Brief summary of the year in reissues and vault rediscoveries: There was an avalanche of them, across all genres and all eras. Each promises edification, offering dives into the rich contexts of historically significant records while also being flat-out thrilling listening.
Thanks to the work of sound-obsessed archivists and audio detectives this year, it's now possible to trace John Coltrane's Giant Steps session in microscopic detail for its 60th Anniversary Deluxe Edition; or revisit some of the unheralded album tracks from John Prine's output in the 1970s (Crooked Piece of Time); to hear legendary guitarist Duane Allman's last performance before his death (The Final Note) and every idea Tom Petty considered for Wildflowers (Wildflowers And All the Rest); dip into a blistering set from tenor saxophonist George Coleman at an ordinary 1971 gig (In Baltimore); or go to school on the early '90s development of jungle and related dance styles (Soul Jazz Records' compilation Black Riot: Early Jungle, Rave and Hardcore).
Now, without further ado...
Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn Copeland
Fragile and graceful and understated, the music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland calls from a world far removed from our own. Make that worlds: The singer, keyboardist and composer began making meditative jazz-folk in the 1970s, then spent many years creating music for and working in children's television (Sesame Street and the Canadian show Mr. Dressup). Along the way, Glenn-Copeland developed a uniquely uncluttered approach to electronic music, creating austere soundscapes designed to accentuate the quiet resolve of his voice. This career survey, sequenced for musical impact instead of chronologically, gathers highlights from each of these periods, and includes the pop-leaning "La Vita" and a sparkling recent live version of "Color of Anyhow" from his 1970 debut. (To hear why Glenn-Copeland's 1986 cassette release, Keyboard Fantasies, is regarded as a masterpiece of electronic music, check the aptly titled "Ever Now.")
Live in Paris 1975
Everything is connected. Last year's release of Alice Coltrane's Live at the Berkeley Community Theater 1972 set in motion a reappraisal of the spiritual jazz and cosmic consciousness music that flourished, briefly, in the early '70s. Interest continued and accelerated this year – with the first new Sun Ra Arkestra record in decades, anthologies from regional labels like Soul Fire Records (see below) and the discovery of this rousing Pharoah Sanders concert from 1975. The date is interesting, because recording activity for the intense tenor saxophonist and many similar artists had diminished (Sanders' last work for Impulse! was Elevation, recorded in 1973). But the spirit clearly had not dimmed: Performing in the Grand Auditorium at France's public radio headquarters, Sanders and a tuned-in trio travel on familiar two-chord pathways to spontaneous moments of illumination. Worth it just for the intimate rendering of Sanders' mighty tone, and the searching, canting phrases he uses to pursue sonic truth. Which he finds.
Soul Love Now: The Black Fire Records Story 75-93
Around the time Impulse! and other large labels were moving away from spiritual jazz, entrepreneurs in various cities stepped up documentation of acts that were evolving regionally. Among the most consistently interesting of these labels was Black Fire based out of Richmond, Va., founded by DJ and producer Jimmy Gray. Right away Gray made waves by capturing and releasing the groundbreaking African Rhythms, from saxophonist James "Plunky" Branch and his band Oneness of Juju. The label recorded large ensembles known for multidisciplinary work (this compilation opens with the prayerful "Children of Tomorrow's Dreams" from the collective Theater West) as well as groups notable for their serious chemistry (Lon Moshe and the Southern Freedom Arkestra). Inspired from start to finish, this time capsule argues that the spirit aesthetic unleashed by Alice Coltrane and others spread far and wide. Everything is connected.
This box offers remastered versions of the seven studio albums Fleetwood Mac recorded during its formative period. There are some stone-cold classics here – the early blues-leaning, but not entirely blues-derived, Then Play On, featuring founding guitarist Peter Green, and the later ones, too, including Bare Trees and Heroes Are Hard To Find, which showcase guitarist and songwriter Bob Welch. That's not all the required listening however: There's also a curious radio set from December 1974, just before Welch left the band – that fateful change that led to the arrival of Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham and the hitmaking era that followed. In this "before" document, it's possible to hear all the stylistic evolutions of Fleetwood Mac swirling powerfully together: Starting with the incantory blues and whiplashing rhythm-section choreography of "Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown)," the set includes a lovely and wistful rendering of Christine McVie's "Spare Me a Little," a wicked "Black Magic Woman" and Welch's "Hypnotized," which dissolves the concert in a dreamlike aura. It's a glimpse of an inventive, well-oiled band at an amazing moment, made just a bit more amazing when you discover it was one of only two FM performances in all of 1974.
Boots No. 2
When a tornado damaged their studio in March of this year, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings faced the pouring rain to save instruments and gear, as well as a trove of reel-to-reel tapes from ancient history – 2003. The material was mostly songwriting demos, tunes written quickly and recorded without adornment in order to satisfy a publishing contract. The duo gathered 48 of them, first on individual LPs and now via a boxed set, into a brave and frequently astonishing peek into their artistic process. Through songs of faith, longing and Sunday school homilies about sin and retribution, Welch shows a poet's knack for imagery and masterful control of narrative; even the tunes she finished at warp speed are lit up by casually offered, yet profound, insights and clever compositional devices.
BESSIE JONES & THE GEORGIA SEA ISLAND SINGERS
Get In Union
Here's your requisite pandemic-era sympathy paragraph. (We're tired of writing them, too...). If your faith has been tested this year, if you've found yourself wondering about the meaning of this historic suffering, why not turn to the experts in matters of soul restoration? This year brought two gigantic, nicely curated anthologies that illustrate the great range of gospel music. from opposite ends of the spirit spectrum.
One of the fiercest exponents of traditional a cappella singing, the great Bessie Jones, is celebrated on the 50-track Get In Union, an overview filled with galvanizing call-and-response appeals to righteousness and expressions of wonder at the beauty of the world ("Once There Was No Sun"). Jones was discovered by Alan Lomax in 1959; he later said she was "on fire to teach America" about Black traditional songs and spirituals. Among those who heard Jones' call was Moby, who interpolated a sample from her tune "Sometimes" into his 1998 hit "Honey."
THE STAPLE SINGERS
Come Go With Me: The Stax Collection
Then there's Come Go With Me, which tours the essential recordings of the Staple Singers, the family band that began performing at Chicago's Mount Zion Church in the early '50s. Led by the low-key master guitarist Roebuck "Pops" Staples and his daughter, national treasure Mavis Staples, the group began in traditional gospel, but quickly infused its message with more accessible elements — blues guitar, easygoing R&B backbeats and refrains as grabby as anything in pop. After several records (including Freedom Highway) for Epic, the group moved to Stax and in 1971 began a torrid run notable for both electrifying singles ("Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There") and rousing, stylistically varied albums that regularly landed on the pop charts. Those albums were hardly some watered-down hybrid/crossover product — they're filled with spry and agitated grooves, supporting proud and strong and fervently sung message music for the ages.
Easily the year's most interesting shelved album from an icon, Homegrown fills in a gap in the middle of Neil Young's prolific '70s heyday, roughly between Harvest (1972) and Comes A Time (1978). It was recorded during a turbulent stretch for Young – June 1974 through Jan. 1975, in the gaps of a Crosby, Stills Nash & Young tour. Recently, Young has explained that he held Homegrown back, releasing the more extroverted Tonight's The Night instead, because some of its songs, about his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, were too painful for him. Regardless of the backstage circumstances, the music Young made in these intimate sessions should be part of his legacy – it's unsparing and forthright, sometimes bittersweet and sometimes just bitter. Highlights include "Star of Bethlehem," which benefits from the otherworldly lustre of Emmylou Harris, "Love Is A Rose" (famously covered by Linda Ronstadt) and "Vacancy," which elevates poison-pen anger to a place of harrowing high art.
Here's music for the guitar obsessive who has everything: A collection of blistering rock-influenced inquiries from the late Rüstəm Quliyev, who helped broaden guitar music from Azerbaijan. Recorded between 1999 and 2004, these pieces showcase Quliyev's command of tone, his ability to manufacture excitement by sustaining and gently massaging a single note, in the manner of Carlos Santana. While there's an element of kitsch in the rhythmic foundations here – some tracks wink at Bollywood or disco – the emphasis is on the universal language of the guitar, and Quliyev's mastery of it.
Any exploration of the roots and branches of music in Athens Georgia in the late '70s – a cauldron that included R.E.M., Vic Chesnutt and others — winds up with the short-lived yet hugely influential Pylon. Active from 1979 through 1983, the four-piece fronted by Vanessa Briscoe Hay funneled the spirit of postpunk into tightly coiled, provocatively thoughtful, nervously arty songs. More than a few of these, including breakthrough single "Cool," opened up worlds for others (the accompanying book includes reverent comments from members of R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, et. al.). The two Pylon albums get crisp and appropriately chiseled remastering, as does the must-hear Razz Tape, a delightfully snarly 13-song artifact that's the earliest known Pylon recording. Essential.
Read more: The Long Tail Of Pylon, According To Pylon
Unexpected consequence of the jangled-nerves pandemic state of mind: Ordinary people, not just vintage synthesizer nerds, are seeking out ambient music. This 1986 set, from one of the revered pioneers of Japanese electronic music, is one place to go after you've exhausted the Eno oeuvre. Its simple repetitions and clear tones, made on a Yamaha DX7, have a centering if not necessarily soothing effect; they vibrate in a way that encourages realignment of spine, soul, priorities, everything. Though Yoshimura, who died in 2003, was revered for his forward-looking "environmental" music in Japan, Green and his other albums have only been released internationally in the last year. (Also recommended: Music For Nine Post Cards.)
Read more: Isle Of Calm: Hours Of Soothing Music
Archives Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)
The first in a planned series of rarities collections, this 5-CD set organizes the early stages of Joni Mitchell's development into a vivid narrative. Through radio performances and songwriting demos, it shows how Mitchell absorbed aspects of the common Greenwich Village folk repertoire as well as less obvious but no less important British and Irish storytelling-in-song traditions. Her treatments of those songs, magnificent though they are, serve as just a starting point: The later discs show how Mitchell transformed folk conventions into singularly original music, a realm of bracing observations and breathless serpentine melodies. Among the highlights are live radio performances of "The Circle Game" and the then-brand-new "Both Sides Now," which Mitchell introduces by confiding to DJ Gene Shay: "I've been driving everybody crazy by playing it twice and three times a night."
First Take: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
A private 1968 tape, recorded by the gifted keyboardist Les McCann in a crowded club called the Bohemian Caverns in D.C., opens the "rarities" portion of this set. It features Roberta Flack singing and at the piano, leading her trio through a nine-minute version of the standard "All The Way." The tempo is slow, almost a crawl, and as Flack shares the song's teachings about love as an absolute, she leans ever so gently into the half steps of the melody. She's pulling the words apart, finding new arrangements for off-the-rack emotions. In the process she transforms the air, in what McCann recalls as a busy nightclub, not with volume or power but with subtlety. Flack's sense of implication, and her control of the small intervals, became one of her secret weapons; it's inescapable on the unlikely song that launched her career, another syrup-slow ballad called "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Hear any of the tunes she recorded during the making of this luminous debut – including "Afro Blue" or McCann's "Compared To What" – and it becomes obvious why those around Flack regarded her with such reverence.
Read more: Roberta Flack, The Virtuoso
THE ROLLING STONES
Goat's Head Soup
Old perception: The "Angie" one. The least guitarissimo of any Rolling Stones record to date. The first moment when the band began emphasizing songs, as well as studio sound and production.
New perception, after this expansive Giles Martin-remixed version: While the Stones lost the grinding rhythm-guitar abrasion of the previous album, Exile On Main Street, they gained space for some ravishingly beautiful lead guitar from Mick Taylor, improvisations that are brought front and center on this mix. Check the graceful extended solo on "100 Years Ago," and "Silver Train" starting around 2:15, and the liquidlike weeping behind the vocal on the second verse of "Winter."
Jumpcut, the visionary first album from British conceptualists Man Jumping, is simultaneously of its moment and completely out of time. Listening just to the keyboards, there's no escaping that this was made in 1985, during the worldwide synth-pop contagion. Meanwhile the rhythmic underpinnings of instrumentals like "Aerotropics" borrow the patternistic tricks of classical minimalists like Steve Reich, whose work was reaching a wide audience at the time. Somehow Man Jumping weaves those unlike things into a unified sound – a taut and texture-rich music that anticipates the orderly grid of EDM while snarling, defiantly and sometimes dissonantly, against rigidity of any kind.
The history of jazz is usually told as a progression from one towering iconic record to the next, with occasional detours for important jam sessions and chance encounters. The reality is a bit different from the highlight reel. That's because even trailblazers like Thelonious Monk were in constant motion, and constantly hustling random clinics and afternoon/evening performances to supplement meager club wages on the road. This live set, initiated by a high school student from Palo Alto and recorded on consumer gear by the school's janitor, is an exceptional window into the unglamorous life. It catches pianist Monk running spry, stride-style chords up and down the piano, and leading his excellent band (featuring tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse) through lovely, free-spirited renditions of his enduring tunes "Ruby My Dear" and "Epistrophy." The conditions might not have been ideal, but this did not affect Monk's mood: He's having fun, chasing delight as though it was last call in a smoky club rather than 7 p.m. in a high school auditorium.
We could spend all day writing steamy overheated prose about the music of Sade, the four-piece British band that, beginning in the 1980s, developed a huge following for its mildly exotic, sleek and sensual soul. This would be a waste of time, because the only paragraphs that matter are the ones that tell about the spell that's cast when one of these six albums is playing. And that's beyond words.
Read more: Sade Saves
Sign O' The Times: Super Deluxe Edition
There's lots to bolster Prince's reputation as a firestarter within the various mixes and 45 (!) previously unreleased tracks on this deep excavation of Sign O' The Times. That's not all, though: The 8-CD set is a bonanza for those who want to discover how obsessed Prince was with precision. Consider the live version of "I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man" from the complete Utrecht, Holland show included here. It screams from the very start, and by the second verse, just when you're thinking there is no higher gear available, the familiar horn line is reharmonized to become more tense. It's a slight mutation that sounds like Prince wrote it for the live show, and it sends the whole thing into rowdy arena overdrive. And then the air changes – for a stage reset maybe, one of those abrupt energy drops that are usually edited out of live records. For a while, we hear only a kick drum and a recurring piano figure. Soon enough there's a single note from a coarse, wondrously distorted guitar. Then more open space. Then another brief and wrenching guitar statement. As the band digs into a groove that's closer to progressive rock than funk, Prince choreographs a solo that follows a rollercoasting arc. It's a marvel of dramatic timing, one of many here, built out of thin air by a craftsman at a superhuman pinnacle of creativity.
THE MENDOZA LINE
We're All In This Alone
Sometimes a great song smacks you in the head and your brain instantly recognizes its greatness. Sometimes it takes multiple at-bats to grok what's going on. And sometimes you have to walk away and return, 20 years later, to the milestone-anniversary edition of a record for it to sink in. One example: The Mendoza Line's We're All In This Alone (2000), which has just reached streaming platforms with bonus tracks. It's an album-length showdown between sweetness – in the form of invitingly optimistic, unconventionally jangly guitar pop – and snarly high-drama interpersonal tension. Recorded shortly after the Georgia four-piece relocated to Brooklyn, the verses of these songs explore endless variants of resentment, bitterness and misunderstanding, yet never reach the point of suffocation or self-pity. You could, for example, enjoy the plaintive alt-country mood of "You Singled Me Out," one great song among many here, without ever dwelling on the accusations flying around.
You Think It's Like This But Really It's Like This
It's hard to believe that this eccentric, multi-dimensional marvel of a record, which shaped the aesthetic of "bedroom pop" and influenced countless auteurs like Tune-Yards, is now 20 years old. It's held up astonishingly well for something built, layer by careful layer, on an old 4-track cassette deck. Through the miracle of remastering, the refrains resonate more powerfully now: Tender, plainspoken melodic jewels like "Of Pressure" feel animated anew, perhaps because of a sharper rendering of Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn's inquisitive, frequently bemused, free-spirited vocal performances. The remastering has also clarified some of the accompaniment textures (particularly the surreal tremolo guitar of "La Familia") without making things studio-shiny. And in what's extremely rare for an anniversary edition, there's a tribute-style reworking of the album that's actually worth hearing, as Mount Eerie, Hand Habits, Half Waif, Palehound and others take the songs of You Think It's Like This and then say But Really It's Like This. (Sorry, couldn't resist).