As rock & roll gets older, there is more history to examine, re-evaluate and (of course) reissue. What follows is more of this year's bounty of archival releases: Alternate Take's Best Reissues of the Year, all of which were in my running for the magazine's official Top 10 as well. Frankly, I don't see much difference. Everything there and here is sublime, explosive and revealing. And none of it sounds old, just ripe for remembering and learning.
Various Artists – Cooler Than Ice: Arctic Records and the Rise of Philly Soul (Jamie)
Founded in Philadelphia in 1964 by R&B DJ Jimmy Bishop, Arctic Records was my hometown Motown: a soul-singles factory of propulsive vocal-group pathos (the Volcanos' "Storm Warning"), knockout balladry (Barbara Mason's national hit "Yes I'm Ready") and dynamic prophecy, including early sides by Philadelphia International producer-writer Kenny Gamble and a teenage Daryl Hall, then in aspiring white boys the Temptones. This set is Arctic's mid-Sixties lifetime in full, 120 tracks across six CDs – and six vinyl 45s for authentic dance parties.
Humble Pie – Performance: Rockin' the Fillmore, the Complete Recordings (Omnivore)
This four-CD box is the British band's classic lineup – with Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton on crossfire singing and guitars – at its jamming-R&B apex: every set taped at the Fillmore East in May, 1971 for the Pie's hit live album. There are no change-ups in repertoire from the original double LP. You get everything that record had – Marriott's unhinged Cockney-soul bray; Frampton's poised vocal counterpoint; the boogie-exploration roots of the Black Crowes and Gov't Mule – times four.
Harry Nilsson – The RCA Albums Collection (RCA/Legacy)
Nilsson's decade as an RCA recording artist – from the concise, baroque ingenuity of 1967's Pandemonium Shadow Show to the eccentric, intimate melancholy of 1977's Knnillssonn – was an epic run by today's standards and remarkable even then for a songwriter who didn't tour. The 14 studio albums and rich feast of rarities in this set affirm, at appropriate length, Nilsson's grand-pop imagination and acute way with lyric hurt. The Beatles loved him. Here's why.
Bloodkin – One Long Hustle (Terminus)
These Athens, Georgia warriors, founded in 1986 and much admired by fellow Dixie soldiers Drive-By Truckers, are weirdly invisible for a band of such luminous aggression and irresistible, compound classicism: Southern-rock guitar noir and storytelling; the alcoholic octane of the Replacements and the Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones; Neil Young's Crazy Horse-tour corrision. But singer-guitarists Daniel Hutchens and Eric Carter have put their three decades way below the radar to superb use: almost a dozen band-and-solo albums, then enough top-shelf rarities and outtakes to stuff this five-CD set. You can start here with confidence: this is the meat of that hustle, the stuff that happened on the way to those records still waiting for you.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Southern Roots: The Original Sessions (Bear Family)
Here is the original Southern troublemaker at an overlooked peak of challenge and grit: three days in Memphis in September, 1973 with a session cast of country-soul masters, including Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, swamp fox Tony Joe White, the Hi Records horns and Lewis' old Sun mate Carl Perkins, produced by loose Texas cannon Huey P. Meaux. The repertoire is covers – gold and roots by Sam and Dave, Rosco Gordon, Fats Domino and Doug Sahm – but Lewis sings 'em like he owns 'em, at one point literally inserting his story into Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman." This juicy extension of the ten-track '74 LP has outtakes, extra versions and the kind of studio chatter that makes you glad tape was rolling when the Killer was loose at the mike – and glad he wasn't aiming at you.
The Paley Brothers – The Complete Recordings (Real Gone Music)
Boy bands used to be a lot more hip and fun. Jonathan and Andy Paley were Everlys-style harmonizing brothers with experience (time in the Modern Lovers; Andy's 1972 RCA LP with power-pop contenders the Sidewinders) and the right fans (Phil Spector, the Ramones) when they made 1978's The Paley Brothers, a sleek hot rod of New Wave-Ronettes production, Cheap Trick-guitar sizzle and what's-not-to-love songwriting. Here, "complete" means that LP, associated tracks, sharp-dressed outtakes and two songs recorded live in '78 – the Paleys opening for star-crossed teen bait Shaun Cassidy, drenched in screams and eternal-Meet the Beatles appeal. Beat that in 30 years, One Direction.
Various Artists – Qat, Coffee and Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen (Dust-to-Digital)
The nine tracks in this collection are of indeterminate vintage, drawn from singles unearthed by compiler Chris Menist in the antique shops of Yemen's capital, Sana'a. The mesmeric tangle of desert blues and modal vocal melodrama is suitably timeless: love's trials and small domestic comforts wreathed in narcotic hand-drum grooves and circular, spidery riffing, usually on a single oud. This is music made of and celebrating elementary pleasures, in an ancient land bloodied by modern, political repression and fundamentalist violence – the determined grandeur of a people with hardy soul.
Stephen Stills – Carry On (Rhino)
The last installment in the CSN series of individual multi-disc anthologies is a wild-ride account of this guitarist's extraordinary, perplexing life: Stills' immediate advance as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist through and right out of Buffalo Springfield; his incisive, impulsive command with and away from CSN (1970's Stephen Stills, the country-rock big band Manassas), interrupted by extended spells of wavering focus; the deepening emotional rewards in Stills' singing and playing in recent years. The live versions of "No Tears Left" and Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," from CSN shows I saw in 1997 and 2012 respectively, are instructive reasons to stick with this set to the very end.
Various Artists – Los Nuggets: '60s Garage and Psych from Latin America (RockBeat)
This is the original rock en Español: the roots and repertoire enshrined in Lenny Kaye's pioneering 1972 garage-punk anthology, rendered con carne. Some of the Beatle-maniac and Stones-wanna-be combos on these four CDs have become cult figures in their own right: Mexico's Kaleidoscope and Los Dug Dugs, Argentina's Los Mockers and Los Shakers from Uruguay. (Despite the subtitle above, Spain is amply represented as well.) The usual British and American covers and influences abound: the Yardbirds, Spencer Davis Group, Them, the Byrds' electric take on Bob Dylan. But these rough, dizzy translations were made in much tougher conditions, for very conservative labels, often under harsh political rule, and the teenage victory pressed into the performances is abundant and sweet. And here's no surprise: The "uno, dos, tres, cuatro" intro to "Wooly Bully," done here in '65 by Peru's Los Shain's, sounds right at home.
Tandyn Almer – Along Comes Tandyn (Sundazed)
This enigmatic folk-rock songwriter, who died last January, was already a ghost in this music: a set of demos recorded in 1965 and '66 in largely unfussy arrangements by mostly anonymous session musicians. Almer, then in his early twenties and a rising star for writing the Association's Top Ten hit "Along Comes Mary," only appears on occasional keyboards and vocals. The album was originally pressed as a promotional tool by Almer's publisher to generate more covers and smashes. But the rhythmic and melodic twists even in these demos and Almer's elliptical blend of wordplay and acute, interior distress suggest an ambition doomed to founder in the business of writing for hire. Almer later co-wrote "Sail On Sailor" for the Beach Boys, then sailed on to quiet exile, leaving this jangling evidence of stranded gifts.
Larry Coryell – Barefoot Boy (Flying Dutchman/BGP/Ace)
Issued in 1972, this rampaging set of long-road improvisations was a thrilling peak in this guitarist's emergence out of proto jazz-rock (the Free Spirits) and harmonically advanced chamber jazz (the Gary Burton Quartet) into full-blown Mahavishnu-bonfire fusion. The three tracks are all charge and euphoria – mostly just guitar and tenor saxophone dogfighting over tidal high-speed percussion, anchored by former Charlie Parker and John Coltrane drummer Roy Haynes. Coryell's stuttering riff and wah-wah uproars in Gabor Szabo's "Gypsy Queen" are as close to pure Hendrix as Coryell, then 29, ever got on record – and suggest, with apt fire, where Hendrix might have strayed if he'd lived to hear The Inner Mounting Flame.
Various Artists – Live at Caffé Lena: Music From America's Legendary Coffeehouse (1967-2013) (Tompkins Square)
This three-CD box has a visual companion: Caffé Lena: Inside America's Legendary Coffeehouse (Powerhouse Books), a coffeetable account of the misfits, poets and prophets who passed through this fabled Saratoga Springs, New York club during and long after the folk boom. My first, real music-biz job, in the early Seventies, was as a P.R. kid in a similar, storied venue, the late Main Point in Philadelphia. Most of the faces and ghosts in these photos also sang, smiled and glowed on that stage. I hear familiar echoes, too, of optimism, searching and fraternity in the recordings collected in Live at Caffé Lena. Jerry Jeff Walker, Patrick Sky, David Bromberg and Aztec Two Step were all considered family at the Point as well, singing these songs to rapt no-booze attention. Caffé Lena is a continuing mission; some of this music was made as recently as this year, meaning there is as much promise as history in the telling.
The Seeds – A Web of Sound (GNP Crescendo/Big Beat/Ace)
The Seeds – Future (GNP Crescendo/Big Beat/Ace)
This pair of two-CD reissues covers, with extreme rarities detail, the radical swerve from grunge to flowers on this Los Angeles garage-rock quartet's best album, A Web of Sound from 1966, and loopiest, '67's Future. Singer-mastermind Sky Saxon didn't have much of a voice – flat intonation, limited range – but he made up for it with Mick Jagger-sized conceit and a taut trio. Guitarist Jan Savage, organist Daryl Hooper and drummer Rick Andridge together cast a seething instrumental spell. Like AC/DC, the Seeds basically made the same record over and over, finding endless variations on the two-chord surge of their cut-in-'65 hit "Pushin' Too Hard." A Web of Sound had two of the best, "Mr. Farmer" and "Tripmaker," plus the 14-minute jam and free-love fantasia "Up in Her Room," a clear if eccentric link between the Rolling Stones' "Going Home" and "The End" by the Seeds' junior-L.A. cousins, the Doors. A bizarre world apart, Future came drenched in ill-advised orchestration, as if Saxon had poured a bowl of Sgt. Pepper soup over Savage's fuzz tone. The extras, including non-schmaltz versions of Future songs and the back-to-basics jolt of "Satisfy You," confirm the original band was still in there, even as Saxon was on his way to acid-casualty and egomania spinout.
Sly and the Family Stone – Higher! (Epic/Legacy)
Most career-overview box sets are designed to celebrate a life in glowing-memorial terms, even if that life ended in tears (Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain). Higher! is, in surprising, instructive contrast, honest in its recounting of the rise, peak and fall of Sly Stone. His golden age of albums with the Family Stone have had the deluxe-reissue treatment, so these four CDs salt and pepper Stone's glorious run of rainbow-soul and party-politics singles between 1967 and 1970 with some key LP tracks but also abandoned songs, ideas left as instrumental sketches and, after the paranoid triumph of There's a Riot Goin' On, a retreat into recycled ideas and diminished risk. It is a gripping recount: At his highs (the mono singles, the sunshine-and-showdown funk of '68-'69), Stone was like the newly-electric Bob Dylan with an Afro – that good, that often – while his descent was just as breathtaking. Even in fadeout, Stone was plaintively compelling ("If You Want Me to Stay" from 1973's Fresh). It's hard, by the end here, to see him go.