Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2019’s Box Sets

As we begin our year’s end Best of coverage, it bears mentioning that this is only a portion of the worthy box sets and expanded releases to hit stores across the last twelve months. Trying to give them all ample consideration is a fool’s errand, which is partly why there are no real surprises here, at least for folks who regularly check out this website’s Graded on a Curve column. But the main reason for the hierarchy unwinding below is that the chosen selections are just really good. So, let’s jump in.

10. Konk, The Magic Force of Konk 1981-1988 (Futurismo) This reissue label, summarized somewhat concisely as being focused on the fringier twists and turns of the New Wave era, has brought out fresh editions of classics from noted New Yorkers James Chance and Alan Vega, so this 3LP collection devoted to this No Wave-affiliated NYC-based proto-dance punk outfit is no surprise. That it goes down so nicely in the here-and-now while spotlighting a vital strain of stylistic hybridization in the 1980s, a decade where a high percentage of punk and post-Wave music became increasingly insular, is a stone treat.

9. Art Pepper, Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings (Omnivore) The retrospective diligence on the part of Omnivore into the late work of saxophonist Art Pepper continued in 2019 with this 5CD collection of material cut for the Artist House label, originally offered on a string of four albums from the first half of the 1980s (only one, So In Love, actually issued by Artist House), plus 21 previously unreleased takes. Drawn from sessions held in Cali and NYC and with a slew of major players in the bands, Promise Kept is a deep exploration of Art Pepper’s duality; he was a cornerstone West Coast guy but also totally adept in an East Coast context. I mean, there are some major burners on this baby.

8. Chet Baker, The Legendary Riverside Albums (Craft) As West Coasters, Art Pepper and Chet Baker recorded together a few times, perhaps most notably on Playboys, a sextet LP released in 1957 by World Pacific with a big ol’ slice of ’50s cheesecake on the cover. The Legendary Riverside Albums dates from ’58-’59 and corrals some of his most enduring work. In the case of (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen To You, it’s also some of his most divisive, as he was iconoclastic as a vocalist but without alienating an audience that, for a while, elevated him to the stature of pop star. More importantly, this collection emphasizes his prowess as a trumpeter and his deep love of standards, a facet shared with Pepper.

7. The Pop Group, Y (Definitive Edition) (Mute) Available either as three LPs and a 7-inch or as a 3CD set, the core of this collection, specifically the debut album from 1979 from these Bristol, UK-based post-punkers, is an absolute must in the scheme of the genre they helped to define. The great news is that the record of additional, previously unheard material, Alien Blood, is way up to snuff, as is the self-explanatorily titled Y Live; the 45 is a repress of the “She’s Beyond Good and Evil” single, and that’s indispensable, too. Standing in the rubble of punk in the late ‘70s, The Pop Group integrated funk, skronk jazz, dub, African influences, and leftist politics into a stew that’s lost none of its potency.

6. Patsy Cline, Sweet Dreams: The Complete Decca Masters 1960-1963 (Third Man) If one were to jot down the biggest names in the history of C&W music, Patsy Cline would figure high upon the list. I’ll add that she achieved this stature in a relatively brief career cut short by a plane crash, and that she was a perfect example of an artist for whom the descriptor of mainstream was not a putdown. With all this said, it’s kind of a stumper how we got all the way to 2010 without her Decca recordings (in short, her finest stuff) being compiled in one set (Hip-O-Select rounded them up on 2CD) and basically another decade before they received the vinyl treatment. Mandatory on any well-rounded country shelf.

5. John Coltrane, Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings (Craft) & The Miles Davis Quintet, The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions (Craft) Of course, the meat of the combined matter here has been easy to soak up for decades now. A big part of what makes these collections special is the packaging, with the presentation a fitting upgrade for folks who’ve been digging on these sounds for decades via Original Jazz Classics CD reissues. Here, the music spans sixteen sides of vinyl (or five compact discs) in the Coltrane set and twelve sides of wax in the freshly available Davis edition, all tucked into portfolio-style books with worthy notes and photos. First-time buyers will not be disappointed.

4. Sun Ra, Monorails & Satellites: Works for Solo Piano Vols. 1, 2, 3 (Cosmic Myth) & The Roots, Things Fall Apart: 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Geffen / UMe / Urban Legends) This might seem an odd pairing, but the principals are both intrinsic examples of their chosen genres while also standing apart, i.e., there is nobody else like Sun Ra in jazz or The Roots in hip-hop. Monorails & Satellites collects two solo piano albums from 1966 (released in ’68-’69) and a third previously unreleased album from the same year. Things Fall Apart drops the ’99 masterpiece onto two LPs and adds a third of Questlove-curated goodies. Both sets underscore sheer depth of creativity and wide reach of influence.

3. V/A, The Social Power of Music (Smithsonian Folkways) & V/A, Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990 (Light in the Attic) The thematic thrust of these collections might seem disparate, but they both effectively emphasize music’s function beyond simply providing straightforward, often solitary experiences in the listening den. The Social Power of Music offers songs of protest, labor and political unity, celebration, worship and more, while Kankyō Ongaku dives into a Japanese movement to expand ambient music’s potential into the public sphere in non-performative, often architectural, contexts. Both are enlightening, enriching and inspirational.

2. Peter Laughner, S/T (Smog Veil) & Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band, Pedal Steel + Four Corners (Paradise of Bachelors) Peter Laughner and Terry Allen are both cult figures. Listening to the radio plays collected in Pedal Steel + Four Corners could lead some to question Allen’s categorization as a country musician entirely. This speaks to the thorny beauty and sheer conceptual breadth of work which was originally broadcast in the ’80s-’90s on National Public Radio. Peter Laughner’s stature as a (doomed) proto-punker par excellence is significantly enhanced by Smog Veil’s long in the works labor of love, though it also elucidates the guy’s discerning taste, and for punk fans is an essential eye-opener.

1. Nat King Cole, Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) (Resonance) & The Art Ensemble of Chicago, We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Pi Recordings / Erased Tapes) I’m sure there are many for whom Hittin’ The Ramp serves as a revelation; folks whose only prior exposure to Nat King Cole is perhaps through the fandom of a grandparent for “Unforgettable” or “Mona Lisa.” Now, for those contemplating taking the plunge, seven CDs or ten LPs might seem like a lot, but the contents, which illuminate Cole’s substantial ability as pianist and bandleader, never once registers as overkill. A delightful survey of the early years from a giant of American Music.

Likewise, there are undoubtedly some who knew of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s existence but received their first prolonged exposure to that enduring collective through We Are on the Edge, with those listeners’ curiosity stirred by the contributions of younger generation musicians including Moor Mother, Junius Paul, and Tomeka Reid. This is a swell circumstance, but even sweeter is how this aural marker of a half century of Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future stands up tall next to the Art Ensemble’s canonical works. This is partly due to the vigor of the new recruits, although the persevering vitality of Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye is just as crucial to this life-affirming experience.

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