Putting together “best of” lists at the end of every year can be tedious work for a music critic. Let’s be honest though, it’s also a lot of fun to dig through your tower of promos from the last year and recall the albums that truly made you feel something. This is a lot of fun and new artists deserve to have the spotlight on them if they make a great album. But something that impresses in an almost entirely different way than one solid album is the extensive artistry and work that goes into reissuing older albums and box sets, especially in a time when most people don’t even purchase physical albums anymore. For a record label to devote so much time and money into reissuing something, it’s a gamble.
With so many “best of” lists piling up at the end of the year, the box sets, reissues, and previously unreleased albums are inevitably overlooked. This seems unfair, which is why we have once again put together our own list highlighting these releases. If you even try to keep up with the amount of albums that are reissued (not all of them good) each year, than you know it’s impossible to put together a definitive “best of”. That’s why Glide’s Doug Collette, Neil Ferguson, and Lee Zimmerman have each picked out a selection of releases that they believe are worth buying, or at the very least are essential listening. This list is in no particular order, but all of these albums – some more high profile than others – need to be heard. Cheers to 2015, another excellent year for reissues!
Grateful Dead – Thirty Trips Around the Sun (Grateful Dead Production)
As the first notes of “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks” pan back and forth in the stereo spectrum, this four CD set cull from the latest Grateful Dead archive gargantua, Thirty Trips Around the Sun, gets off to a rousing start. The lone studio track (appearing on a gold 7-in vinyl 45 in the limited edition of eighty discs or USB), within a collection of tracks from each of the thirty shows included in the larger set, gives way to an elevating intensity Jerry Garcia ratchets up even further as he leads the headlong charge of the band on concert cuts from 1966 and 1967: “Cream Puff War” and “Viola Lee Blues.” And by the time those cuts end, the thought arises that this career-spanning collection stands as something like a chronicle of contemporary rock and roll as much as homage to what’s arguably its most enduring band. -Doug Collette (D.C.)
Son Volt – Trace 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Rhino Records)
After the seminal alt-country/Americana band Uncle Tupelo dissolved following the ironically-titled (?) Anodyne of 1993, co-founder Jay Farrar (READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH JAY) established Son Volt as a means to continue the pioneering of American roots music. The well-prepared and stylish twentieth anniversary package of their debut album from Rhino Records, Trace, both extends and deepens the process of exploration. Farrar produced the reissue and was involved in the remastering of the original eleven track studio album, so it’s little surprise both the acoustic and electric textures of guitars, fiddle and banjo now have an almost tactile presence that makes the emotion even more resonant within lyrics of songs such as “Windfall” and “Tear-Stained Eye”. –D.C.
Nils Lofgren – Nils Lofgren (Real Gone Music)
For Lofgren’s first solo album (which has come to be known as “Fat Man” based on the front cover image) upon the dissolution of his band Grin, he displays a tough but tender gift for composition mirrored in his guitar and keyboard playing as well as his singing. All of this is recorded with an appropriate simplicity. The Real Gone label demonstrates the discerning eye and ear of a fan with the preparation and release of titles in expanded form such as this and it’s little wonder the artist himself contributes an essay and photos to the package. –D.C.
Jeff Beck Group – Rough & Ready/The Orange Album (Iconoclassic)
The comparatively low-profile reissue by Iconoclassic belies the care taken in the remastering and repackaging of these 1971 & 1972 albums. The stellar sound illuminates the uncanny logic in the playing of the iconic guitarist as much as the fluid interaction of his hand-picked ensemble, while well-wrought essays delineate how the chronological timeline of the records themselves led inexorably to the watershed that was Blow by Blow. –D.C.
Miles Davis – At Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Legacy)
Virtually all of the music in this box set is previously unreleased and accurately illustrates how, over the course of a twenty year period, The Man With the Horn’s appearances at the seminal festival charted a course for contemporary jazz at large. And, as revealed in the additional content of the package, it’s a progression all the more wondrous considering the personages populating Miles’ bands: from Coltrane, Cannonball and Bill Evans, to Hancock, Carter, Shorter and Williams (all in the same group!?) –D.C.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival (Legacy)
In front of the largest audience he would ever entertain (around 300,000-400,000 people), the iconic guitar hero used a select few numbers from his early days to erect a new persona for himself. Ably aided and abetted by drummer Mitch Mitchell and old Army buddy Billy Cox on bass, Hendrix presented himself as the contemporary bluesman he really was at this point in his career. Tragically, this 1970 appearance took place just about two months before his untimely death. –D.C.
Sly and The Family Stone – Live at The Fillmore East October 4th & 5th, 1968 (Legacy)
On their own terms, these four shows at the now defunct legendary venue not only exhibit a logic all their own, but also set the stage for the group’s triumphant appearance at the Woodstock Festival the following year. Woodstock was a performance only slightly more galvanizing than these exploratory shows where the band completes the final stages of its maturation by experimenting with pop, blues, R&B and rock to find exactly what moved audiences (and themselves) most deeply. –D.C.
The Allman Brothers Band – Idlewild South Deluxe Edition (Universal Music Group)
The ABB’s second studio album proved to be a watershed for the nascent icons of Southern rock. The emergence of guitarist Dickey Betts as a composer brought country elements into greater prominence within the rough and tumble blues-rock style on their debut, via “Revival,” even as his seminal instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” enhanced the sophistication of their improvisation approach. Meanwhile, under the wizened tutelage of producer Tom Dowd, the group’s well-honed musicianship benefited from both polish and depth, qualities that extend into the preparation of this reissue which, in addition to studio outtakes, also features the complete “Live at Ludlow Garage,” now boasting sound that matches the stellar level of performance. –D.C.
Phish – Amsterdam (Jemp Records)
It matters less if the impact of this latest archival release derives from the cumulative effect of its equally potent predecessors or from the title itself. The fact is, even as the quartet continues to evolve, performances such as these remind us ever so clearly of the previous pinnacle(s) of their work and how they compare to present day concerts. The sense of purpose evinced by Phish in their return to the Netherlands in 1997 is, not coincidentally, reminiscent of the deliberation they’ve applied to their career since regrouping in 2009. –D.C.
Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers Deluxe Edition (UMe)
Part of the iconic band’s effort to rescue this 1971 album from the shadow of Exile on Main Street, this two-CD set offered multiple distinctions. Remastering added just enough extra separation in the instrumental mix, and while most of the studio outtakes simply sounded like early works in progress, the take of “Brown Sugar,” with Eric Clapton on guitar, is a fully-formed rendition markedly more commercial than the album track. But the coup de grace is the handful of live cuts from an appearance at the Marquee Club in London, proving once again (as if it were necessary) that the Stones as a live unit were at their absolute peak at this point in their career. –D.C.
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Ork Records: New York, New York (Numero Group)
Amidst what one can only imagine was a bit of a drugged out haze come 49 songs that play like a wet dream for anyone who’s ever desperately wished they could go back to the dirty streets and clubs of lower Manhattan in the late Seventies. Many names would be placed upon the styles of music that would evolve out of the Ork Records scene but, simply put, this is rock and roll in one of its realest forms. This scene was the context for what was one of the first American indie labels to showcase punk rock: Ork Records. The label’s archives are the subject of the beautiful new box set from the documentarians at Numero Group. For this reason, Numero Group’s latest release should be required listening (and reading) for any aspiring musician looking to make a mark with a few songs and scrappy band. -Neil Ferguson (N.F.)
Denny Lile – Hear The Bang (Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum Records)
Denny Lile was a young singer-songwriter of exceedingly impressive talent in the 1970s, known throughout his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky as an artist poised for the big time. But he had to get there first, and even though he wrote songs that were later recorded by country stars like Waylon Jennings (“Fallin’ Out”), Lile’s life was never quite stable as he fell into alchoholism before ultimately succombing to the disease in 1995 at the young age of 44. Luckily for us, Big Legal Mess has reissued Lile’s amazing 1972 album Hear The Bang. Listening to Hear The Bang is a simultaneously enlightening and troubling experience in that it is an introduction to an artist capable of making incredible music, yet an artist who, based on the quick decline in his professional and personal life, probably only achieved a fraction of his capabilities. –N.F.
Tennessee Ernie Ford – Portrait of an American Singer (Bear Family Records)
When Tennessee Ernie Ford passed away in 1991 at the age of 72, exactly 36 years had passed since he had released “Sixteen Tons”. Despite its tragic tale of life working in a coal mine, the Merle Travis-penned song had been a mega-hit, selling 20 million copies from the time it was released in 1955 until Ford’s death. A Capitol Records ad from the year of its release even depicted a cash register bursting with cash and bearing the title “16 Tons” in place of the dollar amount, and below it read, “The Biggest and Fastest Breaking Million Seller in Two Years”. Songs like “16 Tons” and “The Shotgun Boogie” may be what Ford is best known for today, but they are only the tip of the iceberg for an artist who left behind a massive body of work that – in a nutshell – encapsulates nearly every corner of American music. The beautiful and hefty box set, Portrait Of An American Singer, from the folks at the German label Bear Family Records presents us with a thorough collection of music from one of America’s most criminally underappreciated artists of all time. –N.F.
Spooner Oldham – Pot Luck (Light In The Attic Records)
Spooner Oldham is best known as the affable, laid back sideman who built his legacy as a member of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and as the writer of songs like “Respect” and “When A Man Loves A Woman”. But back in 1972 Spooner released an album under his own name called Pot Luck. Because the label went bankrupt right when it was released, this beautiful batch of songs fell flat and was heard by very few people save for die-hard collectors who may have scored a copy. A bit shy and fully content to be the sideman, Pot Luck caught Spooner in a rare moment and it definitely warrants the reissue treatment it has gotten from Light In The Attic. The album plays like one long composition, the first handful of songs almost orchestral with Spooner’s insightfully humble observations on life while the B side sees him and his band reworking his best known songs in fun, delightful instrumental fashion. This isn’t a flashy box set and you pretty much just get the album as it was recorded, but the vinyl is a must-own for any music lover. –N.F.
Little Richard – Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee Jay Years
Comprising three discs and a whopping 64 tunes, Directly From My Heart captures Little Richard at a crucial turning point in his career, the period between 1956 to 1965 when he cut arguably his biggest hits and also when he would blossom into the flamboyant maniac people most associate him with today. At the point when he signed to Specialty Records, Little Richard was not only a seasoned performer on the chitlin circuit, but had also been through major record deals with RCA Victor and Houston club mogul Don Robey’s Peacock Records, neither of which saw him tapping into the magic – financially and musically – that he would find at Specialty. In other words, this box set captures the performer at a pivotal moment. –N.F.
Buck Owens – Buck ‘Em! Volume 2: The Music of Buck Owens (1967–1975) (Omnivore Recordings)
For a handful of years the good folks at Omnivore Recordings have been quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) releasing maybe more reissues than any other label around. Each year the label drops a slew of albums, some on the obscure side, some big names, and some where you can’t help but wonder why the hell anyone would ever reissue that album. In this case they knocked it out of the park with the awesomely titled Buck ‘Em!, an expansive two disc set of material from the Baron of Bakersfield himself. With two discs comprising 25 songs each, we are given Buck at his finest, as this period was definitely one of his most prolific. A big handful of #1 singles can be heard, but the real gems are the handful of live tracks recorded all over the world, including at the White House. Here we get the man and his tightly wound band putting just about every other country band to shame. Buck yes indeed. –N.F.
Faces – 1970- 1975: You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
It took a fine archival label like Rhino, whose bosses apparently appreciate the value of reintroducing the classics, to reissue each of the Faces’ original studio albums in a digibox format that includes everything released during the band’s brief tenure as well as loads of extras guaranteed to make completists and enthusiasts salivate with joy and delight. During their lifetime, the original quintet – singer Rod Stewart, guitarist Ron Wood, bassist Ronnie “Plonk” Lane, keyboard player Ian “Mac” McLagan, and drummer Kenney Jones – were often dismissed as a live band, a snide way of saying their studio albums couldn’t quite measure up to their collective potential. Happily, this brilliant box set dismisses that notion, thanks to its smorgasbord of ragtag rockers and tear-soaked ballads, the best of which found them traipsing the divide between rock, folk, country and even vaudeville in terms of showmanship and pure populist appeal. -Lee Zimmerman (L.Z.)
Led Zeppelin – Presence/In Through the Out Door/Coda (Rhino)
The final entries in Rhino’s highly sought after Led Zeppelin reissue program, Presence, In Through the Out Door and Coda represent Zeppelin at their peak, during their decline, and somewhere in-between. Presence was generally shunned at the time, a somewhat lackluster contrast to the monumental albums that had preceded it. In Through the Out Door, on the other hand, represented the band’s final triumph. Not only was it the last studio album recorded by the original foursome – drummer John Bonham died soon after it was completed – but also one of their richest. The aptly titled Coda, a sundry collection of outtakes and previously unreleased recordings, was easily dismissed and indeed, quickly found its way to the bargain bins, although in hindsight it does offer some interesting curios.
Ironically, when it comes to these re-releases, Coda provides the most interesting stockpile of accompanying bonus material, yielding not one, but two discs of rarities and alternate options. The original idea for the album was to gather tracks that were recorded but never released during the band’s heyday, and while the original setlist was less than spectacular, the new three CD incarnation of Coda adds some interesting relics. Among them, several unreleased gems — the frenetic “Sugar Mama” and “Baby Come On Home” (recorded during the group’s seminal sessions in 1968), an unreleased instrumental called “St. Tristan’s Sword” (recorded for Led Zeppelin III) and the previously released cast-off taped for the BBC, “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Other additions of interest include a couple of tracks recorded with the Bombay Orchestra, and an early take on “When the Levee Breaks,” originally titled “If It Keeps on Raining.”
Like the other albums in the series, most of the add-ons accorded these reissues are in the form of rough mixes that provide some variation on the better-known versions of these songs. While that undoubtedly provides added interest for the diehard collector, it’s the occasional alternate version – early takes on “Carouselambra,” “All My Love,” and “I’m Gonna Crawl” (from In Through the Out Door) along with “Achilles Last Stand” and an oddity entitled “10 Ribs & All/Carrot Pod Pod” (from Presence) that provide the most interest overall. –L.Z.
Frank Sinatra – A Voice On Air (1935-1955) (Legacy)
Given the fact that this box set boasts over 100 unique performance – the majority of them unreleased – as well as a lavish 60 page book, there’s a curiosity factor that even exceeds expectations. Sinatra’s charm is immediately apparent, his casual airs creating an obvious audience attraction while listening to the sounds coming over the airwaves. It’s also amusing hearing Sinatra hawking the pleasures of cigarette smoking, a practice that has long since been declared strictly off limits especially over the air. Nevertheless, its still the music that matters, and happily, a number of hits are here. Familiar standards like “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover,“ “Birth of the Blues” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as well as those songs that were destined to hit the top of the charts – “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Nature Boy,” “As Time Goes By” and “That Old Black Magic” – among the many. Some were known for Sinatra’s trademark croon, while others are rarities that Sinatra never had occasion to perform anywhere else. Ultimately, A Voice on Air speaks volumes, not only as a must for all the Frank fans, but also for anyone who appreciates the evolution of popular music over the last hundred years. Also of note: Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All, an extraordinary documentary that spotlights the man’s life and legend. –L.Z.
Bruce Springsteen – The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (Columbia)
Given The Boss’ legendary archives and the sheer volume of unreleased recordings that have led to a bounty of bootlegs over the years, any official release of Springsteen rarities is obviously a cause for celebration. This particular offering not only gathers the overstock assembled during The River sessions, but a copious amount of live material taken from concerts recorded around the same time. The price is steep, and of the many discs included in the set, only one actually boasts any outtakes. Still, it’s hard to say no when Springsteen songs are involved, and the Ties That Bind clearly holds together well. –L.Z.
Bob Dylan – The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966 The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 (Legacy)
Considered by most Dylantologists to be the definitive period in the Dylan’s nascent development, the mid 60’s found him moving at stratospheric speed in an evolution that took him from starry-eyed folk troubadour and populist hero to an influential and revolutionary rocker. The three albums produced during that narrow span of time – Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde – became one of the most significant trilogies in modern musical history, forming the backbone of a career that would change the sound and tone of rock forever, and with it, our very cultural fiber.
Happily then, this latest installment of Legacy’s Bootleg Series shines a light on the creative process that brought these remarkable efforts to fruition. Available as a two disc, six disc or multiple disc set, the latter of which purportedly includes every note recorded in those spirited sessions, The Cutting Edge offers a fascinating insight into Dylan’s creative process. Tempos are slowed, lyrics changed and songs altered spontaneously as he dabbles with the songs like a scientist quizzically pondering an axiom or equation, looking for a better way to perfect a theory. In Dylan’s mind, even perfection can be improved upon. The brilliance in his work is apparent from the first takes on, but hearing the variations enhances the appreciation even more, suggesting that no matter how the material might have turned out, iconic status was otherwise assured regardless. And that’s assuring in itself. Bob’s genius led his muse in a multitude of unforeseen directions, but inevitably every one of them might have yielded the same success. –L.Z.
Robin Gibb – Saved By The Bell: The Collected Works of Robin Gibb 1968 – 1970 (Rhino Records)
In 1969 Robin briefly left the Bee Gees and went solo for a spell, the result of which was Robin’s Reign, an album which spawned a U.K. hit in “Saved By the Bell” before eventually sealing its fate in the bargain bin. A second album that was intended to follow in quick succession, Sing Slowly Sisters, was recorded but alas, never released.
Robin would go on to release other solo albums over the course of his career, but after a while, the distinctive – some would say quirky – characteristics that pervaded his early efforts gave way to predictability, which made each succeeding album more lackluster than the one that preceded it. That makes Saved By The Bell: The Collected Works of Robin Gibb 1968 – 1970 not only a curiosity all on its own, but one that shines the spotlight on perhaps the most adventurous Bee Gee of them all. While “Saved By the Bell” is the only track that showed real chart potential, a handful of other tunes – “C’est Lavie Au Revoir” and “Everything Is How You See Me” in particular – do possess a tunefulness that favorably compares to the whole of the Bee Gees work overall. Things tend to slide on disc three, subtitled “Robin’s Rarities,” an odds and ends collection of early works that were apparently still in progress. Indeed, little here lingers longer than an initial hearing, but Robin’s admirers will still find several curiosities among the nearly two dozen odds and ends. Ultimately, Robin’s reign had its ups and downs, but it was never less than intriguing. –L.Z.
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Rare Soul Groove & Grind 1963-1973 (Rockbeat Records)
As most historians will generally attest, the decade that linked the early 60’s to the early 70’s was the most crucial time in soul music’s evolution, a period defined not only by such legendary labels as Stax, Motown and Philly International, but also by the hundreds of small regional indie companies that seemed to spring up whenever the opportunity to land a local hit was a real possibility. Most of the artists involved were merely one hit wonders destined for obscurity, but included in the hundred or so represented here there are some that eventually went on to greater glories – James Brown, Carla Thomas, Bettye Wright, Candi Staton and King Floyd among them. Still, it’s unlikely that “Little Genie Brooks” by the James Brown Bougeloo will ever find its way onto a run of the mill James Brown compilation or that the Four Pennies will ever be part of a discussion concerning signature soul. Nevertheless, even with their primitive production and obvious budgetary restrictions, most of these recordings remain absolute gems, reminders of an era before disco, rap, hip-hop and over embellishment diluted the form and eventually altered it completely.
While the sheer volume and general lack of marquee names might dissuade the uninitiated, Groove & Grind does its best to overcome the unfamiliarity factor and make newcomers feel welcome. More groove than grind, Rare Soul mines one of pop’s most essential archives. –L.Z.
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks/His Band and Street Choir (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
Offered herein – two of Van the Man’s early albums on which he would stake his ongoing reputation. Remixed and expanded, each offer insights into his early MO as he shifted gears from a British blues rocker with his band Them to a solo artist braving new unexplored musical terrain and helping to lay the course for Americana music and Celtic tomes all at the same time. –L.Z.
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk (Rhino Records/Warner Bros.)
Yet another extravagant offering from Warner Bros., this one offering insights into one of the most ambitious albums the Mac ever attempted, made all the more daring due to the commercial success that preceded it courtesy of Fleetwood Mac and Rumours. The deluxe version features no less than six discs, one each bearing the original album, an alternative Tusk, nearly two dozen outtakes, various live performances and a DVD 5.1 surround sound mix of the original album. A must-own for even the most passive fan. –L.Z.