Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2018’s Box Sets

Hey, it’s that time again. The time for reflecting on the year that has been (boy howdy, what a year it has been), and the time for making lists of the year’s best releases (there have been a few). Box sets and expanded releases are up first!

10. V/A, Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies and Other Exotic Delights (Numero Group) Back in the ’90s, the rediscovery of the ’50s-’60s genre known as Exotica was an unexpected but welcome thing. However, it gradually devolved into a lounged-out situation that embodied retro Rat Pack shenanigans rather than the tropical island approximations of Martin Denny. As the Buckinghams so eloquently put it, ‘twas kind of a drag. This set however, is decidedly not a bringdown.

Sure, booze is mentioned in the title and additionally in the subcategories of the three LPs packaged in this exquisitely designed and deeply annotated set (another top-notch job from Numero), but instead of a soundtrack for the return of the Cocktail Nation, the vibe is solidly in the tropical mood music zone. That means the aroma (some would say stench) of cultural appropriation is strong, but it’s all part of a highly listenable history lesson, the majority of which you’re unlikely to have previously heard.

9. V/A, The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions (Craft Recordings) Offering sounds of roughly the same era as the release above, The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions is utterly lacking in kitsch or resurrected, reevaluated detritus, so if Technicolor Paradise’s blend of trend-hopping and surface-level cultural swiping and contortion isn’t your bag, this baby might be, given you dig groove heat produced by the sparks of improv.

While not reassessed castoffs from a dusty box moldering beneath the record store discount bin, that doesn’t mean the five LPs compiled here haven’t suffered from long periods of neglect and general shoddiness when previously reissued. Part of the joy of this collection (as is the case with so many of the best reissues) is how the music, specifically two sessions led by Julio Gutiérrez with one each by Niño Rivera, Israel “Cachao” López, and José Antonio Fajardo, basks in clarity as it’s given its belated due, here in large part through the tenacity of co-producer Judy Cantor-Navas.

8. Guru, Jazzmatazz Deluxe Edition (UMG – Urban Legends) By the time this “experimental fusion of hip-hop and jazz” hit in 1993, I was already neck-deep in jazz research and was steadily devouring East Coast hip-hop, so unlike some folks of my acquaintance, Jazzmatazz didn’t provide an epiphany as to the worthiness of either form or furthermore, that they would blend well together (as Stetsasonic, A Tribe Called Quest, and Guru’s own crew Gang Starr had already illustrated the potential of the stylistic union).

What Jazzmatazz made abundantly clear was that hip-hop could thrive in relationship to live jazz instrumentation across a whole album in contrast to what had largely been the prior norm of cherry-picking choice bits via sampling and looping. That it works may seem obvious in retrospect, but this record, here expanded to three LPs through remixes and instrumental versions, is considered groundbreaking for a reason. It also holds up like a champ and is one of the best rap releases from a decade loaded with quality from the genre.

7. Aretha Franklin, Atlantic Records 1960s Collection (Rhino) The recent passing of Aretha Franklin was not one of 2018’s highlights, but the outpouring of affection for one of soul music’s greatest artists was heartening. So is this release, still hot from the pressing plant in the last month of the year, rounding up her smash Atlantic debut I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, Aretha Arrives, Lady Soul, Aretha Now, Soul ’69 and an LP featuring 11 tracks from ’07’s Rare and Unreleased.

Not for nothing was she dubbed the Queen of Soul. Amongst the reasons why was her strength as an album artist. While the offerings here aren’t equally great, the weakest isn’t anywhere close to average, and together they portray an artist who was consistently willing to take creative chances while never losing the essential gospel root of it all. Plus, the inclusion of Franklin’s iconic ’60s singles for Atlantic boost matters even more. There was great stuff to come after this, like the Fillmore West material with King Curtis and the majestic Amazing Grace, but this is a substantial hunk of what made Aretha special.

6. Brian Chase, Drums and Drones: Decade (Chaikin) Offering a trio of CDs tucked into the back pages of a 5”x”7 144pg book, this corrals the three releases spawned from Chase’s titular project, which began in 2007 as a performance at John Zorn’s NYC venue The Stone. These distinct, numerically titled (I-III) recordings date from 2013, ’15 and ’17, with each getting its own disc.

Chase’s highest profile activity is as the drummer for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but the amount of stylistic overlap between that group and this solo project is zilch. Drums and Drones has nothing to do with rock; instead, Chase was inspired by the work of La Monte Young and Miriam Zazeela, specifically their Dream House instillation (the book contains an essay on Just Intonation). Overall, as others have mentioned, this is some heavily brain-fucking stuff (especially at high volume through headphones). Additional good news is that part II has been given a standalone vinyl release through In Context Music.

5. The Beatles, The Beatles 50th Anniversary Edition (UMG – Apple) + Love, Forever Changes 50th Anniversary Edition (Elektra – Rhino) For a long time, my answer to the question “what’s yer favorite Beatles album” was easy; it was the one expanded upon here, their ninth. These days, I’m not so sure. This isn’t due to a diminishment in esteem for The White Album but a deeper appreciation of the band’s numerous eras and arcs.

However, this half-century celebratory edition, which offers the Esher Demos and a certifiable shit-ton of session outtakes and different mixes, is likely to, at least temporarily, vault The Beatles back to the top. I’ve overheard a few heartless cynics decry this set as mythologizing, but I disagree. To my ear, the demos and sessions undercut the messiah mystique and reinforce The Beatles’ achievements as the byproduct of hard work. And jeepers creepers, in terms of generosity, this puts most anniversary sets, which are frequently high on garnish and low on protein, to shame.

For a long time, my answer to the question “what’s yer favorite Love album” was easy, and it still is; it has been and remains the one expanded upon here, their third. 1967 was a ridiculously bountiful year for music, but Forever Changes (released in November of ’67, making this expansion a wee bit belated) is one of the very best from that stretch of the calendar, and it has reliably made my (never static) list of all-time faves.

Although Bryan MacLean’s contributions to the LP are not miniscule (for one thing, “Alone Again Or” is his song), Forever Changes still stands as one of modern music’s great auteur works, one with a sweep so grand that Arthur Lee was never able to equal it. Elektra and Rhino offer the original stereo release on LP and CD, with additional CDs of the original mono and sessions outtakes, plus a DVD with a 24/96 stereo mix by the album’s co-producer Bruce Botnick and a promo video from ’68. Few albums warrant this kind of treatment, but Forever Changes encourages it (just take a look at the reissue history).

4. Bert Jansch, A Man I’d Rather Be (Part 1) & (Part 2) (Earth) + V/A, The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose: American Primitive Guitar and Banjo 1963-1974 (Craft) The late Brit-folk cornerstone Bert Jansch is no stranger to these year-end lists. In fact, the two parts of Earth’s late-career retrospective Living in the Shadows kicked off TVD’s list of the best box sets just last year.

At the time, I mentioned that Living in the Shadows was an even sweeter turn of events than was the generally reliable availability of the guy’s amazing ’60s-’70s stuff, but that was before Earth elected to compile all that work into another two-parter, a gesture that solidifies the label as essentially the House of Jansch (amongst other cool things). The straight scoop is this: anybody with a budding predilection for fingerpicking and unstrained vocal warmth who doesn’t know Jansch will be gathering their ass up off the floor after experiencing these sets. Please, knock yourself over.

The same goes for Craft Recordings’ outstanding spotlight into the explosion of fingerpicking that transpired, roughly concurrently with Jansch, on the left side of the Atlantic, a movement retroactively known as American Primitive guitar and banjo. Its dominant practitioner was John Fahey, followed by Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho, with all of them represented here (Basho’s track provides the set with a title), though a big part of what makes the release so essential for newbies is the inclusion of pieces by names that often serve as destinations of subsequent discovery.

Sandy Bull, Peter Walker, and Peter Lang represent three of the immediate further outposts of (largely) solo guitar/ banjo glory, but Incarnations travels even deeper with selections by Henry Taussig, Max Ochs, Fred Gerlach, George Stavis, and Billy Faier. As a 2LP (with notes from the collection’s producer and contempo Guitar Soli master Glenn Jones), this isn’t a box set, but here’s a case where theme trumps format. However, the level of sheer brilliance exuded far exceeds the norm for four vinyl sides while being wholly digestible in a single sitting. Ultimately, it’s a plunge into transcendence.

3. Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 (Columbia) + Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance) In a Best of 2014 list for this website, I included a 4CD set by The Miles Davis Quintet featuring John Coltrane titled All of You: The Last Tour 1960; that release and this one cover the same European trip. Some may think it questionable to pick it again, but this release is not that one, as there is only partial overlap, with Columbia focusing on complete sets (roughly half of Vol. 6 is from Paris, a city unrepresented on All of You).

At the time of these recordings, Miles was riding high and Coltrane had yet to become iconic; Giant Steps was released in January of 1960, with the tour following less than two months’ later. To describe the saxophonist’s input as diverging from Davis’ blend of post-bop and modal innovation is a bit of an understatement, as it also shortchanges a fascinating moment in jazz history. To have witnessed it would have been amazing. To hear it is something to cherish. If it takes four years for someone to get the bright idea to release this stuff on vinyl, it’s a safe bet I’ll be writing about it again.

The Final Tour is an expansive addition to Coltrane’s central role in the jazz advance (to borrow the title of pianist Cecil Taylor’s ’56 debut) that was once dubbed (amongst other terms, some of them derogatory) the New Thing. Eric Dolphy was also a key contributor to these developments, still valued mightily for his role in groundbreaking recordings by Trane and Ornette Coleman. With the exception of Out to Lunch!, Dolphy’s own stuff too often takes a back seat to his work with others, so it’s wonderful that Resonance has collected and expanded the two albums he cut under the auspices of Alan Douglas, only one of which was released before the multi-instrumentalist’s untimely death.

It’s a gesture executed with total class in the dedication to spotlighting Dolphy’s artistry, and it serves as a model of preservation in archival releasing. The music of course is beautiful.

2. Charles Mingus, Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden (Barely Breaking Even) + Thelonious Monk, The Complete Prestige 10″ LP Collection (Craft) I left Mingus out of Dolphy’s list of contributions above for the reason that he isn’t accurately assessed as a New Thing figure, though in fact his endlessly rewarding individualism in the transformation of jazz tradition unwound beautifully alongside the developments in the ’60s avant-garde, even if the bassist-pianist-composer-bandleader had his doubts about it.

Eclipsing category, the man’s gift to the world is perhaps best described as simply Mingus music, with the emergence of this performance document of a 1973 radio broadcast sitting amongst a tight burst of archival jazz discoveries as one of the great surprises of 2018. Many have lauded its release but additionally noted that it’s less than perfect, which is fair but seems to miss the point of its availability.

Jazz in Detroit’s cumulative effect goes not to faultlessness but to the ritual of creative work as the stuff of life and the grand spirit of communication: dialogue between the musicians on the bandstand, with the audience in the room, with listeners tuned in at home in 1973, and now, decades later, through this unexpected 5LP/ 5CD set. It’s capturing of one night from late in the (as serious as your) life of a musical titan is simply magnificent to hear. And I seriously dig drummer Roy Brooks on musical saw.

Mingus has been called an iconoclast, but maybe the grand champ in modern jazz’s naturally non-conformist class is Thelonious Monk. Craft’s repackaging of the pianist-composer’s ’52-’54 run of 10-inch discs for Prestige contrasts interestingly with the discovery of Jazz in Detroit, which comes from a point where Mingus had been largely accepted as one of the greats; in short, he was a valued iconoclast.

At the time of these five releases by Monk offering trio, quartet, and quintet lineups with noted contributions from tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, the man was hovering in between being ignored, tolerated, and severely underrated. Monk has his own unearthed live performance out this year (we’ll get to it later in the week), but this doorway into the work from his period of struggle is a crucial counterpart to the spotlight on his music post-acceptance and accolades, reinforcing his brilliance from a period when few would give him the time of day.

1. V/A, Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris (Dust to Digital) + V/A, Deben Bhattacharya, Paris to Calcutta: Men and Music on the Desert Road (Sublime Frequencies) In short, archival documentation of art and culture doesn’t get any better than these two multi-CD affairs, both of which come with books teeming with insight and life-affirming decency that helps to counteract the ugliness of our tumultuous times (Voices of Mississippi includes a DVD; there is also an LP, available for purchase separately, that offers 13 tracks from the set)

As celebrations of field recordist, poet, filmmaker, musicologist and amateur ethnomusicologist Bhattacharya (to borrow Sublime Frequencies’ list of credits), who passed in 2001, and audio recordist, filmmaker, folklorist, and teacher Farris (in Dust-to-Digital’s description), who’s still with us and teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill, these releases are enormously successful, with Paris to Calcutta holding four hours of fascinating sounds and Voices of Mississippi nearly as much as it comes divided into the categories of blues, gospel and storytelling.

But simultaneously, both of these CD-book combos are deep immersions into the art and lives of the individuals documented. Paris to Calcutta does exude an atmosphere of mystery, but the ultimate goal is enlightenment (with many superb twists along the way). Voices of Mississippi is very much about survival, but the focus is consistently on the need to create (and the joy and deep feeling it can inspire) rather than lingering upon hardship. Casting deep spotlights onto humanity’s potential for multifaceted beauty, both sets are essentially without flaw.

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