNA, Material, The Bush Tetras, The Contortions, Mars, and more - practically everyone who made the Mudd Club great. This is also James Murphy's Rosetta Stone and, because it's on Soul Jazz, I'm sure the book is filled with great pictures and liner notes that make all the right connections. 

Soul, Funk, Gospel

Betty Harris - The Lost Queen Of New Orleans Soul Think Lee Dorsey's sister and you'll get some idea of the quality of this welcome collection, especially the first half. Dorsey might have gotten the more indelible material but that just means Harris has to work harder and she sings the hell out of the first six tracks. Also, she still has producer-songwriter Allen Toussaint on her side, which is almost always a can't-lose proposition - ditto for house band The Meters. The killer opening cut, There's A Break In The Road, is a case in point. It features some ill feedback and is practically a concerto for drummer Zigaboo Modaliste - it must be heard to be believed. Harris also goes head to head with Dorsey on Ride Your Pony and it's a photo finish. She gets softer - even maternal - on the latter half of the compilation but does nothing to belie its title. Another Soul Jazz special.

Betty Davis - The Columbia Years While this unfinished material doesn't come up to the quality of Betty Davis or They Say I'm Different, it's a fascinating, fun, and funky window into her development as an artist. We also get a taste of her then-husband Miles Davis's style as a producer: "Sing it just like that, with the gum in your mouth and all," he rasps before Politician Man kicks off. This may be for fans only, but if you've heard those other records, there's a good chance you are a fan. 

Johnnie Frierson - Have You Been Good To Yourself Frierson was a minor player at Stax Records who was taken out of the game by military service. In the 90's he recorded these songs in his living room and distributed them himself on cassette. Now, these rough-hewn and committed performances are getting a well-deserved shot at a wider audience. The propulsive title track is the star, an empathetic self-help treatise in song ("Have you been getting eight hours?"), but there are no false notes on this brief collection of spirited gospel. Be good to your ears and give this a listen. 

Reggae & International Sounds

Various Artists - Tape Rolling! Featuring productions by Bunny Lee from 1971-74 this is a typically great Pressure Sounds collection of roots reggae. There are a couple of familiar tunes (Man Next Door, Cherry Oh Baby) but most of it is off the beaten path - and just as good as those classics. They even managed to find three Cornell Campbell songs that aren't on the spectacular two-disc Natty Dread anthology, which is now sadly out of print. Prepare to be transported. 

The Wailers - The Wailing Wailers These early cuts by Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley have been reissued many, many times in various forms and varying sound quality. So it's nice to have their first album in the original sequence with the original cover and in smashing sound. Simmer Down never sounded spicier. 

Bob Marley & The Wailers - The Legend Live Flash forward to 1979 and you have Marley in his world-beating years, recorded at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. This is a valuable release as it contains more material from Survival, a slightly overlooked album, than any other official live album. However, I'm not sure it's as sharp as performances from Minneapolis, Wisconsin, or Boston from the same tour - do a little digging a see what you think. The show was professionally filmed - and quite well, too - and a DVD is included. Caveat Emptor: The set list on the CD is missing two songs - but you can hear it all on Spotify

Various Artists - Power To The People! A Survey of Zimbabwe's 70's Revolutionary Rock Scene It's become clearer over their years that rock & roll was international from its very beginning. This intriguing collection from Now-Again Records also further proves that where stakes are high the music thrives. All the bands here are tight, anthemic and just slightly off-kilter. Like reggae, which had some of its roots in sounds that blew in on the trade winds from New Orleans, much of the interest lies in how they get it "wrong," sometimes by being unable to avoid the influence of their own traditions. So let Wells Fargo, Stars Of Liberty, et al, school you with unique take on 70's sounds on this brief sampler, which is fortunately a harbinger of more extensive work by Now-Again Records to come in this area. If you're impatient for more, check out the first-ever release of the debut from Wells Fargo, available at Rappcats or by joining Vinyl Me Please

Odion Iruoje - Down To Earth This one and only album by the self-proclaimed Sound President is getting a much-deserved re-airing by Soundway Records after an extremely limited release in 1983. An accomplished Nigerian producer who had worked with Fela in the early 70's, among many others, Iruoje tackles everything from updated Afrobeat to Juju to disco on the six tracks. The first track also features a rapper (perhaps Tunji Oyelana?) who is surprisingly facile by the standards of the day. Too bad Sylvia Robinson didn't get the message (pun intended) at Sugar Hill Records! It's also too bad that Iruoje didn't make more albums. 

José Mauro - Obnoxius Brazil is almost as bottomless a source of great musical discoveries as Africa and Jamaica. This full-fledged Tropicalia masterpiece from 1970, features production that is sometimes lush and sometimes wacky - often at the same time. There's nothing obnoxious about Mauro's suave tenor, though, even when he seems terminally amused by whatever he's singing about. The songs are often like little suites, moving from section to section in a series of left turns that always come full-circle. My Portuguese is non-existent but in titles like Talisma, Apocalipse, and Exaltação e Lamento do Ultimo Rei, I detect religious themes. No girls from Ipanema in sight, but don't shy away as this lost classic occupies a nice middle ground between Jobim and Os Mutantes. 

Soundtracks & Soundscapes

Ryuichi Sakamoto - Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence Unlike that other David Bowie movie whose soundtrack went unreleased until 2016, this one was obviously an instant classic from first hearing. For years we had to be satisfied with the beautiful suite Sakamoto arranged for his Playing The Orchestra album. Now we have every theme from Nagisa Oshima's brilliant film, each little minimalist piece incrementally drawing you into the psychological warfare at the heart of the film. Some of the synth tones are a bit of their time (1983) but it's a worthwhile journey nonetheless. A nice bonus is Forbidden Colors, the vocal version of the theme featuring the dulcet tones of David Sylvian.

Tod Dockstader - From The Archives This is truly a labor of love for Thomas Steenland, who founded Starkland Records in the 90's to give proper release to the music of electronic pioneer Dockstader. This album consists of 15 never-before-heard tracks, the cream of thousands of pieces left behind when Dockstader died in 2015. He was a master of texture, combining bell-like sounds with serrated patterns, for example, and creating as distinctive a sound as greats like Brian Eno and Laurie Spiegel. Each short piece asks you to confront the emotional complexities of sheer sound: this piece is unsettling, you might note - but why? Where does abstraction connect with cultural mores and biographical experience to create moods and initiate narratives? In this way, Dockstader's elemental work is much like abstract paintings, for example by Rothko or Rinehart. This fascinating album is a tribute to Dockstader's memory and a great opportunity to reengage with an artist who was uncompromising toward the end. We owe Steenland and Starkland a true debt of gratitude - start paying it back by making a little room in your life for this music.

Listen to a track from each album below or in this playlist. There are also more things to discover in the complete Of Note In 2016 (Reissues) playlist. What music shouldered its way out of the past and into your life this year?

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Best Of 2016: Classical
Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.

This post is my last retrospective look at 2016. Coming soon: a rundown of some upcoming releases and a guide to getting AnEarful of the music you need in 2017.

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