Allen Beaulieu/The Prince Estate
In 2018, Prince's estate released a recording from the artist's fabled vault called Piano & A Microphone 1983.
Allen Beaulieu/The Prince Estate
In 2018, Prince's estate released a recording from the artist's fabled vault called Piano & A Microphone 1983.
Allen Beaulieu/The Prince Estate
The vinyl resurgence took a giant step in 2018. Once regarded as a novelty niche market, it became a serious change agent in not just new releases, but the increasingly active realm of archival music.
Lured by the promise of improved sonics, prolific artists like Kate Bush overhauled their entire catalogs first for vinyl, then digital. The art-pop legend's lavish, visually stunning Remastered series gathers her studio albums, live and rare tracks and long-missing B-sides of singles into a powerful career-spanning statement, one that offers much more detail than individual album reissues ever could.
Labels like Impulse brought out newly discovered vault gems — like John Coltrane's Both Directions at Once, one of the year's most discussed jazz titles — with vinyl as a key component of the release strategy.
The year's reissues and catalog titles reflect the serious sleuthing that's going on in every corner of the music world. Below are 20 highlights, split into two groups to emphasize whether the work was essential because it made available something previously unheard by the public or because it underlined the importance of previously celebrated recordings. Some are long-buried treasures, finally unearthed; others are well-known gems, ready to sparkle given a new turn in the light. All are a reminder that music has a life well beyond the moment in which it's made.
Both Directions at Once
(Impulse, recorded in 1963)
The title of this wondrous previously-unreleased set of studio recordings from John Coltrane is a bit of a misnomer: On it, the titan of the tenor saxophone isn't just looking forward (to free-jazz vistas) and backward (in the direction of hard bop). He seeks uncharted points across the spectrum between those extremes, and finds commonalities that other jazz musicians missed in the pursuit of the new. The original tunes, particularly those he plays on soprano, exhibit the light, blithe, Richard Rodgers-esque lyricism that is a Coltrane compositional trademark. The improvisations on tenor, meanwhile, catch Coltrane experimenting with and refining the colorfully strident many-tones-at-once harmonics that would drive his later recordings. This session happened at a crucial pivot-point in Coltrane's career, and as a result opens up new perspectives on his artistic evolution. For those who wish to explore it in more depth, Impulse has just issued a three-disc set, 1963: New Directions, that offers an overview of his activity from that year and includes John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (recorded a day after the Both Directions session) and Live at Birdland.
Piano and a Microphone: 1983
We may never get the full measure of Prince Rogers Nelson's creativity — especially if the managers of his vast unreleased catalog emphasize alternate versions of hits over the experiments said to be lurking in the storied vault. This first glimpse into that rarified realm does have hit appeal — in the form of an early "Purple Rain" demo — but it also offers riveting, fully realized performances of songs later edited from the Purple Rain album. These suggest that Prince was never not performing, even when just sketching ideas for later development. Cue up "Wednesday," and prepare for chills.
Typically, labels celebrate milestones with lavish boxes devoted to years of illustrious successes. Brainfeeder, the forward-looking and genre-agnostic home of Flying Lotus, Thundercat and now Georgia Anne Muldrow, marks its 10th anniversary with a 4-LP 2-CD box that splits the focus between influential works from the past and newly recorded tracks from what it calls "an unreleased future canon."
The new track that's most likely to snag buzz is "The Lavishments of Light Looking," from a new supergroup called Woke that involves Flying Lotus, Shabazz Palaces and Thundercat. The suitelike track features refrains from George Clinton (of Parliament fame) and a dizzying array of overlapping vocal parts. But other tracks — particularly Busdriver's frenetic, Sun Ra-tinged collaboration with Flying Lotus, "Ain't No Coming Back," and Miguel Atwood Ferguson's mind-expanding 7-minute instrumental journey "Kazaru" — suggest that the Brainfeeder pipeline is running at ear-stretching peak capacity.
Miles Davis & John Coltrane
The Final Tour
(Columbia/Legacy, recorded in 1960)
Another essential piece of Coltrane's history arrived this year, in the form of these full concerts from the 1960 European tour of the Miles Davis Quintet. It catches a great band at work on the road over a short span of days, and (as per Davis' custom) playing some of the same tunes each night. All of the musicians acquit themselves well, particularly the hard swinging and tactfully terse pianist Wynton Kelly. And then there's Coltrane, who positively blazes through standards like "On Green Dolphin Street" and tunes like "So What" from the then still-current Kind of Blue. These are not solos, they're thrill rides — long discursive affairs in which Coltrane tears through clever motifs and fast-multiplying variations, grouping his ideas into fitful blurry torrents of inspired sound.
(Warner Bros./Rhino, recorded in 1985)
"Rubberband of Life" begins with the unmistakable shrieking muted trumpet of Miles Davis, but it's the undulating and deeply hypnotic groove that's the lure of this curious EP, produced by Randy Hall and Zane Giles. Recorded in 1985 just after Davis switched from Columbia to Warner Brothers Records, the track was part of an album Davis worked on for months and then left unfinished. (Davis then enlisted different collaborators for what became his Warner debut, Tutu.) The original Rubberband producers returned to the tracks this year and, with help from drummer Vince Wilburn Jr. (Davis' nephew) and vocalist Ledisi, created a slick, vibey update around the maverick's spearing and soaring ad-libs. Which remain incandescent, regardless of the surroundings.
A Soulful Sunday
(Reel to Real, recorded in 1972)
Just after finishing the first chorus of the ballad "Don't Go to Strangers," Etta Jones offers an aside to the Sunday afternoon audience at Baltimore's Famous Ballroom: "Ms. Billie Holiday might have said it like this...." What follows is both jazz time-travel and homage, as Jones changes her tone to interpret the melody in a way that affectionately (and convincingly) evokes Holiday's curling phrases and bemused, carefree personality. That's just one reason to check this energetic recently unearthed date from 1972, which finds Jones fronting an A-list rhythm section (pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Sam Jones, drummer Billy Higgins) and pouring charm and sensitivity into songs associated with Nina Simone ("For All We Know") and Dionne Warwick ("This Girl's In Love With You.") The other Etta (James) snagged more of the limelight, but this set argues for Jones as a thoroughly original — and fiercely magnetic — presence behind the microphone.
Sings for the King
(RCA, recorded 1964-1968)
In the years just before he became a breakout star, guitarist and singer Glen Campbell was part of the elite L.A. studio ensemble known as the Wrecking Crew. That meant different things on different days: The crew was involved in the making of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and other totemic records, but was also hired by songwriters like Ben Weisman and Sid Wayne for mundane demo sessions that were never intended for release. Sings for the King is a peek behind that curtain: It gathers 18 nicely polished song demos that were sung by Campbell in a loose Presleyian style and then submitted to Presley. The King went on to record 12 of them — including the opening "We Call On Him," a stirring gospel number that was edited into a duet between Presley and Campbell for inclusion here. Campbell evokes Presley's easygoing phrasing and swagger without imitating it outright, and whether interpreting giddy beach-movie tunes or meatier themes, Campbell follows the contours of the melodies with a professional's discipline. He's singing for an audience of one, and that's alright.
(Resonance, recorded in 1963)
The bass clarinet is not typically considered a jazz instrument, but when it was played by Eric Dolphy, it became an engine of in-the-moment creation. You feel the spirit of invention bubbling through his unconventional phrases — snarling jumps followed by scissoring lines, atonal yelps mixed with gymnastic expressions of intervallic daring. If you haven't heard Dolphy, you're missing an essential outlook on jazz.
The record most people start with is Out To Lunch, from 1964. The year before, in just two days, Dolphy recorded two underrated albums that neatly summarize his approach to playing and composing jazz — Conversations and Iron Man, which was the recording debut of trumpet master Woody Shaw. This set augments those two titles with 85 minutes of unreleased music that is consistently clever, high-level improvisation. Some pieces are contemplative (the duets between Dolphy and bassist Richard Davis on several treatments of "Alone Together"), some more frenetic (the larger ensemble work "Mandrake").
More Blood, More Tracks
(Columbia Legacy, recorded in 1975)
Each of these archival undertakings has a slightly different mission. Some aim just to return long-neglected works to circulation; some attempt to provide missing details or provide well-known works with a contextual backstory. More Blood More Tracks traces just about every step Bob Dylan took to bring the songs of his emotionally charged 1975 album Blood On the Tracks to finished form.
It's quite a journey — from harrowing to (differently) harrowing, with detours for bouts of anger, lamentation and musings about what a lover who finds himself rejected might have done differently. The deluxe package, which includes a reproduction of a Dylan lyric notebook, begins with solo demos that are marked by a raw, wild-eyed energy. Subsequent discs feature many forays with a full band in New York. Then Dylan subtracts some instruments — re-recording the songs with just bass, or bass and piano or organ. At that point the album was mixed and "improved" with some tape-speed trickery. But Dylan still wasn't finished; weeks before the scheduled release, he hired a band and booked a studio in Minneapolis and re-recorded much of the album again, changing his phrasing and reworking some lyrics. On the final product, the tracks were split between the New York and Minneapolis sessions. (No alternate takes from Minneapolis have been found.) Listening to the multiple iterations of these songs is an education in songwriting and the nuances of interpretation — and at the same time, it's a thorough account of one haunted man's quest to situate his songs within a very particular range of expression.
(Fish People/Rhino, career retrospective)
It's not like previous versions of Kate Bush's recorded output were in some way flawed. It's really just that post-production audio technology has improved greatly in the years since The Kick Inside, Bush's startling debut, appeared in 1978. One of the artiest of art-rock enigmas, Bush is known to want to control of as much of the sensory experience of her music as possible. It was perhaps inevitable that she'd undertake an overhaul of her entire oeuvre.
It's a massive project, aimed squarely at obsessive fans and rendered with an obsessive's focus on pixel-level detail. Each of Bush's 10 studio albums gets the sonic upgrade, and not surprisingly the early ones (Kick, Lionheart, Never For Ever) benefit the most. The big news is that Bush applied that mindset to an astoundingly large and musically interesting collection of B-sides and material recorded for other projects. The rarities include some spectacular work, including the wry "You Want Alchemy" and a dystopian fantasy called "Experiment VI" — these and others lean toward the paranormal in transfixing ways, and help explain why Bush is regarded as a deity in some circles. Standouts on the full disc of covers include a gently simmering "Sexual Healing" and a dubby "Rocket Man."
The Beatles: 50th Anniversary Edition
(Apple, recorded 1968, available in various configurations with escalating levels of previously unissued bonus content)
As with the similarly exhaustive Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band package from 2017, the first lure of the double LP known simply as The Beatles is sonic: The love songs and whimsical miniatures the Beatles wrote during their fabled 1968 sojourn to India are rendered with astonishing detail and situated in a dramatically more spacious sound field. At the super-deluxe level there are also deep-dive rarities, including "Child of Nature," a John Lennon song left off the album; with different lyrics, it later became "Jealous Guy."
Another lure is archival: A disc of demos recorded at George Harrison's Esher cottage portray four individuals immersed in a delicate collaborative dance of song-making, doing whatever was needed to make the material soar. One oft-repeated myth about this record is that it marks the beginning of discord between the musicians; if there were tensions, they don't spill over into the loose, warmly convivial demos of future classics ("Back in the U.S.S.R," the breathtakingly pensive "Dear Prudence").
The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions
(Panart/Craft Recordings, recorded between 1957-1964)
Grab this for a time-travel experience back to the late '50s/early '60s heyday of mambo and cha-cha-cha in Havana. Across five infectiously energetic discs, it showcases the top-shelf talents of Cuban music — including legendary bassist Israel "Cachao" López, the innovator of the mambo, and flute master Jose Fajardo — stretching out in low-stakes jam sessions ("descargas") at the acoustically excellent Panart studio. After hours. When the only thing that mattered was the music itself.
Not all of it is groundbreaking — hey, it's music for dancing. Still, all of it operates at a fever pitch, and also a genius level of rhythmic complexity, with the timekeeping duty spread across multiple musicians handling specific crucial elements. This version, which features razor-sharp remastering, is the first where all the hand percussion is rendered cleanly. Disc 1, directed by Julio Gutierrez, contains a crackling theme-and-variations treatment of "Perfidia," with horn players and singers trading ad-libs. Cachao's landmark "Jam Session in Miniature," which is Disc 4, centers around a tight sextet but involves a bunch of guest horn players who jumped in when the spirit moved them. These sessions ended shortly after Castro ascended to power in Cuba, and in some ways it's a miracle they survived at all. For that matter, it's a miracle the engineers at Panart were alert enough during these all-nighters to keep the tape rolling.
An American Treasure
Even before Tom Petty's death in the fall of 2017, Reprise was selling carefully assembled anthologies devoted to his studio output and live exploits with the Heartbreakers. An American Treasure, curated by his widow and longtime collaborators, promises a deeper dive, drawn from studio outtakes, alternate arrangements and recently cleaned-up live performances. Such an alternate career overview would seem to be aimed at diehards, but even casual admirers will appreciate the masterful narrative of "Walkin' From the Fire" (recorded in 1984 during sessions for Southern Accents), and the unsparing honesty of "I Don't Belong" (from 1998's Echo). Among Petty's strengths was starkness, a knack for conveying tangled emotions through simple language and unassuming chords. One vivid illustration of this is the crystalline stripped-down version of "Don't Fade on Me" included here.
Music From Big Pink 50th Anniversary Edition
(Capitol, recorded in 1968)
50 years on, the upheavals wrought by this album still seem ongoing somehow. Partly that's because Band's folk spirituals and ambling reveries were built on sturdy frames — gospel hymns, ageless blues. Partly it's that so much of what came to be called "roots rock" or "Americana" descended so directly from this single document, which gets remix/remastering/expanded liner notes treatment despite the presence of only a handful of outtakes. Partly it's because these songs go beyond rote celebration of faith, family and the bedrock values – there's questioning happening here, doubt creeping around the edges. And partly it's just the five voices moving in makeshift ragged formation, in pursuit of an elusive state of grace.
Loving the Alien 1983-1988 (boxed set)
Glastonbury 2000 (Live, recorded June 25, 2000)
Those who work in the David Bowie back-catalog business can't be faulted for laziness. The last several years have seen a torrent of archive releases devoted to specific points in the long arc of his career, many featuring significant unreleased content. This year's mammoth set is Loving the Alien, an 11-disc, 15-LP tome devoted to Bowie's '80s output.
Setting aside the most obvious question — did anyone need something this exhaustive to cover this period? — there are welcome live documents from the hugely successful 1983 and 1987 tours, a terrific set of remixes (Dance) and upgraded audio treatments of the studio records. There are also a few headscratchers, among them a 2018 update of the 1987 studio album Never Let Me Down, which Bowie described a few years later as having "good songs that I mistreated. I didn't really apply myself." This has newly recorded contributions from guitarists Reeves Gabrels and David Torn, and appended string quartet music written by contemporary composer Nico Muhly. The mistreatment continues.
A more satisfying slice of Bowie lore can be found on Glastonbury 2000. Contemplating a tour for summer of that year, Bowie noted in a diary (that's reproduced as part of this lavish set) that he'd spent most of the previous decade avoiding the hits in his catalog. "I got through the rest of the 20th century without having to do a big hits show. Yes, yes, I know I did four or five hits on the later shows but I held out pretty well I thought..." That changed in a big way with the tour that came to Glastonbury on June 25, 2000. Fronting a torqued-up stripped-down band that included longtime compatriots Mike Gaston (keys) and Earl Slick (guitar), Bowie opened with a reworking of the Johnny Mathis hit "Wild is the Wind," and then romped through some of his most indelible creations, including "Rebel, Rebel," "Heroes," "The Man Who Sold the World." The package includes a DVD with complete footage of the performance, which is regarded as one of the best in the history of the Glastonbury festival.
Girly-Sound to Guyville
(Matador, recorded 1991-1993)
Later she got stuck with jobs she never asked for — "voice of a generation" and all the rest. Later she had to wrestle with just how much of a pop creature to be. This set is concerned with the before — specifically, the music on three homemade cassettes that led Liz Phair from her bedroom in suburban Chicago to one of the most provocative debut albums in rock history: Exile In Guyville.
The songs were arranged as a track-by-track "response" to the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street, and grew out of a common experience – the recent college graduate's unexpected return home. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and occasionally double-tracking her voice to give it more power, Phair documented all manner of seemingly autobiographical social awkwardness in glorious lo-fi. She over-shared, with disarming bluntness, about what she wanted. She told messy stories of romantic endings and flameouts, among them "Don'tholdyrbreath" from the first tape, Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word To Ya Mutha. As she progressed, she grew more brazen as a lyricist and songwriter, and though her singing voice isn't what most would describe as "confident," by the time of Guyville it shows flashes of outright ferocity.
Levanta Poeira: Afro-Brazilian Music 1976-2016
(Jazz and Milk, Germany)
Each region of Brazil has a distinct musical signature, reflecting a slightly different relationship to the African diaspora. This transfixing compilation by Sao Paulo-based DJ Tahira showcases ancient identifying traits from (among others) the spirit center of Bahia and the verdant Northeast — and then shows how modern artists are recontextualizing them, by weaving in looped Afrobeat guitars, reverby mouth percussion and endlessly intense drumming. The title roughly translates to "Kicking up the dust," and everything here – from chants (Renata Rosa's "Brilhantina") to pop fantasias (Tahira's remix of Gilberto Gil's "Toda Menina Baiana") to sinewy dance creations (Afroelectro's "Sika Blawa") — does exactly that.
The Girl from Chickasaw County
The Bobbie Gentry story begins with great promise — her first single was the iconic "Ode to Billie Joe," after all — and then traces a slow descent into the type of generic pop favored by crooners and TV variety show hosts of the '70s. ("Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" etc.)
Along the way are bunches of surprises: Sharply observed Gentry originals like "I Saw An Angel Die," which celebrate (and sometimes slyly comment on) Southern culture; covers that reveal her deep understanding of blues and swampy rock ("Mississippi Delta," "Seventh Son"); multiple examples of her eagerness to try silly-seeming ideas (see disc 5's unreleased cluster of intimate torch songs, including "God Bless the Child" and a lovely version of "Since I Fell For You" or several songs sung in Spanish).
Another unexpected gift: A full disc of performances from BBC TV, where Gentry had a show starting in the summer of 1968. She does slightly show-biz treatments of her own songs and mostly credible, sometimes wickedly good covers of songs by Harry Nilsson ("Open Your Window"), the Beatles ("Mother Nature's Son") and Jerry Jeff Walker ("Mr. Bojangles").
Universal Philosophy: Plays T. J. Hustler's Greatest Hits
(Luaka Bop, recorded 1980s and '90s)
Picture a man at a Casio keyboard. The rhythm is set to something like "Pop/Funk 1" and is looping endlessly. The bass has a touch of fuzz, a la Herbie Hancock in the Headhunters era, while the rest of the keyboard emulates some sort of vintage organ. The man is exhorting listeners to get their minds clear in a scowling sort of way. Every now and then he picks up a puppet, T.J. Hustler, and changes his voice to underscore the import of his bits of wisdom.
Welcome to the slightly off-kilter world of Preacherman, the one-man-band creation of a Bay Area typewriter and computer repairman named Tim Jones. He's been at this for decades — the six tracks on Universal Philosophy come from DIY records he made during the '80s and '90s and sold on CD-Rs at gigs. As cosmic teachers go, Jones is fairly run-of-the-mill, but he knows how to exploit a dancefloor hook without wearing it out. Cue up "Age of Individualism" and give thanks for the iconoclasts of the music world, who keep on keeping on whether Spotify pays them the .02 cents or not.