Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2021’s Reissues, Part One

Shifting attention from the big box sets and multi-LP releases toward (mostly) scaled-down reissues and archival material only expands the pool of worthiness. This list, thematically paired and then broken into two parts, was pared down from a collection of candidates substantially longer and attractively massive, even as it excluded all the stuff that still remains unheard. Although agonizing (sweetly so, as outstanding music is the focus here), decisions just had to be made. Here are some of them.

10. The Raybeats, The Lost Philip Glass Sessions (Ramp Local) + 4 Mars, Super Somali Sounds From the Gulf of Tadjoura (Ostinato) For those digging the Bush Tetras collection Rhythm and Paranoia (which made TVD’s list of 2021’s Best Box Sets), The Lost Philip Glass Sessions serves as a pretty nifty companion, as the bands were part of the same scene (the post-no wave scene, don’tcha know), and indeed, they were both featured on Stiff Records’ Start Swimming compilation in 1981.

For these seven tracks The Raybeats’ core consisted of Don Christensen, Pat Irwin, and Jody Harris (Raybeat Danny Amis figures on two tracks, while Gene Holder helps out on bass and Michael Riesman and producer Glass play keyboards). The sound messes around with a retro sensibility (Link Wray’s “Jack the Ripper” gets covered) that results in a datedness that Bush Tetras never displayed, but that’s alright, as “Pack of Camels” has a feel that’s in the ballpark of the B-52’s (who Irwin eventually played with for a long stretch). It’s the instrumental “Black Beach” that really illuminates Glass’ involvement, and is an appealingly unusual addition to what’s largely a party record.

A groove powerhouse, 4 Mars has undoubtedly heightened many a party, with their music uncovered for non-Somali listeners when Ostinato Records was granted access to the Archives of Radiodiffusion-Télévision de Djibouti, or RTD. First heard through a track on Sweet as Broken Dates, Ostinato’s superb compilation devoted to Somali brilliance that was released in 2017, 4 Mars was a band in the ballpark of 40 members tapped to encourage unity by the political party in charge of the young nation’s independence from France. Super Somali Sounds From the Gulf of Tadjoura is the first volume in the label’s Djibouti Archives series, and to describe it as an eye-opener is an understatement.

It’s also a sheer pleasure for the ear. As established on Sweet as Broken Dates, the region of East Africa represented on these comps was for centuries a major trading hub, which also meant cultural exchange. 4 Mars taps into Jamaica (lots of reggae rhythms), India (definite Bollywood vibes), and the USA (soul, R&B, and funk elements), plus, per Ostinato’s typically excellent notes for the set, influences derived from Turkey, China, Mongolia, and Yemen. But maybe my favorite aspect is the wicked-ass psych guitar solo in “Abaal (Gratitude).” Then again, the accordions are also downright swank. Decisions!

9. V/A, Cumbia Cumbia 1 & 2 (World Circuit) + V/A, Cuba: Music and Revolution Vols. 1 & 2 (Soul Jazz) World Circuit, for decades now one of the our most reliable labels in pursuit of global sounds, released the Cumbia Cumbia LP way back in 1989 and then followed it up with Cumbia Cumbia 2 in ’93, both sets archival as the music was sourced from Columbia’s Discos Fuentes label from ’54-’88. Then, in 2012, they were combined into a single whopper of a volume.

That edition fell out of print right quick, as anyone familiar with the sound of cumbia is likely to understand. Here it is again, a wholly deserving fresh edition, an absolute cornucopia of subtle instrumental variations (allowing for extended and repeated listening to roughly 90 minutes of music), and not a trace of declining quality as the tracks of more recent vintage enter the scheme. But it surely doesn’t hurt that the balance of the set is weighted toward the ’50s-’60s. Please understand that this stuff just doesn’t quit.

These Soul Jazz Cuba comps, both compiled by Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker, are also numerically designated but were released separately, one early in 2021 and the other late (and as each spans six sides of vinyl, they are technically expanded releases, but we’ll not dwell on that). The combined selections, 45 in all, offer a wide sound spectrum but also continuity, as a handful of artists and groups are featured on both volumes.

If Cumbia Cumbia 1 & 2 thrives on the warmth of classic ensembles at their creative peak, the Cuba sets are as advertised about transitions and new possibilities, with Culture Clash in Havana Cuba: Experiments in Latin Music 1975-85 completing the title of both volumes. While the contents regularly engage with assorted popular genres, what’s refreshing is the absence of trend chasing. Never is there a sense of desperation, but instead a constant stream of broken ground.

8. Baligh Hamdi, Modal Instrumental Pop of 1970s Egypt (Sublime Frequencies) + Phương Tâm, Magical Nights: Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul (1964-1966) (Sublime Frequencies) This Seattle-based label remains amongst the very best globally focused archival endeavors on the planet, in part because their tirelessness gets enhanced by a healthy range of interest. Of all the label’s 2021 releases to have positively impacted my consciousness (and I’ll admit that I haven’t heard it all, as they put out a lot of stuff this year), these two sets made me happiest.

Modal Instrumental Pop of 1970s Egypt is a revelation, with composer-bandleader Baligh Hamdi a groundbreaker in stylistic terms, blending elements of jazz, exotica, psychedelia, and Arabic music with wholly fulfilling results. Sitars, saxophones, flutes, electric guitars, strings, organs, and accordions abound (there’s even a Theremin), with the instrumentation soaring because the writing is never hacky. If structurally solid in its modernizing objectives, the aura of Egypt is still mighty strong.

Magical Nights: Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul (1964-1966) offers 25 tracks by Phương Tâm, a Vietnamese teen singer whose talents ranged from rough-edged raw-throated rock & roll belting to sophisticated, jazzy pop. Of the numerous treats of this set, maybe the biggest, along with the sharp non-polish of the sounds of course, is the absorbing personal stories involved, which are heartwarming and a nice corrective to the notion, so often incorrect, that diligent archival research equates to unhealthy obsessiveness. We’re enriching lives here, people.

7. Joseph Spence, Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing (Smithsonian Folkways) + O.V. Wright, A Nickel and a Nail and Ace of Spades (Real Gone) As should be clear by glancing directly above (and by checking out TVD’s Best Box Sets and expanded reissues list), many of the entries are by musicians hitherto unheard of by the vast majority of listeners receptive to their endeavors. They are works of new discovery, essentially.

But it’s also a downright sweet circumstance when previously unreleased music is released from a band or an artist whose discography has long been considered essentially finalized. And that’s the specific scenario with Encore, which offers unheard archival performance recordings by the one-of-a-kind Bahaman guitarist Joseph Spence. The flowing yet palatably thorny infectiousness of style encourages repeated spins of his LPs, so that their contents can become embedded in the memory over time. And so, to get this fresh serving of Spence in his prime circa 1965 (with contributions from Edith Pinder and the Pindar Family), was a fantastic surprise in an often troublesome year.

It’s also nice to just get a fresh edition of a classic, particularly one that hasn’t been subject to decades-long overexposure. That’s the case with A Nickel and a Nail and Ace of Spades from southern soul titan O.V. Wright, an album that’s not at all affordable in its original 1971 edition on Back Beat Records, and also an LP that has taken an underserved back seat to other soul albums from the era.

It’s not immediately clear why this set isn’t as beloved as releases by others from the same approximate time and place, particularly as it was produced by Willie Mitchell and features the Hi Records Rhythm Section and the Memphis Horns. I suspect it has something to do with the cover design, for which the term low-budget is frankly inadequate. But I will offer that the sleeve art is at least memorable. And the music, most importantly, was made with the utmost care. Bottom line: fans of Al Green who don’t know this record have an appointment with soul excellence in their future. Don’t be late.

6. Maximum Joy, “Stretch” b/w “Silent Street – Silent Dub” (1972) + The Gordons, S/T & “Future Shock” EP (1972) For reasons that shouldn’t be difficult to fathom, singles don’t often appear in these yearly lists of the best reissues (or new releases, for that matter). Not even 12-inch singles, of which Maximum Joy’s is one. What’s the deal? Well, for starters, the two long tracks on this one deliver vivid portraiture of the UK post-punk scene circa 1981, in microcosm.

That is, Maximum Joy is in consort with The Slits, The Pop Group (of which there are deeper associations), The Raincoats, Gang of Four, Delta 5, and Adrian Sherwood, who produced the band’s debut album Station M.X.J.Y. from the following year, which 1972 already reissued in 2020. Originally on Y Records in the UK, the US edition was on 99 Records, so folks into the NYC post-no wave thing should saunter right up to this one. In summation, the band’s name is what I feel whenever Janine Rainforth screams.

When the subject shifts to the early days of the Flying Nun label, the conversation tends to be dominated by four names: The Chills, The Clean, The Verlaines, and Tall Dwarfs. Too seldom does the discussion turn toward the general magnificence of The Gordons, and when it does, it’s often merely to mention that they eventually morphed into the band Bailter Space.

One might not think this an egregious oversight until hearing this debut EP and its follow-up full-length, originally released by Flying Nun in 1980 and ’81 respectively and previously reissued separately by that label, but here combined into a single package, a smart move by 1972, as it’s hard to imagine there are many (newly interested parties, that is) who’d want one but not the other. The reality is that The Gordons were heavy in a way that stood apart from their abovementioned Flying Nun contemporaries, as they’ve been occasionally compared to Sonic Youth (as was Bailter Space later). Together or separate, these releases are an indispensable part of any underground rock collection.

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