Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2016’s Reissues, Part One

The sheer number of records put out in a calendar year can be positively daunting, but it’s also an energizing reality; while diving into the decision-making below we discovered a half-dozen items that if heard earlier could’ve easily made this list. Put another way, these picks aren’t engraved on stone tablets, they’re just our current favorites from a sea of reissued and archival material made available across 2016.

10. Dow Jones & the Industrials, Can’t Stand the Midwest 1979-1981 (Family Vineyard) + MX-80 Sound, Out of the Tunnel and Crowd Control (Ship to Shore PhonoCo.) The middle of the USA was once (and sometimes still is) belittled as nowheresville, and to play punk rock in the region was once considered folly at best and potentially dangerous to boot.

But hey, it’s not where you’re living, it’s where you’re at, you dig? Of course you do. Dow Jones & the Industrials may have hailed from West Lafayette Indiana, but during their existence they inhabited a highly appealing zone flush with Devo-esque jerking to-and-fro, raw keyboard-synth infusions and horn honk, crunchy guitar flailing, art-funk spasms, and vocals covering the three A’s: alienation, anger, and anguish. Ultimately, they pulled it off like regional champs and Family Vineyard collects it all in a 2LP + DVD set that’s indispensable for any student of punk history.

Some groups just had to pull up roots and plant themselves someplace else, however; that’s the case with MX-80 Sound, a gang of Hoosiers who managed to get an album out via Island Records (’77’s Hard Attack) before the major label’s relationship with rock’s new thing took a severe nosedive. While they certainly fit in with the scene, tagging MX-80 as punk isn’t exactly accurate; in a nutshell, they played an aggressive form of art-rock so powerful it was occasionally compared to heavy metal.

After migrating to San Francisco, they ended up on Ralph Records, and the above two classics of precision racket were the result. Bassist Dale Sophiea and drummer Dave Mahoney are a constantly expressive rhythm team while vocalist-guitarist-saxophonist Rich Stim delivers the art-edge and the lead guitar of Bruce Anderson tears it the fuck up for the punk crowd while being technically proficient enough to win over progsters. Folks who devour the fringe of punk’s first wave, namely Ubu, Suicide, Chrome, Debris, and those Residents, will cozy right up to these well-deserved reissues.

9. Game Theory, The Big Shot Chronicles (Omnivore) + The Feelies, Time for a Witness (Bar/None) Five years separates the initial release of these records, ’86 for Big Shot and ’91 for Witness, but they are very much of the same era as they represent the best that melodic rock had to offer on opposite coasts of the USA, California in the case of Game Theory and Jersey-New York for The Feelies.

There are differences of course; The Big Shot Chronicles is the work of one of the ’80s finest pop-rock auteurs, and listening to Omnivore’s expanded reissue tempts me to award him the top spot in part because the band-driven music he instigated holds up so well today. Produced by Mitch Easter, his involvement reflects Game Theory’s ties to the decade’s children of VU and Big Star, a circumstance deepened by bonus covers of both.

As Numero Group’s Ork Records’ 45 box set from last year made plain, Hoboken’s The Feelies were amongst the earliest disciples of the Velvets, cutting unreleased sides for the storied label that significantly predate their ’80 full-length debut Crazy Rhythms. In contrast to Game Theory, The Feelies always connected as an interlocking unit (Mercer, Million, Sauter, Demeski, and Weckerman here) rather than one great talent and his deft collaborators; the key cover tune on Big Shot isn’t “Sweet Jane” or “Jesus Christ” or even Roxy’s “Re-make/Re-model,” it’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” by Todd Rundgren.

Game Theory didn’t provide the beating heart of the Paisley Underground upsurge, but they were certainly part of it, and yet it’s Time for a Witness that occasionally registers as an east coast counterpart to the Dream Syndicate. The Feelies have sometimes been derided by Big Tough Men for not rocking hard enough, but Witness tramples that notion right out of the gate; hearing it with fresh ears, Bar/None’s edition overtakes Crazy Rhythms as their strongest work. That’s no small feat.

8. Colin Newman, A-Z, provisionally entitled the singing fish, and Not To (Sentient Sonics) + The Builders, Beatin Hearts (Grapefruit) Newman’s first three solo albums were reissued in October; initially released from 1980-’82, they constitute the Wire guitarist-vocalist’s diverse and rewarding productivity during the band’s first hiatus, and they deserve to be enthused over together.

Solidifying the post-punk bona fides, A-Z arrived via Beggars Banquet as the others were pressed by 4AD. Connecting like a natural progression from 154, A-Z’s terrain is probably the most frequently traveled of the bunch, but from my perspective all three have been undersung if not exactly forgotten; making this go-round special are discs of bonus material bringing the track total to 95. It’s extremely enlightening stuff, particularly the vocal addenda to the instrumental faux soundtracks of provisionally. But please buy carefully, as it appears the vinyl lacks the extras in download form.

There’s undersung and then there’s being almost completely unknown outside one’s own country, and that’s the scenario with Bill Direen, who for decades as the principal motivator of Builders (or Bilders, or Bilderine etc.) and as a solo artist under his own name has been known only to the most fervent Flying Nun/ Kiwi/ subterranean pop fans; for that matter he hardly possesses a high-profile on his home shores.

A lot of lesser-known post-punk stuff offers an experience that’s enjoyable but essentially unfocused, grabbing wildly at disparate influences and cribbing from numerous contemporary styles to attempt masking a lack of a unified voice with diversity. Not so here; Beatin Hearts (the first LP released by Flying Nun) is very much in a post-punk vein but thrives on a robustly personal approach, its Velvets influence tackled in a fresh way and further enhanced with moments recalling Mayo Thompson’s work in Red Crayola.

7. V/A, Why the Mountains Are Black: Primeval Greek Village Music: 1907-1960 + (Third Man/ Long Gone Sound) V/A, Tanbou Toujou Lou: Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz, & Electric Folklore from Haiti 1960-1981 (Ostinato) Part of the appeal behind the reissue of increasingly aged global sounds relates to how they can illuminate a bygone relationship between artmaking and everyday life simply through the well-ordered placement of sound.

This association runs hot and heavy throughout Why the Mountains Are Black, musical expressiveness and artistic commitment adding substantially to the immaculately designed and meticulously researched set’s already considerable achievement; strings ache and burn, horns flutter freely and engage in wild cyclical flights, musicians interact with familiarity that can seem lost to time, and vocals communicate emotions that transcend language.

By 1960 recorded music was an industry; by 1981 it was dominated by corporations with an eye fixated on profits. That’s the timeframe spanned by Ostinato’s superb assortment of interrelated Haitian sounds, and compared to Why the Mountains Are Black the 2LP/ CD’s contents are undeniably commercial.

And yet Tanbou Toujou Lou’s selections remain energetic and inventive, elements directly related to a healthy give-and-take with the community these recordings served; a strong thread here is dance music, with the contents surely honed through live performance prior to visiting the studio. Tanbou Toujou Lou simultaneously points to the future and maintains ties to the past; the use of horns brings unification with Why the Mountains Are Black.

6. Syrinx, Tumblers from the Vault (1970-1972) (RVNG Intl.) + Vivien Goldman, Resolutionary (Songs 1979-1982) (Staubgold) Pioneering Canadian act Syrinx featured early Moog specialist and composer John Mills-Cockell in tandem with electric saxophonist Doug Pringle and percussionist Alan Wells; by no means obscure while extant, even managing a top 40 Canadian hit, their profile did resist spilling over the border to the US (and other regions), which makes RVNG’s corralling of their two LPs (and additional material not available via the digital release) worthwhile purely as a matter of discovery.

But that’s not why Tumblers from the Vault made the list. Syrinx’s unusual instrumental lineup could’ve spelled disaster, but Mills-Cockell thankfully preferred edginess (intermittently nudging toward abrasion) over the rinky-dink in his role as a Moog pioneer, Pringle avoided jazz-rock horn vamp garbage for the legitimately expressive, and Wells was reliably nuanced in his rhythm-making. In part through integrations with classical music there’s an irrefutable prog hue in evidence, but thankfully it’s a prog hue that’s full of surprises.

Like the members of Syrinx, Vivien Goldman was a trailblazer, helping to blow apart gender norms in the music scene (and by extension the culture at large) as she documented some of the punk explosion’s most interesting angles. More importantly, she was also a musician, blurring the lines between contributor and bystander in a manner in line with the era’s Rip It Up/ DIY aesthetic.

Staubgold ropes together Goldman’s work as part of the Flying Lizards, as half of Chantage with Eve Blouin and solo and provides a short but effective dose of dub-infused and socially-motivated post-punk; fans of the Slits, Raincoats, and Adrian Sherwood (all collaborators of Goldman’s) should take note. But it’s the album’s closing interview that feels, at least right now, like Resolutionary (Songs 1979-1982)’s most valuable facet. Inequality never went away and fascism is on the rise, and it’s more necessary than ever to be a participant and not just a witness; Goldman shows us how to blur the lines.

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