It’s only July and already 2018 has been another banner year for rock archaeology. The second half looks as promising, with the imminent Tom Petty retrospective An American Treasure, and the certain return, in 50th-anniversary bells and whistles, of the Beatles’ White Album. But you probably need a break from all the static about the midterm elections in November. So take it here — the top 15 (or so) midterm reissues of the year.
The Fall, Singles 1978-2016 (Cherry Red)
The death in January of the Fall’s Mark E. Smith — the singer-lyricist and autocratic core of that English post-punk institution — unleashed a tsunami of memorial that would have bemused the lifelong iconoclast. Obituaries fulsomely cited Smith’s caustic sing-speak, ferocious productivity (over 100 studio, live and compilation albums of both official and dubious sanction), lyric vision (of a Britain in relentless upheaval) and maddening personality. Released late last year but newly relevant with his passing, this seven-CD set addresses a less-discussed knack for subversion: Smith made great singles with the Fall, right from the starting gate (“Bingo-Master,” “How I Wrote Elastic Man,” “Totally Wired,” all in 1978-80); to perversely commercial effect in the Eighties (“Hit the North”; a thumping cover of the Kinks’ “Victoria”); unto the end (2016’s “Wise Ol’ Man”). And Smith rarely wasted a B side; the nearly 70 of them here are another full ride in lacerating wordplay and get-on-board clatter. A three-CD edition of Singles with just the A sides is meal enough for most. But this wide angle in Smith’s improbable story is best told in full.
Roxy Music, Roxy Music: Super Deluxe Edition (Virgin)
Glam starts here. David Bowie built a permanent icon in Ziggy Stardust, unleashed on LP in the U.K. on June 16th, 1972. But Roxy Music’s self-titled debut album, released in Britain on the same day, was the aesthetic’s explosive, glamorous certificate of arrival: a radical juxtaposition of Fifties rock, Sixties R&B and garage-lab electronics, dressed in peacock feathers and space-biker chic, pointed decisively forward in songwriting design. Captain-crooner Bryan Ferry proved to be Roxy’s real-life Ziggy without the tragic end, a controlling figure in lyric urgency and wily, melodic flair. Synth-imp Brian Eno lasted one more LP, finding more productive license for his cerebral mischief in record production and gallery installations. Roxy Music, however, is an enduring collaborative document, especially in this tricked-out form with BBC sessions, session outtakes and a DVD of ’72 live snazz: the original band at the point of entry, defining a new era in hooks, art and lamé.
Zuider Zee, Zeenith (Light in the Attic)
This album of previously unreleased sessions from 1973 doubles the released canon of this glam-lined power-pop quartet, originally from Louisiana but resident in Memphis when the group released its only official album, Zuider Zee, in 1975 on Columbia. That record was so good that Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen wrote an effusive fan letter; the band received it too late to be of anything but consolation. These earlier recordings are too evolved to be mere demos; they were surprisingly prescient too, evoking the florid eccentricities of Sparks a year before their U.K. boom, while holding tight to the jangling verities: the Beatles on Rubber Soul; the acid-tinged Hollies. Better late than never, meet your new Big Star — with a Z.
The Flaming Lips, Scratching the Door: The First Recordings of the Flaming Lips (Rhino); Seeing the Unseeable: The Complete Studio Recordings of the Flaming Lips 1986-1990; Greatest Hits Vol. 1: Deluxe Edition (Warner Bros.)
‘Tis the season to get weird — at length. These three releases — 11 discs in total, arriving almost simultaneously — are a crash course in the winding third-eye mission of the Lips’ singer-showman Wayne Coyne, from the first LSD-fueled kicks in Norman, Oklahoma, to worldwide godhead. Scratching the Door is straight-up genesis: a 1984 debut EP and two sets of demo tapes in Jesus and Mary Chain–style fidelity with Wayne’s younger brother Mark on vocals. Seeing the Unseeable rounds up the five years of unhinged-Blue Cheer exploration I first saw in New York, with Wayne in charge, ’round the time of “One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning” on Oh My Gawd!!! from 1987. Greatest Hits is exactly what the sign says — and then some in the three-CD version, mapping Coyne’s tripping odyssey between radio payoffs in rarities and deep tracks. It is a life well lived so far, in psychedelic zeal. It is served in detail.
The Pet Shop Boys, Please: Further Listening 1984-1986; Introspective: Further Listening 1988-1989; Nightlife: Further Listening 1996-2000 (Parlophone)
For several months in 1983 and 1984, I edited stories on Duran Duran and the Thompson Twins for Star Hits, a magazine which flourished for a time as an American cousin of Britain’s pop-tastic Smash Hits. During our launch, Smash Hits writer Neil Tennant was on hand to write, advise and, between deadlines, command the office stereo with the lyrically sharp, rhythmically fluid electro-dance music he was making in a New York studio with collaborator Chris Lowe as the archly named Pet Shop Boys. The first of these multi-disc packages — part of a thorough reissue of the duo’s catalog with appropriate singles and curiosities — covers my introduction to their glitz, noir and breakout (“West End Girls,” “Opportunities”). The expanded moods on Introspective and the luxuriant ennui of Nightlife reflect Tennant and Lowe’s taste in finely calibrated experiment and unforced commercial savvy. They have always aimed deeper and darker than their success suggests. There is more where these came from.
International Harvester, Remains (Silence)
Across four iterations in six years, the Swedish improvising collective variously known as Pärson Sound, International Harvester, then just Harvester and finally Träd Gräs & Stenar (“Trees, Grass and Stones”) was that nation’s irrepressibly left-wing Grateful Dead, preferring happenings, political benefits and renegade tours of the countryside to conventional paying jobs. Also like the Dead, each incarnation sought communion and ascension in jamming, although to an extreme even the Dead did not abide. On the two, original LPs in this boxed summation of the Harvester phase — 1968’s Sov gott Rose-Marie (“Sleep Tight Rose-Marie”) and 1969’s Hemåt — songwriting was polemical work; studio technique and vocal craft were enemies of the high. But for folk-drone elevation and raw modal drive, the live material that dominates this set — including three LPs of unearthed trips going back to 1967 — is an unbroken contact high: sustained bliss from a distant optimism, caught with field-recording authenticity.
Various Artists, When the Day Is Done: The Orchestrations of Robert Kirby (Ace)
Robert Kirby (1948-2009) was a signature voice in the rich Seventies pasture of British folk — without singing a note. His orchestral scores were a distinctive rapture across that decade first for his old friend from Cambridge University, Nick Drake, on the latter’s 1969 debut, Five Leaves Left; then on quietly influential records by Vashti Bunyan and Shelagh McDonald as well as higher-profile work for Sandy Denny and members of Steeleye Span. This celebration of Kirby’s unique celebrity opens with Drake (“Introduction” from 1970’s Bryter Layter), then roams wisely between another Cambridge connection, the cult group Spriguns; Steve Ashley’s 1975 album, Stroll On (the folk album of that year according to one London newspaper); and the progressive-rock band Audience. Later work for Elvis Costello and Paul Weller is outside this focus. But Kirby’s touch, at every turn, was distinctive and elegant, the mark of an artist whose specialty was service.
Wire, Pink Flag; Chairs Missing; 154 (pinkflag)
Rarely out of print, never out of mind, Wire’s three successive leaps in concept and confrontation — the clenched, landmark minimalism of 1977’s Pink Flag; the more expansive writing and limber tensions of 1978’s Chairs Missing; the slower, texturally richer advance of 1979’s 154 — are back in high-art formats (museum-catalog binding; extensive annotation and photo narrative) grounded by a mass of raw data on the extra CDs. Non-LP singles and the bonus EP of experiments originally issued with 154 fill out the official tale; demo sessions for each album capture Wire’s rush of energy and design at each stage of change, like live albums without applause.
Professor Longhair, Fess Up (palfifilms)
In January, 1980, filmmaker Stevenson J. Palfi convened the master New Orleans pianists — Isidore “Tuts” Washington, Henry Roeland Byrd a.k.a. Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint — in a local studio. They were rehearsing for a concert to feature the three legends in performance and, in a big finish, playing together for the first time. That live summit, to be shot by Palfi for a documentary, never took place; Byrd died two days before the show, on January 30th, 1980, at the age of 61. Instead, Palfi’s footage of that practice session — impromptu, dazzling and soulful; the three men swapping stories, secrets and tunes — became Palfi’s film, the acclaimed Piano Players Rarely Play Together, released in 1982 and reissued in a two-DVD set with a vital bonus: a feature-length interview with Byrd shot two days before his death. The intervening decades have not dimmed the funky magic of Palfi’s day in that company. The rising toll — Washington died in 1984, Palfi in 2005 and Toussaint in 2015 — makes this intersection of genius and lesson even more precious.
Jerry Garcia, Before the Dead (Round Records)
Long before there was the tapers’ section at Grateful Dead shows, even before Owsley started running reels every night at the band’s sound desk in the Sixties, Jerry Garcia was being recorded on his way to legacy. Before the Dead gathers the earliest known evidence of the Dead’s lead guitarist and spiritual leader in performance — playing country-folk songs and bluegrass nuggets, for and with friends, between 1961 and 1964. The sound quality of these tapes, mostly made in coffeehouse conditions, runs from surprisingly good to forgivably rough, while the repertoire is so antique and purist that few of these tunes made it, through electricity, into the Dead’s set lists. But this history is essential to the story of Garcia’s pursuit of transcendence in music, through American roots and stories. And two of the grounding partnerships in his life during and outside the Dead are already present. Garcia’s songwriting brother Robert Hunter and David Nelson, later of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, rotate with Garcia through groups such as the Hart Valley Drifters and the Black Mountain Boys. In one set, taped at Stanford University’s radio station, the former group performs a traditional number, “All the Good Times Have Past and Gone.” Garcia, of course, was just getting started.
The Real Kids, The Kids, 1974 Demos; The Real Kids, 1977/78 Demos/Live (Crypt)
That unwieldy title is nothing compared to the word count in the 200-page book that is the real weight in this single-disc CD-size package, covering the four-year distance in the Real Kids’ origin story. Founded in Boston as the Kids by singer-guitarist-songwriter John Felice (a brief, early member of Jonathan Richman’s original Modern Lovers), the Real Kids — by 1977 — had great songs, the right hair and the kind of bum luck that certifies garage-rock legends. The rejection letters from major labels reproduced here are astonishing in their banality, compared to the rock-house craft of Felice’s writing and the band’s cutting, jubilant edge, particularly in the early-’78 live gig on the second half of this CD. Start with The Real Kids, the 1977 debut album (reissued by Norton Records) that should have blown minds nationwide. Then swing back here.
Procol Harum, Still There’ll Be More: An Anthology 1967-2017 (Esoteric)
The dateline is not a typo: The first three CDs in this box — which opens, inevitably, with the 1967 debut single “A Whiter Shade of Pale” — are an effective capsule history of this British progressive-rock band, which is still in business under founding singer-pianist Gary Brooker. There are two live CDs — from 1973 with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and a 1976 U.K. tour — that attest to the vitality of Procol Harum’s Euro-classical twist on electric-Sixties Dylan, right to the verge of punk. But the juicy core of this set is the three DVDs of TV appearances from Procol Harum’s first decade, including an episode of Germany’s Beat Club in which the 1971 lineup revisits the early peak of the group’s psychedelic pomp: the Side Two suite from 1968’s Shine on Brightly.
Sun Ra, Astro Black (Modern Harmonic); John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse)
For an extraordinary moment in the early Seventies, the avant-jazz bandleader and self-invented space lord Sun Ra was a major-label artist, releasing his independent productions on Impulse. Issued in 1973 though of indeterminate vintage (the original recording credits were misleading), Astro Black is at once among Ra’s most abstract and compelling joy rides — spiraling improvisations grounded by firm, actually funky ostinatos.
The sessions on Both Directions at Once, a shoo-in for the jazz discovery of this year, hail from John Coltrane’s furiously productive run at Impulse, from 1961 until his shocking, early death at 40 in July 1967. In 1963 alone, the saxophonist released four albums including a collaboration with Duke Ellington, the much loved Ballads and the modal breakthrough Impressions — and still found a day that year, March 6th, to record these two albums’ worth of long-thought-lost music with his Classic Quartet: pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. Yes, these are mostly outtakes. Two untitled originals make their debut here; there are also multiple, extra versions of “Impressions” in the two-CD Deluxe Edition. But this is exploration, not repetition: Coltrane with his greatest band, looking in each performance for the road not yet taken. There can never be too much of that.
Chris Squire, Fish Out of Water: Deluxe Edition (Esoteric)
At a point where there are two versions of Yes out there, each claiming to be the more authentic article, remember that neither of them includes bassist Chris Squire, the only original and constant member in every lineup until his death in 2015. Indeed, in 1975, when Yes devoted a year’s sabbatical to unleashing a rain of solo albums, it was Squire who made the most Yes-like record of the bunch, the strong, assuring Fish Out of Water. Singer Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Alan White and then-keyboard player Patrick Moraz used their respective LPs to show what they brought to Yes; Squire simply got on with the mission with a small circle of friends, notably including original Yes drummer Bill Bruford. Given the politics of being a Yes fan now, Fish Out of Water — reissued with a sparkling, new stereo mix by current King Crimson singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk — may be your safest, most satisfying option.
The Who, Live at the Fillmore East 1968 (Universal)
Recorded between Monterey and Tommy, in a New York on edge three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Who’s performance on April 6th, 1968, at Bill Graham’s recently opened Fillmore East catches the band in lethal-underdog glory — notorious but not yet stars; fiercely tight yet jamming at improbable, exciting length (a 33-minute “My Generation”); juggling their repertoire like a set of mismatched grenades (searing pop-art from 1967’s The Who Sell Out; “Little Billy,” a dark Townshend novelty commissioned as an anti-smoking PSA by the American Cancer Society; three Eddie Cochran covers). Then-manager Kit Lambert commissioned the recording for a prospective live album. Fifty years later, the result would be the Who’s greatest concert album if there was no Live at Leeds. Since there is, Fillmore East is simply one of the Who’s greatest albums – period.