Every day until New Year’s Eve we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. Since new music doesn’t sell like it used to, labels are repackaging and remastering just about every classic album ever made. Our panel of music writers nominated 73 different reissues, best-of collections and box sets, which we narrowed down to 10 absolute must-haves.
10. Paul Kelly – Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits: Songs from the South, Volumes 1 & 2
It would be an audacious tour for any musician: One hundred and five songs in each venue, ordered alphabetically, performed over the course of four nights and stripped to their simplest acoustic presentation. Few songwriters have a catalog that could sustain it, and few performers have the chops to keep the sound of just guitar and voice from slipping into tedium. Australia’s favorite songwriter, Paul Kelly, has been touring on and off with this format since 2005, and he’s chronicled the shows with his new release, The A to Z Recordings. Weighing in at eight CDs—six and a half hours of unplugged live performances—a release of this scope is going to be either a self-indulgent miasma, or a celebration. For those that have been following Kelly’s 30-year career, it’s no surprise that this project is the latter.—Daren Wang
9. The Rolling Stones – Some Girls
In 1978, with their reputation starting to dwindle among music critics, and punk rock threatening to eliminate any cultural significance they had left, The Rolling Stones released Some Girls. Overloaded with the sex-fueled swagger that they’d built their sound around from the beginning and showcasing new influences from dance music and even the punks that were gunning for them, the record was both a staggering return to form and an inspired leap forward for a band generally thought to be in their twilight years of creativity. It was their best effort since the undisputable Exile on Main St. and their last great album to date. But even more fun than listening to the revved up version of album cuts is sifting through the 12 unreleased songs included.—Charlie Duerr
8. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon – Immersion Edition
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Pink Floyd’s eighth album not only in terms of the band’s career but in the history of British rock. Dark Side of the Moon raised them from the prog ghetto and lodged them squarely into the mainstream. Dark Side cemented an era of excess in the early 1970s, which would prompt the back-to-basics rebellion first of pub rock and then of punk rock. Yet, even 40 years later these songs still manage to transcend their genre and era and capture the imagination of subsequent generations of listeners even when they’re not cued up to The Wizard of Oz. The six-disc Immersion Edition includes that live disc, a collection of demos, a live DVD, and a DVD of alternate mixes by prog legend Alan Parsons and Jim Guthrie (who remastered the catalog for this series) is comprehensive to the point of overindulgent. —Stephen M. Deusner
7. Archers of Loaf – Icky Mettle
Archers’ gift for tense melody and slack countermelody distinguished them from their peers in the ’90s and still makes these songs sound caustic and urgent so many years later. These songs are glommed in dissonance and noise, yet reveal a skewed pop sensibility. For all their glorious bluster, these songs are complex and often eloquent—simultaneously cerebral and emotional, heady and devastating. Merge’s new remaster brings out these contrasting elements, which sound all the more abrasive and aggressive so many years later. In that regard, the second disc of early singles, b-sides and EP tracks provides a useful contrast, revealing not only the various layers of rhythm and melody intersecting furiously in each song but also the different levels of lo- and mid-fi the band mastered. Barring some future set that includes vials of the musicians’ blood, sweat, and tears, this will stand as the definitive version of Icky Mettle—an answered prayer to new and old fans that makes these songs sound startlingly present.—Stephen M. Deusner
6. Neutral Milk Hotel – Box Set
This massive vinyl-only box set adds 15 previously unreleased tracks to the band’s entire catalog via two 12” LPs, two 7” records plus a 7” picture disc and posters. It’s part of the welcome re-emergence of the reclusive Jeff Mangum, who’s releasing it himself independently through his website.