Running the gamut from one-sided LPs to box sets that require a forklift to get on a shelf, these 2018 reissues from under the radar and just beyond the Beatles-Dylan-Petty spotlight are more of the best in a year that has been especially rich in archival storytelling. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you discover you’re not even close.
If their 1968 debut album, Vincebus Eruptum, was the birth of heavy metal — mega-Cream power blues fired through a literal wall of Marshall cabinets, at a volume said to be “louder than God” — here is the conception: Blue Cheer’s first recordings, three demos from the fall of 1967 that went right into appropriately heavy rotation on San Francisco underground radio, bringing the record companies ’round. Guitarist Leigh Stephens, drummer Paul Whaley and singer-bassist Dickie Petersen had just shed their early blues-band conventions (along with three other members) that July. These versions of “Second Time Around,” “Doctor Please” and “Summertime Blues,” even more unhinged than the LP takes, capture the trio in the first relish of extreme volume and fury. For extra fun, flip this blue-vinyl, apparently one-sided LP over and find, unlisted on Side Two, a daffy, psychedelic radio ad for Vincebus Eruptum, vintage major-label surrealism.
This straight-line sequence of Faithfull’s first singles tells a remarkable story of tremulous vocal clarity and svengali vision — Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and traditional-folk covers set in producer Andrew Loog Oldham’s notion of an English-countryside Pet Sounds — turning weathered and prophetic, a maturity achieved at harrowing expense. Faithfull’s innocence was stripped away in degrees, climaxing in the 1969 B side “Sister Morphine,” recorded during the sessions for the Stones’ Let It Bleed and co-written by Faithfull (a fact conveniently forgotten in the credits when that band cut it for Sticky Fingers). Any resemblance to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” is intriguing: John Cale once told me that, during a trip to the U.K. in the mid-Sixties, he gave a demo reel of Velvets songs, including “Heroin,” to Faithfull, hoping she would pass them to Mick Jagger. “She closed the door in my face,” Cale recalled, laughing. She may have listened as well.
Here is the Grateful Dead’s captain and lead guitarist before electricity and acid: the most complete account on tape to date of Garcia’s early-Sixties pilgrimage through America’s pioneer music and public-domain songbook. Fidelity varies; these are house-party, coffeehouse and college-radio relics. His momentum, however, is steadfast — through bands like the Hart Valley Drifters and the Black Mountain Boys, in the first days of partnership with lifetime travelers such as future Dead lyricist Robert Hunter — as Garcia embraces the soul of the nation, in country, folk and bluegrass reflections, on the way to an imminent and profound awakening.
Opening with two blasts from Strummer’s spell in pub-rock vengeance with the 101ers, this two-disc set quickly jumps to a remedial lesson in the aftermath of the late Clash singer’s fateful decision to fire guitarist and shotgun spirit Mick Jones in 1983 and remake that band in a justly brief shadow of its former might. Film work and an underrated passage with the Latino Rockabilly War lead to the late bloom of Strummer’s stretch with the Mescaleros and collaborations with Jimmy Cliff and, in a stroke of eerie timing, a duet on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with Johnny Cash, cut as he and Strummer neared the end of their rides. A mixed bag of previously unreleased discoveries rescued from 8-track and cassette tapes sum up the older searcher in Strummer: a rough but convincing blueprint of “This Is England,” the only song he recorded with the faux-Clash that was worthy of the real one; “London Is Burning,” a return to an old theme and one of Strummer’s final recordings with the Mescaleros; and “US North,” a late-Eighties dance anthem with Jones that goes on too long but makes you wonder why he and Strummer didn’t just agree to end the Clash in ’83 and start Big Audio Dynamite together.
With their raw, performing turbulence and the searing vocal fire of Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company were a struggle to catch in the studio. Their second and last album with Joplin, 1968’s Cheap Thrills, was ultimately a simulation of the excitement the band generated in their natural habitat, with overdubbed concert atmosphere on some tracks. Big Brother famously drove producer John Simon to distraction with multiple takes as he struggled to distill their wayward drive and the untamed crosstalk of Sam Andrews and James Gurley’s guitars into electric coherence. But the two CDs of outtakes here affirm that Big Brother were tighter than the myth and punks inside the acid. The alternate “Combination of the Two” that opens this set is a glowing roar, at least the equal of the Cheap Thrills version and better off without the crowd noises. This collection — which restores the ’68 album’s intended title — does not replace Cheap Thrills. It extends the high.
Metallica revisit the distended genesis and complicated emotional backdrop of this 1988 speed-metal landmark, their first Top 10 album, with the same epic will that built it, in demos, early mixes and multiple live performances. Justice was a literal extreme in length and intricacy at a difficult junction; singer-guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett had not fully processed the loss of bassist Cliff Burton in a September 1986 tour-bus accident. His death remains an unresolved presence in Metallica’s first major recording experience with Jason Newsted; the diminishing of Newsted’s playing in the final mix still mars Justice‘s otherwise triumphant force. But the attention to logic in composition is evident in an October ’87 writing session for “Blackened,” which includes an idea that became “Harvester of Sorrow,” and a riff tape of the latter which, in turn, has a piece of “Eye of the Beholder” waiting there. And on the concert discs, Newsted will not be denied, grounding and pushing the fury with accomplished commitment — definitely an equal, not a replacement.
In this fascinating, alternate history of the British cult band, Family were top of the pops in the late Sixties and early Seventies, a regular if often confounding presence on BBC radio and TV. Indeed, the DVD included with the seven CDs in this set — a complete survey of Family’s broadcast life at home — has their 1970 and ’71 intrusions on Top of the Pops, both plaintive folk-infused gems and improbable U.K. hit singles. The broader story in these studio sessions (mostly for John Peel) and concert transmissions — 19 tracks from five appearances in 1968 alone — is a sustained, compelling invention as Family slip through psychedelia, pastoral melancholy; hard, angular blues; and, by their final Top Gear date in May 1973, a sharp-cut funk suggesting an English Little Feat. Armed with the vocal spectacle of Roger Chapman’s shearing, rippled bleat and a songbook of sturdy, eccentric appeal, Family were a truly progressive rock band. This is everything they gave on the air.
“Even the underground had an underground,” Clifford Allen writes in his liner notes to this vinyl reprise of a 1975 album made during the Soho loft-jazz phenomenon but in a shadow of even that New York subculture, at a nexus of experiment — 501 Canal Street — so far west it was almost in the Holland Tunnel. Saxophonist Alan Braufman, a resident there, was the leader and dominant composer on this session, a spirited soloist who deserved greater documentation, while the biggest star was actually in the rhythm section: bassist Cecil McBee, a fixture of Pharaoh Sanders’ band. Cooper-Moore, a major pianist and composer in New York’s ongoing avant-garde, makes his first recorded appearance here. But Valley of Search erupts in collaboration, the quintet — including drummer David Lee and percussionist Ralph Williams — alternating between episodes of free exchange and spiritual-jazz gallop like “Thankfulness” that resonate like oracle in the era of Kamasi Washington.
William Orville Frizzell was a classic country contradiction: a teenage jailbird and chronic alcoholic who wrote thoroughly believable songs of heartbreak and redemption; a massive star in the early and mid-Fifties, in the wake of Hank Williams’ passing, who endured his own version of the latter’s downward spiral, bereft of hits in the Sixties and dead of a stroke in 1975, only 47. But even in free fall, Frizzell was a pivotal influence on singers across the country-rock divide, from George Jones and Willie Nelson to John Fogerty and Levon Helm, who covered Frizzell’s bleak 1959 masterpiece “Long Black Veil” to immortal effect 10 years later on the Band’s Music From Big Pink, with Rick Danko singing lead. At 20 CDs, An Article From Life is everything from Frizzell’s tumultuous life on record including 78’s, 45’s, LP cuts, outtakes, live material and an audio documentary by his younger brother David, also a country singer. “If you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time,” Lefty sang on his 1950 breakout hit. Both are well spent here.
There was a 2008 CD examination, issued by Ace in the U.K., of the feral 1960s fun issued by Hugh “Jeep” Holland, a record-store owner and underground impresario in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This double-vinyl treatment by Jack White’s label is both more focused — pressing the best of Holland’s A-Square gambles next to each other (the Pretty Things aspirations of the Scot Richard Case; the sharp, punky soul of the Rationals; the original 1968 distortion-ahoy version of the MC5’s two-chord grenade “Looking at You”) — and expanded, uncovering spooky wah-wah psychedelia by Stoney and the Jagged Edge, a gang of teens who opened for the Doors in Detroit and, according to Holland, “blew the Doors off the stage.” Holland died in 1998; Third Man, founded by a son of Detroit, puts his legacy back on American vinyl.