Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2020’s Box Sets

It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, with many of those twists and turns unpleasant, and we’re not out of the woods yet. One of the consistent balms for uncertainty, pain, fear, and loneliness across this pileup of months has been art, with music prominent in the mix. This week, as a change of calendar is in the wings, we spotlight a more positive side of 2020 with a series of lists, beginning with the best box sets and expanded releases of the year.

10. Michael Rother, Solo II (Groenland) Those passionate over Krautrock are surely familiar with Rother from his cornerstone work in Neu! and later in Harmonia, and I’m willing to wager they know that he also thrived as a solo artist. Last year, Groenland rounded up his first four albums from 1977 to ’82, added some soundtrack work plus a little live material and remixes to shape the 6LP/ 5CD set Solo, a doozy of a box that missed contending for placement in TVD’s 2019 Best of list only through a delay in checking it out.

Solo II offers more across seven CDs. It isn’t as strong as Solo, though it’s inclusion here is still warranted, in part because it presents such a contrast with his earlier stuff. Indeed, non-synth-pop-loving sticklers for Rother’s groundbreaking work in Neu! (before that, he was also briefly in Kraftwerk) might want to dabble in the albums individually before dropping coin on its contents. However, the truly solo Fairlight CMI-infused Lust from ’83 is a cool snapshot of the era, and from there, some beautiful tranquility is heard, with Rother’s largely non-vocal approach, and his guitar playing, very much appreciated.

9. Peter Stampfel, Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century in 100 Songs (Louisiana Red Hot) Stampfel is best-known for his work in the Holy Modal Rounders, who helped give the 1960s folk surge a needed dose of the weird. They kept on trucking into the ’70s, as the Unholy version of the outfit joined with Michael Hurley, Jeffrey Frederick, and the Clamtones to wax Have Moicy!, which stands as one of the best records of its decade. Hey, it’s lists within lists!

In fact, this very set, featuring 100 versions by Stampfel of songs, one a year from the 20th century, across three CDs, is an act of audio list making, very personal, though its maker does admit to fielding suggestions from the last 20 years of the span. And speaking of 20 years, that’s roughly how long it took for this set to reach completion, but the production by Mark Bingham and Stampfel’s instantly recognizable singing insures crucial cohesiveness. It feels like a spoiler to reveal the unexpected choices, so I won’t. Like so much in 2020, this set’s been pushed to January 2021; here’s one to look forward to.

8. Grateful Dead, Dick’s Picks 26 – 4/26/69 Electric Theater, Chicago, IL 4/27/69 Labor Temple, Minneapolis, MN (Real Gone) As a fan of the Dead, I’ll listen to any live recording of the band, as there is reliably something, and more often, many things of interest, even from inside stretches of their existence that don’t thrill all me that much.

But as pertains to the band, I have a special fondness for the 1960s, and ’69 in particular. Folks up to speed with the Dead know that Live/Dead, one of the very greatest official (non-jazz) live albums, was recorded that year (compiled from assorted shows from January to March), and this volume of Dick’s Picks expands upon that brilliance, with the Labor Temple show (which is the majority of the set) even including the “Live/Dead sequence” of “Dark Star”> “St. Stephen”> “The Eleven.” Another big bonus is the organ of Tom Constanten. Real Gone’s 4LP edition (1,500 hand-numbered copies) sold out fast…

7. Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi (Virgin/UMe) “Buffalo Stance” was the biggest selling single from Cherry’s debut album, and it’s understandably the song that secures her place in the overlapping histories of rap, R&B, and electronica. But the reality is that two more songs from the record, “Manchild” and “Kisses on the Wind,” made the charts; they fall second and third in the album’s order, after “Buffalo Stance” as opener.

Those songs’ placement on the album is noteworthy, as Raw Like Sushi doesn’t frontload the quality only to sputter in the homestretch. And that the record plays strong all the way through (partly due to Cherry’s experience in the ’80s UK post-punk scene) means this anniversary set is a welcome expansion of a classic, even as the two LPs of remixes and versions do focus pretty heavily on the record’s hits. One might rarely absorb the whole thing in one big gulp, but sides three through six do present a bunch of appealing angles for visitation.

6. African Head Charge, Drumming is a Language 1990 -2011 (On-U Sound) The albums anthologized in this 5CD set, Songs of Praise, In Pursuit of Shashamane Land, Vision of a Psychedelic Africa, Voodoo of the Godsent, and Churchical Chant of the Iyabinghi, all available as individual vinyl reissues, serve as the follow-up to On-U Sound’s Environmental Holes & Drastic Tracks 1981–1986 collection of African Head Charge’s early stuff.

African Head Charge was formed by percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah as an excursion into psychedelic dub fleshed out by heavy-hitters from the On-U Sound stable and of course the input of Adrian Sherwood. Given this background, that Drumming is a Language is a lengthy excursion into excellence is not exactly a surprise, and yet that this second multi-disc installment is arguably even better than the first is a circumstance worth remarking upon. So here it is.

5. Trees, Trees (50th Anniversary Edition) (Earth Recordings) Lovers of Brit acid-folk either know Trees, who quickly cut two albums for CBS in 1970, or they are poised to get their socks knocked clean off. Due in part to the vocals of Celia Humphris and additionally to their blend of trad and original material, Trees are sometimes compared to prime Fairport Convention. However, their work stands as so much more than a mere variation upon Fairport’s sound, which is reflected in the numerous reissues that have hit racks since the late 1980s.

This time out is special, as Earth Recordings has grown onto one of the contemporary scene’s finest folk-rock reissue labels (not just Bert Jansch, but Trader Horne, Judy Dyble, Anne Briggs and more). To elaborate, this is the first time The Garden Of Jane Delawney and its follow-up On the Shore have been offered together (in LP and CD configurations), which is reason enough to celebrate, but there’s also two more discs featuring alternate mixes, demos, a BBC session and two live cuts from Cafe Oto in 2018 that hold up like they’ve been attached to suspenders slung over the shoulders of Robin Williamson.

4. Hank Williams, Pictures from Life’s Other Side: The Man and his Music in Rare Photos and Recordings (BMG) This collection, which offers six CDs holding 144 transcriptions of Williams performing on his Mother’s Best radio program tucked into a hardcover book that’s loaded with photographs of the C&W icon, many of them in color, can on one hand be viewed as offering an intense spotlight best absorbed by hardcore fans.

That a 3LP distillation of the recordings is available backs up this observation, but there is also the viewpoint that the overflowing riches comprising Pictures from Life’s Other Side helps to offset the lingering legend of Williams as a doomed figure who is represented far too often in record collections through single disc compilations. Expansive but not unwieldy (Pictures is itself a scaling down of Time Life’s 15CD box of the complete Mother’s Best shows), these discs and photos vividly illuminate why Williams is still so revered by musicians and aficionados.

3. Charlie Parker, The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection (Craft Recordings) Alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader Charlie “Yardbird” Parker’s stature amongst the very greatest musicians of the 20th century is secure, though for listeners who’ve freshly caught the jazz bug, he can sometimes take an initial backseat to subsequent innovators such as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

Parker’s utterly essential Savoy masters, often released in conjunction with his concurrent and equally important recordings for the Dial label, are the most frequent entry point of discovery for new listeners on either partial comps or multi-disc collections, but Craft’s reissue conception presents a distinct doorway of appreciation by replicating Savoy’s four volumes, all initially given the designation New Sounds In Modern Music. Playing these discs in 2020 allows one to absorb how receptive ears spun them repeatedly over a half century ago, totally enraptured by the bombshells of brilliance they heard.

2. Charles Curtis, Performances & Recordings 1998-2018 (Saltern) This collection of cellist Curtis’ work was released in late January and made an immediate positive impression, though in offering interpretations, solo and in duos and trios, of works spanning from the 14th century to the 21st, plus a handful of Curtis’ own compositions, the whole required time to appropriately absorb and to consider, so that a review championing the whole was first delayed, then overwhelmed with the madness of the year, and only now takes its place as 2020’s finest single artist longform retrospective.

Contemporary experimental Classical and New Music are sometimes pitted against the traditional-canonical examples of the form, but this set establishes Curtis as inclusive in his endeavors without disjunction or even restlessness, which is fitting for a guy who’s performed the solo suites of Bach as well as collaborated with Donald Miller of Borbetomagus. From Tobias Hume’s 17th century pieces for viol to Modernism to Minimalism to readings of works by Morton Feldman, Richard Maxfield, and Éliane Radigue, the impact of the drone is palpable and sturdy through a lengthy association with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. An often astounding collection, with depth that’s likely inexhaustible.

1. V/A, The Harry Smith B-Sides (Dust-to-Digital) The Anthology of American Folk Music joins with Charlie Parker’s Savoy and Dial masters, Elvis Presley’s recordings for Sam Phillips, the documentation of Muddy Waters’ ensemble sound by Chess Records, and early works by Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and James Brown, in shaping a vast hunk of post-WWII American Music. Parker was at the forefront of a jazz revolution. Presley wasn’t the first to play R&R, but the floodgates opened after him. Muddy’s sound was crucial to the refinement of the Blues (and Rock), and Ray, Sam, and James are the unshakable foundation of Soul.

Some will say that Hank Williams or Bill Monroe deserve mention over a collection of recordings that mostly date from the 1920s, but please consider the impact those three 2LP volumes had on the folk scene in the decades after its release. But hey, this isn’t The Anthology, it’s the flipsides to all but three of the 78s that shaped it, driving home a connection to commercial record making and to record collecting that helps to undercut often harmful notions of purity and authenticity.

It is a glorious experience, as infinite in its scope as Curtis’ collection above, and if those three tracks are missing due to unfortunate racist content, Dust-to-Digital’s decision to omit them isn’t an act of erasure, as they are all discussed in the outstanding accompanying booklet, but instead is an exclusion directly related to the label’s level of comfort with content that’s inarguably objectionable. The very existence of those tracks might mar The Harry Smith B-Sides’ magnificence, but ultimately only slightly, as they amplify the humanity in Smith’s endeavor and of course Dust-to-Digital’s extension of its greatness.

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