The resurgence of vinyl in recent years and the continued advances in mastering technology have been instrumental in the current boom time we music fans are experiencing with the reissuing of older music. It has allowed engineers like Giles Martin, son of The Beatles’ co-conspirator George Martin, to find new insights within the well-worn grooves of the Fab Four’s catalog, and it has made sure that the folks handling such monumental albums as Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West are doing so with care and delicacy. There is still that allure of the new to be found in this world of reissues as more and more labels look to canonize once ignored work or unearth some unburnished gem from the catalogs of well-known artists and imprints. All of the above is what made this list a tough one to put together. There were so many possibilities from labels big and small, and leaving off such fantastic re-releases by Charles Mingus, Haruomi Hosono and Roxy Music was a difficult decision. Still, not a bad problem to have, all told, and we’re still confident that this is a solid list of our favorite reissues of 2018. We hope that you feel the same.
This curio from the career of famed science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin was originally released on cassette in 1985, as an accompaniment to Always Coming Home, a novel which explores the ethnography of a fictional futuristic tribe known as the Kesh through poems, plays and songs. Working with analog synth master Todd Barton, she also conceived this soundtrack album, which brings the imagined music of these characters to life and includes snippets of their poetry. These fake field recordings are, like Le Guin’s writing, gorgeous, lyrical and strange, challenging our perceptions and sending small flutters of joy from head to toe.
The Grateful Dead may be the most well-documented rock act around with copious amounts of live material and rarities already released into the world, but somehow, the archivists and fans of the group still manage to unearth interesting material every time we think they’ve hit the bottom of the barrel. This five-LP set explores the career of de facto leader Jerry Garcia in the years before forming the band that would cement his legacy, a period when the San Franciscan was exploring folk, blues, gospel and bluegrass. Producers Dennis McNally and Brian Miksis go deep with this, too; all the way back to 1961 when Garcia was 18 and playing in a duo with Robert Hunter at a friend’s birthday party. The pair takes requests and harmonize over traditional classics like “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Rake and a Rambling Boy,” encouraging singalongs from the attendees of the shindig. From there, we follow Garcia through a myriad of groups and configurations, including a duo with his first wife Sara Ruppenthal Garcia and the Black Mountain Boys, an ensemble that allowed him the room to show off his fine banjo picking skills. While Miksis and McNally did a great job cleaning these recordings up for mass production (some have been available as bootlegs for some time now), the performances themselves are as blurry around the edges as any Dead live tape.
The first U.S. pressings of three albums by French vocalist Catherine Ribeiro and her oft-changing backing band Alpes feels nothing short of miraculous. Until recently, the ensemble’s work, especially on vinyl, has been incredibly hard to come by without a huge outlay of cash. The good people at Anthology have finally closed that gap for the record collectors of the States with these reissues of the group’s work from the early ‘70s, available individually or collected in a handsome boxed set that comes with a book filled with photos and remembrances from Ribeiro. The music falls into that lush valley where tributaries of traditional folk, psychedelia and avant garde rock connect. It’s there that the group’s sole permanent member Patrice Moullet and a rotating cast of musicians construct homemade instruments and an unbound approach to composition that eludes your grasp as it beckons you closer.
In March of 1957, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, on tour as a member of Max Roach’s group, was offered some time to record an album for Contemporary Recordings in California. In response, he crafted a rough concept centered on the desert land of the Golden State and his love of the cowboy films of Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. That spirit inspired not only the selection of songs like “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “Wagon Wheels,” but Rollins’s choice of instrumentation, laying down the tracks with a spare piano-free rhythm section (drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Ray Brown) that sonically evoked the wide-open spaces of the West. The 60-year-old album that came out of this one-day session, Way Out West, has been reissued on vinyl in a handsome boxed set that includes a second LP of alternate takes from the session and charming little snippets of studio banter. Sourced from the original analog tapes, the record sounds spectacular. The clear and precise work by reissue producers Nick Phillips and Mason Williams puts you as close to the music as possible; it’s as if you’re in the control room of the Contemporary Studio alongside original producer Lester Koenig. The music deserves such treatment. Rollins is in peak form cutting a line between romanticism and a jester-like spirit, and Manne and Brown cooly work against and with him.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Panart Studios and the record label of the same name was the epicenter for Cuban music in Havana. It was through that imprint and that recording studio that now-venerated artists like Jose Fajardo, Celia Cruz and Daniel Santos achieved their first blushes of acclaim outside the shores of their island home. At the same time, there was also some demand by American fans to capture the spirit of the late night jam sessions that went on at clubs around Havana. That’s, in part, what spurred on the release of this five volume series of albums, now being reissued in a handsome boxed set by Craft Recordings. Recorded mostly at Panart in one-off sessions, these aren’t as loose and heated as some of those after midnight gigs could get but the buoyant pulse and joy of the music is apparent throughout, infectious as ever some 60 years after the fact. It’s near to impossible to play favorites on this set, but the spirited piano solos on Volume 5, a spotlight disc for Fajardo and his All Stars and the 17 minute track that kicks of Volume 2, with key contributions from percussionists Oscar Valdes and Jesus Ezquijarrosa (known better as Chuchu), are particular highlights.
Originally released on P.S.F. Records in 1986 in a small run of 700 LPs, the record feels like it can barely contain the music within. The trio, led by bassist/vocalist Asahito Nanjo and virtuoso guitarist Munehiro Narita, plays with such overdriven fury that sounds like it is slowly peeling off layers of your speakers with each rotation of the turntable. Neither original recording engineers Kenji Nakazawa and Kazu Hama nor Nanjo Asahito, who remastered it for this new edition, attempted to clean up the group’s sound, choosing to instead present the tinnitus-inducing effect of one of High Rise’s live performance. You don’t listen to this album so much as you hold on for dear life as waves of molten psychedelia flood the room.
While much ink has been spilled on these albums in the four decades since their release, the men of Wire released the definitive statements on all three this year. These multi-disc reissues, packaged in handsome book form with copious liner notes from Graham Duff and perfectly ornery remembrances from critic Jon Savage, tell as complete a story as possible of the creation and execution of each record. Each album has been remastered and left as its own document on the first disc, with the bonus discs fleshing out the tale with contemporaneous singles and studio work, and copious demo recordings.
For an artist that is still beloved among fans of country, Southern R&B and psychedelia, it’s a wonder that Bobbie Gentry’s work has not been compiled in this manner until now. Regardless of the timing, this collection that brings together the seven albums that she recorded for Capitol Records in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as a treasure trove of unreleased material, singles and rare gems like the long-shelved jazz album she recorded. It all adds up to an incredible, yet still short career for an artist that removed herself from the machinations of the music industry and has been living a quiet, secluded life ever since. If this collection helps bring her out of retirement, the wait for its creation will have been worth it.
Adding more sprawl to what is already a sprawling double LP of music seems a little preposterous. But this is The Beatles we’re talking about. If there’s a new angle with which to bring continued attention to their discography and films and cultural impact, they will find a way to do it. Cynical as that may sound, I still can’t turn away from the Fab Four. Especially when the results of this continued churn are glorious boxed sets like this. The work Giles Martin did to remix and remaster this 1968 classic continues to bring out surprises and offer a new lens through which to view this well-known material. The studio outtakes provide some crucial insight into the effort these gents put into crafting their songs. But the true treasure is the Esher Demos, named so for the town where George Harrison had a home and where the Beatles recorded rough acoustic demos of the songs they wrote during their spiritual retreat in India. It may be the last time all four men delighted in each other’s company and the silly, chemically-enhanced joy of making music together.
It feels strange to call this a reissue as the music found on this 2018 release was never issued in the first place. Recorded with the classic quartet of Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyler, this 1963 session was thought to have been lost until the family of the saxophonist’s first wife turned up a copy among her personal effects. Considering the mileage that Coltrane’s labels have gotten churning through his well-documented discography, any unheard material from this legendary artist would be newsworthy enough. But these early takes on tracks that would end up on later albums and the untitled, never-before-issued tunes are remarkable, and a continued exploration of the modal jazz ideas that would mark his classics Impressions and My Favorite Things. This collection is another brilliant and colorful flash from a quartet that was creating lightning with no small of sweat and gritted teeth exertion.