Saturday, December 24, 2016

2016 In Music Part 1: Reissues, Revivals and Compilations

A selection of 2016's finest reissues, compilations and rediscoveries, in no particular order. One very positive thing about online streaming is virtual crate digging! 

Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker Deluxe Edition 
R.E.M. - Out Of Time 25th Anniversary Edition (Warner Brothers) 
The Afghan Whigs - Black Love 20th Anniversary Edition (Mute) 
Beach Boys - Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary 

'Yeah, all this is being recorded, can you imagine if they actually put this out? I mean, this isn't The Tonight Show'. And yet here it all is, a loose spirited but invaluable appendix to yet another reissue of what consensus still tells us is pop music's greatest recorded statement. It's unlikely that anyone reading this needs a new version of Pet Sounds to remind them of its majesty - but for completists, the 50th Anniversary contains the mono and stereo mixes of the album, instrumental versions of the stereo mixes and a small handful of live recordings that give the lie to the idea of Brian Wilson's work as purely a studio construction. 

The other anniversary editions here are considerably more recent, but still serve as mildly terrifying markers of the rapidity with which time passes. Ryan Adams is still yet to better his debut solo album Heartbreaker - his most assured combination of brazen self confidence (beginning the album with an argument with David Rawlings regarding Morrissey) and lovesick tenderness (it also contains his most subtle and delicate writing). Heartbreaker is much more about strong, imaginative vocal phrasing than it is about posturing or making grand statements. The extras here mix loose outtakes, needless studio jams and the odd essential (Goodbye Honey). 

R.E.M.'s Out Of Time serves as a timely reminder that the commercial pop world can be fickle enough to leave room for revelatory success stories. Looking back now, how on earth is it that R.E.M. were catapulted from dependable arena act to multi-platinum global stars on the back of Losing My Religion - a minor key song with beautifully oblique lyrics about unrequited, perhaps even obsessive, love? The Southern gothic folk of its parent album remains one of rock music's great moments of understatement, restraint and sly artfulness, although the explosions of bubblegum pop on Radio Song and Shiny Happy People still sound slightly out of place. The bonus disc of demos is interesting for seeing the musical and lyrical development in the songs - but also is just how much of the stark quality of the original recordings that the band and producer Scott Litt managed to keep in place. 

The repackaging of Black Love, the greatest album by the greatest incarnation of Greg Dulli's Afghan Whigs, contains the fewest worthwhile extras - but this is one of the great albums of the 90s, all too seldom mentioned as such. Dulli's dark vision, tinged with both unquenchable desire and sexual regret, reached its apotheosis here, and the band found a compelling hybrid of classic Motown soul, slinky funk and intense classic rock that resulted in a new, appropriately turbulent synthesis. 

Erroll Garner - Ready Take One (Columbia) 
One of those releases where it's difficult to know whether to classify it amongst reissues or as a 'new' product. Ready Take One is billed as the first 'new' Erroll Garner album in 20 years and it does indeed gather together previously unreleased material from sessions recorded between 1967 and 1971. The material here is variable - with a somewhat drifting feel with the music sometimes lacking in intensity. Nevertheless, there are also sublime moments when a more inspired and playful Garner cuts through. 

Lee Moses - Time and Place (Future Days Recordings)
Reissued on vinyl by Light In The Attic, this is an irresistible slice of funk groove, with Moses' vocal adding gritty, insistent character and his guitar riffs providing raw urgency. After this album failed to achieve the success Moses sought, it seems his life took an unfortunate route in to depression. There should have been space for this remarkable record on its first release in 1971. 

Tim Buckley - Lady, Give Me Your Key: The Unissued 1967 Solo Acoustic Sessions (Light In The Attic) 
It would be a stretch to describe any of these stripped back solo demos as more essential than any of the existing Tim Buckley releases. However, they do complement the studio albums in illuminating ways, not least in their unmediated emotion, testament to Buckley's considerable communicative gifts. 

Vivien Goldman - Resolutionary Songs (Staubgold) 
Music journalist, scholar, post-punk pioneer - here is a great compilation celebrating the work of Vivien Goldman. The music is collaborative, with Goldman working with both British punk and Jamaican musicians but the vocal delivery and witty narrative lyrics are all Goldman's own. 

Lee Hazlewood - Cowboy In Sweden (Light In The Attic) 
One of many bizarre detours in a surreal and unpredictable career, Hazlewood's Swedish TV show and accompanying soundtrack are lavishly remembered here. It's actually some of his finest music, his resonant baritone is once again softened by the presence of guest vocalists and the lush string arrangements capture something melancholy and insecure amidst the dry humour. 

Big Star - Complete Third (Omnivore/Ardent Music) 
Maybe the most extreme example of the over-expansion of an individual album. I'm not convinced its necessary to own a 60-plus track version of Big Star's most ragged and emotionally involving album but now many of these things can be explored legitimately via online streaming, it is interesting to investigate the processes behind even those album that sound the most devoid of process or concept. Like Bob Dylan's 1966 tour set (see below), these products are perhaps more interesting as historical sources for popular music than as a listening experience in themselves. 

Bob Dylan - 1966: The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert (Columbia) 
Just in case The Cutting Edge set hadn't entirely satiated the Bobcats desire for everything 66 related - here were yet more products. One is a double disc set of the actual Royal Albert Hall (the infamous 'Albert Hall' show of legend actually took place at the Manchester Free Trade Hall and had been released in an earlier edition of the Bootleg Series). The other is an exhaustive box set including every show from the 1966 UK tour. It's completely unaffordable (and surely unnecessary for all but an obsessive completist). Any individual show from this tour is surely worth a listen, however, as a sample of one of the most culturally and musically seismic tours of the entire decade. 

Count Ossie and The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari - Tales of Mozambique (Soul Jazz) 
Influential Rastafarian nyabinghi music, the follow up to 1973's crucial Grounation. Less well known than that earlier release, perhaps, but still rich in spirituality and percussion-dominated groove. 

The Baird Sisters - Until You Find Your Green (Ba Da Bing) 
Originally a vinyl only record store day release in 2014, Ba Da Bing kindly made this haunting, shimmering delight more widely available this year. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first time sisters Laura and Meg Baird have recorded together officially. Meg should be a familiar presence from her major contributions to Espers and Heron Oblivion (one of 2016's most vital bands) and from her similarly dreamlike, gossamer solo albums. Laura Baird has her first solo album due out on Ba Da Bing in 2017. 

Jack White - Acoustic Recordings 1998 - 2016 (Third Man) 
Both Jack White's first career spanning compilation and an offering of an alternative, more narrative focused side to his mythology. 

Shadow - Sweet Sweet Dreams (Analog Africa) 
A genuine collectors' favourite, this 7 track mini album found Trinidadian star Winston Bailey, known as The Mighty Shadow, branching out from pure calypso to explore soukous rhythms and joyful horn arrangements. It would be great to have more of Shadow's work available, not least his magnificent 1977 album Dreadness (among the sounds of my youth thanks to my father's expert global crate digging). 

This Heat - This Heat 
This Heat - Deceit
This Heat - Health & Efficiency 
Camberwell Now - The Ghost Trade (Modern Classics/Light In The Attic)
With a not-nostalgic not-quite-reunion of This Heat playing live shows this year, this seemed like the perfect occasion for a necessary revaluation of Charles Hayward's extraordinary, still potent work. Don't ignore the 19 minute 'single' Health & Efficiency, as it's every bit as distinctive, angular and powerful as the albums. Also, the much less lauded Camberwell Now project is superb and deserves to be heard by fresh ears. 

The Associates - Sulk Deluxe Edition
The Associates - Fourth Drawer Down Deluxe Edition (BMG)
It's been satisfying to see a little more writing about The Associates this year around these deluxe editions. One of the most important acts of the 1980s, Alan Rankine and Billy Mackenzie are too little discussed. Sulk, particularly, is a masterpiece, the perfect union of Mackenzie's extravagant, theatrical vocal flourishes with Rankine's evocative, sometimes menacing synthesiser soundscapes. 

Various Artists - Close To The Noise Floor (Cherry Red) 
Exhaustive compilation of formative UK electronica, some of it brutal, some of it mechanistic, some of it mesmerising, all of it at one point innovative. 

Various Artists - Greg Belson's Divine Disco (Cultures of Soul) 
This is one of my favourite releases of the year - an irresistible slice of 70s gospel praise music for dancing. It's just a shame that it's so brief at just seven tracks. It features inspired vocal performances and energising grooves. It's quite some distance even from traditional gospel church music, a fascinating context for worship. 

Various Artists - Boogie Breakdown: South African Synth Disco 80-84 (Cultures of Soul)
Much like the Divine Disco compilation, this is a frustratingly brief set, but it packs great, infectious party music in to its concise running time. One of the great things about these compilations is they can introduce us to national music scenes to which we have otherwise been denied access. 

Various Artists - Why The Mountains Are Black: Primeval Greek Village Music 1907-1960 (Third Man)
Astounding compilation of Greek village folk music curated by Christopher King from his private 78rpm archive and released by Jack White's Third Man label. The music here can seem menacing or frightening - perhaps hence the title, but it is also celebratory. 

Various Artists - Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music (Numero)
The moniker 'cosmic American music' might be a spurious way of drawing these disparate artists together but it results in a evocative and compelling collection. It does also have its roots in an idea - that kind of transcendent Americana pursued by Gene Clark on No Other - music that has subsequently gone on to inspire the likes of Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket amongst many others. This is off the beaten track country music - imaginatively produced and veering well beyond the familiar dirt roads. 

Various Artists - Soul Jazz Presents Boombox 1 (Soul Jazz) 
A fine, hugely enjoyable collection of early block party hip hop. Superb breaks and mildly cringeworthy rhymes galore. 

Various Artists - Soul Jazz Presents New Orleans Funk 4: Voodoo Fire in New Orleans (Soul Jazz) 
This series continues to unearth brilliant rewards from the familiar (Dave Bartholomew's hit 'The Monkey') to the unheralded (Gus 'The Groove' Lewis' superb 'Let The Groove Move You', James K-Nine's 'Live It Up'). As its subtitle suggests, this compilation draws deep link between the music of New Orleans and its broader culture and history.  

Various Artists - Kenya Special Vol. 2 (Soundway) 
Another excellent compilation from Soundway, focusing once again on the music of Kenya, and introducing me to a number of artists previously unknown to me. Highlights include The Lulus Band's wonderful I Can Feel It (a joyous, celebratory take on the apocalypse), the scratchy porto-disco of Joseph Kamaru's Mukarara Nake and African Vibration's Hinde, incorporating drum machines and electronic production techniques.  

Various Artists - Bobo Yeye: Belle Epoque in Upper Volta (Numero) 
A beautiful compendium from Numero, combining a hardbound monograph with 3 CDs of rare and enriching music, documenting the music, culture and social context of Upper Volta in the 1970s. 

Various Artists - Bitori (Legend of Fuana - Forbidden Music of Cape Verde Islands) (Analog Africa) 
An informative and valuable reissue of Victor Bittori's ceaselessly energetic 1975 recording, believed to be among the greatest Fuana recordings. A brilliant introduction to music previously unknown to me - it's impossible to hear this music and not want to move. 

Various Artists - Space Echo (The Mystery Behind The Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed) (Analog Africa) 
A great compilation of remarkably sci-fi sounding music that comes with the legendary story of a cosmic shipwreck of musical instruments on the island of Cabo Verde. Fascinating and invigorating in equal measure. 

Various Artists - Nigeria Soul Fever - Afro Funk, Disco and Boogie: West African Disco Mayhem (Soul Jazz) 
Thrilling compilation of West African dance music beyond Fela. Righteous grooves. Joni Haastrap's Free My People is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. 

Various Artists - Wake Up You! The Rise & Fall of Nigerian Rock (1972-1977) (Now-Again) 
Remarkably intense and electrified music - the power of full throttle rock and roll with a distinctively West African rhythmic approach. 

Various Artists - The Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe 1970-1986 (Light In The Attic) 
A necessary corrective to Brexit fever and a reminder (if any were needed) that kosmische European art music is very fertile ground indeed. Music patient enough to allow for reflection and mystery. 

Various Artists - The Music of Morocco Recorded by Paul Bowles (Dust To Digital) 
The best of a number of vital sets released by Dust To Digital in 2016 - now one of the best imprints for those looking to rediscover buried treasure. This set of field recordings made in Morocco by the author and musician Paul Bowles feels like more than music - a direct slice of life as it is being lived.  

Terry Reid - The Other Side Of The River 
Seed of Memory and The River remain two of my all time favourite albums. Sets like this, which tells an alternative story of The River, ought to help introduce more people to Reid's languid, expressive songwriting. He should no longer be seen as rock's nearly man (for not quite joining Led Zeppelin) and should instead be regarded as one of its most unfairly neglected figures. 

Manuel Gottsching E2-E4 - 35th Anniversary Edition (MG. ART) 
One of the most important electronic albums of all time - pioneering, hypnotic and completely essential. 

Larry Levan - Genius of Time (Universal) 
A great double CD set that gives those of us too young to know first-hand a pretty clear idea of what a night at The Paradise Garage would have been like. As well as Levan's skills with remixing and added effects, there's also plenty of evidence here of his own inherent musicality. 

Cluster - 1971-1981 (Bureau B) 
Expensive, lavish 9LP box set of German electronic innovators Cluster's major recordings over a ten year period. It is worth noting that much of this material is available individually on iTunes or Spotify (with new download versions due in January too). This is an intriguing evolutionary journey in the life of a band. 

Sun Ra - Singles (Strut) 
This massive 65 track compilation is pretty extraordinary - displaying a side of Sun Ra completely removed from the vanguard improvisation of his many long form album statements. Much of this is basically pop music - concise collaborations with vocalists, swing dance pieces and infectious melodies. This being Sun Ra, however, it's all executed in a very artful way. Also includes Nuclear War - still worryingly relevant as 2016 draws to a close. The Sun Ra catalogue is dauntingly vast but, alongside the Marshall Allen compilation from last year, this is a comfortable place to start. 

Syrinx - Tumblers From The Vault (RVNG International) 
This set collects Syrinx's two albums plus some unheard music from the vaults, making it both an introduction to this somewhat bizarre and fascinating band and a comprehensive overview. One of the first bands to utilise the Moog synthesiser, Syrinx's music is rendered otherworldly not just by the sounds of that instrument, but also by the unconventional trio context of the whole ensemble - drums, saxophone and Moog is a curious line up. 

Miles Davis - Freedom Jazz Dance (Columbia) 
Another one of those exhaustive compilations that might be of greater interest to students of music and musicologists than to the more general audience, Freedom Jazz Dance, compiling every known take from the Miles Smiles sessions, provides some unusually intimate insight in to the jazz recording process. 

Annette Peacock and Paul Bley - Dual Unity (Light In The Attic)
One of the strangest and most beguiling records to have emerged from jazz - this is surreal, mysterious, magical and enveloping. So good to have it widely available again. 

Neil Young - Time Fades Away (Reprise) 
It's utterly typical of Neil Young to finally re-issue one of his handful of long out of print, unavailable recordings in such a way as for no-one to really notice. First reissued on limited vinyl run for Record Store Day (groan) and then later as a digital release, the gloriously loose, free wheeling Time Fades Away is no longer among the holy grail of rock recordings. 

Terry Allen - Lubbock (On Everything) (Paradise Of Bachelors) 
Terry Allen - Juarez (Paradise Of Bachelors)  
Two very different albums from the visual artist turned singer-songwriter offering a unique perspective on the outlaw country genre. The results are somewhere between Johnny Cash and Tom Waits-esque cabaret. Allen's dry vocals are a great vehicle for this kind of storytelling.

Betty Davis - The Columbia Years (Light In The Attic) 
If Betty Davis was indeed responsible for opening Miles Davis' mind to psychedelia and rock, she played a crucial role in the development of modern music without even recording a note of her own. And yet, she also made some brilliantly lascivious and dirty funk albums. These demo recordings, sketching initial ideas and re-interpretations, made with members of both Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix's band. It's a very loose, spontaneous and unrehearsed set of recordings, but it provides some insight into a relationship of reciprocal inspiration. 

Betty Harris - The Queen of New Orleans Soul (Soul Jazz) 
Some of these tracks have already appeared on earlier Soul Jazz New Orleans compilations, but Harris certainly deserves a complete set in her own right. This captures all her work with Allen Toussaint as producer and arranger, utilising the considerable skills of The Meters as a house band. With Harris also a compelling singer, this set is vital. 

Blind Alfred Reed - Appalachian Visionary (Dust To Digital)
Bruce Springsteen adapted Reed's How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live for his Seeger Sessions project in 2006. It's included here in Reed's surprisingly jaunty delivery among many other delights of American empathetic storytelling and folk ballads. 

Judy Henske and Jerry Yester - Farewell Aldebaran (Omnivore) 
A bizarre and brilliant 1969 album, originally issued on Frank Zappa's Straight label. It's so wild as to be almost incoherent (it certainly is disorientating), although Henske's vocals and lyrics somehow tie it all together. A compelling curio more than worthy of rediscovery. 

Bert Jansch - Avocet (Earth Recordings)
Bert Jansch's twelfth album from 1979 - an outstanding trio set with Danny Thompson and Martin Jenkins on violin, the exquisite mandocello and flute. The unpredictable twists and turns of the lengthy title track are especially memorable. A brilliant combination of tradition and experimentation. 

Califone - Roomsound (Dead Oceans)
15th anniversary reissue of Califone's inspired 2001 debut, which began life as another Red Red Meat album before morphing in to a different project. Califone have always been a band interested in sound and texture and this is all evident here. There's also a bonus LP of previously unreleased material that is worth exploring. One of the most underrated bands of this time. 

Harry Beckett - Still Happy (My Only Desire) 
Trumpeter Harry Beckett moved to the UK from Barbados in the 1950s and became a major lynchpin of the great era of British jazz in the 60s and 70s. Still Happy is right in my personal space as far as improvised music is concerned - driving rock grooves create intensity but leave plenty of space for contemplation. It's a previously unreleased set, drawn from a 1974 radio session, but it works entirely well as an album.  

John Surman - Westering Home (A Wing & A Prayer) 
John Surman - Morning Glory (A Wing & A Prayer) 
The first ever authorised reissues of these two key 70s John Surman albums. Like the Harry Beckett radio set Still Happy, here was have some prime examples of one of the most inventive and distinctive periods of UK jazz. Westering Home in part foreshadows the explorations of folk and chamber jazz that Surman would investigate more thoroughly when working with Manfred Eicher and ECM, although Morning Glory (which followed it) returned him to more robust musical territory.  Both capture his wistful, melancholic melodic sensibility. 

Washington Phillips - Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dream (Dust To Digital) 
This music is wonderful - old gospel songs from 78rpm discs, but delivered in an entirely unique and otherworldly manner. Phillips' voice is gentle and lilting, and the songs are played on a handmade instrument. A dream of heaven. 

Jack Rose - Jack Rose (Three Lobed)
Jack Rose - I Do Play Rock and Roll (Three Lobed)
Jack Rose - Dr Ragtime and His Pals (Three Lobed)
Jack Rose - The Black Dirt Sessions (Three Lobed)
Jack Rose - Opium Musik (Vhf)
Jack Rose - Red Horse, White Mule (Vhf)  
Part of a laudable and necessary collaborative project between Three Lobed and other labels to bring the full catalogue of the late, great guitarist Jack Rose back in to print. Given that Rose's music seems to be the glue binding together an exciting scene of improvising American folk musicians, it's great that his influence and legacy is finally being recognised more widely. 

Johnnie Frierson - Have You Been Good To Yourself (Light In The Attic) 
Another piece of brilliant unearthing from Light In The Attic, there's something resonant and affecting about these original acoustic gospel songs. At the time of recording, Frierson was apparently struggling after his time in the military and the death of his son. These recordings were originally released under the name Khafele Ojore Ajanaku whilst Frierson also hosted a gospel radio show and worked as a mechanic and teacher. Apparently, a second album called Real Education was also found at the same time. It's not yet clear whether Light In The Attic also have plans to release this. 

Gillian Welch - Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg (Acony)
A reminder that Welch and Rawlings had their approach honed pretty much from the beginning. This excellent collection combines alternate takes of songs from the Revival album with eight previously unreleased songs. 

John Cale - Music For A New Society (Domino/Double Six)
At last, this superb album, arguably Cale's finest solo work, has been made widely available once more. It's a stunning work - one that somehow feels simultaneously wide open and enclosed. It's a great shame that the accompanying work reworking its material, M:FANS, was so horrendously overworked and sonically oppressive. 

Van Morrison - It's Too Late To Stop Now (Sony) 
One of the greatest live albums of all time gets righteously expanded to a 4 volume set and is of course absolutely essential. The way Morrison and his band provoke and encourage each other to ever greater intensity is so thrilling. Morrison's songs remain great healers, although in this context they also become more fiery and urgent too. 

David Bowie - Who Can I Be Now? (Jones/Tintoretto Entertainment) 
A big follow-up to Five Years, the core of this box set is comprised of remastered versions of my favourite Bowie albums (Young Americans and Station to Station - also Diamond Dogs). This might be considered a transitional or experimental period, but the searching resulted in some of his best work, reflective and innovative at the same time. The box also gathers together plenty of alternate takes and unreleased material to satiate Bowie completists. 


Julius Eastman - Femenine (Frozen Reeds) 
Much more than just a simple reissue - this is a fantastic presentation of a recording once thought lost forever. Julius Eastman, part of the same open-minded, cross-genre music and culture scene in which Arthur Russell also moved, created some crucial minimalist compositions (often giving them then provocative titles such as 'Gay Guerilla' in keeping with his courageous celebration of his identity as a black gay man) but later languished in obscurity (and, sadly it also seems, depression and difficult economic circumstances). Admirers of Russell's Instrumentals discs (and, indeed, Eastman served as conductor for Russell's Tower of Meaning) will also find plenty to admire here, a defiantly stoical 70 minute piece that encourages listeners to be attentive for small details and nuances. A set of sleigh bells plays rigorously and continuously for the entire piece, apparently performed by a contraption of Eastman's own devising - Feminine combines a brilliantly sustained mood with subtle transitions and experiments.

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