Are major and indie labels getting smarter and more ambitious about what to re-release and how to release it? Are aging hipsters and Gen-Xers, with their considerable gobs of disposable income, more apt to re-buy the same seminal albums they grew up with, plus a bonus disc of rarities and outtakes? Yes and yes – and yet, none of those are solely why catalogue music is more robust than ever.
2012 has seen a lot of catalogue titles that seem too big for the modern music business. Thanks to sites like U.K. blog SuperDeluxeEdition, value-added packaging and other flights of consumer fancy are more fetishized over now than when I first took serious notice of the trend. But what most deluxe packaging sometimes hides is music that, whether it’s 10 years old or 30, merits critical discussion at all times. As long as there is iconic popular music and people with ears to discover (or rediscover) it, that’s the reason to keep on the reissue beat.
With no further ado, we present the best catalogue titles of the year, as always arranged in no order but alphabetically by artist.
The (English) Beat, The Complete Beat (Shout! Factory)
No longer doomed to spin their wheels in ‘80s throwback compilation hell, Shout! Factory compiled just about all of The English Beat’s discography you might ever want: their three studio albums, B-sides, remixes and BBC sessions across five discs. What you’ll find is a British ska band that had a way with their genre, adding punchy sax riffs and rhythm-heavy boosts to a clutch of surprisingly smart (and occasionally political) tunes. “Save It for Later” may be the ‘80s most underrated pop song/dick joke combination.
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Big Country, The Crossing: 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Polydor/UMC)
In an alternate universe, U2’s War was at best a cult hit, and the other major Steve Lillywhite production of 1983, Big Country’s debut The Crossing, became the Scottish band’s breakthrough. It’d be worth it alone for tracks like “In a Big Country” and “Chance,” which ring with gorgeous guitar figures and gutting lyrics of loss and undying hope. If you’re a fan, it’s worth dropping a few clams on this U.K. deluxe edition, which features all the original non-LP B-sides plus a bonus disc of unreleased demos and early takes.
The Fat Boys, The Fat Boys: Deluxe Edition (Tin Pan Apple)
Back when hip-hop seemed to the outside world like a gimmick, there was perhaps nothing funnier than three heavyset dudes from Brooklyn trading verses about rhyming and snacking over appealingly low-fidelity breaks. Peel back the novelty, though, and you’ve got a trio of unsung architects about how the genre would sound – particularly thanks to the efforts of Darren “Buff Love” Robinson, the Human Beat Box and one of the first of his kind on record. So Tin Pan Apple puts the album on CD for the first time, adding rare tracks and unreleased interviews – but they don’t forget the novelty, putting a pizza on the disc label and enclosing it in a tiny cardboard pizza box, arguably the second best packaging of the year. (The best would be the Record Store Day-exclusive picture vinyl version, packed in a full-size box.)
Peter Gabriel, So: Immersion Box Set (Real World)
Let’s get the negatives out of the way: this So box lacks all of the original B-sides and dance remixes that appeared on the album’s hit singles, nor the killer videos to songs like “Sledgehammer” and “Don’t Give Up.” It does, however, include three extra CDs of bonus content, including a fascinating “DNA” disc that chronologically strings together various demos and rough takes of each song on the album and a live show from Athens in 1987. There’s also two DVDs, including an insightful Classic Albums documentary on the making of the album and its impact on Gabriel’s career. Then there’s the heavyweight vinyl remaster, and the beautifully designed hardcover book of liner notes. Oh, and did I mention one of the best albums of the decade? Gabriel’s stunningly accessible LP, from the opening hi-hat of “Red Rain” to the last beautiful wail of Youssou N’Dour on “In Your Eyes,” made pop music with the same kind of sonic palette as Paul Simon’s Graceland that same year – but as strong as that album is, it’s So that really has its finger on the pulse of something beautiful.
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Jerry Goldsmith, Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Deluxe Edition (La-La Land)
“There is no comparison,” boasted the poster to 1979’s first-ever film continuation of Gene Roddenberry’s iconic sci-fi series. And while Star Trek: The Motion Picture felt more like an extended episode of that show than a cinematic event (it would take another three years for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to step up the game), it provided renowned composer Jerry Goldsmith with one of the prettiest canvases to create a soundtrack for. The rollicking main theme became part of Trek‘s firmament – not only utilized on four more Goldsmith-penned soundtracks for the series but as the main theme to the excellent Star Trek: The Next Generation – and Goldsmith’s lushly romantic music (with tasteful use of primitive synthesizers) expanded upon the sci-fi template that John Williams had created with Star Wars two years prior. La-La Land’s triple-disc set features the complete score to the film, a generous helping of alternate takes and early arrangements, the original soundtrack LP presentation and even a couple of wacky novelties (Bob “Angela (Theme from Taxi)” Davis leading a disco arrangement of the main theme, Shaun Cassidy’s Japan-only single written to the love theme from the movie). There is no comparison, indeed.
Michael Jackson, Bad 25 (Epic/Legacy)
Like some of the best reissues this year, Bad 25 is a powerful destroyer of a lazy music history narrative: that MJ’s output after putting out the biggest album of all time was overblown and overrated, even with five consecutive chart-toppers spun from 1987’s follow-up to Thriller. Bad is finally given its own spotlight, with a bonus disc of semi-finished demos that blows away anything released on 2010’s posthumous Michael compilation and, if you buy the affordable box set version, a live CD and DVD of Jackson at London’s Wembley Stadium in the summer of 1988 (arguably the best document of The King of Pop as a stage entertainer on the market). For those of you waiting patiently for proof that Bad is easily as good as its predecessor, the wait is finally over.
Katy Perry, Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection (Capitol)
Is Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection the ultimate example of squeezing blood from a stone? Of course – the notion that the album needed more mileage after selling two million copies and spawning five consecutive No. 1 singles (only the second album to do so after Michael Jackson’s Bad) is patently absurd. But if you were slow to catch on to Perry’s hypercolor, Dr. Luke-produced pop tunes, The Complete Confection offers plenty of reasons to do so, including those hit singles (my personal favorite being the title track), a few remixes making their physical media debut (Kanye West and Missy Elliott drop verses for “E.T.” and “Last Friday Night (TGIF),” respectively) and a few new tracks, including “Wide Awake,” one of the most shamelessly entertaining pop ballads of the year.
Paul Simon, Graceland: 25th Anniversary Edition (Legacy)
From the first of Bakithi Kumalo’s rubbery basslines, it seemed like Graceland was unlike anything Paul Simon had released before, packed with international influences and collaborators from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Los Lobos. But Simon’s gift is his ability to tell the sort of stories he excels at – stories of pairings, splits, loss and redemption – and tie them into a musical patchwork that rewards with every spin. The box set only underlines that masterwork, with a new documentary, Under African Skies, bringing Simon back to the allies and obstacles he confronted putting the album together in apartheid-damaged South Africa a quarter century ago.
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For a young listener, the best reissues are often those that help you discover an artist as much as rediscover them. Case in point: Sugar, Bob Mould’s other famous band. While the band’s three albums can often be found lining cutout bins in U.S. record stores, U.K. label Edsel gave all these albums the red-carpet treatment, adding B-sides, rare and unreleased live shows and videos from the vault. It’s a heaping helping of Sugar, but seeing as how Mould’s blend of Husker Du-esque punk, eminently hummable power-pop and post-grunge sonic sensibilities were unfairly ignored in the first place, perhaps too much is just enough. The fantastic Copper Blue, an album equally ready to incite mindless pit dancing and dreamlike trance states, is a great place to start if you’re clamoring for something beyond the ’90s rock pantheon.
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Earl Van Dyke, The Motown Sound: The Complete Albums and More (Hip-O Select/Motown)
Any self-respecting practitioner of pop music doubtlessly knows the Motown catalogue forward, backward, inverted and sideways. Even still, it’s a treat when the keepers of the label’s famed vaults manage to breathe new life into those timeless chestnuts. To that end, Hip-O Select offered The Motown Sound, a double-disc collection from a seemingly obscure act on the label – “Earl Van Dyke and The Soul Brothers” – who were in fact The Funk Brothers, that untouchable backing band behind every major single recorded at Motown’s original headquarters on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. These original backing tracks of tunes like “My Girl,” “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Come See About Me” feature wild solos by keyboardist Van Dyke, and a later live album included in full on the package features covers of “My Cherie Amour” and “Someday We’ll Be Together” plus non-Motown tunes from “Witchita Lineman” to “Stand by Me.”
Various Artists, Athens, GA. – Inside/Out (Omnivore)
The geography of music is a fascinating thing. Whole states separate Motown and Stax, and one label couldn’t have flourished where the other stood. Seattle was the epicenter of the grunge explosion. And, if you liked left-of-center, ringing pop/rock in the 1980s, Athens, Georgia seemed to be your place. Not only did R.E.M. flourish, but so did The B-52′s, the brief brush with success of Pylon, and a host of others that, while not commercially influential, live on as part of the documentary Athens, GA. – Inside/Out. Omnivore Records has released a CD/DVD edition which may be the definitive release of the film, adding a generous amount of special features and also remastering and expanding the original I.R.S. Records soundtrack, which featured stripped down and live takes of some of the most notable songs by the bands featured therein.
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John Williams, Hook: Expanded Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (La-La Land Records)
By 1991, Williams’ ongoing collaboration with director Steven Spielberg had won him two Oscars and another five nominations. But the composer, almost 60 when he wrote the music to Spielberg’s candy-coated continuation of the Peter Pan mythology, wasn’t ready to rest on his laurels. The richly thematic score to Hook may be the best aspect of an overlong, strangely cynical kids’ movie, with a whimsical style that predicted Williams’ work on the Harry Potter series a decade later. La-La Land’s double-disc presentation features just about every note heard in the film, and doubles the length of the original soundtrack CD released over two decades ago. It’s worth it for the climactic “Ultimate War” cues – nearly 20 continuous minutes of riveting themes and variations joined together in one of Williams’ most dexterous acts of film composition.
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