BEST OF 2013: Reissues and Remasters

A combination of milking the death rattle of the CD and the realisation that well presented, in demand items can be priced pretty substantially has seen a rapid increase in deluxe edition in recent years. As I wrote a year ago, there’s plenty of crap being farmed out with the word ‘deluxe’ on it in the hope of people stumping up cash without really inspecting the goods. However, in amongst this endless conveyor belt of recycling, there are still some tremendous items creeping out into the world.

Considering that most second hand record shops are actually part-built of copies of Fleetwood Mac‘s ‘Rumours’, it probably didn’t need another go through the reissue machine, but one excavation of the past for which we should all be grateful is the ‘Who Is William Onyeabor?’ compilation on Luaka Bop. Having spent five years trying to get approval for this wonderful overview of the Nigerian artist’s synth-heavy Afrobeat funk music from William Onyeabor himself, the resulting collection more than justified the efforts. At least partly sourced from original vinyl copies of this hypnotic music, the sense of being let in on something rather special runs throughout this album. The emphatic joy of a neat refrain repeated to grand effect is to found across many of these songs and your best bet is to just dig in and see what you think. ‘Fantastic Man’ is a fine place to do just that.

The endlessly fascinating, if not entirely consistent, work of Harry Nilsson was given a pretty substantial dusting off for a CD box set covering his work for RCA. While the obvious sources of joy are ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’ and ‘Nilsson Sings Newman’, it’s a delight to see fabulously odd records like ‘The Point’ getting the spotlight cast upon them once again. That record is a particular favourite of mine and this set treats the material with respect, the mastering sounding rich and warm without cranking the volume or compressing the sound especially. It’s going for even less than it was on release now and is a great way to add a remarkable artist to your collection should there currently be a void.

Warners looked to recoup a little of the £1.5 million still outstanding from The Beta Band‘s relatively short but glorious career by milking that wonderful music as best they could. Firstly, all three of the EPs collected together as the cryptically titled ‘The Three EPs’ in 1998 were given vinyl reissues for Shiny Pretty  Expensive Frisbee Day in April, while the albums and assorted bonus material were dusted off for a fairly comprehensive set entitled The Regal Years ( 1997-2004). Considering this was rather clearly a cash grab, it was pretty surprising to see the whole thing shoved into one chunky plastic case with a flimsy booklet and priced very generously indeed. Surely, this was primarily aimed at those who already know the music and rare indeed it is for these things to be done so economically. If you’re missing anything, or just fancy the live tracks, b-sides and small number of demos, this is a very affordable purchase.

Light In The Attic continued to deliver deluxe goodies that actually warrant the price tag. Having spent the past eighteen months remastering and reissuing selected nuggets from Lee Hazlewood’s LHI label, the resultant box set – There’s A Dream I’ve Been Saving: Lee Hazlewood Industries 1966-1971 – is their masterwork. Comprising four CDs, a DVD and a truly beautiful 172 page book, it is a remarkable feast for Hazlewood aficionados and open-minded music lovers alike. It captures the furiously industrious five-year period during which country-pop maverick Hazlewood helmed his own imprint, signing a diverse array of talent and releasing the finest work of his solo career. The box restores his albums ‘Forty’, ‘Cowboy In Sweden’ and ‘Requiem For An Almost Lady’ to the public glare, expanding on the wonders found on last year’s taster compilation. The less expected treats come on the latter two discs, which cherry-pick from the rest of the archive and include the fizzing, freewheeling garage of The Kitchen Cinq’s ‘Need All The Help I Can Get’ alongside Honey Ltd’s woozy ballad ‘Tomorrow Your Heart’.  Should you wish to dig a little deeper, a deluxe edition adds three data discs, including every single track the label ever released. The sheer quantity is overwhelming but there is a true treasure trove of delights to dip into over the winter months. As the book recounts, Hazlewood’s music wasn’t always treated with love while he was alive. This package certainly rights that wrong.

The vinyl box set continued to be a veritable cash cow in 2013, the most desirable containing all of the album output by Can. The fabric coated set replicated sleeve details, included original posters and featured a rather short bonus live album. The audiophile forums have been buzzing about how these were made using the same transfers and masters used to make the SACD releases from a decade ago – largely from people who haven’t heard the box yet – but, to my ears at least, they sound pretty good. No, Ege Bamyasi doesn’t quite breathe as much as my original, likewise Tago Mago isn’t identical in its sound either. However, compared to most vinyl editions of these records you could try and lay your hands on right now, they sound pretty damn good. Mute have taken great care with the pressing quality and with a decent pair of speakers and a functioning volume control you can have plenty of fun with this near essential set of music. It’s not especially cheap, mind you.

However, leading the way in good value, good sounding vinyl box sets this year were the Demon Music Group. After the various stories of mp3 sourced and badly mastered CD reissues for various artists, I wasn’t expecting much, but I wrote about two particular sets they put out and I was hugely impressed. Firstly, they released a box covering all of Suede‘s albums, including ‘Sci-Fi Lullabies’ which, along with ‘A New Morning’, had never previously made it to wax. They need playing in a bit, and a delicate touch on your counterweight to avoid sibilance, but these have been crafted with love. Add in a booklet with comprehensive and genuinely interesting interviews with the band by Pete Paphides and this is a pretty impressive package. The individual titles will be receiving releases in February, as the box is pretty much sold out already. The piece I wrote for Clash, giving an album-by-album overview of their career can be found here.

The other wonderful set for which they are responsible only just made it out before Christmas. Replicating the approach to that Suede box, came a gloriously assembled package of the (almost) complete works of The Jesus and Mary Chain. For a band who, initially at least, were all about the sonics, attention to detail when committing their whole discography back to wax was vital. Rest assured that this has clearly been a labour of love. Whether newcomer or hardened aficionado, the importance of some of the material within this box is hard to deny. While the Mary Chain weren’t entirely consistent, their peaks were remarkable and their impact notable. Whether your allegiances lie with direct descendants like My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream or the stoner-rock scene, these albums had their part to play in their existence. While the fuzzed up charge of 1985 debut Psychocandy is one of life’s essential albums, the rest of their catalogue isn’t always talked of in such hallowed terms.

Listened to in chronological order, these six studio albums offer a portrait of a band that never stood still. Dismantling the noise, and with a nod to Lee Hazlewood’s more gloomy tunes, Darklands was a different, fascinating beast. Having let the brooding songs breathe, there followed 1989’s slightly calculated Automatic where the band seemed to lose direction. 1992’s Honey’s Dead was a revitalised hotch-potch of sounds, while 1994’s Stoned and Dethroned was far better than its title implied, blessed with a little intervention from Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. By the time they stumbled to a halt with 1998’s decent but inessential ‘Munki’, the band had traversed genres, inspired many and ensured their legacy.

The accompanying booklet lays bare the stories behind each of these records, making use of more of the interview material previously used for the CD/DVD reissues several years ago. As with any of these reissue projects, as lovely as it is to see the artwork in its twelve inch incarnation, to avoid this being an opulently presented collection of sizeable frisbees, what really matters is the mastering. Thankfully, all is well here, and these albums sound as good as they ever have. Warm bass lines are prominent, the guitars spring from the speakers and the music really breathes. Well, as much as ‘Psychocandy’ ever could.

Boosted by radio sessions, live tracks and fan-selected rarities, it is a truly spectacular time capsule and an enjoyably decadent way to absorb some wonderfully important music. Some of the session tracks fizz in the moment with a vitality beyond those vintage albums, ‘Deep One Perfect Morning’ and ‘Coast To Coast’ especially. While not all of the live recordings feel entirely necessary, this is still a hugely satisfying package and a decent template for how these sorts of projects can and should be done.

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.