Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2019’s Reissues, Part One

With the list below, the reissues have slimmed down a bit, though in terms of weight, collectively as well as individually, they are all worth noting. So hey, we did. The second half, even heftier yet just as svelte, follows tomorrow.

10. Lightning Bolt, Wonderful Rainbow (Thrill Jockey) & Robbie Fulks, Country Love Songs (Bloodshot) The general tendency is to refrain from listing straight reissues of stuff that is less than a quarter century old, but occasionally exceptions will be made, and the controlled duo mayhem that comprises Wonderful Rainbow is one of them. That it’s part of Thrill Jockey’s extensive plunge into Lightning Bolt’s discography no doubt added some weight to the consideration; however, taking this baby out for a few fresh spins provides as wild a ride as it ever did before. The rainbow splatter vinyl is going to splendid revolving on the turntable.

Country Love Songs hasn’t hit the 25-year mark either, but, released in 1996, it’s inching nearer by the second, and it’s a record that’s as necessary now as it was upon initial release. Fulks had a few songs out prior, but the set was his full-length debut and it put him solidly on the map, in the process differentiating him from much of the alt-country pack, as listening to his stuff; rich of voice, strong of song, and exquisite instrumentally including pedal steel from Tom Brumley, made it clear that a couple of decades prior he would’ve been a legitimate country hitmaker. That is conjecture of course, but what’s hard to dispute is how at his best Robbie Fulks is timeless. This LP is a prime example.

9. Miles Davis, The Complete Birth of the Cool (UMe) & John Coltrane, Blue World (Impulse!) I can envision the eye rolls from the non-jazz-loving contingent. These guys again? Didn’t they just make yesterday’s list? Hey, maybe we’ll eventually call for a moratorium on Miles and Trane in the annual Best Of tallies, as it seems unlikely that a year will elapse without multiple reissues and/ or archival editions from these two august names. As you can see, no great jazzman ban was undertaken at TVD in 2019, but things have been kept in perspective.

Birth of the Cool is total jazz canon stuff to be sure, but UMe’s highly attractive 2LP edition (with LP-sized booklet featuring photos and notes by Ashley Khan) is also the first time the live and studio material has been offered on 2LP. For jazz fans and vinyl aficionados, I’d say it’s a must. As a soundtrack recorded by the Classic Quartet for Canadian director Gilles Groulx, Blue World is simultaneously a major discovery (though one hiding in plain sight) and a minor work. But as it offers the saxophonist revisiting previously recorded tunes in the studio, it’s noteworthy, and definitely of interest.

8. Mary Lou Williams, S/T (Smithsonian Folkways) & Elizabeth Cotten, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar (Smithsonian-Folkways) Although she’s by no means a forgotten figure, the name Mary Lou Williams is also less vaunted than it should be in jazz history, in no small part due to innate sexism. This is also likely why she was self-releasing records in the 1960s, though the fact that this eponymous 1964 LP (also known as Black Christ of the Andes) blended choral music (a whole lot of choral music) and jazz with elements of blues and gospel surely would’ve made it a difficult sell to square-ass record execs. As part of Smithsonian Folkways ongoing vinyl reissue series, this was an unexpected delight in 2019.

As was the wonderful set from one of the sweetest of folk fingerpickers, Elizabeth Cotten, which arrived the same month as Williams’ album (completing the trifecta was a welcome reissue of Lucinda Williams’ Happy Woman Blues, a contender for this list to be sure). In terms of beauty and unperturbed dexterity, Cotton was in a class with the great Mississippi John Hurt (but with her own personal stamp, including a killer detour into banjo territory), so if you love his stuff but don’t know her work, then you have some catching up to do. Might as well start right here, with her debut record, cut for Folkways in 1958, reissued here with updated notes from the late and much missed Mike Seeger.

7. V/A, Pour Me a Grog: The Funaná Revolt in 1990s Cabo Verde (Ostinato) & V/A, Jambú e Os Míticos Sons Da Amazônia (Analog Africa) Ostinato made a big initial splash back in 2016 with the excellent comp Tanbou Toujou Lou: Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz & Electric Folklore From Haiti 1960 – 1981, and continued with deep dives into music from Cabo Verde and Somilia, but in 2019 the label has tightened the focus onto shorter spotlights upon Cabo Verdean stuff. Rhythmically hyperactive and accordion drenched, this is dance music for sure, but it’s also a move away from a noted mainstream tendency in post-independence Cabo Verdean music, so lightweight it is not.

Like all of Ostinato’s output, Pour Me a Grog is a revelation. That’s also the case with the magnificent Jambú e Os Míticos Sons Da Amazônia from the always reliable Analog Africa label. It offers sounds drawn from the city of Belém in Northern Brazil, with the music lively as the unity of groove heat gets accentuated with finesse and general panache familiar to music of the country; one could say that the album swings, but with variety that reflects Belém’s reality as a port city. The contents of Jambú might be new to most ears, but it reflects a process of cultural exchange in the local, and it further emphasizes Analog Africa’s credo: “The future of music happened decades ago.”

6. Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, Osondi Owendi (Hive Mind) & Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages (Hive Mind) This Brighton, UK-based label has had an outstanding 2019, with these sets highlighting the breadth of their retrospective interest (they also dish contempo sounds). Osondi Owendi features two extended servings of Nigerian highlife goodness, gliding with beauty that’s at once gentle and intense while adding a few welcome twists, like the intermittent use of horns. The voices are warm, the rhythms incessant, and the guitars ring out with sheer joie de vivre. Originally released by Polydor in 1984, it’s doubtful that many copies from that edition are still floating around, which makes this one a real value.

Additionally, giving guitarist Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages its first vinyl pressing ever is a true public service. Originally released in 1991 on compact disc, it helped to get the man back onto solid ground after a few lesser outings, with the recipe for success partly due to the assembling of a killer band featuring saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Charnett Moffett. Produced by Sharrock’s bandmate in Last Exit Bill Laswell, the music doesn’t reach the heights of metallic skronk mayhem produced by that outfit, but it’s consistently inspiring and never a disappointment. And Hive Mind’s sleeve design is far preferable to the artwork adorning the Axiom label CD; these things matter.

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