Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2021’s Box Sets

As 2021 draws to a close, the best of the year lists have been ramping up. Unlike in (some) years previous, this rundown of the best box sets and expanded releases could’ve been much longer (doubled, essentially), but to borrow a song title from the Richard Hell and the Voidoids album directly below, there is the issue of Time. Time to listen, time to consider, time to write, time to scrap those ideas and listen again, all while carving out time to listen to more.

As such, lists designating the Best _____ of _____ are never final. No, not really. They are but a document of assessments made and conclusions drawn at a specific moment of…time. Like, right now, dig it? It’s these ten large-scaled releases that had the deepest impact across this last 12-month stretch.

5. Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Destiny Street Complete (Omnivore Recordings) + Bush Tetras, Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of Bush Tetras (Wharf Cat) Having been a fan of Hell and the Voidoids’ second and final album since the late 1980s (yes, having sought it out in order to hear “Time,” which had been covered by the Minutemen on their posthumous live comp Ballot Result), I’d long considered it an underrated effort by one of punk’s true originators, and also something of a final (musical) statement, as hardly a recorded peep had been heard from Hell (Dim Stars excepted) for a long while after Destiny Street’s 1982 release.

And so, Destiny Street Repaired, credited to Hell & the Voidoids but featuring guitarists Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Ivan Julian in place of Robert Quine and Naux (both deceased) from the original sessions was a surprise upon arrival in 2009, a recording made possible through Hell’s discovery of a tape holding only Destiny Street’s rhythm tracks, allowing him to correct an album mix he’d long disdained and deliver a wholly worthwhile revision. In 2019, Destiny Street’s original 24-track masters, once thought lost, were uncovered, meaning Hell could finally mix his second album the way he wanted. Destiny Street Complete offers all three versions plus demos, solidifying it as an essential punk document.

The reasons for pairing Bush Tetras with Richard Hell should be pretty clear. There’s geography for one, specifically NYC. There’s genre for another. Sure, Hell is a cornerstone of the First Wave while Bush Tetras are rightly tagged as belonging to the No Wave, but from my perspective, and not to get all Billy Joel up in here, it’s all punk rock to me.

And yet, there is another less obvious reason for coupling Hell and Bush Tetras, and it has to do with beating the odds. Hell did it by not only not screwing the qualitative pooch when altering a record that was long-ensconced in punk history, but actually improving its stature overall. And Rhythm and Paranoia illuminates how Bush Tetras beat the odds over the span of decades by reuniting twice without a trace of crappiness either time. And magnifying the longshot nature of their endeavors, the sound of Bush Tetras evolved significantly, meaning they always sounded like a contemporary band, never a nostalgia act. RIP to Bush Tetras drummer Dee Pop, who passed in his sleep on October 9.

4. Kazuki Tomokawa, 1975–1977 (Blank Forms) + V/A, The Harmonic Series II (Important) 1975–1977 is a 3CD set collecting three LPs, Finally, His First Album (1975), Straight from the Throat (’76), and A String of Paper Cranes Clenched Between My Teeth (’77), all originally issued by Harvest Records (note: not the UK Harvest Records) and all to be reissued separately on vinyl by Blank Forms in 2022 (the three are available for pre-order now, with April the prospective release month as of this writing). The memoir Try Saying You’re Alive!: Kazuki Tomokawa in His Own Words is also available now in hardcover and paperback from Blank Forms Editions.

To borrow Blank Forms’ description, Tomokawa is a “poet, soothsayer, bicycle race tipster, actor, prolific drinker, self-taught guitarist, and living legend of Japanese sound,” an artist many mavens of u-ground Japan know through his extensive association with the P.S.F. label. Called the “screaming philosopher” of Japan, Tomokawa does raise the roof vocally, but importantly, only sometimes. Stylistically, he spans from folk to psych-rock to assorted varieties of pop. The vinyl reissues offer a great opportunity to own them affordably on the format, but the CD box drives home that they should be collected together, as they constitute a whole of engaging diversity. Sometimes with backing singers.

The Harmonic Series II is comprised of six long-form works in just intonation, one each per album side by Kali Malone, Duane Pitre, Catherine Lamb, Tashi Wada, Byron Westbrook, and Caterina Barbieri. It follows the first installment from 12 years hence, that one issued on CD, with both curated by Pitre. It all joins together to deliver not just a wonderful collection of sounds, but an affirmative statement on the health of an avant-garde tradition that spans back to the 1960s.

Well, further than that, much further than that, to be sure. It was the early ’60s when just intonation began to have an impact on happenings in New York City (woven into the story of the Velvet Underground, subject of one of the best documentaries, on music or otherwise, of 2021), which means that for many, the story (the drone) starts right there. That’s wrong, but enough, as this digression does disservice to the brilliance spanning across The Harmonic Series II, from the pipe organ and bass clarinet in Malone’s piece, the “unknown instrumentation” in Pitre’s, the eight violins in Wada’s, and the varied use of synthesizers in Lamb’s, Westbrook’s, and Barbieri’s. The range is as wide as the pieces are unified.

3. Charles Mingus, Mingus at Carnegie Hall Deluxe Edition (Rhino / Atlantic) + Bola Sete, Samba in Seattle : Live at the Penthouse, 1966-1968 (Tompkins Square) As someone who was seven years old when Charles Mingus died, it once registered as strange that there were periods where the music of this 20th century giant was considered somewhat passé. This way of thinking is fucked, of course. But here’s the thing: the music, from the 1950s forward, just kept steadily evolving. Yes, there were some lean years and a few stumbles, but the reason for the ebb and flow of esteem relates to Mingus never playing straight hard bop or jumping into and then back out of Fire Music, or having an electric period.

The contributors to Mingus at Carnegie Hall range from the avant-garde (baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett) to solidly inside (trumpeter Jon Faddis, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson), to Mingus vets (drummer Dannie Richmond, tenor and alto saxophonist John Handy, that beautiful iconoclast Rahsaan Roland Kirk) to vital inside-outside contributors to the bassist-composer’s band as it was concurrently developing in studios (tenor saxophonist George Adams and pianist Don Pullen), but the sound is never out of sync, as they are all united in the playing of Charles Mingus’ music, which encompassed it all, and therefore was never really out of fashion and in reality comprised a category unto itself.

The cult status of Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete has always been a little difficult for me to fathom. In many other instances, the “cult” designation is another way of saying acquired taste, but that doesn’t fit with Sete, who collaborated with pianist Vince Guaraldi and Dizzy Gillespie, neither of whom is known for hanging out on the musical fringes (while acknowledging Gillespie’s indispensable contribution to the avant-garde music known as bebop). And listening to Samba in Seattle’s three CDs reinforces the thoroughly inviting nature of Sete’s music, heard here with bassist Sebastião Neto and drummer Paulinho Magalhães, and additionally underscored by the performance nature of the 29 selections.

The group dishes out a sweet version of “Girl From Ipanema” for crying out loud, so it should be clear Samba in Seattle is an welcoming time. Produced by Zev Feldman (who’s nicknamed the Jazz Detective), the presentation is similar to his sets for the Resonance label, gathering authoritative insight (here in an essay by critic Greg Casseus aka Greg Caz) plus written contributions from musicians (Carlos Santana, Lalo Schifrin, John Fahey) and even the guitarist’s widow Anne Sete. But the music is the main thing, and many a delightful day or evening will be spent after acquiring this set. Tompkins Square’s involvement makes total sense given the label’s focus on guitar and particularly on another cult icon, Duck Baker.

2. Laura Nyro, American Dreamer (Madfish / Snapper Music) + Anthony Braxton, Quartet Standards 2020 (New Braxton House) From a retrospective standpoint, Laura Nyro has had a pretty good year, with Omnivore Recordings issuing both Go Find The Moon (The Audition Tape), a fascinating document predating the release of her first album (playing for A&R man Artie Mogull and producer Milt Okun), and Trees of the Ages: Laura Nyro Live in Japan, the title of which should be self-explanatory as the recordings date from the other end of her career, specifically 1994. American Dreamer collects the achievements that fell in between, eight albums that highlight Nyro as another cult figure who’s highly accessible, in large part due to the pop classicism at the root of her material.

Beginning with More Than a New Discovery (1967), it’s followed by Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (’68), New York Tendaberry (’69), Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (’70), Gonna Take a Miracle (’71), Smile (’76), and Nested (’78), plus an LP of rarities and live stuff. For folks (like me) who already own clean-playing copies of nearly all these records, American Dreamer isn’t a great value, but my esteem for it remains high due to how it concentrates the vast majority of her work in one place. This is a worthwhile thing, mainly because Nyro has never been the recipient of the lavish big label retro hype treatment, even as her oeuvre utterly outclasses so many others of undeservedly higher profile.

Even in jazz, where discographies regularly get prodigious, Anthony Braxton stands out, in part because his output doesn’t just consist of an unrelenting stream of albums, but is dominated in his late career (he is a teacher as well as an instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader) by clusters of multidisc collections. This isn’t any kind of new development, as the 9CD+DVD 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 was a jaw-dropper back in 2007, but the dominance of box sets has only increased since the formation of the label New Braxton House. And Braxton’s prolificacy is even more remarkable due to his persevering focus on original material of great complexity and reward, often for large ensembles.

But as the 11CD Quartet Standards 2020 clarifies, he’s not averse to getting deep into the Songbook, the Modern Jazz repertoire, and on this set, three from Paul Simon. It’s been that way for a long time (not the Simon songs), e.g. the two In the Tradition volumes (1974), sitting in with Dave Brubeck on All the Things You Are (’76), Seven Standards (1985), Vols. 1 & 2, (’85) and numerous others, including a handful devoted to Charlie Parker. Documenting a European tour from January of last year, Quartet Standards 2020 features Alexander Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass, and Stephen Davis on drums. The sound is often nearer to free-bop than a few of the releases listed above, and that’s totally fine.

1. V/A, R&B in DC 1940–1960: Rhythm & Blues, Doo Wop, Rockin’ Rhythm and more… (Bear Family) + Harry Bertoia, Sonambient (Third Man) Although there was a time where Bear Family functioned a bit like a German equivalent to the Ace label of the UK (but with a wider stylistic reach, perhaps), the company has slowly evolved and is now justly celebrated for their lovingly compiled and lavishly designed box sets, with the 10CD The Sun Blues Box from back in 2013 a particular favorite. Upon consideration, it feels right to say that Bear Family’s output is right up there in quality with the output of the Mosaic label.

Researched and compiled with extensive notes by Jay Bruder, R&B in DC is a revelation, one that is absolutely brimming with high quality sounds, 16 CDs’ worth in fact. Lots of disc cutting took place in DC during these two decades, and yet the nation’s capital wasn’t considered a major recording center, partly because much (but certainly not all) of the music was put out by non-DC labels (e.g. Atlantic and Chess). This means much of the material here is appealingly tough instrumentally, with the vocal groups (and there are many) favoring oomph over the saccharine. This set is a thorough corrective to the notion that DC’s music scene didn’t start shaking until the emergence of bluegrass, go-go, and punk rock.

Born in Italy in 1915, Harry Bertoia moved to Detroit at age 15 and remained in the US until his death in 1978. His early career included teaching jewelry design and working with metal, and when metal was scarce during WWII, he became a graphics instructor. After the war, he moved to Pennsylvania to work at the design company of Hans and Florence Knoll, where the chairs he designed were quite a hit and are indeed still celebrated today: in 2005, his asymmetrical chaise longue was introduced at the Milan Furniture Fair and immediately sold out. Indeed, his design work was successful enough that a lump sum payment was arranged in the 1950s that allowed Bertoia to devote himself entirely to sculpture.

In his creations (he completed over 50 commissions), sound was an integral component, with Sonambient the term he coined to describe the sound and environments of his sculptures. He also conducted sculpture concerts and in the 1970s released a run of 11 LPs, all titled Sonambient, one in ’70 and then ten more in a quick burst in the last months of his life in ’78. The sounds are simply exquisite; his gongs alone are like the insides of a grandfather clock striking one o’clock in the land of the giants. There are also bell-like tones and a plethora of extended resonances that conjure images of huge rods.

This boxed edition of the 11 Sonambient LPs is exactly the type of vinyl reissue that deserves celebrating in 2021. It’s ambitious, atypical, and inspired. It’s also already listed as sold out in Third Man’s store, which can be discouraging (hopefully there will be another edition), but please note that copies of Important Records’ 11CD set, which came out in 2016, are still available, a package so beautifully designed (in the tradition of Bertoia) that it won’t feel like a consolation.

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