Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2014’s Reissues, Part One

Hey, it’s that time again. Because it went so swimmingly, this list of 2014’s best reissues will retain last year’s motif of loosely themed pairs. This installment sticks close to pop and rock, a situation that will change with the focus on box sets in the second half.

10. The Pop Group We Are Time and Swans Filth

Reissued concurrently with Cabinet of Curiosities, the 1980 comp We Are Time has aged exceptionally well. Given how vociferously some folks’ have derided The Pop Group, this is a tad surprising; they were amongst the last of the UK’s post-punk acts to garner wide acceptance as an indispensably prescient musical entity instead of being simply dismissed as an upping of The Sex Pistols’ provocational ante.

The Pop Group’s defiant merger of unapologetically leftist political perspective and aggressive, cross-genre skronk will perpetually rub some the wrong way, but as 2014 winds down it has become utterly apparent We Are Time has lost none of its necessity. Ponder the actions of the Central Intelligence Agency, listen to this record with particular attention paid to “Amnesty Report,” and tell me I’m wrong.

Filth sits with the handful of discs essaying the severity residing in the anti-pop margins of the 1980s. In a manner similar to The Pop Group, the over-the-top nature of early Swans’ gets frequently cited as a fault, but to my ear Michael Gira’s tightly calibrated brand of New York City misanthropy is worthwhile precisely because it’s so unbridled.

As in the ‘80s flicks of Richard Kern, Filth is intended to discomfit as it tickles the fancy of those attuned to its charms, and with two drummers, ’83 Swans was extraordinarily adept at rhythmic pummel; next to this album most BPM-based industrial is weak tea.

And there are other aspects, such as the likeness of “Freak” to the young Butthole Surfers, and the knowledge that Filth is a developmental snapshot of what’s been called the greatest live act currently on the planet.

9. Game Theory Blaze of Glory and The Chills The BBC Sessions

‘82’s Blaze of Glory, Game Theory’s excellent debut was returned to print this past September courtesy of the perceptive minds at Omnivore Recordings, the admirable deed step-one in placing the late Scott Miller atop the appropriate pedestal as a US pop auteur with very few peers (the second installment occurred last month with the arrival of ‘84’s Dead Center).

Miller’s great talent was his ability to grapple all sorts of guitar-pop history into a focused sound. And to be clear, his strongest showings came later in the ‘80s, but it still a gas to hear how good he was at this juncture. Yes there are New Wave trappings to much of what’s here, but the way they mesh with Miller’s love of Chilton (for one example) is at this stage a treat. Plus, the download doubles the total featured on the vinyl, making this edition of Blaze of Glory enlightening in addition to pleasurable.

Collecting three radio gigs for DJ John Peel in ’85, ’87, and ’88, The BBC Sessions finds the Kiwi mainstays in something extremely close to top form. Speaking from the vantage point of 2014, it’s really been a terrific couple years for The Chills, and of course the splendid songwriting and pop execution of leader Martin Phillipps is most deserving of kudos for this turn of events.

But a little praise should also be awarded to Fire Records for their faithful attention to new material as opposed to just predictably plumbing the catalog. And The BBC Sessions avoids the uninspired through Phillipps and crew’s choice of tunes; rather than the marginally altered Greatest Hits/Best Of aura that oozes from many Peel dates these dozen tracks offer numerous twists.

8. Yo La Tengo Extra Painful and Crayon Brick Factory

I can state without an iota of exaggeration that Painful, Yo La Tengo’s sixth full-length and first unimpeachable masterpiece (after a few formative displays of brilliance and a truly swell mostly-covers affair) stands as one of the ‘90s finest, but the accolade in itself doesn’t mean the record is ripe for expanded reissue.

No, the factors insuring the success of its thoughtful growth into Extra Painful, a double set and 7-inch plus extra download-only cuts, are the very same elements that solidified 2005’s 3-disc compilation Prisoners of Love; a naturally evolving combination of classicism and expansiveness. It was also the locale cementing the equality of third member James McNew, and frankly, Yo La Tengo’s bonus stuff makes most bands’ showcase work seem inadequate.

Such is not the case with the ’94 album from Bellingham, WA’s Crayon, Brick Factory given a long overdue reissue for the first time on LP this year by Happy Happy Birthday To Me. One of thousands of bands to emerge during the ‘90s indie boom, Crayon specialized in and at times nearly perfected a blend of twee pop and punk raucousness that was too powerful to ever be huge, but certainly should’ve been bigger, both then and hence.

Purchase of the vinyl adds a download of 21 stray cuts, but the meat of the matter is the original release, which hits a spot betwixt the sophisticated SpinART/Chickfactor-scene and the power boot of Kill Rock Stars.

7. Electric Eels Die Electric Eels and The Flesh Eaters A Minute to Pray a Second to Die

Chalk up another strong year for Superior Viaduct, especially regarding crucial punk junk. The San Fran label’s repressing of their city brethren Crime’s Murder by Guitar is also essential, but for start to finish quality Die Electric Eels is damn near unbeatable.

Like Crime, the output of Cleveland’s Electric Eels has seen reissue several times; Homestead’s God Says Fuck You has the sweetest title, Scat’s Eyeball of Hell holds the most songs, but this latest collection sets aside most of the snot-soaked experimentation (perhaps for a second volume?), instead squeezing the dyspeptic racket into a trim running-time while throwing in a pair of previously elusive tracks. Rarely has the promise of raw anti-social splatter been so unequivocally kept.

Choosing between Superior Viaduct’s pressings of cornerstone Los Angeles punk discs by The Flesh Eaters and the Gun Club proved far more difficult, though ultimately winning out was this vastly important work led by the incomparable Chris Desjardins and aided by members of X and The Blasters.

If Die Electric Eels documents a series of foundational if hardly ever surpassed convulsions, 1981’s A Minute to Pray a Second to Die is a methodical yet vigorous revelation of punk’s potential before it was overwhelmed by the impulse for speed and slogans; swampy and theatrical (or better put, cinematic) with moments of legit poetry, it serves up an enormously righteous listen. Chris D. got heavier and progressively Stonesier but I don’t think he ever topped this one.

6. Peter Jefferies Electricity and The Clientele Suburban Light

After Nocturnal Projections and prior to his terribly slept-on solo period, Jefferies was in the undersung ‘80s band This Kind of Punishment. As part of New Zealand’s largely-Xpressway label-fostered lo-fi rock movement, Jefferies’ early post-TKOP work, specifically ‘87’s collaboration with Jono Lonie on Flying Nun At Swim Two Birds and ’90’s staggeringly brilliant The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World, put out on tape by Xpressway and LP/CD in the US by Ajax (reissued by De Stijl in 2013), presented a rare artistic vision that persists in reminding me of various roads not taken by post-VU John Cale.

Its follow-up Electricity initially materialized in ’94, and if it isn’t as amazing as Jefferies’ solo debut, it does rank higher than anything Cale’s done after Paris 1919. Including contributions from fellow Kiwis Shayne Carter of Straightjacket Fits and lo-fi ringers Robbie Muir of Plagal Grind and Bruce Russell of The Dead C, Electricity is a rigorous and rewarding effort pressed onto four sides of wax by Superior Viaduct.

Merge’s 2014-spanning ¼-century anniversary celebrating-reissue program unfolded impressively, but the highpoint might be the new edition of Suburban Light, its gorgeousness only increasing since it first appeared in 2000. And like the record above, it’s impossible to reconcile this LP minus the precedent of the 1980s, but moving forward Suburban Light excels at timelessness while Electricity is but one chapter in a run of highly personal expressiveness.

This is not to suggest The Clientele lack character; no, unlike that skeevy dude at the local tavern whose accent’s disappearance is directly proportional to the amount of drinks he consumes, Alasdair MacLean and company are legitimately British. It’s just that scores have subsequently tackled guitar-pop lushness as a career proposition. Thing is, basically nobody’s raised the bar.

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