Year-end top 10 list: Reissues
It's hard enough keeping up with the present these days without also having to worry about the past. But the world of archival recordings is just as vibrant as the one bearing new music. Amid the volumes of fresh sounds raining down on us at any given moment, there are a plethora of reissues, remasters, remixes, mash-ups and curated collections finding new life in the digital age. Below, in alphabetical order, are 10 essential 2011 reissues.
Beach Boys, "Smile" box set (Capitol): Sometimes, the rumors of genius turn out to be wrong, and other times spot-on. In the case of "Smile," the long-lost Beach Boys album that never saw release — or even full completion -- when it was recorded in 1967, it's the latter. An important document of Los Angeles music, the album, with brilliant lyrics by Van Dyke Parks and impossibly deep music and harmonies from Brian Wilson, is even better than the legend suggested.
John Fahey, "Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years, 1958-1965" (Dust-to-Digital): Best known to the layperson for his perennial holiday favorite, "Christmas Guitar," John Fahey continues to be an inspiration to generations of musicians. The late solo guitarist and iconoclast transformed guitar through his precision and modal experiments, and this five-disc collection offers an important look at some of his earliest work.
L'Orchestre Kanaga de Mopti, "S/T," (Kindred Spirits): Feeling depressed? Try popping on one of the tightest, most swinging West African big band records of the 1970s, from the Malian machine that was L'Orchestre Kanaga de Mopti. Long considered one of the great recordings of an incredibly fruitful moment in Mali, L'Orchestre Kanaga de Mopti's 1976 recording features six long tracks that groove with graceful rhythms and hit hard with a tight brass section.
Louvin Brothers, "Satan Is Real" (Light in the Attic): Two sweet, brotherly voices working in harmony to preach the perils of sin and the glory of redemption, the Louvin Brothers' "Satan Is Real," originally released in 1959, is a heartfelt display of fire and brimstone harmonizing. This double-disc reissue is a loving ode to beauty: Disc 1 is the full album, and the second disc features classic Louvin songs handpicked by admirers, including Jim James, Zooey Deschanel, Dolly Parton, Beck and more. Harsh judgments on drinkers, fornicators and sinners notwithstanding, the Louvins on "Satan Is Real" preach the Truth.
Rolling Stones, "Some Girls" (Rolling Stones Records/Universal Republic): Purists often cite "Some Girls" as when the Stones started to lose their edge by co-opting disco beats and pushing in more pop-oriented directions. But history has proved them wrong: "Some Girls" is a great party record. Yes, there's "Miss You" and "Shattered," two bangers that still sound fresh on the dance floor. But there's also Keith Richards' greatest vocal moment, "Before They Make Me Run," and Mick Jagger's joke-twang of "Far Away Eyes." A second disc features vital outtakes from the sessions.
Phil Spector, "The Philles Album Collection" (Phil Spector Records/Sony Legacy): So many different walls of sound exist within this reissue of five early Phil Spector-produced albums that, combined, they create a skyscraper. This box features remastered work by the Ronettes, the Crystals and Bob. B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, as well as two collections of hits and B-sides. Combined, it offers a complete picture of a complicated visionary and his vocal groups at their prime.
Various artists, "Eccentric Soul: The Nickel and Penny Labels" (Numero Group): For every Motown or Stax pushing R&B and soul hits in the 1960s and '70s, there were countless regional labels making similar music that never landed that one key hit. In Chicago, one of those labels was Nickel & Penny, whose kingpin Richard Pegue in an alternate universe would be name-checked alongside Berry Gordy Jr. But, alas, recognition evaded him and his label. The 24 tracks on this collection are wildly inspired, and not nearly as "eccentric" as the title suggests -- just hot and heavy R&B.
Various artists, Fac.Dance, "Factory Records: 12" Mixes & Rarities, 1980-1987" (Strut Records): Although Detroit and Chicago are often cited as the birthplace of house and techno, there's no denying Factory Records, the Manchester, England, label best known as the early home to Joy Division and New Order, played a key role. Drawing inspiration from Kraftwerk, Arthur Baker and Giorgio Moroder, the mesmerizing synthetic sounds from A Certain Ratio, Section 25, the Durutti Column, New Order and others showcase the moment when digital rhythm boxes and samplers began revealing the promise of electronic dance music.
Various artists, "Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM" (Dust-to-Digital): Four discs of early African music handpicked by Jonathan Ward of the blog Excavated Shellac, "Opika Pende" is a stunning look at the blossoming of recorded African music. Not so much a history as a 100-song mixtape, the collection moves around the continent geographically, revealing the fluid nature of borders and offering snapshots of moments nearly lost to time.
Various artists: "This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45 RPM 1957-1982": One word in the title says it all: raw. Three discs of small-label private press 45s issued by churches and compiled by writer, listener and publisher of Yeti magazine Mike McGonigal, "Last Time Singing" offers a bounty of inspiration of both the professional and amateur variety: microphone-distorting screams blanketed by swinging choirs singing along in the back corner of the room, as on the Gospel Keys' "I Never Heard a Man." This amazing music will make you believe in a holy power.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Brian Wilson in the studio in 2004. Credit: Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times