Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
And now, a moment of appreciation for the under-assistant recording engineers and studio gofers who toiled in anonymity in the dimly lit studios of the past. They didn't just get coffee — they were on site, taking notes about who played what instrument on which track, writing down the dates of sessions, and making sure that those dates were clearly marked on the tape boxes. They did this for albums that became classics. And singles that never left the garage. We know what happened on countless sessions that later became "important" because these anonymous workers took the time to notate the details as they happened. They trusted that someday, somebody out there would care.
Through streaming, a curious listener who wouldn't spend $80 on a boxed set can graze through its contents, cherry picking whatever seems interesting — but finding any certain version of any certain track usually involves more than a straightforward search. Scroll through an established artist's list of songs and you encounter "original" versions, live versions, edited-for-radio versions and demo versions of the same tune. Often, the quickest way to distinguish between them is to know who played on a particular version, or when or where it was recorded — the kind of information streaming services don't like to share.
This year, record labels and sleuthing researchers leaned on those scrawled morsels of information on tape boxes to bring out an astonishing array of music from the vaults. These include massive hauls of demo recordings, odd never-released curiosities and well known works that have been restored to the artist's original vision. Here are the best of them from this year.
Nat King Cole
Hittin' The Ramp
Nat King Cole had a rare superpower: The ability to melt hearts just with his becalmed, invitingly elegant voice. This carefully documented set shows, precisely, how he developed that gift. It happened first at the piano, with Cole playing chipper swing tunes and jump blues in Los Angeles lounges. Then, he honed keen accompaniment instincts working with other singers and instrumentalists like jazz tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Eventually, he began to sing with his crisp, drummerless trio, and from there it was pretty much crooner cruise control. Gathering everything Cole recorded for the Armed Forces Radio Service and other radio syndicates/outlets before he signed to Capitol Records in 1943, Hittin the Ramp provides a deep dive into the pre-history of a legend.
Pairs well with: Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Vols. 1 & 2
Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings
If you care about popular music as a form of spirit communication, if you have even a shred of interest in the long unbroken line of singers who came out of church and onto Top 40 radio, if you've ever found yourself lifted up by the forcefield that was Aretha Franklin, then you are probably already acquainted with some version of this monument from 1972. A riveting documentary offered tantalizing glimpses of performances from the two nights of recording; this lavish set presents the two evenings in their glorious entirety.
Pairs well with: The J.B.'s, More Mess On My Thing
Bob Dylan (feat. Johnny Cash)
Travelin' Thru: 1967-1969, The Bootleg Series Vol. 15
Loaded with revealing rehearsals, impulsive experiments and performances on ABC-TV's The Johnny Cash Show, this collection traces Bob Dylan's exploits in Nashville during the late '60s — the period of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline — and, in February 1969 during the making of Skyline, Dylan invited Cash to Columbia's now-historic Studio A for two days of collaboration. Supported by lean accompaniment, the two riffed through rock classics ("That's All Right, Mama") and songs of faith ("Just a Closer Walk With Thee"), as well as Cash's majestic "Big River" and Dylan's "Wanted Man." That last, which Cash sang at his famed San Quentin concert the following week, is the only existing recording with a Dylan vocal. Some of the Bootleg Series titles have seemed exhaustively overstuffed with arcana; this one moves highlight to highlight, unfolding like an audio documentary.
Pairs well with: Jim Sullivan: If the Evening Were Dawn (Light in the Attic); Bob Dylan, The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)
Niguem Vai Me Segura
This fall, the folks at Far Out Records in the U.K., champions of obscure music from all over the place, brought out two engrossing albums made by little-known Brazilian keyboardist, vocalist and composer Ana Mazzotti in the mid-'70s. Championed by the legendary Hermeto Pascoal as a "super musician," Mazzotti sang in a way that invites comparisons to Elis Regina, but her vibey, harmonically sophisticated funk songs, punctuated with alternately silky and crisp electric piano, align her with stars like Jorge Ben. These exuberant works argue that Mazzotti, who died at age 37 after a cancer battle, should have been heard far earlier.
Pairs well with: Various Artists, Brazil USA '70 (Soul-Jazz)
Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990
Breathy, subterranean drones; icy, glass-like chimes that hover and sustain, forming beautiful arrays; squabbling synth melodies — these are some of the favorite things of the Japanese sound designers and ambient artists who were active during the '80s. Though it contains works from over 15 artists, including established figures like Ryuichi Sakamoto, this compilation unfolds in a strikingly unified way, flowing from haunting desolate environments to more scripted and melodic pieces, like the sumptuous watch advertisement "Seiko 3" by Yasuaki Shimizu.
Pairs well with: Various artists, Tokyo Flashback P.S.F. – Psychedelic Speed Freaks (Black Editions)
Getz at the Gate
This was an excellent year for newly discovered music from legendary jazz tenor saxophonists, in part thanks to this nicely recorded 1961 date from New York's Village Gate. Here, the bewitchingly lyrical Stan Getz darts through uptempo barnburners ("It's All Right With Me"), then muses, in a sullen, disconsolate way, over a gorgeous "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most." This set is notable for the personnel – Getz' little-recorded Boston-based band of pianist Steve Kuhn and drummer Roy Haynes – and also for its date, capturing the saxophonist just before he began his commercially lucrative flirtations with bossa nova.
Pairs well with: Johnny Griffin & Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Ow! Live at the Penthouse (Reel to Real)
Across its tumultuous release history, this pensive gem of psychedelic Americana from 1974 has been disavowed by its creator, neglected (and then deleted) by its original label, lost, found and then championed as a buried classic by successive generations of music obsessives. Clark's grand, sweeping "Strength of Strings" and "Lady of the North" are rendered with loving sonic exactitude on this basic, but lovingly annotated reissue. Though more elaborate high-dollar packages offer unreleased material from these sessions, the album's original eight tracks are really all that's necessary.
Pairs well with: Linda Ronstadt, Live in Hollywood (Rhino)
Nigeria 70: No Wahala
For about two decades now, the U.K.-based Strut label has seemed to have an inside line on the music made during the explosion of creativity in Nigeria in the '70s and '80s – choice highlife, juju and funk that's virtually impossible to find outside of West Africa. This set, curated by DJ Duncan Brooker, is Strut's first new compilation in eight years, and it's one of the most consistently engaging of the series. Linking old-school juju (the infectious bustle of "Oni Suru" by Odeyemi) to gritty downtempo funk ("Black Precious Color" by Felixson Ngasia & The Survivals) to entrancing triple-meter dances ("Psychedelic Shoes" by Etubom Rex Williams & His Nigerian Artistes), this is the soundtrack for a night when everyone's blissed out and dancing.
Pairs well with: Super Elcados: Togetherness is Always a Good Venture: Tambourine Party Vol. 2 (Mr. Bongo)
Pink Floyd Records/Legacy
The Later Years 1987–2019
This year, the Doors scavenged the vault for a deluxe celebration of The Soft Parade, the studio album that, out of the group's catalog, probably least merited it. But Pink Floyd went even further, emptying the archive of anything related to what it calls The Later Years — that is, after 1987, following Roger Waters' departure. One lure is the "updated and remixed" version of 1987's A Momentary Lapse of Reason (with freshly recorded drum parts!); another is a disc devoted to unreleased studio jams and assorted live recordings from between 1987 and 1994. The unreleased studio instrumentals are as close as Pink Floyd comes to lifting the veil and sharing glimpses of its process; they reveal master guitarist David Gilmour in a more human light, not manufacturing grandeur but instead grasping for melodies.
Pairs well with: Cheap Trick, Are You Ready?: Live 12/31/79 (Legacy)
Sounds of Liberation
Unreleased Columbia University 1973
Sounds of Liberation
Seek out Sounds of Liberation when you need a high-speed portal back to the early '70s and the moment when jazz musicians went headfirst into groove music with a spiritual dimension and/or "message." Before "crossover" became a bad word, before jazz-rock fusion codified into virtuoso excess, this Philadelphia group, led by vibraphonist Khan Jamal and sparked by reedman Byard Lancaster, lived at the corner of free jazz and funk, reconfiguring key traits from each into a strikingly original sound. The thick, hypnotic grooves maintained strong ties to West African and Afro-Cuban music, and atop that sturdy framework, the improvisers pursued spirited, sometimes fitful and always conversational interplay. The band's self-titled debut has just been reissued on vinyl; check that first, then seek out this year's discovery, Unreleased Columbia University 1973, to hear how rapidly Sounds of Liberation evolved.
Pairs well with: Alice Coltrane, Carnegie Hall '71 (Hi Hat)
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Live at Woodstock
It was after midnight. The previous band, The Grateful Dead, went way long. Conditions were not exactly ideal when Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of the few contemporaneously chart-topping acts on the bill at Woodstock, took the stage. Yet for the next hour, the trio stormed through a set that reads like a dream revue: "Born on the Bayou," "Green River," "Proud Mary" and all the rest. This package, released in connection with the festival's 50th anniversary (and after decades of demurral from the band, which was not part of the original film or soundtrack album), might not be the most incendiary live document in the history of CCR, but it's still thrilling.
Pairs well with: Various artists, Woodstock: Back to the Garden (Rhino)
Kinshasa 1978: Originals and Reconstructions
Those who love Konono No. 1, a crafty ensemble from the Democratic Republic of Congo, should know about the ambitious time-travel project Kinshasa 1978. Its roots are previously unreleased recordings made in Kinshasa in 1978, featuring Konono and bands that are not as well known in the West, like Orchestre Bambala. Similar to Konono, these groups transform old car parts and other discards into instruments that, when assembled, become a thundering roar of interlocking percussion. The titular "reconstructions" of this set transform those originals into gussied-up fantasias from producer and DJ Martin Meissonnier. These employ modern studio tricks, sometimes shaping and sometimes overwhelming the source recordings, until they sound a step away from the clicky electronic music playing in hotel lobbies.
Pairs well with: Frank Harris/Maria Marquez, Echoes (Strangelove Records)
Songs for Groovy Children
Woodstock was hardly the only consequential live music event of the stellar music year 1969. Elvis Presley returned to the stage after more than eight years away from live performance — in Las Vegas (where else?), where he did an extended run of dinner and midnight shows in a 2,000-seat palace at the then-new International Hotel. [then as is]?After more than eight years away from live performance, Elvis Presley returned to the entertainment mecca of Las Vegas determined to be more than just an oldies act. So he dusted off the songbook of early-rock classics and set up shop playing dinner and midnight shows in a 2,000-seat palace at the new International Hotel. There, incredibly, Presley rediscovered the energy source known as rock and roll. Presley and the band, led by guitarist James Burton, did it showbiz-style, with breathlessly fast versions of "Hound Dog" and almost-too-tortured love songs and kinetic, Memphis-style reworkings of R&B staples like "I Got a Woman." Pick any set, any night, and prepare to marvel at a King with something to prove.
Jimi Hendrix had something to prove as well: He closed the year performing at the Fillmore East with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, the trio that would become known as Band of Gypsies. That run, the source material for the Band of Gypsies live album, is now available in its entirety on Songs for Groovy Children. Just like Elvis, Jimi and crew had to play two shows a night – one astonishment here is the way the trio sustains a consistent energy level from song to song and solo to blistering solo. By this point, Hendrix had long ago ditched crowd-pleasing riffs in favor of knottier, less obvious ideas; he's chasing blues in thicker and darker hues, as well as different ratios of consonance to dissonance. The trio's material was limited at the time of this run; the multiple versions of "Power of Soul" and others offer the chance for some extreme compare-and-contrast guitar geekery.
Pairs well with: The Band, The Band (50th Anniversary Edition) (Capitol)
Dead Man's Pop
This revised version of Don't Tell a Soul, The Replacements' 1989 commercial zenith, offers a window into the delicate, important art of mixing. After the band finished recording its sixth studio album, the label brought in well-regarded engineer Chris Lord-Alge to give songs like "I'll Be You" a more streamlined shine. Lord-Alge did his job almost too well, prompting a fight between the band and the label over the results. The label, of course, prevailed. But fast forward: When it came time to reissue the work, The Replacements got original engineer Matt Wallace to restore the tracks to their slightly askew, abrasively un-shiny glory. Big shock: This is how these tart, genius songs were supposed to sound. The set includes early demos and material from a session with Tom Waits (!), who — not a big shock — fits right into the Replacements ramshackle ethos.
Pairs well with: Crass, Best Before 1984 (One Little Indian)
G Stands For Go-Betweens: The Go-Betweens Anthology, Vol. 2
Five years after the early Go-Betweens albums got the retrospective treatment comes Volume 2, and it's the motherlode for fans of this tart, whipsmart group of Australian indie rockers. This one includes the albums that introduced band's two "voices," songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, to the world – 1986's Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express, 1987's Tallulah and 1988's 16 Lovers Lane. These have been remastered for vinyl, and alongside them is a double-LP live set recorded at the Town and Country club in London in 1987. In a confusing move we hope won't be emulated by other labels, the package also comes with five CDs, including one devoted to revealingly minimal demos for what was to be the seventh Go-Betweens album. The band broke up before it could be recorded – some of these songs surfaced later on Forster and McLennan solo works.
Pairs well with: R.E.M.: Monster 25th Anniversary Edition (Craft Recordings)
Capsule Losing Contact
In the late '90s, San Jose trio Duster recorded two albums of hazy, atmospheric indie rock that multi-instrumentalist Clay Parton once described as "experimental depressed music." These helped Duster develop the prototypical cult following, and earned it mentions alongside better-known bands like Low and Codeine in the subgenre sometimes called "slowcore." Then Duster disappeared. Then, somehow, demand for Duster music grew – enough to interest the reissue label Numero, which wisely preserved the serrated lo-fi ethos of the original recordings for this box. Listening on headphones, it's easy to get lost in the band's sly, subterranean inventions.
Pairs well with: Brian Eno, Ambient 4: On Land (Astralwerks)
Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
Pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams was a seeker in every sense. Her original compositions started out rooted in early jazz, then ventured wildly – into blues mysticism, spirituality, and classical music. Four selections on this long-unavailable 1964 effort are spirituals written for choir, or choir and soloist, with and without rhythm. "The Devil" meanders through a slow-motion reckoning before reaching what lands as a dramatic conclusion – "The devil looks a lot like you and I." As powerful as those pieces are, the remainder of the album, which finds Williams exploring blues-based hard bop with a trio, is less showy and more persuasive. Free to explore beyond the confines of a fixed narrative, Williams snaps out crisp chords to reshape "A Grand Night For Swinging," and locates unusual blues connotations between the lines of "My Blue Heaven."
Pairs well with: Bill Evans Trio, Evans in England (1969, Resonance Records)
Get this for the guide vocals, which are loose and irreverent and light years more interesting than most singers' finished work. Get it for the early treatments of 1999's strangely futuristic ear-twisting romps. Get it to appreciate Prince's process, because this massive treasure trove shows that to make one record, he created enough music for six. Get it to hear deep into the architecture of his drum programming – even when, on tracks like "Beat Generation," the source was a cassette. Get it because not only has there never been a prolific talent like Prince, there's also never been a period of creative ferment quite like the one Prince experienced between November 1981 and April 1983. Get it to hear the unremarkable below-genius tracks, those moments when he was grinding it out, waiting for the muse to show up. That stuff has plenty to teach, too – and, crucially, it magnifies the magnificence of the many highs.
Pairs well with: Nothing, because nothing compares
Blue World, the previously unreleased soundtrack to an experimental Canadian film called Le chat dans le sac and featuring John Coltrane's classic quartet, offers a lesson on the importance of context in jazz. In Coltrane's timeline, it sits between two 1964 landmarks – the saxophonist's inquisitive Crescent and the spiritual meditation A Love Supreme. But the material on Blue World looks back at an earlier period in Coltrane's music — it begins with "Naima," first recorded in 1959 for Giant Steps. Coltrane was not known to look backward or to revisit previous works in the studio, and this "Naima" goes some distance from the well-known version – he's engaged in a full-scale recasting of the theme using more assertive, exploratory gestures. That lithe, beseeching tone brought its own truth to every setting.
Pairs well with: Miles Davis, The Complete Birth of the Cool (Blue Note)
World Spirituality Classics 2: The Time For Peace is Now
Gospel is sometimes seen as its own ecosystem, separated from pop and R&B by its message, traditions and intended audience. As this brilliant, crate-digging triumph argues, that's a modern construct. In the 1970s, acts in cities across the United States thrived in all lanes at once, blending the secular and the spiritual like it was no big deal. Following the example of the Staple Singers and others, they extolled virtues like empathy and compassion through music that was rivetingly propulsive and of-the-moment. Drop in anywhere here – the Floyd Family Singer's addictive "That's a Sign of the Times," or the Triumphs' "We Don't Love Enough" – and you'll encounter artists whose mission was to galvanize and inspire listeners, who might be forgotten now but still seem to be speaking directly to the problems of our moment.
Pairs well with: The Chi-Lites, (For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People (Brunswick)
More Mess on My Thing
If there's a new frontier in the reissue realm, it's the demos, scratch tracks and audition tapes lurking in dustbins and attics — you know, where history lives. Proof: The monster 1999 Prince set. Further proof: One of the hottest offerings of the recent Record Store Day was this EP, which contains the 1969 demo that got Bootsy Collins, his brother Catfish and their crew hired by James Brown. A prequel of sorts to These Are the J.B.s, the title track and instrumental song "The Wedge" show that though these guys were young, they were already speaking Brown's language and had assimilated all the nuances of his funk codes. Turn it up and let your newly freed mind work on this: Out of this demo came one of Brown's fiercest bands, and out of that came the engine room of Parliament-Funkadelic.
Pairs well with: Bar-Kays, Gotta Groove (Stax)