Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2018’s Reissues, Part One

As we continue our look back at the best of 2018, the gears shift to reissues of the non-boxed variety, covering post-punk, global sounds, jazz, and a sprinkling of American originals. Overall, a bounty of goodness, and this is just part one.

10. The Fall, I Am Kurious Oranj (Beggars Arkive) + Cocteau Twins, Treasure (4AD) It’s testament to the late Mark E. Smith’s brilliance that The Fall, simply one of the essential and singular pillars of post-punk, was also a great singles band. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that a significant portion of new Fall listeners initially engage with the band (featuring a plethora of lineups, but always with Smith in the driver’s seat) through compilations, increasingly drawn from their myriad 45s and EPs. That’s cool, and I can relate; while I’d heard them prior through a few V/A comps, my first Fall vinyl was a dog-eared used copy of 77-Early Years-79. While I don’t think the band’s long string of LPs is suffering from lack of exposure, it was still nice of Beggars to reissue I Am Kurious Oranj, which is one of The Fall’s less celebrated but fully realized albums, shortly after the label graced the world with a fresh edition of 458489 A Sides. Conceived as the soundtrack to a ballet by Michael Clark, it was a return to restless ambition after a dalliance with pop respectability, and it sounds as sweet now as it did in ’89.

I’ll admit that a touch (okay, a lot) of nostalgia informs my present-day interaction with I Am Kurious Oranj. But that’s okay; we all have our fond remembrances (and madeleine moments). This also applies to Treasure, the 1984 LP by Cocteau Twins, though even deeper recollections are tied to their ’88 effort Blue Bell Knoll. But Treasure, which featured the solidified union of singer Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde, was around too, and it was frequently just the right ethereal capper to hours of noisy, punky racket. Other records suited the same purpose, but few have held up as well as this one; hell, some don’t hold up at all. Part of the reason Treasure sounds even better now than it did back then is directly related to the group’s pushing into uncharted territory. Of ’80s bands, they are amongst the most distinctive, and while they are now often cited as an early practitioner of dream pop, the Twins render as inadequate the vast majority of that style’s contempo offerings. Treasure is one of the few ethereal recordings that can be aptly described as heavy, and it still sounds magnificent today.

9. Joseph Spence, Bahaman Folk Guitar: Music from the Bahamas, Vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways) + Stella Chiweshe, Kasahwa: Early Singles (Glitterbeat) We’ve been graced in 2018 with a wonderful batch of vinyl reissues from Smithsonian Folkways including essential discs from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Woody Guthrie, Dock Boggs, and Pete Seeger, but the best, and certainly the most idiosyncratic, of the bunch is this Sam Charters-recorded dose of Bahaman guitarist Spence. While the man’s warmly rhythmic playing and his incessantly tapping feet secure his stature as one of the greats of international folk, its his loose and largely wordless vocalizing that has spurred countless unwitting listeners to quickly inquire “what in the hell is this?” Growly but joyous and yeah, weird but in a thoroughly unforced way, Spence was an utter original in an enduring scene that regularly values authenticity over individualism. Just thinking about the guy can get his music stuck in my head for days. I think about him a lot.

We move from the late ’50s in the Bahamas to the ’70s and early ’80s in Zimbabwe through the superb collecting of the early work from renowned mbira player and singer Chiweshe, whose inroads to international prominence largely began with the ’87 release of Ambuya?; it came out in the US via the Shanachie label as part of that decade’s boom for what was then tagged as World Music. That’s a cool record, but I’ll confess to liking this one a lot more as it quickly gets to mbira music’s beautiful core in the documentation of Zimbabwean traditional sounds made for Zimbabweans. It’s been a fine year for reissued global stuff, with the Analog Africa, Ostinato, and Akuphone labels bringing much goodness, but Kasahwa: Early Singles is amongst the very best as it spotlights something of a rarity; a female master of the mbira. I’m no expert in the instrument, but after numerous spins of this record I feel safe in claiming Chiweshe takes a backseat to nobody.

8. Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes, Paix (Anthology Recordings) + Duck Baker, Les Blues Du Richmond : Demos & Outtakes 1973-1979 (Tompkins Square) Yearly roundups of the best in reissues can give a false impression of a landscape positively loaded with once elusive delights. This isn’t a bit accurate. Reactions to the upcoming release schedule at any given time commonly range from “Oh, I could use a copy of that one, cool” to shrugged shoulders to simply “why?” in varying levels of exasperation. Unearthed obscurities are welcome; breathless claims of lost genius, not so much. Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes aren’t obscure, but their records had been long elusive on vinyl. Coupling consistently high musicianship, which blended folk, pop, a little prog, psychedelia, and ample experimentation with the powerful voice and songwriting skills of Ribeiro (in tandem with guitarist Patrice Moullet and interchanging instrumentalists), Anthology’s reissues of their first three LPs stand as one of the reissue gems of 2018. Offered either as a box set or individually, third album Paix is the best of the ‘em, so we highlight it and salute Anthology’s efforts as a whole.

As he’s amassed over 20 full-length releases since emerging in the mid-’70s, it doesn’t fit to lump Duck Baker into the obscure bag either. In fact, it’s more accurate to call him an acknowledged master of fingerstyle guitar, though his profile is in no way in proper balance with the level of his talents. This is probably due to his refusal to sit stylistically still long enough to gather a substantial non-cult/ guitar-nut following. This range can be heard on Les Blues Du Richmond, which is unsurprising as it pairs a ’73 demo made in Richmond, VA with songs recorded in ’77-’79 in England after Baker had landed on Stefan Grossman’s Kicking Mule label. But don’t get the idea the LP isn’t cohesive; it is, a quality shared with the other Baker releases I’ve soaked up; the man is diverse, not schizophrenic. Intermingling ragtime, Roaring Twenties vocal numbers, nods to the blues and progressive jazz, plus a rack of instrumental cuts that surely helped secure that contract with Grossman, Les Blues Du Richmond is an unceasing treat.

7. John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album Deluxe Edition (Impulse!) + Alan Braufman, Valley of Search (Valley of Search) If you’ve picked up on my high esteem for the work of John Coltrane, you might be surprised these 1963 sessions for an unreleased album by his Classic Quartet aren’t rated higher. The 2LP is assuredly in no way a disappointing experience; listening to it again after a break of a couple of months found an inner-voice needling me over its deserved placement nearer to the top of this list. But I shall resist. Make no mistake, Both Directions at Once is an extraordinary find. Side two’s “Slow Blues” essentially mandates purchase all by itself. There are two massive takes of “One Up, One Down” (which is quite similar to but not the same as “One Down, One Up” from New Thing at Newport, Dear Old Stockholm, etc.). It offers four takes of “Impressions,” two of “Villa,” one of “Nature Boy,” plus four untitled originals, all of which are highly enjoyable and insightful. Only in a year peppered with striking archival jazz discoveries does this not break the top five.

Make that archival stuff and solid reissues of long-elusive material. The return to availability of Alan Braufman’s Valley of Search is an example. Originally released on the India Navigation label in 1975 and reissued for the first time on vinyl this year, it features saxophonist Braufman, Cecil McBee on bass, David Lee on drums, Ralph Williams on percussion, and tantalizingly for avant-jazz lovers, a young Cooper-Moore, then known as Gene Ashton, on piano, dulcimer, and recitation. Numerous aspects of this ’70s NYC loft jazz-affiliated recording tie it to the spiritual end of the era’s free jazz explorations, with the presence of McBee underscoring the connection to the fiery but flowing work of Pharoah Sanders. But Valley of Search’s existence is ultimately inconceivable without the precedent of Trane. As this album plays there are gushes of intensity reminiscent of Om, but also meditativeness that recalls “Alabama.” Albert Ayler-ish elements are additionally heard, so it’s proper to say this baby is conversant with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Right on.

6. NRBQ, S/T & All Hopped Up (Omnivore) + Gene Clark, Sings for You (Omnivore) I tried to choose one of Omnivore’s totally spiff pair of reissues from this indefatigable American institution, I really did, but the struggle to decide gave me a headache. Instead of reaching for the bottle of pain reliever, I just listened to both records. That pain in the noggin evaporated like post-thunderstorm rain on hot August asphalt. It was then fully understood that I had to include both. I’m sure for some other fans of the Q the decision would be easy. I’m guessing many would go with ’77’s All Hopped Up as it derives from the classic lineup that cemented their rep as too good for widespread commercial success (that is to say, one of pop-rock’s defining cult bands). And I’ll admit I was sorta leaning that way myself. But I have such a love for the ’69 debut for numerous reasons, but right off the bat for how they follow up a ripping cover of Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody” with a fully-formed reading of Sun Ra’s “Rocket Number Nine.” Did I mention that NRBQ was cut in 1969?

It was two years prior that Gene Clark recorded the first eight songs on Sings for You as a demo in hopes of sparking the interest of labels. Having cut Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers in ’66 after leaving The Byrds, that album didn’t exactly fly off record store shelves. But if frustrated commercially, it was an extremely fertile period for Clark as a songwriter, with none of the songs from the demo acetate (presumed lost until located in the vault of Liberty Records) making it onto subsequent albums. For non-Clark fans this may read as an interesting but non-earthshattering treat for aficionados, but the high quality of the songs, Clark’s appealing voice and guitar, and the consistently satisfying additional instrumentation make this one of the finer lost records to be found in recent years, even before the addition of the five-song demo Clark made for the ’60s group The Rose Garden, plus one more track of Clark demoing “Till Today” (The Rose Garden used it and “A Long Time”). It might lack polish, but it makes up for it with sheer artistry; many songwriters would strike Faustian bargains for tunes this good.

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