There are the big-box monsters and major-artist retrospectives, rightly celebrated in our year-end issue. Then there is the scholarship from under the radar and along the margins, those archaeological digs and passion projects that make a wider deeper history come alive. Here are 10 from '10 that will reward further study, well into the new year.
Procol Harum, Exotic Birds and Fruit (Salvo)
The British acid-pomp band defied the mounting common wisdom that it was long past its kaftan-glory days with this 1974 album of powerhouse elegance – progressive pop rendered with sinister wit and brawling dynamics. It was the best of Procol Harum's last four studio albums in the Seventies (all made available in the U.S. this year as deluxe reissues), but 1973's Grand Hotel is a close second and the '75 detour, Procol's Ninth, produced by American tunesmiths Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, holds up as an R&B-flavored curiosity.
The Psychedelic Aliens, Psycho African Beat (Academy)
This collection is the entire work of a Seventies quartet from Ghana – one EP and two singles – that kick like Funkadelic and haunt like the Miles Davis' Jack Johnson band, with nothing more than bone-treble guitar, Nuggets-combo organ and minimal vocal interference. It's a short party – just eight tracks. So keep it on "repeat."
Jefferson Airplane, Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition (Collectors' Choice Music Live)
Of this label's four live-archive releases by the '66-'68 Airplane, this two-CD set is truly prime time: San Francisco's acid-ballroom ambassadors only a month after Grace Slick's arrival, just as the band was recording its perfect trip, Surrealistic Pillow. These shows are especially notable for the appearance of rarely played gems, including two by ex-drummer Skip Spence and the only reported performancew of Paul Kantner's gorgeous overlooked "D.C.B.A.-25."
Ahmad Jamal, The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions (Mosaic)
This master jazz pianist's precise and rapturous harmonic explorations and the feathery charge of his late-Fifties and early-Sixties trio would profoundly influence subsequent innovations by John Coltrane, Gil Evans and especially Miles Davis, who once instructed one of his own pianists, the great Red Garland, to "play like Jamal." The live and studio recordings in this nine-CD box are at once vigorous and beautiful and come from a time when a jazz delight such as Jamal's 1958 signature reading of "Poinciana" could be a jukebox and AM-radio hit.
Wax, Melted (Lightyear)
This one is personal. Wax were from my hometown, Philadelphia, and they were everywhere between 1969 and 1971 – in the clubs, opening shows for John Mayall, the Byrds and Chicago – while I was away at college. They never made an album, so I would only know them by reputation and the members' later success: Singer-keyboardist Rob Hyman co-founded the Hooters; drummer Rick Chertoff produced them; and singer David Kagan was the full bright voice, with Hyman, in the fine Philly group Baby Grand, which I did see. Melted is a set of songs Wax taped live in the studio, near the end of their tether, and it is vintage early-Seventies ambition: progressive songwriting with snappy instrumental digressions, just enough pop gloss and that inevitable Philly-R&B tang. Now I know what I missed – and I wish I'd been there.
Spider John Koerner, March 1963 (Nero's Neptune)
The Minneapolis singer-guitarist Spider John Koerner packed a lot of history into the spring Sunday that ended with this performance, on a local radio station. Starting at 10 a.m., Koerner recorded the seminal white-blues album, Blue, Rags & Hollers, with singer-guitarist Dave Ray and harp player Tony Glover. Then Koerner and Ray did an evening coffeehouse gig, before Koerner finished up at midnight, solo, with this high-velocity knockout broadcast – spunky, good-time stuff with all of the right rough edges intact.
Poobah, Let Me In (Ripple Music)
You could go broke and mad trying to locate – and endure – every "great lost album" cherished by fanboys from the homegrown-pressing underground of the late Sixties and Seventies. The 1972 debut by the Ohio trio Poobah is one of the few that was – and still is, as hard Seventies boogie goes – great. The many extra tracks are a nice bonus but no major improvement on the original half-dozen: a blowout of English-power-trio and Rust Belt blues, with guitarist Jim Gustafson riffing in a thick-fuzz lather that will remind you, fondly, of Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner and the British ace Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs. The cover – a crude-ink drawing of a hippie barfing into a toilet – is very much of its time.
Motorpsycho, Timothy's Monster (Rune Grammofon)
The Norwegian power trio's 1994 coming-of-rage album, a double-disc set, is expanded further with an earlier unissued attempt and a full CD of demos, detours and a memorable blast through Hüsker Dü's "New Day Rising." Forged in metal and steeped in Seattle grunge, Motorpsycho were shedding influences and building on lessons learned, on the way to their current heavy progrssive-psychedelic peak. This is epic climbing, revealed in full.
Up, Rising (Applebush)
Up – singer Frank Bach, guitarist Bob Rasmussen, his bassist-brother Gary and drummer Scott Bailey – were young-brat kin to the Stooges and the MC5 in turn-of-the-Seventies proto-punk Michigan. They were also sorely underrecorded, with just one-and-a-half indie-label singles and no whiff of a major-label deal. Rising is as much of a canon as they could muster in 1970-'72, but the multiple blitzkriegs through "Just Like an Aborigine" and "Free John Now!," a pledge of support for then-imprisoned White Panther chief John Sinclair, never get tired and "Do the Sun Dance," unissued at the time, now gets fair light.
Pantera, Cowboys From Hell (Rhino)
"The Will to Survive," which opens the demo disc in this three-CD blowout, sounds like a leftover from an earlier Pantera – the glam-metal trip that left behind, after four albums, with extreme prejudice, when the Texas quartet knuckled down to make the harder meaner Cowboys From Hell, the group's 1990 major-label debut. The Metallica impact is obvious. So is an original evolving might, especially the locked-in hypergroove of drummer Vinnie Paul, his late guitarist-brother Dimebag Darrell and bassist Rex Brown. You may not need four versions of the title track and "Psycho Holiday" (studio, demo and two live each), but the overkill is hardly inappropriate.