The resurgence of vinyl in recent years and the continued advances in mastering technology have been instrumental in the current boom time we music fans are experiencing with the reissuing of older music. It has allowed engineers like Giles Martin, son of The Beatles’ co-conspirator George Martin, to find new insights within the well-worn grooves of the Fab Four’s catalog, and it has made sure that the folks handling such monumental albums as Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West are doing so with care and delicacy. There is still that allure of the new to be found in this world of reissues as more and more labels look to canonize once ignored work or unearth some unburnished gem from the catalogs of well-known artists and imprints. All of the above is what made this list a tough one to put together. There were so many possibilities from labels big and small, and leaving off such fantastic re-releases by Charles Mingus, Haruomi Hosono and Roxy Music was a difficult decision. Still, not a bad problem to have, all told, and we’re still confident that this is a solid list of our favorite reissues of 2018. We hope that you feel the same.
10. Ursula K. Le Guin/Todd Barton – Music and Poetry of the Kesh (Freedom To Spend)
This curio from the career of famed science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin was originally released on cassette in 1985, as an accompaniment to Always Coming Home, a novel which explores the ethnography of a fictional futuristic tribe known as the Kesh through poems, plays and songs. Working with analog synth master Todd Barton, she also conceived this soundtrack album, which brings the imagined music of these characters to life and includes snippets of their poetry. These fake field recordings are, like Le Guin’s writing, gorgeous, lyrical and strange, challenging our perceptions and sending small flutters of joy from head to toe.
9. Jerry Garcia – Before The Dead (Round)
The Grateful Dead
may be the most well-documented rock act around with copious amounts of live material and rarities already released into the world, but somehow, the archivists and fans of the group still manage to unearth interesting material every time we think they’ve hit the bottom of the barrel. This five-LP set explores the career of de facto leader Jerry Garcia in the years before forming the band that would cement his legacy, a period when the San Franciscan was exploring folk, blues, gospel and bluegrass. Producers Dennis McNally and Brian Miksis go deep with this, too; all the way back to 1961 when Garcia was 18 and playing in a duo with Robert Hunter at a friend’s birthday party. The pair takes requests and harmonize over traditional classics like “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Rake and a Rambling Boy,” encouraging singalongs from the attendees of the shindig. From there, we follow Garcia through a myriad of groups and configurations, including a duo with his first wife Sara Ruppenthal Garcia and the Black Mountain Boys, an ensemble that allowed him the room to show off his fine banjo picking skills. While Miksis and McNally did a great job cleaning these recordings up for mass production (some have been available as bootlegs for some time now), the performances themselves are as blurry around the edges as any Dead live tape.
8. Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes – No. 2/Ame Debout/Paix (Anthology)
The first U.S. pressings of three albums by French vocalist Catherine Ribeiro and her oft-changing backing band Alpes feels nothing short of miraculous. Until recently, the ensemble’s work, especially on vinyl, has been incredibly hard to come by without a huge outlay of cash. The good people at Anthology have finally closed that gap for the record collectors of the States with these reissues of the group’s work from the early ‘70s, available individually or collected in a handsome boxed set that comes with a book filled with photos and remembrances from Ribeiro. The music falls into that lush valley where tributaries of traditional folk, psychedelia and avant garde rock connect. It’s there that the group’s sole permanent member Patrice Moullet and a rotating cast of musicians construct homemade instruments and an unbound approach to composition that eludes your grasp as it beckons you closer.
7. Sonny Rollins – Way Out West (Deluxe Edition) (Craft Recordings)
In March of 1957, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, on tour as a member of Max Roach’s group, was offered some time to record an album for Contemporary Recordings in California. In response, he crafted a rough concept centered on the desert land of the Golden State and his love of the cowboy films of Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. That spirit inspired not only the selection of songs like “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “Wagon Wheels,” but Rollins’s choice of instrumentation, laying down the tracks with a spare piano-free rhythm section (drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Ray Brown) that sonically evoked the wide-open spaces of the West. The 60-year-old album that came out of this one-day session, Way Out West, has been reissued on vinyl in a handsome boxed set that includes a second LP of alternate takes from the session and charming little snippets of studio banter. Sourced from the original analog tapes, the record sounds spectacular. The clear and precise work by reissue producers Nick Phillips and Mason Williams puts you as close to the music as possible; it’s as if you’re in the control room of the Contemporary Studio alongside original producer Lester Koenig. The music deserves such treatment. Rollins is in peak form cutting a line between romanticism and a jester-like spirit, and Manne and Brown cooly work against and with him.
6. Various Artists – The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions (Craft Recordings)
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Panart Studios and the record label of the same name was the epicenter for Cuban music in Havana. It was through that imprint and that recording studio that now-venerated artists like Jose Fajardo, Celia Cruz and Daniel Santos achieved their first blushes of acclaim outside the shores of their island home. At the same time, there was also some demand by American fans to capture the spirit of the late night jam sessions that went on at clubs around Havana. That’s, in part, what spurred on the release of this five volume series of albums, now being reissued in a handsome boxed set by Craft Recordings. Recorded mostly at Panart in one-off sessions, these aren’t as loose and heated as some of those after midnight gigs could get but the buoyant pulse and joy of the music is apparent throughout, infectious as ever some 60 years after the fact. It’s near to impossible to play favorites on this set, but the spirited piano solos on Volume 5, a spotlight disc for Fajardo and his All Stars and the 17 minute track that kicks of Volume 2, with key contributions from percussionists Oscar Valdes and Jesus Ezquijarrosa (known better as Chuchu), are particular highlights.