Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2020’s Reissues, Part One

As in years previous, the picks for the best reissues and new releases of 2020 have been paired-up to varying thematic degrees. Until the reader gets to the top spot in part two tomorrow, they shouldn’t consider each number to be a tie…unless one wants to, because y’know, that’s cool. These lists are, along with championing excellence, about making people happy. And as rough of a year as it has been, it did feature a sweet mess of reissued and archival material. What’s below (and what’s to come tomorrow) isn’t even all of it. Another day, and the list would be different. This is how these things go… 

10. Flaming Tunes, S/T (Superior Viaduct) & Michele Mercure, Pictures of Echoes (Freedom to Spend) This Heat are one of the more revered bands to have hovered on the fringes of what can be considered as the post-punk era. The late Gareth Williams was that outfit’s bassist and keyboardist, and he was half of Flaming Tunes with his childhood friend Mary Currie. The contents of their sole release from 1985 are markedly distinct from This Heat, being nearer to UK DIY experimentation, The Residents in instrumental mode and even the lo-fi psych-pop of Tall Dwarfs. In short, a subterranean beauty.

The Flaming Tunes set was reissued on black and clear vinyl, both sold out at the source, but it was originally released on cassette. Spooled tape was also the initial format for most of the selections on the Pictures of Echoes compilation, which is Freedom to Spend’s follow-up to their first Mercure collection Beside Herself. The one came out on 2LP and CD, but for Pictures, cassette was the format of choice, with an emphasis on past tense, as the 150 copies are also sold out. Mercure’s work surely fits into the ’80s cassette subculture, but the sans-vocals soundtrack aura increases with repeated listens.

9. Giant Sand, Ramp (Fire) & Jolie Holland, Escondida (Cinquefoil) Howe Gelb is no stranger to this website’s best of the year lists, either solo or with the band that established his rep. Cited as the second in a trifecta of early ’90s classics by Giant Sand, Ramp gets a 25th anniversary expansion here, only magnifying Gelb’s breadth, which by this point was already considerable. Featuring the 1991 Mad Dog Studio sessions, this edition of Ramp reinforces the band as rough and occasionally twisted, contrasting sharply from much Alt-country and Americana to come. But make no mistake; Giant Sand is desert rock.

Jolie Holland’s Escondida is not desert rock, though I’ve no doubt it would make for fine listening in arid climes. A sophomore effort from 2004, it showcases Holland’s powerhouse voice as well as her skillful songwriting (most of the record) and strengths at interpretation (two traditional tunes), all while blending strains of early jazz (Ara Anderson’s trumpet is a gas), pre-war gal blues singers, and even country, with this element decidedly closer to Appalachia than Nashville. The result is a record that sounds old as it consistently reminds the listener that its not. A gem…

8. Duck Baker, Plymouth Rock: Unreleased & Rare Recordings, 1973-1979 (Tompkins Square) & James Booker, Classified (Craft) Duck Baker plays guitar fast but always with feeling; as his records spin it’s obvious that he loves what he’s doing, and the enjoyment rubs off. This set, which follows up and is a superlative companion to Tompkins Square’s release of Les Blues Du Richmond: Demos & Outtakes, 1973-1979 from last year, documents an old-timey, early jazzy, swingingly bluesy, ragtime-y fingerpicking fiesta, and while Baker can be wonderfully anachronistic, his stuff’s never quaint.

It’s a damn shame there aren’t more studio recordings of the late New Orleans pianist and vocalist James Booker. For those unfamiliar with his work, Booker can hit a sweet spot that’s roughly betwixt Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, but with his own distinct personality shining through. Classified, originally issued by Rounder in 1983, was his final record, finished shortly before his death, and it’s a delight from start to finish. There are some solid full-band numbers, but most of the record is just Booker, sometimes singing, but always at the 88s. That’s all that’s needed.

7. Tom Tom Club, S/T (Real Gone) & The Chills, Submarine Bells & The Soft Bomb (Fire) Some crabs’ll grouch that this new edition of Tom Tom Club’s debut has no place on a list of 2020’s best reissues, with the argument being that Real Gone is essentially just offering another press of an LP they’ve been putting out since 2016. Well, okay. But the best counterargument is the record’s perpetually in demand stature coupled with the music’s staying power (and its influence on all sorts of subsequent stuff). In 2020, Tom Tom Club hit good. It hit real good…

The same can be said for these back-to-back early 1990s classics from New Zealand’s The Chills. Although both records were released on Slash Records, The Chills, led from formation to right now by guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Martin Phillipps, were (and remain) one of the cornerstones of the Flying Nun scene. That the band, well, two different bands for each record, with Phillipps The Chills’ sole constant member, took a step into the so-called big leagues without a misstep is one of the best chapters in the topsy-turvy saga of ’90s music. This is pop-rock for the ages.

6. Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto (Impulse!) & Bill Evans, Live at Ronnie Scott’s (Resonance) Palo Alto was all set for release, until suddenly, it wasn’t. After a quickly resolved legal dispute, it did come out in September, and it delivers the treat of Monk and band playing an afternoon show organized by a teenager in a high school auditorium. The set was recorded by the school’s janitor, with the fidelity understandably low. Still, the audio is adequate, and the music is unlike any other Monk live performance in circulation. But another sweet kick is the audience audible enjoyment.

Palo Alto is the sound of a band cutting loose while in the midst of a residency at the Jazz Workshop in nearby San Francisco. Live at Ronnie Scott’s is the sound of Evans’ band doing a stretch at the longstanding London jazz club of the title. It’s the third release from the Resonance label of a legendary trio previously documented by a sole live album from Montreux. This non-pro but deep recording drives home that Evans’ too brief union with bassist Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette was as special in the scheme of Evans’ career as the Palo Alto set is in the context of that particular Monk band. But both albums reiterate that great jazz ensembles are a lot like Heraclitus’ rivers.

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