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The Best Reissues of 2014

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4 Stars:

Michael Bloomfield, From His Head to His Heart
"Hotshit player" doesn't begin to describe the underappreciated blues-rock guitar hero Mike Bloomfield, as this beautiful four-disc set makes clear. The 1964 demos here show a twentysomething fluent in urban and rural blues, country and jazz, with a sweet, breakneck attack. Tracks with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band circa 1965-'66 (like the fierce 13-minute "East/West") show off style that nearly every hippie-era slinger would mirror; later jams with the Electric Flag and the Super Session band pushed into R&B and jazz territory. Three months after Dylan – who called him "the greatest guitarist I ever heard" – invited him to guest at a 1980 show, he was dead of an overdose. By Will Hermes

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Mike Cooper, Trout Steel
Mike Cooper's little-known 1970 masterpiece was of its time: the sound of a folk-rooted prodigy navigating the rapids of psychedelia with a handsome voice somewhere between Phil Ochs and Tim Hardin. But what puts his music in a league of its own (and likely doomed him to commercial failure) is his taste for free-jazz-style instrumental play, with his own slithery slide guitar darting through abstract arrays of horns, strings, piano and percussion. Here, his singer-songwriter and experimental sides form a gnarly yin-yang marriage that you figure won't last, but burns bright. By Will Hermes 

 Nils Lofgren, Face the Music
There are "musician's musicians," and there's Nils Lofgren, whom Neil Young drafted at 18 to play piano on After the Gold Rush, and who's been the E Street Band's hottest guitarist since the mid-1980s. This 10-disc anthology reprises an unsung singer-songwriter career, beginning with his Seventies band Grin (the sweet Cali-style soul of "Like Rain") through sharp, solo semihits ("Back It Up," "I Came to Dance") and beyond. By Will Hermes

Morrissey, Your Arsenal
Produced by former David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, with fits of glam flamboyance and a raw rockabilly bluntness, Moz's third solo LP made clear what Smiths fans already knew: Here was a new kind of superstar. For more proof, check this remastered reissue's must-see bonus DVD, filmed at a raucous 1991 show where the singer gets repeatedly rushed by lovesick fans, capturing the American peak of Morrisseymania like nothing else. By Barry Walters

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Nas, Illmatic XX
The 1994 rap classic by which all rap classics get judged, now with a second disc featuring all the remixes from the 12-inch/cassingle B sides. Nothing exactly essential is appended, save the unearthed, unreleased "I'm a Villain" which could have been an excellent track 11, with its knotty rhymes about being stressed on street life. By Christopher R. Weingarten

Professor Longhair, The Last Mardi Gras
This two-night 1978 set is an excellent entree to an artist whose live dates were often more vital than his studio ones. The storied New Orleans pianist leads his band through 18 songs that codify blues, jazz, boogie-woogie and rock & roll into a language familiar and yet quintessentially regional. 

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R.E.M., Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions
No band but Nirvana made more breathtakingly transformative use of MTV Unplugged than R.E.M., the only act to headline the show twice. This set of 33 songs, 11 of which never aired, revisits both sessions, boiling their magical greatness down to two base elements: achingly sugared melodies and Michael Stipe's potent voice, in all its deep grain, swooning vibrato and radiant empathy. By Will Hermes

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Slint, Spiderland
The year punk broke, 1991, was also the year Slint broke punk. Where Kurt Cobain screamed angsty poetry collage over speaker-ripping riffs, this Louisville group's frontman, Brian McMahan, told intricate parables about loneliness over downtempo jazz-rock and the occasional post-post-punk crusher. The album's original six tracks all sound crisp and clear, but the group went the extra mile and dug up outtakes, demos, rehearsal-tape riffs and even a reverent live cover of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer." As close to an inside look at the making of one of alternative's most quizzical records as Slint are willing to let listeners go. By Kory Grow

Small Faces, Here Come the Nice
There wasn't a more playfully revolutionary delight in British pop between 1967 and 1969 than a Small Faces 45. Originally a pure-mod squad, the Small Faces rapidly bloomed into something brighter and deeper – an R&B-ravers spin on the Beatles' studio exploration and the Beach Boys' California grandeur – in the punchy mono singles filling the first disc in this lavish four-CD box. The session outtakes across much of the set show how they built that perfection, while five late-'68 live tracks show the blues power at the base of it all. By David Fricke

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Soundgarden, Superunknown Deluxe Edition
The defining moment from an unclassifiable band remains brilliantly off-kilter as metal, crushingly moody as alternative and strangely reassuring as classic rock. A disc of demos and rehearsals let you hear Chris Cornell's powerful voice go occasionally out of tune – a Nineties benchmark even if the extras aren't particularly illuminating. By Christopher R. Weingarten

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Uncle Tupelo, No Depression: Legacy Edition
Pitched as "Hüsker Dü meets Woody Guthrie," Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut made the countrypunk notions of the Mekons, the Meat Puppets and others into a raison d'être, furthering a major movement. This expanded reissue adds Not Forever, Just for Now, the 1989 demo tape that got them signed. Its 10 songs, recorded in an attic in Champaign, Illinois, were beefed up for the album, but Not Forever shows a vision startlingly complete, and its scrappiness occasionally serves the songs better. By Will Hermes

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Various Artists, Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records 1986-1997
The towel-snapping snares, ribcage-ravaging bass, and relentlessly, cartoonishly hiccupping arcade effects of Chicago's Dance Mania is deliriously and hilariously less is more; it's lovely and obscene; it's rhythmically innovative yet intentionally moronic; it's sweatily sexy and drily synthetic; it makes a glistening bauble out of garbage parts; it features a suave gentlemen intoning, "Feel the motherfuckin' bass in my face," and a sensual woman exclaiming, "You got me sweatin', motherfucker." The producers who made record-store owner Ray Barney's label a legend – Marshall Jefferson, Farley Keith Williams, Lil Louis, Deeon Boyd, Robert Armani, DJ Funk, and countless others, were fearless in catering to the dance floor while simultaneously blowing it to bits. By Charles Aaron

 Various Artists, Lou Adler: A Musical History
Adler was the quintessential L.A. music biz polymath, a songwriter (with pal Herb Alpert) in the late Fifties who evolved into a producer (most famously, of Carole King's game-changing Tapestry), label chief (Dunhill, Ode), film director (Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains) and club owner (the Roxy). Part of an excellent compilation series from the U.K. Ace label devoted to producers and songwriters, this features Adler's finest moments in both chairs. Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World" (co-written by Adler with the late soul icon) is followed by the Mamas & the Papas "California Dreaming" (which he produced). King's signature "It's Too Late" shadows crate-digger gems like "Gimme Shelter" by Merry Clayton (who sang backing on the Stones' original; see 20 Feet From Stardom) and "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," a Donovan cover by Mod Squad actress Peggy Lipton. By Will Hermes

Various Artists, PUNK 45: Sick On You! One Way Spit! After The Love & Before The Revolution Vol.3: Proto-Punk 1969-77
The 2012 documentary about Detroit's circa-'74 bruisers Death entranced even non-record geeks with the idea that you could accidentally invent punk rock, even if you were 600 miles away from CBGB's. This comp – of which Death is dutifully included – tells similar stories from further reaches of Chichasha, Oklahoma and Montpelier, France (and, of course, hitting all the proto-punk hotbeds like art-rocking Cleveland, pub-rocking London and glam-rocking NYC). Starting in 1969 (it should be noted, right after Nuggets ended) this gaggle of sonic reducers includes original drafts for the Clash's Joe Strummer and the New York Dolls' Arthur Kane and loads of blown-out, abrasive stuff that predates punk's attitude, if not sound – see the Hammersmith Gorillas turning a Kinks song into a glass-gargling tantrum or the Hollywood Brats writing a song about puking on an ex-lover. By Christopher R. Weingarten

Various Artists, Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978
This exquisite two-CD compilation produced by Hugo Mendez captures Haiti's criminally overlooked merengue and compas direct sounds at the height of their sophisticated and naturally danceable complexity. Amid poverty and oppression, and years ahead of the international curve, "mini jazz" groups like Les Ambassadeurs, Les Vikings and Les Loup Noirs were blending hurry-up-and-slow-down Afro-Caribbean rhythms with jazzy horns, psychedelic guitars and idiosyncratic personal touches. While also touching on rara parade music and folkloric twoubadou singing, Haiti Direct revels primarily in several-minute variations on compas direct, the syncretic Haitian anticipation of slinky West African funk and Latin American cumbia. By Richard Gehr

Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams
Finally back in print, every song on Lucinda Williams' 1988 LP burns hot as ever: the indie jangle-twang of "Passionate Kisses" (which won a Country Song of the Year Grammy via Mary Chapin Carpenter's inferior version), the incandescent sexiness of "Like a Rose," and "The Night's Too Long," which could nearly be an outtake from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. The live bonus disc features non-LP tracks, a crack band and a riveting singer. By Will Hermes

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Song Stories

“Vans”

The Pack | 2006

Berkeley, California rappers the Pack made their footwear choice clear in 2006 with the song "Vans." The track caught the attention of Too $hort, who signed them to his imprint. MTV refused to play the video for the song, though, claiming it was essentially a commercial for the product. Rapper Lil' B disagreed. "I didn’t know nobody [at] Vans," he said. "I was just a rapper who wore Vans." Even without MTV's support, Lil' B recognized the impact of the track. "God blessed me with such a revolutionary song… People around my age know who really started a lot of the dressing people are into now."

More Song Stories entries »
 
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