According to crazy people, next year will see the wholesale demise of compact discs as well as the heroic efforts of Jon Cusack saving the world from cataclysmic disaster. With that in mind, you’d think the year’s crop of reissues, box sets and other catalogue sets would be wildly disappointing. In fact, they managed to improve upon what wasn’t too shabby a year before. It felt like a week could not go by without reporting on some sort of vintage-oriented title, and with 2012 fast approaching, the time has come to tick off some of the best and the brightest – arranged in no order but alphabetically.
The Beach Boys, The SMiLE Sessions (Capitol)
It’s still hard to believe it’s legally possible to buy a set of material from The Beach Boys’ fabled unreleased album, the heartbreaking turning point for a band that should have had more years of transcendent pop music in them. Debate its merits as much as you want: at five CDs and a handful of vinyl, it’ll strike some as too comprehensive or too much like Brian Wilson’s completed solo version of SMiLE from 2004. But in an era where it seems all the surprises are uncovered in the music world, this box set has plenty of rich rewards.
Ben Folds, The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective (Epic/Legacy)
Any Ben Folds fan who feels like they’ve been tested lately – the a capella record, a just-okay album co-written by author Nick Hornby, The Sing-Off - can count this as a reward. This set, with its three discs of greatest hits, studio rarities, unreleased gems and newly-recorded tracks with Ben Folds Five, is a treat for either a casual fan with money to spend or Folds fans who feel like they already have everything, even the lesser works.
Michael Giacchino, Up: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack (Walt Disney Records/Intrada)
For film score nerds, this was one of the most exciting surprises in a year full of them. Giacchino’s highly emotional score for the 2009 Disney/Pixar yarn gave the busy composer his first, deserved Oscar – but the only way you could the score to your collection was by downloading compressed files through iTunes. When Disney made the bold decision to partner with Intrada to release soundtrack gems from their vaults – a surprising move, as Disney often operates alone - Up was a perfect first title to release, and the retro-inspired packaging, loaded with hand-drawn artwork and mocked up to look like a Disney LP from the 1960s, added the perfect garnish to what is a near-perfect soundtrack.
Jerry Goldsmith, Gremlins: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Film Score Monthly/Retrograde)
As film soundtracks go, this one may be the prize of the year: every note of Goldsmith’s delightfully catchy score to the 1984 horror-comedy on one disc, and the original (if short) soundtrack LP on another disc, featuring rare, danceable tracks by Michael Sembello and Peter Gabriel. The excellent Film Score Monthly label, which has been rescuing major and forgotten soundtracks from the dustbins of history and releasing them on CD for over 15 years, is retiring in 2012 after the release of its 250th title. While their absence will leave a major hole in the soundtrack reissue field, it’s to FSM’s credit that they could save Gremlins from mothballs – a fate worse than feeding a Mogwai after midnight.
Michael Jackson, Immortal (Epic)
It could have easily been the Third Annual Thin-Gruel Resurrection of the Michael Jackson Legend, but the Immortal album – the soundtrack to the new Cirque du Soleil show of the same name – does some fun things with Jackson’s catalogue, both the biggest Motown and Epic-era hits you’ve heard a million times and a fair sample of fun deeper cuts (“Working Day and Night,” “This Place Hotel,” “Is It Scary”). The remix-and-mash-up formula will never work as sublimely as it did on The Beatles’ LOVE, but Immortal is the perfect antidote to the fatigue of hearing the King of Pop’s hits paraded about in the same fashion.
Nick Lowe, Labour of Lust (Yep Roc)
Some of the best reissues aren’t necessarily those laden with extra packaging and tons of other incentives. This release of Nick Lowe’s 1979 is low on frills, but as an album largely unavailable for the better part of two decades despite its one major hit single, it’s worth the rediscovery. And Labour of Lust is every bit as great as its more recognizable contemporaries (Elvis Costello and The Attractions’ Armed Forces, Dave Edmunds’ Repeat When Necessary).
Material Issue, International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition (Mercury/Hip-O Select)
This year saw a couple of really obvious 20th anniversary reissues (Nirvana’s Nevermind, U2′s Achtung Baby) and a few that prompted some extreme head-scratching (Spin Doctors’ Pocketful of Kryptonite). Perhaps the best was one that got lost in the shuffle when it was first released. International Pop Overthrow, by Chicago power-pop trio Material Issue, couldn’t beat grunge music on the charts, but this carefree, hook-laden debut, expanded with a bevy of rare and unreleased bonus tracks, might be more of a fun listen than their contemporaries. I love Ten and Badmotorfinger as much as the next guy, but those albums don’t have the same biking-down-a-hill-in-summer-with-the-prettiest-girl-you’ve-ever-met vibe that this one has in spades.
George Michael, Faith: Legacy Edition (Columbia/Legacy)
This expansion of George Michael’s stellar 1987 solo debut, one of the best pop albums of the decade by far, would have been one of the top reissues of last year had the singer not been arrested for driving under the influence of drugs, prompting the set’s delays. It’s kind of funny: all of Michael’s troubles haven’t diluted the impact of this gritty, sexy, funky, earnest album one whit, and the added bonuses in the expanded release – some great live covers, that catchy single mix of “Monkey,” a great interview with Jonathan Ross where he sounds infinitely smarter than any 24-year-old pop singer in history – only enhance the value of an already valuable set.
The Motels, Apocalypso (Omnivore Recordings)
It’s one of the great what-ifs in New Wave history: California-based band The Motels receive a firm rejection from Capitol Records for their dark fourth album, Apocalypso, in 1981. A year later, the largely-retooled material is released as All Four One and receives critical and commercial acclaim, largely off the back of Top 10 hit “Only the Lonely.” The great new Omnivore label rescued the original tracks and presented them altogether for the first time (many of them making their CD debut). While Capitol’s instincts were right (hey, when’s the last time anyone’s typed that?), this raw collection is one of the better alternate-history albums of the year.
Queen, 40th Anniversary Remasters (Hollywood (U.S.)/Island (U.K.))
Anyone who’s wanted to improve their Queen collection over the years hasn’t gotten much of a fair shake. For Americans, it’s been the same few reissued compilations, the early-’90s pressings of the old albums (the ones with the awful remixes as bonus tracks) having long fallen by the wayside. (The less said about Queen + Paul Rodgers, of course, the better.) This year, all of Queen’s studio albums got the treatment they deserve, all augmented with bonus EPs featuring non-LP B-sides, remixes, studio outtakes and live material. And it’s also one of those worthy instances where it’s a worthy upgrade for Bob Ludwig’s remastering job – assuming you haven’t given up and migrated exclusively to compressed digital files and all that.
R.E.M., Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage 1982-2011 (Warner Bros.)
Much of the music-geek collective went from shaking their heads over every R.E.M. album since Up to mourning them openly when they split for good in September. The coda to their iconic run was another greatest-hits set spanning, for the first time, both their popular years at Warner Bros. and their early days as the quirky, melodic gem in the I.R.S. Records crown. Pick apart the track list all you want – “New Test Leper” and “Shiny Happy People” over “Bang and Blame” or “Begin the Begin”? – but there’s no avoiding the fact that this may be the best introduction to a truly important American band you can buy. Worried that the kids aren’t getting enough good rock music in their diet? Drop the $15 and put this in their stockings.
Various Artists, Phil Spector Presents The Philles Album Collection (Phil Spector Records/Legacy)
Any serious pop music collector/box set aficionado counts 1991′s Back to Mono as a major touchstone and a one-stop shop for Spector’s “teenage symphonies” for The Ronettes, The Crystals, Darlene Love and countless other groups. There’s a huge amount of overlap between that box and this new seven-disc collection of original Philles Records albums on CD – admittedly, there’s a lot of overlap between this new box on its own, as the albums frequently recycled content – but it’s a treat to have the hits and lesser-known album cuts (plus a disc of delightfully junky, avant-garde studio snippets released as B-sides) in a box that chooses to focus on when Spector was a good kind of crazy.