Even in a year where a lot of great new music was released, it’s still been a blast to revisit artists and albums of old through those wonderful reissues, box sets and other catalogue titles that labels love to put out in an attempt to hook fans of classic music (and, if they’re particularly lucky, entice new fans). This year has seen a stunning amount of love for catalogue music (which, if I can shamelessly mention, I’ve covered on my own blog), and it was incredibly tough to narrow the list down to a handful, let alone rank them. Here are some of the best vault titles released in 2010, in no particular order except alphabetically.
a-ha, Hunting High and Low: Deluxe Edition (Warner Bros./Rhino)
The Norwegian synth-pop trio a-ha could have broken up after the release of Hunting High and Low – and its 1985 chart-topper ”Take on Me” – and U.S. audiences would neither have noticed nor thought any less of them. Of course, they soldiered on to continuous worldwide success, culminating in a farewell tour that finished in their native Norway earlier this month. Rhino celebrated the band’s brush with American success by releasing a double-disc edition of Hunting, a stellar album from start to finish coupled with a bonus disc that not only replicates the album in demo form but adds another generous helping of unreleased material. Fans of the band may be few and far between Stateside, but a few spins of this set and you may end up being one of them.
The trend to turn one classic LP into an entire box set doesn’t show any signs of slowdown, with Bowie, The Who, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen all receiving deluxe treatment for classic albums this year. Bowie’s may be one of the best because the set is as off the wall as the source material itself is. Those who bought the deluxe box set not only got Bowie’s first great stab toward the electronic music of the ”Berlin trilogy” and a fiery live concert, but a bunch of audio artifacts that might bemuse the most devoted fan (the album as originally mastered for CD in 1985! a disc of single edits! the album mixed in 5.1 surround!). It’s a tribute in excesses, for an artist famous for excess himself.
For some reason, it’s very difficult to honor the best disco band of all time. CHIC were just snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again, most of their albums are barely in print and compilations usually recycle the same dozen songs. Warner France finally saved the day with a four-disc set (curated by CHIC guitarist/co-producer Nile Rodgers) that not only touches on the best of the band on record, but their innumerable contributions to other great dance records of the age (Sister Sledge! Debbie Harry! Diana Ross! Carly Simon!) This massive party-starter is optimistically labeled ”Volume 1″; let’s hope Volume 2 follows shortly (and with a stateside release).
If you’re an Elvis Costello superfan, you’ve probably bought all of his great early albums at least thrice. That being the case, you’ve probably run across The Attractions’ June 6, 1978 show at Hollywood High School before, having been partially released on a vinyl EP with some copies of Armed Forces and expanded on Rhino’s double-disc expansion of that record. But having the entire show in one place is a treasure, from the opening strains of ”Accidents Will Happen” on solo piano. Of the two installments of Hip-O’s ”Costello Show” live series (the other being the also oft-reissued Live at the El Mocambo, released in 2009), this is perhaps the best yet.
Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, On Tour: Deluxe Edition (Rhino Handmade)
On Tour started as a 1970 live album with a who’s who of great early 70s players – Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Bobby Whitlock and Jim Gordon – and it would have been worthy as a double-disc edition. But in box set form, collating material from no less than four shows from Delaney & Bonnie’s epic 1969 tour over four discs, it’s a fantastic primer on the late 60s British blues/soul revival.
In England, there’s been a strange amount of Duran-oriented catalogue activity in the past year; the band’s first five albums, the spin-off Arcadia album and a vintage live show have all been given CD/DVD treatment since 2009. For my money, this year’s best set was one of the band’s most underrated albums, an exercise in white-funk and slinky dance numbers (produced by Nile Rodgers, no less) that couldn’t catch on as tightly as Seven and the Ragged Tiger some three years prior. With a bonus disc of long-out-of-print remixes and a solid live EP (from one of the band’s best tours), not to mention a DVD of the band’s always-interesting music videos, this is the set to buy if you’re looking for some deeper Duran.
Bob Dylan, The Mono Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)
Some group named The Beatles proved last year that it was fun to listen to great rock albums of the 1960s in glorious monaural sound. This year, some young upstart named Bob Dylan proved it again. The Bard’s first eight albums were presented in mono on CD for the first time, and the mixes are far warmer and intimate in this setting. If kids in college dorms still had anything to believe in, one spin of this set would have the effect of two Farm Aids.
Danny Elfman, Batman: Original Motion Picture Score – Expanded Archival Collection (La-La Land Records)
One of the funniest videos I saw all year painted Tim Burton as a hacky ”visionary” crafting weird, heavily cliched tales for the silver screen. In that video, an actor played composer Danny Elfman, accurately providing a new theme for the next Burton project consisting of ”la-la-la”s and ”deedle-dee”s – a biting reminder of how safe the duo have played it for years. However, La-La Land Records reminded us this past summer that the Burton-Elfman union reached dizzying heights in its early years – primarily through the iconic score to 1989’s Batman. The La-La Land set presented the entire original score as heard in the film, featuring unreleased and unused cues, alongside the edited, original LP and another handful of bonus tracks.
The Jackson 5, Live at The Forum (Motown/Hip-o Select)
While Epic Records has taken a long time to properly honor the legacy of the late King of Pop (some would say this month’s Michael doesn’t quite cut it), Motown wasted little time in paying tribute to Michael’s early golden years with his brothers in The Jackson 5. This double album collects two striking shows at the Inglewood Forum from 1970 and 1972; both are tightly arranged, deeply funky performances that allow Michael, Jermaine and the rest plenty of room to shine on not only the hits but some choice covers (Traffic’s ”Feelin’ Alright,” Simon & Garfunkel’s ”Bridge Over Troubled Water”). The J5 achieved perfection in the studio, but this package proved they weren’t so bad in concert, either.
Bruce Springsteen, The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story (Columbia/Legacy)
A single-handed argument for keeping box sets alive in the face of digital downloading, The Promise is a six-disc chronicle of Bruce’s 1978 album: the original LP, two discs of outtakes and three DVDs or Blu-Rays including the fascinating The Promise documentary and a heaping helping of live performances old and new. There’s so much to get lost in, from the audio outtakes (studio versions of ”Fire” and ”Because the Night” are just the tip of the iceberg) to every last second of The Boss and The E-Street Band in the studio.
The State, Comedy for Gracious Living (Rhino Handmade)
This booze-fueled album from one of the best comedy troupes of the 1990s has been bootlegged before, but the official version of the album has one of the most hilariously excessive bits of packaging ever – a massive, joke-filled set of liner notes that fold out to ridiculous lengths. Of course, the album is as silly as they come, utilizing material apart from the show and featuring the talents of individuals before they were all famous (Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, David Wain, Ken Marino and Kerri Kenney-Silver, to name just five).
The Stooges, Raw Power: Legacy Edition (Columbia/Legacy)
The bonus live show included in this deluxe set includes the most telling statement about The Stooges ever uttered by anyone: an audience member, reacting to Iggy Pop’s uncontrollable antics, says, ”I don’t think he likes us.” Whether he did or not, Pop and company were capturing the spirit of punk long before it was fashionable, and that makes Raw Power a record worth your time. (Plus, the new remaster, sourced from David Bowie’s original mix, is much easier to listen to than other CD versions.)
The remastering of The Beatles’ catalogue in 2009 reminded us just how influential The Fab Four were on record. This box set, however, adds a couple of lines underneath that influence. Included is nearly everything released on the band’s short-lived Apple Records label, including albums from rock and soul greats (James Taylor, Billy Preston, Ronnie Spector, Badfinger), underrated singers and songwriters (Jackie Lomax, Doris Troy) and oddities that provide further understanding of what John, Paul, George and Ringo were into at the time (The Modern Jazz Quartet, Radha Krsna Temple). This box reaffirms that the Apple Records discography is as valuable a next step for Beatlemaniacs as the band’s subsequent solo albums.
The classic Motown period doesn’t need words to make audiences dance and party the world over, but Berry Gordy figured it couldn’t hurt to cater to other markets. The result is two discs of all your favorites as you’ve likely never heard them before: in German, Italian and Spanish. It sounds ridiculous on paper, but hearing Levi Stubbs or Stevie Wonder serenading you in any language is a thing of beauty.
It’s nothing short of miraculous when box sets unearth audio treasures that are long overdue for preservation. This 15 CD/1 DVD set is one such miracle this year: the surviving entirety of Hank Williams’ radio shows recorded for WSM-AM in the 1950s, which evaded destruction several times (having being pressed on acetate discs that were nearly thrown away, then stuck in legal entanglements for years). The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus! is perhaps the perfect way to close this list of box sets, as the kind of definitive historical account we all desire from producers and labels. May next year’s crop of box sets and reissues be as half as fruitful as these!