What qualifies as "deeper" in a reissue year when it seems like all rock & roll history is out there, in box sets large enough to qualify as checked luggage? It is the listening and learning that kept bringing me back to these 15 releases, as much as the top 10 Reissues of 2016 – even to records, artists, epochs and scenes I thought I knew so well. Size matters more and more in the reissue game. But depth, even on a single disc, matters most.
Released in October 1991, in the immediate wake of Pearl Jam's Ten and Nirvana's Nevermind, Soundgarden's third studio album was that Seattle band's songwriting breakthrough – "Outshined," "Rusty Cage," "Jesus Christ Pose" – and its classic-metal triumph: Pacific Northwest modernism and emotional struggle, detonated with vintage guitar muscle and vocal bravado. The two-CD edition of this reissue is a roaring bargain, combining outtakes and concert fire. The seven-disc beast is the full blaze, with extensive video evidence of America's thinking-man's Zeppelin taking Grunge Nation by storm.
There was a catalog number, the artwork was ready, and Warner Bros. Records even devoted a full-page to the album, ahead of a 1973 release date, in its promotional magazine, Circular. But then, with no cause given, the label pulled singer-songwriter Terry Dolan's self-titled debut – a superb fusion of San Francisco dreaming, country-comfort reflection and early rock & roll values – from the pipeline, stranding a certain classic in a four-decade limbo. Finally issued with deserved, deluxe treatment, Terry Dolan is a perfect window into the family-circle quality of Bay Area psychedelia in the early Seventies: Pianist Nicky Hopkins produced one side; future Jefferson Starship bassist Pete Sears produced the other; session guests came from Santana and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Dolan went on to lead Terry and the Pirates, a local institution on stage and records. This is how the story should have started.
Released in April 1969, Uncle Meat was a two-LP set that, as the Mothers' leader wrote in his liner note, featured music from "a movie of the same name which we haven't got enough money to finish yet." In fact, it was the culmination of an epic span of sessions that had already produced the '67-'68 triad Lumpy Gravy, We're Only in It for the Money and Cruising With Ruben & the Jets. This was Zappa's vision of modern American music in all of its rigorously exuberant bloom, ignited by his big-band version of the founding Mothers: doo-wop, greasy R&B, free improvising on stage, explosive symphonettes and a dense whiplash of tape-speed and overdub manipulation. This edition addresses the mountain of music made on the way to the '69 release with the addition, across two of the three CDs, of an alternate, longer sequence, originally programmed by Zappa, plus relevant outtakes – rock's most assured composer and his greatest Mothers at their most absolutely free.
There is nothing on this 26-track anthology that disproves the obvious: The Kinks were the best interpreters of the songs written by their singer-leader Ray Davies. What Kinked does show, in spades, is that Davies' almost daily issue of pocket masterpieces in the mid- and late Sixties was more than even that band could handle. Dave Berry's version of "This Strange Effect" and Peggy Lee's simple, smokey reading of "I Go to Sleep," both from 1965, are two examples of masterful ballads that Davies left to other voices. The parade of talent through Davies' songbag in these eight years – Marianne Faithfull, the Chocolate Watchband, the Pretty Things, English blues singer Duster Bennett, Herman's Hermits – is a fresh, revealing way to hear his prolific gifts, in records that are often as much fun as the composer's.
A figure of indeterminate origin – Cyprus by way of Canada or possibly Philadelphia, according to two accounts – Leon Redbone sang like an old soul when he was a very young man. This double album, on Jack White's Third Man label, of stark 1972 and '73 tapes – a solo coffeehouse gig at the University of Buffalo; a studio session at the school's radio station – catches Redbone in his early twenties, excavating the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression stories of Jimmie Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Robert Johnson in a nasally antique croon. Redbone's debut album for Warner Bros., On the Track (also reissued by Third Man), was a sumptuously archaic affair featuring truly old-school cats like jazz violinist Joe Venuti. But on Long Way From Home, in the simplicity of setting and Redbone's defiantly retrospective passion, you hear an artist already entirely at home with plainspoken romance and hard-luck stories, written by very old and dear friends.
No matter how many times it is reissued, Ono's 1970 debut album – the sister blast to her husband's first post-Beatles release, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – never sounds less than tomorrow, arriving early with an exhilarating vengeance. The savage primitivism of her all-star power trio – Lennon on guitar, bassist Klaus Voorman and an impressively game Ringo Starr on drums – against Ono's searing vocal anguish still qualifies as avant-garde, unprecedented and as yet unequaled in its physical extremes and emotional reach. There are bonus tracks here, as reissues demand – one is a longer version, by three harrowing minutes, of the opening firestorm "Why." But this is one instance in which the original artifact – with its anomalous 1968 performance of Ono with free-jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his trio, a direct link to her association in the early-Sixties Fluxus movement – needs no extra bait.
In the Sixties, a commercial heyday for jazz at Atlantic Records, the flutist Herbie Mann was one of the label's biggest stars – and a committed patron of the emerging avant-garde. For his June 1969 gigs at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, recorded for a live album, Mann arrived with a fighting-trim band of younger spirits including the young Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous – soon in Weather Report – and a thrilling, provocative voice on guitar, Sonny Sharrock. This two-CD set drawn from the Whisky shows – trimmed to two quarter-hour tracks of clattering funk on the original '69 LP – is a generous immersion in that group's firepower and integrated improvising, especially Sharrock's virile sax-like attack and harmonic transgression. Mann even hands the spotlight to Sharrock and his singer-wife Linda in two pieces that preview the couple's torrid free-jazz debut, 1970's Black Woman – a record produced by Mann, a true believer, three weeks before the Whisky engagement.
"King Crimson has a life of its own," founder-guitarist Robert Fripp wrote in a 1981 press release announcing the unexpected resurrection of the British progressive-rock dreadnought seven years after it broke up – this time as a rhythmically nimble, subversively sleek, New Wave dance band. Where other recent Crimson box sets have thoroughly examined shorter windows of experiment (the group's 1969 debut, the Larks' Tongues in Aspic and Red albums and tours), this 19-disc set, despite its size, is a breezy audio-visual chronicle of the Eighties quartet – Fripp, singer-guitarist Adrian Belew, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Bill Bruford – and its compact but vigorous time in the studio and in concert. One disc is an audience recording of the group's first club date in 1981, under its original name Discipline; two more feature this Crimson's last-ever show, three years later, in Montreal – literally a life from beginning to end.
Australia is not the first place you think of as a crate-digger's paradise. But these 20 slices from the country's early-Seventies season in commercial R&B and pop-jazz fusion are a lively lesson in the ingenious adaption of imported trends over an extreme distance. This is overwhelmingly white funk: "Back on the Street Again," an Etta James cover by Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, and the ID's "Feel Awlright" are examples of hot shots from Australia's Sixties-beat and heavy-rock scenes finding their dance-floor feet; a track by the progressive-rock band Tamam Shud comes from the soundtrack to a 1971 surfing documentary. But it is all robust fun with intriguing sampling prospects.
Arkansas-born producer-pianist Jim Dickinson was a former Sun Records hand, a recent Rolling Stones sideman ("Wild Horses") and a member of the Dixie Flyers, an Atlantic Records house band at Criteria Studios in Miami, when a fellow session man, guitarist Duane Allman, advised him to go solo. Dixie Fried, released by Atlantic in 1972, made little impact at the time; it is now a recognized gem of soulful eccentricity and roots-music vision. Dickinson leads his compadres in the Flyers and friends from the Memphis underground in a rousing program of blues fisticuffs, rockabilly party and raw church that clearly points forward to his future studio work with Big Star, the Replacements, Bob Dylan and his sons in the North Mississippi All-Stars. "World boogie is coming": That's how Dickinson signed the notes he slipped into packages of new music that he often sent my way in the two decades before his passing in 2009. Dixie Fried was the initial broadside.
In mid-Seventies glam-mad Britain, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band was the greatest show in town: a brilliantly conceived hard-rock theater of comic-outlaw melodrama, genuine droog-like menace and commercially savvy songwriting, with the Glasgow-born vocal pirate Alex Harvey at the irresistible center of the action. Harvey was actually long past adolescence – in his late 30s – when he launched his genuinely sensational band with the 1972 debut, Framed. This 14-disc monument to Harvey's life before and at the top of the pops opens with two tracks recorded in Hamburg in 1963 – three years before, Harvey's Big Beat Band opened a show in Scotland for an early lineup of the Beatles. But the main meal is the eight SAHB albums with bonus dynamite from the band's glory years on stage. Harvey, who died in 1982 on the eve of yet another show, was not the first or last of rock's teenage idols. He was simply one of the best.
This set comes damn close, in more than 100 tracks over five CDs, to achieving the impossible: capturing the eternal striving and indomitable spirit of what is still, after these 50 years, the Best Unknown Band in America. Advanced discographers may quibble about omissions, but High Noon is best enjoyed as a big door into NRBQ's continuing pursuit of the righteous good time in rock & roll classicism, outsider jazz and the Great American Songbook – from the original quintet's explosive antics for Columbia Records in 1969 and 1970 to live and studio work from practically yesterday, under the stubborn leadership of founding pianist Terry Adams. The programming is quixotic: new stuff first, then a checkerboard chronology within eras. The effect, in fact, is exactly like a night on the town with the 'Q: great songs, hot chops and hair-trigger wit, fired at will.
These reissues of the Verve's 1993 and '95 albums are really one story: the rise and shine, in the thick of Britpop, of this English psychedelic tempest – singer Richard Ashcroft, guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury. A revolving-door sequence of tensions, disbanding and a brief reunion with McCabe produced the group's best-selling Waterloo, 1997's Urban Hymns. But here are the stronger visions: the winding, reverb-soaked ascension of Storm and evolving grandeur of the EPs leading to it; the grounding of that reach for the sky in the melodic certainty and earthier, instrumental poise of A Northern Soul. The boxes come with extra liftoff – B sides, BBC sessions and, in the Storm set, a live DVD of a late-'92 show that is all dry ice, ghostly twang and determined soaring.
This English guitarist, best known for his mid-Seventies tenure in the galactic-rock troupe Gong, may seem an unlikely subject for a box of such weight and documentary scope. But Hillage has more than enough of his own lineage, canon and success in British progressive rock to fill and justify these 22 CDs, starting with the first two: a 1969 psychedelic one-off Arzachel, by Hillage's first serious band Uriel, and 1972's Space Shanty, a highly regarded prog curio by his next group Khan. After Gong, over eight solo albums for Virgin Records, the guitarist extended that band's spaced-case aesthetic into a surprisingly commercial blend of acid-rock jamming, jazz-funk fusion and early electronica, notably in effective throwback covers (the Beatles' "It's All Too Much," Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away"). Rarities inevitably abound in a set of this dimension, but Hillage dug deep, with a sharp ear, through his archives. And the two accompanying books make you feel as if you've fallen into a long-locked closet of old Melody Maker and NME cuttings.
For two months in the summer of 2013, Reed sat in a New York studio attending to the remastering of his Seventies and early Eighties solo catalog. It was his last creative work, completed before his death that October. That is one reason to revisit these 16 albums; you hear them the way Reed believed they should stand after he was gone. Here are some others: his 1972 debut, Lou Reed, immediately eclipsed by its rapid follow-up, Transformer, but loaded with unreleased songs from his last two years with the Velvet Underground; The Bells from 1979, a chart disaster that initially sounded like an R&B pastiche gone awry ("Stupid Man," "Disco Mystic") but turned dark, personal and uncompromising at the end; and the shotgun effect of the confessional force and stoic jangle on 1982's The Blue Mask and overlooked '83 sequel Legendary Hearts. "I do Lou Reed better than anybody," the legend crows on the 1978 live brawl Take No Prisoners. This is how he did it – one last time.