10 Best Reissues of 2015
Massive sets from Dylan, Springsteen and more
The year in reissues is, again, another year in Bob Dylan — a body of work that keeps on giving in new instructive, desirable ways. That the biggest sets in this Top 10 of 2015, in sheer weight, are by Jerry Lee Lewis, from rock & roll’s creation years, and the Isley Brothers, one of black American music’s most successful family bands, shows that there is still much to learn from familiar history. There is also much here that is truly new in excavation and revelation: legacies that fall farther behind with every passing year — Jackson C. Frank, guitarist Rory Gallagher’s new-Cream years in the trio Taste, the short solo tale of the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb — but feel utterly present in these releases, with renewing lessons.
Bonus Track: The Velvet Underground, The Complete Matrix Tapes
Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes here. But this is not promo: I have been asked to mention this set. And I would have bought it as a citizen. Recorded on November 26th and 27th, 1969 at the San Francisco night club originally founded by Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin, these performances are the second, classic Velvets — bassist Doug Yule, guitarist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker and Lou Reed on guitar, vocals, songwriting and attitude — at their live peak, in a compelling intimacy caught on the Matrix’s in-house four-track deck. Songs that would soon appear on the Velvets’ last studio album, Loaded — “Sweet Jane,” New Age” — are still in lyrical and structural development. Concert standbys during Yule’s tenure like “I Can’t Stand It” and “What Goes On” go long; ballads such as “Pale Blue Eyes” resonate in the small room and respectful applause. A few Matrix tracks first surfaced on the 1974 double album, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. This set is all that survives from those nights and it is arguably the last truly revelatory addition to the Velvets canon: the most provocative rock group of its day, heard as a working band.
10. Taste, ‘I’ll Remember’ and ‘What’s Going On – Live at the Isle of Wight’
The Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher was only 19 when he made his London debut at the Marquee Club in July 1967 with an early lineup of his power-blues trio Taste. A year later, he had a new rhythm section, a major-label deal and a roaring wind of acclaim as the next Eric Clapton, leading a new-generation Cream. Taste, in their short life together, were actually better than that: a torrid, improvising showcase for Gallagher’s harmonically dynamic soloing and expansive purism, taking in modern jazz, acoustic country blues and angular, rhythmic charge. I’ll Remember is Taste complete: early demos, two studio albums and generous, live bonfire. The group, burned out and about to split by the time they got to the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, are a miracle of ecstatic fight, blues with super-charged feeling, in Murray Lerner’s documentary film. Cream, in the end, merely broke up. Taste went down in flames.
Born in Buffalo, NY in 1943, the folk singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank — who died at 56 in 1999 after three harrowing decades of illness and poverty — released only one album in his lifetime: 1965’s spare and spellbinding Jackson C. Frank, recorded during a promising spell at the heart of London’s folk revival and produced by a fellow expatriate and admirer, Paul Simon. That record featured Frank’s signature tune of deceptively casual surrender, “Blues Run the Game,” a song subsequently covered by guitarist Bert Jansch, the late Nick Drake (in a rare demo) and Simon and Garfunkel. This three-CD set — a companion release to Jim Abbott’s bio-memoir Jackson C. Frank: The Clear Hard Light of Genius — is Frank’s bigger life story in songs he wrote and recorded before that LP, during his brief, glowing time in London (including a 1968 BBC session for John Peel) and in subsequent anonymity, confirming the quiet greatness always within reach yet never near enough to reward.
8. Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘At Sun Records: The Collected Works — “What the Hell Else Do You Need?”‘
This is everything: 18 CDs with 623 tracks covering the Ferriday fireball’s every waking minute at the mike and ivories at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. If Bear Family’s 2014 box of Chuck Berry’s complete Chess, Mercury and Atlantic work was rock’s Book of Genesis, this is its Book of Revelations: Jerry Lee Lewis’ explosive conflict of country, church and Southern blues in cycles and compounds of blasphemy and confession, sinning and salvation. Sun boss Sam Phillips gave Lewis the run of the label and excessive faith, cutting the singer-pianist well into 1963, on the eve of the British Invasion, and that bounty comes here in a graduate-level course of Lewis’ master takes, unissued tracks, multiple stabs, false starts and mono-stereo versions. We’re lucky to have Lewis still walk among us, but we will never see his like — and the adventure of that era — again. This set is a fitting monument — with the perfect subtitle — to Lewis’ pride, ego and achievement.
7. The Grateful Dead, ’30 Trips Around the Sun: The Definitive Live Story 1965–1995′
The 30-gig, 80-disc edition of this survey of the Dead’s life on the road is for those obsessives who need every note from the stage but never got around to getting those shows already. This four-CD variation is less exhaustive — one number from each of the dates in the monster box — and an effective focus on the songwriting that framed and charged the exploring. An early launch of the Go to Heaven suite “Lost Sailor/Saint of Circumstance” — in October 1979 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, six months before that album’s release — is wistful elevation with a newborn urgency in the fleet, silvery crosstalk of Jerry Garcia’s guitar and Brent Mydland’s bell-like Fender Rhodes. The band’s blues purist, singer-organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, chews on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Ain’t It Crazy (The Rub)” with glee in St. Louis in 1971; the 1987 B-side “My Brother Esau” is already in rotation in 1983. And while I’ve had the “Cream Puff War” here, from the Fillmore Auditorium in July ’66, on cassette and trader’s CD for decades, it is still a dependable kick, the early Dead knocking around like the mid-Sixties Stones on mushrooms.
6. The Isley Brothers, ‘The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983)’
This R&B family’s 1969 entry into running their own label, T-Neck, was less like the Beatles’ Apple playground than the Rolling Stones’ reach for control — a reaction to the Isley Brothers’ frustrations under the autocratic quality control at Motown. Their years under Berry Gordy’s supervision are not here; they have been thoroughly anthologized elsewhere. This box — 23 CDs that jump from the breakthrough “Shout” in 1959 to T-Neck’s avenging launch with “It’s Your Thing,” then document the Isleys’ progress through arena funk, disco and Eighties gloss — is a big-pocket history of R&B crossover and a dynamic biography of a black-music dynasty. Jimi Hendrix’s short sideman spell is included; his impact on younger brother, guitarist Ernie Isley, resonates long after.
5. Robin Gibb, ‘Saved by the Bell: The Collected Works of Robin Gibb 1968-1970’
Robin Gibb was the rebel brother, the one that quit the Bee Gees in 1969 to pursue the orchestral, lysergic-tinged advance of the trio’s double album,Odessa, as a solo artist. It was a brief solo career with only a short burst of chart success at the front: the title song of this collection, a 1969 psych-pop bauble that went Top Five across Europe. But Robin’s Reign, issued that year, was a commercial disappointment, and Gibb’s ambitious followup, to be called Sing Slowly Sisters, was shelved, along with other new songs that never got past the demo stage. This three-CD survey of the prodigal Bee Gee — Gibb, who died in 2012, was back in the fold by August 1970 — is vintage opulence, relics of a reflective, lavishly experimental pop age executed with beguiling decorum. It’s as if the disco never happened.
4. Various Artists, ‘Ork Records: New York, New York’
New York City was a war zone in September of 1975 — violent and bankrupt, told to go fuck itself by Washington — when a flamboyant, economically reckless emigré from Tulsa, Oklahoma via hippie California, Terry Ork, launched his own record label with a 45 by the enigmatic local band Television. “Little Johnny Jewel,” seven minutes of quicksilver noir and guitars spread over two sides, was not the first independent punk single; Patti Smith’s “Hey Joe” came out a year earlier. But Ork’s potshot entrepreneurship with cohort Charles Ball — less than two dozen 45s across three years by CBGB-renaissance icons and strivers like Richard Hell, singing critic Lester Bangs, the Box Tops-Big Star refugee Alex Chilton and future dB’s Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple — left an indelible account of the mounting excitement I found when I moved to the city in 1978, just in time to buy Chilton’s new “Bangkok” single at Bleecker Bob’s. This Ork Records memorial has early, unreleased work by the Feelies and comes in a hard-bound box rich in recollections and period photos. Ork was casual in his financial obligations, did jail time in the early Nineties and died in 2004, leaving behind a lot of myths, bruised relationships and the eccentric, concentrated idealism here.
3. The Rolling Stones, ‘Sticky Fingers (Super Deluxe Edition)’ and ‘Marquee Club, Live in 1971’
It is hard to believe that for a reissue of their landmark jump to decadent-Seventies blues aristocracy, an album that took the Rolling Stones a year to record, re-record and finesse, they could only find five acceptable session outtakes for this set. They are blessings enough — a stripped-down-country “Wild Horses”; the studio-party “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton — but the greater attraction is the prime live action from the 1971 British tour across the extra discs. Relative new kid Mick Taylor is thoroughly embedded in the “ancient art of weaving,” as Keith Richards described the Stones’ two-guitar empathy at its best. The ultra box includes a teaser DVD of another March ’71 show filmed for television. The Eagle Rock release is the entire show — the bravado in full close-up: If you go for the box, you might as well go the distance.
2. Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Ties That Bind: The River Collection’
The River, issued in October 1980, was the last album in Bruce Springsteen’s late-Seventies ascension trilogy. It was another turn in his songwriting — from the tenaciously held teenage dreams on Born to Run and the endangered American ideals on Darkness on the Edge of Town to a tighter focus on the trials and joys of working-class life and close-to-home passions. The sessions were also the usual drama of furious productivity and indecision. The deluxe edition of this reissue includes Springsteen’s early single-album sequence, named after the subsequent opener “The Ties That Bind,” and 22 outtakes, many of which became hits nevertheless on stage, B-sides and bootlegs: “Where the Bands Are,” “Paradise by the C,” “Restless Nights,” “Held Up Without a Gun.” For another artist — and less ferocious editor — there were a few great albums here. The extra discs, in fact, affirm Springsteen’s original choices (including The River‘s rescue of Darkness-era orphans like “Point Blank”) while laying on everything we were missing at the time, proving that — as Springsteen wrote, then gave away to Dave Edmunds — “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come).”
1. Bob Dylan, ‘The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12’
In every variation — two CDs, three LPs, a deluxe six-CD set and an 18-CD megillah that is literally the history as it happened — this is Bob Dylan at the crucial pivot of his songwriting life, at the turning point of electricity, full-fledged rock & roll stardom and explosive lyric adulthood. That he completed the trio of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited andBlonde on Blonde inside 18 months is staggering enough; that he recorded more than ten times that amount of music in demos, alternate arrangements, stand-alone singles and discarded songs is a lesson in herculean creative drive and the largesse that once came with life at a major label, especially one with its own studios. The full CD in the highly recommended six-disc edition (deep enough for both maniacs and new students) given over to the full two-day session for “Like a Rolling Stone” shows Dylan still writing the song — its body and force; his vocal aim — as the takes accumulate. Other marvels: a January, 1965 piano blues, “California,” from which Dylan shuffles key lines over to Highway 61 Revisited‘s “Outlaw Blues”; a version of Blonde on Blonde‘s “Visions of Johanna” with Levon and the Hawks, later the Band; and Take One of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” tentative but at full length and just around the corner from posterity.