WORST OF 2012: The Deluxe Delusion

2012 has been the year of the deluxe edition. A seemingly innocuous term suggesting a nicer version of something which hides a multitude of sins. This is not a new idea, indeed expanded, special and bonus releases have long been the major label cash cow of choice. Take That have a few less impressive songs left over after ‘Progress‘ was finalised? Wait a year, call it ‘Progressed‘ and sell the whole album again. Couple of iTunes bonus tracks and a made for TV gig recording bunged on a DVD? Don’t mind if we do. But now, more than ever it feels, the indies are doing it too and it all feels a bit shitty. I buy a LOT of records. If, less than six months after I’ve bought something, you’re going to reissue an album with extra stuff for essentially the same price, then I’d like to do a swap, please. Why sell me substandard goods just because I’m already interested and a supporter of physical media and bricks and mortar retail? Yes, there are plenty of cavalier and amoral types out there not paying anything for it in the first place but don’t think that makes it ok to try and sell the real fans the same thing twice. It won’t make the product more attractive to freeloading digital thieves. They’ll just nick the bonus stuff too. First Aid Kit and Alt-J were chief amongst the shameless cashin merchants this year, gleefully being repackaged before they’d even had the chance to make it into end of year lists or win novelty music prizes. There’s a wider issue here though, which those serving up this cold sick don’t seem to grasp. Just as HMV constantly reducing recent releases to £3 sends a clear message to their customers about the value of new music, if your core customers who still purchase new releases see that by waiting six months they can either have the album for a few quid or get twice as much material for the same price as the original version, who will actually buy it in those early months?

Some deluxe vinyl looking all expensive

This has been the first year where I’ve really felt like my enthusiasm for music is being taken advantage of by certain labels and artists. Universal’s vinyl prices have been a joke for several years now, but they’re far from the only ones taking the piss. That said, if someone like Paul Weller is going to keep appearing in magazines and trendy documentaries eulogising about vinyl and his love of record shops, perhaps he could intervene and stop his greedy bastard label from trying to flog his LP at £30 a pop. Clearly on our side, eh Paul? He’s not the only one: Richard Hawley’s ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge‘ was hardly a bargain at just south of the same amount, even if it was double vinyl. Yes, vinyl is more expensive to produce than CDs but it’s not THAT much more expensive. Record Collector in Sheffield is the fabulous place that Hawley often tells the media it is, but there’d be a lot fewer people shopping there if every bloody release cost more than twice as much as the CD. The days of Billy Bragg and The Clash taking a slight financial hit in order to make their albums more affordable to fans are long since gone. While I’m not suggesting that in this particularly dreary climate that should be the norm, when Sub Pop, Thrill Jockey, Turnstile and 4AD still seem able to deliver very reasonably priced vinyl, clearly some labels are choosing to squeeze their core audience.

Which brings me to the increased fondness for deluxe vinyl editions. The xx‘s charmingly inoffensive second album ‘Coexist‘ was released on normal vinyl, with die cut sleeve and the CD thrown in at regular price. There was also a deluxe version talked up by the label which, it transpired, simply had a gatefold die cut sleeve and a glossy booklet. The vinyl was still a mediocre and far from silent pressing and yet the difference in price was approximately £8. One record shop owner I spoke to said he genuinely struggled to explain to a customer what the point of the more expensive edition was. Likewise, Domino have taken this route with albums by the likes of Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective, John Cale and Hot Chip. The initial price difference for several of these titles was close to £10. For Hot Chip, this got you a gatefold sleeve and a one sided 7″. For the Dirty Projectors, a higher resolution download and some, admittedly pretty, delicate additional artwork. “Don’t buy it if you don’t like it,” I hear you cry, but if you’re reading this you probably understand the power of record collecting and the lure of extra material and deluxe editions. It isn’t as simple as saying “at least we have the normal priced editions available.” By implication, they are inferior to the other version, and whether you purchase or not the whole thing leaves a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Entirety of ‘deluxe’ contents shown on top of sleeve

Throw in ever more direct to fan sales of deluxe editions – Manics, Nick Cave, Biffy Clyro etc – and the constant quest to produce ‘special’ versions is becoming faintly ridiculous. A heartfelt, well researched, properly mastered, beautifully constructed deluxe edition of a genuinely remarkable record can be a true joy. But when almost anything ends up getting repackaged or expanded or enhanced, how long before those words stop meaning anything and the standard editions become completely worthless? I’ve reached my limit with these ludicrous, largely packaging based, deluxe vinyl editions (bad news for Atoms For Peace, for a start) and my tendency to shell out for a wide range of indie label releases may well be reigned in a little in 2013. If you want to incentivise purchasing fancy variations on new releases, include the stuff you’re saving for the inevitable CD reissue upfront. Except, of course, this would highlight the reason why most bonus material wasn’t on the album in the first place. It wasn’t good enough.

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BEST OF 2012: Dusted Off

What a year for reissues it has been, with several labels delivering an almost impolite run of quality and some bands getting the deluxe treatment. Paul McCartney‘s archive series continued with the staggeringly lovely ‘Ram’ boxset, with a genuinely interesting book, delicately reproduced photos and the album in stereo, mono and lounge jazz versions. It’s one of Macca’s finest and the box is something to cherish. A staggered release was awarded to Can‘s ‘The Lost Tapes‘, initially appearing as CD only and then as a far more expensive vinyl box ‘due to overwhelming demand’. Which, of course, they couldn’t have predicted. Nope. Making vinyl fans but twice was simply a quirk of fate. Honest. Luckily, the music is largely fantastic and this is not some excuse to peddle muffled, mono cassette recordings of crap demos. It might even prove quite a useful starting point for the uninitiated.

Elbow and Blur had their entire studio album catalogue popped back out on heavyweight vinyl this year, including a superb box for the former which had every album beautifully mastered on 2x45rpm vinyl. I believe it’s already becoming scarce. Don’t miss it. As for Blur, the vinyl mastering was largely great, but it was the ‘21‘ twenty one disc box which truly excited. Bonus tracks, b sides, rare footage and a gorgeous book made it one of my out and out highlights of the year. However, if you’re a Blur fan, you won’t need telling and if you’re not, I imagine 21 discs of them would feel like punching yourself in the face with a sharpened tent peg. Also, getting the vinyl treatment was the entire Beatles catalogue. There are those banging on about sources but, to these ears, they sound great. Bass is warm, voices are clear and drums are crisp. However, a word of caution. Quality control on the US vinyl is apparently significantly poorer than on the UK pressings, so purchase wisely.

One of the great pleasures of being a vinyl purchaser in 2012 was being on the receiving end of some of the most lovingly crafted, beautifully packaged and expertly researched reissues music fans have ever witnessed. Chief amongst the labels delivering such beauties are Light In The Attic. Having already delivered several essential Lee Hazlewood titles, the curious folky-funk of Donnie and Joe Emerson, a second Michael Chapman reissue, a stunning Wendy Rene overview, a double white vinyl set for the‘Searching For Sugarman’ soundtrack, a glorious Stax 7″ box set and the truly outstanding ‘Country Funk’compilation, the latest gem out of the pressing plants is ‘A Fire Somewhere’ by Ray Stinnett. Having sat, shelved and unreleased, for forty-two years, this is less a reissue and more an old new release.

Blessed with a country twang and a sprinkling of languid psych jams, this album is one likely to appeal to fans of everyone from Big Star through to Leonard Cohen. It has that timeless sound that LITA aficionados will by now be used to, sounding like a record you’ve always known by the time it gets its second spin, managing to tick the singer/songwriter box en route to some cosmic jams and pensive guitar licks. Stinnett’s vocals – a less wilfully obtuse Tim Buckley at times – are captivating, bending and lurching as each track requires. Lolloping country funk ballad, ‘Honey Suckle Song‘ is an absolute joy and will be on your next compilation, almost certainly. Having been promised by A&M that he would be a star, they took the curious decision of leaving the record to gather dust on the shelves and, until now, it hasn’t seen the light of the day. While there were many magnificent old ‘new’ records this year, this one deserves a nod more than most.

BEST OF 2012: 1. Martin Rossiter – The Defenestration Of St Martin

Eight years on from Gene’s almost inaudible death rattle, Martin Rossiter emerges with an album that hits the heights of their most dramatic ballads and retains the wit and verbal dexterity that made him a frontman to adore. Having checked in on him sporadically over the past decade, the promise of new material had always seemed faint but, when Rossiter took to Twitter at the end of August to announce an album would be with us shortly, the anticipation could finally mount. Along with a little Pledge action, I was lucky enough to get hold of the album at the end of August, so please don’t think this album chanced its way to the top on only a few weeks of listening. This remarkable record is utterly deserving of its position.

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Essentially one man and his piano, the mellifluous roar of old is given free reign over beautifully crafted melodies. ‘I Must Be Jesus’, every bit as good as the title suggests, sets hyperbolic teenage angst against JC’s plight, and contains some of his predictably fabulous lyrics: “If life’s unkind, then you must be divine. And, yes, I do mean literally”, followed by the piano refrain equivalent of a deadpan stare. You will play it over and over just to enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling it provokes. The sparing use of a small male voice choir to reinforce the chorus is one of many breath-takingly meticulous touches on this exceptionally fine record.

The simplicity of ‘My Heart’s Designed For Pumping Blood’ can summon an involuntary physical response, be it hairs on the back of your neck or that little raising of one’s shoulders that occurs upon hearing something stirring, while relatively grandiose opener ‘Three Points On A Compass’ denounces useless fathers with the aching refrain “the only thing I got from you was my name” played out over an irresistible, largely instrumental, second half. There is a primal roar of “no” at one point which has echoes of that supremely powerful moment in Gene’s ‘Speak To Me Someone’ from 1997’s ‘Drawn To The Deep End’ when Rossiter bellows the same word at 2:23 and the song heads off towards the stratosphere.

This is not an album to debut to a large group of people. There’s plenty of, albeit beguilingly expressed, sadness in these songs and the pared down arrangements demand your attention and your emotional energy. A good pair of headphones will see you right, or perhaps a dark night, a good seat and a stiff drink.

I could gladly rattle off reasons why each of the ten songs here are worthy of your precious time, but I would hope the quality of this album has been made clear by the examples above. If Gene ever meant even a little to you – or you simply like well written, beautifully performed music – then ‘The Defenestration of St Martin‘ could well be about to be your new favourite record. A very welcome return and a quite remarkable listen.

BEST OF 2012: 2. Hot Chip – In Our Heads

For quite a while, this was going to be at the top of this list. If you’d told me that this time last year, I’d have laughed in your, I’m imagining now, staggeringly beautiful face. The ones with the odd decent single from time to time? Slightly pretentious dance music that noodles a bit and can get rather samey over a whole album? Them? Well, actually not them, for the Hot Chip that arrived in 2012 are like pop alchemists, students of the fine art of song delivering their thesis on how to get people’s heads-a-nodding in an eleven song format. ‘In Our Heads‘ is the most joyous release of 2012 and a record which makes me dance around the house without a care for who can see me. Although, obviously, almost nobody can as it’s my house. And I normally only really let the moves out when the good lady’s not in. But if it can get even an uptight muso like me dancing then this is quite the concoction.

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As the pounding beat of ‘How Do You Do?’ kicks in, presaging the unflinchingly cheesy chorus to follow, I am beaming. Every time. And that is what makes ‘In Our Heads’ one of my absolute favourite albums of the year. After a few listens, you find yourself welcoming each track with excitement, rekindling that feeling of youth when your favourite song from that week’s chart came on the radio. Only eleven times over. ‘Don’t Deny Your Heart’ serves to emphasise the other notable difference about this particular incarnation of Hot Chip: the vocals are gorgeous. Alexis Taylor always had an enjoyable reedy falsetto but here it truly shines.

Let Me Be Him’ and ‘Always Been Your Love’ close the album in triumphant fashion, the former going from quiet to loud in the way songs used to do. Gentle synth, tricksy percussion and lullabyesque vocals combine in the early stages, seducing you ahead of the ‘uh-uh-oh-uh-ehhhhh-ehhhh’ backing vocal which was never going to be done justice when written down. Don’t let that put you off. Seriously, click the artwork above, listen to it in Spotify and then come back. I’ll still be here.

See? And then there’s the album’s closer, which ensures a delicately euphoric feeling to end proceedings. Eighties keyboard and shimmering synth noises are the order of the day, with accompanying handclaps and just the right amount of repetition. Just like the very best compilations, ‘In Our Heads’ ebbs and flows perfectly, with the more frantic ‘Night & Day‘ and ‘Flutes’ positioned smack in the middle of things and the comedown music neatly rounding things off. I’m as surprised as you are to find this so high up my list but it is, quite simply, a wonderfully constructed album with an embarrassment of melody. Treat yourself.

BEST OF 2012: 3. Cian Ciaran – Outside In

I’m sure there’s some sort of point to be made about how the last Super Furries album made number twenty in my Best of 2009 list and yet this is the second successive year where one of the band has occupied third place with a magnificent solo album. Not sure what it is, mind you, other than to prove that there was a staggering amount of talent in a band whose output never dipped below excellent. The sprightly sunshine pop of Gruff Rhys‘ ‘Hotel Shampoo‘ seemed a logical extension of his previous solo work and his role in that band, but who really saw an equally vintage sounding indie pop album emerging from electronic wizard and production maestro Cian Ciaran?

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The slightly warped spin on the music of the past that ran through the music of SFA like the word Newport through a stick of rock made for come truly captivating songs over the years. similar sensibilities are at work here. The swooning Sixties sounds of ‘Outside In’ are stunning, not least on ‘Martina Franca‘ which has more than a hint of ‘Heroes & Villains‘ about it. The beautiful acappella of ‘1st Time’ will have you reevaluating which bits you used to think we’re still Gruff were actually Cian. And, while we’re mopping up the logical DNA trail back to one of Wales’ finest ever bands, Dafydd Ieuan and Guto Pryce provide drums and bass.

Despite all of this,Outside In’ deserves to be held up as a celebration of a wonderful talent, both in terms of strikingly affecting lyric writing and soul-hugging melody. ‘Love Thee Dearest’ features the gorgeous lines, “now you’re gone my days grow longer, and yet they fly and pass me by. My dreams are gone of growing older, with you right there by my side.” Heartbreakingly honest stuff which, coupled with his cooing vocals, will leave you a moist eyed wreck. Then there’s3rd Time Lucky‘: a full on piano croon, building gently with the addition of some subtle strings, only to subside to a reverby piano which plays out the melody for the final third of the song in stately, stirring fashion.

Having quietly snuck out into the Welsh music scene, ‘Outside In‘ deserves to be shouted about from the rooftops, to be bought for the special people in your life for Christmas and to be universally acknowledged as one of the most strikingly beautiful albums of the year. My thanks to Spillers for making such a fuss about this one. Now it’s time for the rest of us to join in.

BEST OF 2012: 4. Field Music – Plumb

After the extravagant sprawl of 2010′s double album ‘Measure‘, ‘Plumb‘ lasts for half the time, despite seeming to contain at least as many ideas and melodies across its thirty-five minute run time. Mere moments after tracks have got going they segue effortlessly into others, and while not as safe as Sir Thumbsaloft can sometimes be, it evokes at times the creative schizophrenia of early McCartney solo albums. ‘Choosing Sides‘, itself several songs in one, wails pleadingly: “I want a different idea of love which doesn’t involve treating somebody else like shit,” while ‘A Prelude To Pilgrim Street’ has a glorious drum workout, accompanied by Who-esque shimmering keys, which offers an affectionate nod to Keith Moon.

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Plumb‘ cements Field Music’s reputation for truly magnificently crafted classic pop-rock, with an unashamed love of the grandiose soundscapes of the Seventies and a taste for adorning songs with neatly selected sounds from real life. The highly strung plastic-funk of ‘Is This The Picture?‘, all runaway drums and falsetto screech, serves an unlikely precursor to the string-laden, percussive swoon of ‘From Hide And Seek To Heartache‘. This paves the way for the a cappella burst of ‘How Many More Times?’ and near-instrumental orchestral flourish ‘Ce Soir‘. The simple fact is, every song here could merit a special mention and the forensic attention to detail sets standards very high.

Plumb‘ genuinely doesn’t sound like anything else in their catalogue, partly because it doesn’t even sound like itself for more than a few songs at a time. An exhilarating and ambitious collection, it should have brought Field Music a deservedly larger audience and, while the Mercury nomination cast a spotlight in their general direction, the nation’s failure to take the Brewis brothers to its heart continues to baffle me. Despite this, those in the know can’t help but adore them, leading to forthcoming vinyl outings for their early releases and promoting a rapturous response for their Saturday night set at Green Man in August. They are quite remarkable musicians doing so much on such a small scale and ‘Plumb‘ is their masterwork.

BEST OF 2012: 5. David Byrne & St Vincent – Love This Giant

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when it was announced that David Byrne and St Vincent were working together, but a smart, swaggering and downright joyous collection of wonky pop tunes (and I don’t mean that in a Hoosiers kind of way – let us never speak of them again) was not it. It may not have the beautiful harmonies of ‘The Lion’s Roar‘, the perfectly balanced textures of ‘Tramp‘ or the raw emotion of ‘The Lovers‘, but it has balls. Enormous ones. Big, brassy ones. You can only begin to imagine the grins on the faces of Byrne and Annie Clark when some of these songs were played back in the studio.

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From the first sight of the double-take artwork, to the final note of ‘Outside Of Space and Time‘, it is clear you are in the presence of something special. Whether it’s the simple charms of the vocal melody on ‘I Am An Ape’ or the unexpectedly perfect way in which Clark’s vocal blends with Byrne’s unmistakeable yelp, there are plenty of slack-jawed, repeat-play moments to be found. The two have said that ‘Love This Giant’ ended up sounding completely different to what they had anticipated themselves and any sense of arty pretension soon evaporates.

The plentiful use of deft horn stabs lends a certain vintage quality to a lot of these tunes, as swirling programmed drums rise and fall around these two distinctive voices. ‘The Forest Awakes‘ skips along, driven by Clark’s breathy vocal to be followed the clamourous racket of ‘I Should Watch TV‘, with Byrne’s excitable yelp at the fore. But this album is at its best when the two fully intertwine, as on ‘Lazarus‘ with its irresistlable swagger. It is this pure pop momentum that so many of this songs possess that makes it quite such fine release. It’s peculiar, hard to define, tricky to describe and even difficult to look at. It is wilfully awkward, cheerily playful and unlike anything either of them have previously created. And for all of these reasons and more Love This Giant‘ stands tall as an incomparable record and one which has held its own in a very strong year for new music. It has, however, split opinion amongst people who judgement I trust and so, out of all thirty of the recommendations in this list, this is perhaps the one most needing of trial listen before stumping up your hard earned. I’d love to know your thoughts.