The archival music industry had yet another banner year in 2017. It’s a conundrum which flies in the face of the notion that demand for physical product is evaporating in the digital clouds, when the fact is the hunger for the tangibility of a well-designed, information-packed reissue remains considerable among certain audiences.
And while companies like Apple and Spotify are banking on a complete nationwide shift to digital music consumption and retail outlets like Barnes & Noble and Best Buy are shrinking, not expanding their music sections, hawking a $50 box set dedicated to one particular LP is no walk in the park.
Yet intrepid imprints like Legacy Recordings, Rhino and even Universal continue to invest in the creation of lovingly detailed compendiums for classic LPs on their landmark anniversaries, oftentimes with bonus material, as well as newly rescued works from deep in the chasms of the company archives — and, of course, your standard anthology and/or Greatest Hits-type packaging, still an essential get for many artists. Then you got the smaller indie labels like Omnivore Recordings, Light In The Attic, Numero Group, Norton Records, Mosaic Records and Bear Family, who manage to release some of the most meticulously designed archival material currently available.
Here are our choices for the 10 titles in particular that were most essential on the reissue market in 2017.
10. Willie Nelson, Teatro: The Complete Sessions (Light In The Attic)
“It was very beautiful, almost like a Cuban nightclub setting,” explains producer Daniel Lanois about the way he set up the room in his California studio where he recorded Willie Nelson in 1998. “And I think it really helped to set the tone if this album.”
Teatro, named after the historic movie house-turned-recording space run by the producer in the 90s, does for Willie what Time Out of Mind did for Dylan and Le Noise for Neil Young. As Lanois utilizes his instinctive mastery of atmosphere to expand upon the sparse sound Nelson was exploring on 1994’s Spirit — assisted by an amazing ensemble that included Emmylou Harris, Brad Mehldau and Rodney Crowell alongside such Willie lifers as Mickey Raphael and sister Bobbie Nelson — Nelson creates a fantastic hybrid of Ennio Morricone and Roger Miller that sounds like nothing else in the legend’s catalog.
This complete edition of Teatro features seven unreleased bonus tracks, as well as a DVD containing a Wim Wenders-directed documentary on the making of the album.
9. Alan Parsons, Project Eye In The Sky: 35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Legacy Recordings)
It’s a beautiful thing to live in a modern age where the Alan Parsons Project are hailed as an influential act for young musicians looking to extract pop warmth from old ’80s synthesizers. And 1982’s Eye In The Sky was the album which thrust the band beyond the realms of prog, spearheaded by the runaway success of the album’s title cut, the biggest pop hit ever about casino surveillance. And in 2017, the song takes on an entirely new resonance, as the global addiction to social media grows to unhealthy levels, with the existence of such self-surveilling websites as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.
But what makes this 3-CD/2-LP box set so utterly fascinating is the breakdown of the APP sound through the wealth of bonus material presented here. Most enlightening are the songwriting diaries of the group’s late singer Eric Woolfson, whose pop heart is exposed in all its purity once the Oberheims and electric guitars are peeled away, revealing a sensibility closer to the craft of the indie artists they are inspiring in the 21st century.
8. R.E.M., Automatic for the People: Deluxe Edition (Craft Recordings)
Only R.E.M. could follow up their sunniest LP with their darkest one and yield an equal amount of success from both. The 1992-released Automatic for the People indeed marked a left turn into the somber territory of Out of Time‘s “Low” and “Country Feedback,” yet continued to serve as a showcase for the band’s increasingly diversified sonic palate and further expansion of their appetite for new arrangements and instrumentation.
This outstanding 25th anniversary edition of the record includes a disc of stripped-down demos, and the official issue of the only concert the group performed in support of Automatic at the 40 Watt Club in their hometown of Athens, GA. It’s been one of the best bootlegs out there of R.E.M. for the last quarter-century, thanks to its crystal clear sound quality, resplendent renditions of such early faves as “Fall On Me” and “Radio Free Europe” and a rowdy cover of “Funtime” by The Stooges.
7. Whitesnake, Whitesnake 30th Anniversary Edition (Rhino)
When people try and make their obnoxious little digs at the rock style decreed as “hair metal,” Whitesnake is one of their biggest targets, because of the way their eponymous 1987 LP shook the ground upon its arrival on radio and MTV. But what made this album such a juggernaut was the songwriting team of David Coverdale and Jon Sykes, who combined their pedigrees in Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy respectively to craft such enduring pop classics as “Is This Love” and “Here I Go Again.”
And then to hear it compounded by the magnificent studio lineup of Whitesnake during this time, rounded out by the money hard rock rhythm section of Aynsley Dunbar on drums and Neil Murray on bass, you experience the full might of the group’s intent to update the sound of Led Zeppelin for the Thatcher/Reagan era. It’s a process brilliantly dissected across this 30th anniversary four-disc set, through demos, alternate mixes and scorching live material, one that finally does its due diligence in celebrating the flash of lightning that was Whitesnake’s Coverdale/Sykes lineup.
6. Dion, Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965 (Norton Records)
For 50 years, this great transformative rock LP from Dion DiMucci had been preserved in the Columbia Records vault. But thanks to Norton Records, in conjunction with the folks at Legacy Recordings, Kickin’ Child now exists in the outside world as well. Back in ’65, the acetate on Bob Dylan’s epochal Bringing It All Back Home album wasn’t even cooled yet, but that didn’t stop Dion from finding inspiration in it, as he and his band The Wanderers implemented a loving spoonful of Bob’s “Thin Wild Mercury” sound to augment the singer’s golden throat, even taking on three Dylan faves in “Baby, I’m in the Mood for You,” “Farewell” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” (Dion even got Al Kooper to play the same organ he used on Highway 61 Revisited on a couple of cuts.)
Meanwhile, “Two Ton Feather” shows that Dion was also paying close attention to the noise being made in the U.K. by the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Kinks all the same. What’s more, Kickin’ Child signals the triumphant return of the Norton label, which survived Hurricane Sandy and the passing of its founder Billy Miller to come back with its best release since Hannibalism!. There’s a reason Dion is on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, and that reason can be found on this outstanding collection.
5. George Michael, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1: Deluxe Edition (Legacy Recordings)
In a year that saw both Harry Styles and Niall Horan shed the boy band image of their respective tenures in One Direction, with albums favoring artistic freedom over demographic appeasement, comes a box set celebrating the ultimate act of rebellion by such a multi-platinum pop star. Label execs wanted George Michael to make a sequel to his 1987 smash debut Faith, but what he gave them was a collection of dark, moody, largely acoustic songs that explored his roots in Joni Mitchell, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Night Beat-era Sam Cooke. (He also gave ’em one killer dance track: The gospel-laced “Freedom ’90,” which doubled as a stinging indictment of the hit making machine and their exploitative ways.)
This four-disc set includes Michael’s 1996 appearance on MTV Unplugged — perhaps the finest distillation of his genius as a songwriter, through acoustic renditions of not only Prejudice faves as “Praying For Time” and “Cowboys & Angels” but stripped-down versions of such iconic hits as “Father Figure” and even the Wham!-era staple “Everything She Wants.” The third disc, meanwhile, contains perhaps the closest impression of what we could have gotten out of this album’s intended follow-up, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2, through the inclusion of such rare tracks as “Too Funky,” the Nile Rodgers-assisted “Fantasy” and a lovely version of the 1959 Jobim composition “Desafinado” with Brazilian jazz great Astrud Gilberto, in addition to alternate versions of such Vol. 1 gems as “Soul Free” and “Heal The Pain” (featuring Paul McCartney).
“It’s been so obvious I wanted to be a star since day one,” Michael stated on The South Bank Show, whose 1990 episode on him is featured in the DVD portion of this collection, “that people found it hard to believe I also wanted to be a musician.”
4. Alice Coltrane, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (Luaka Bop)
Perhaps the greatest gift John Coltrane gave to us before he passed was introducing the world to Alice McLeod, a brilliant musical mind from Detroit who worked hand in hand with her husband in bringing out the spirituality in jazz music like no two people before or since their times on Earth. And though this year marks the 50th anniversary of her solo debut A Monastic Trio, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label celebrates a lesser-known but no less important stage of her career, in the ’80s and ’90s, when she recorded a series of privately released collections of spiritual music created exclusively for the 48-acre ashram she established upon relocating to Los Angeles from Long Island in 1983.
World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda is deep, happy and uplifting music, filled with rhythms and mantras for both small ensembles and 24 piece choirs, with rare vocal performances from Coltrane herself. The era-appropriate studio gloss only enhances the otherworldly grooves, even perhaps bringing her closer to the science of her great nephew Flying Lotus than anything else in her amazing catalog.
3. Thelonious Monk, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 1960 (Sam Records/Saga)
The beautiful jazz of Thelonious Monk was always tailor-made for cinema. But the idea of the pianist cutting music specifically for film was never a fully realized notion. That is, until the discovery of this amazing session from 1959 was discovered, containing music the pianist crafted for Roger Vadim’s French New Wave masterpiece Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960, the director’s risqué twist on the 1782 epistolary novel.
Recorded at NOLA Penthouse Studios in New York on July 27th of that year, these sessions have never been released before in the USA and feature a wholly unique lineup rounded out by Charlie Royse and Barney Wilen on tenor saxophones, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor. And the versions of such renowned Monk fare as “Rhythm-a-ning,” “Pannonica” and “Well You Needn’t” are injected with a new kind of energy wholly unique to this special quintet. The team of Monk and Vadim proved to be pure movie magic, and producer Zev Feldman has done jazz fans a grand service by making this music finally available for purchase.
2. Hüsker Dü, Savage Young Dü (Numero Group)
Few losses impacted the world of indie rock in 2017 quote like the passing of Grant Hart, who died of complications from liver cancer on September 13. In Husker Dü, he was the McCartney to Bob Mould‘s Lennon, a dynamic that came to full fruition right as they split up in 1987. But when you listen to the sum of Savage Young Dü, the hotly anticipated box set chronicling the band’s earliest years released only a couple of weeks after the drummer’s death, Hart, Mould and bassist Greg Norton were a singular three headed monster of DIY Twin Cities punk whose passion for melodic viscera rivaled their fellow Minneapolis upstart Prince Rogers Nelson’s flair for funk.
The material on these three discs, coupled with the masterful hardcover book designed by Henry Owings loaded with old fliers, photos and well-written insight, present like the ultimate history book chronicling Minnesota’s hardcore scene and the clubs that incubated it, like 7th St. Entry and Duffy’s. Grant’s death remains one of the most painful passings in a year filled with music greats being called up to the sky — but in lieu of ashes in an urn, fans have his soul in a box with Savage Young Dü.
1. Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain Deluxe (NPG-Warner Bros.)
The first posthumous reissue from the Prince vault is absolutely everything you’d expect to emerge from its catacombs. In addition to the 2015 Paisley Park remaster supervised by the man himself, of the original soundtrack to the 1984 smash film that rivals the Sgt. Pepper remix, the 3CD/1DVD version of Purple Rain also includes a disc of all the set’s B-sides and single mixes, another disc that essentially adds up to a completely unreleased LP from the era (featuring the 11-minute “The Dance Electric” and the minimalist demo-esque “Velvet Kitty Kat”) and a complete pro-shot concert filmed at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY, from March 30, 1985 — which should have been released in movie theaters in lieu of the uneven Under The Cherry Moon, quite honestly.
If this is what we are going to be expecting from the late artistic genius’s mythical vaults, all we can do is hope and pray that Prince’s estate gets its act together in 2018, for the bar has indeed been set sky high with Purple Rain Deluxe.