The Year in Music: Reissues, Compilations and Unreleased Masterpieces

Although labels have been releasing big box reissues of albums for years, it certainly felt like 2011 was the year of super deluxe packages aimed at the solvent music lover. Partly this has to do with music’s ongoing vinyl renaissance, causing reissues to be bigger, bolder, and more extensive, adding all manner of bonus material, photobooks, and liner notes into otherwise great albums that already said everything that needed to be said in the span of their original format.

As music as a commodity continues to be divided into the free-as-air digital files you can carry in your pocket and the pricey monoliths that decorate the walls of one’s man (or woman) cave, the emphasis with these packages is on the LP as art, document, and conversation piece. Why pay for an album you already have unless it has that added value of taking up as much space as VCR player? (Or as many of this generation would ask, why pay for an album at all).

And while this past year saw so many unnecessary reissues and unnecessarily extensive packages–such as U2’s Uber Deluxe edition of Achtung Baby which includes its follow-up Zoopora or the Super Deluxe Nevermind with all its apocryphal mixes and live takes spread over four discs–there were also many great reissues, compilations, and anniversary editions worthy of shelf space. Here are a few of our favorites released in 2011.

Arthur Lee & Love – Black Beauty (and Rarities)

Arthur Lee & Love are best known for the groundbreaking 1967 album Forever Changes, and serving as inspiration to countless psychedelic and garage rock groups that came in their wake. Though the group disbanded shortly after their late sixties heyday, it wasn’t long before enigmatic front-man Arthur Lee put together a new line-up that explored louder, faster, and decidedly funkier territory in recording sessions that would make up Black Beauty. However, the album was shelved when their label (Buffalo Records) went bankrupt and fans were deprived the chance to hear this 1973 incarnation of Love. But this summer Black Beauty finally got a proper release on the newly-launched reissue label High Moon. Label founder George Wallace stated in a press release that Black Beauty is “that rarest of rock artifacts: a never-before-released, full-length studio album, from an undisputed musical genius.”

The Beach Boys – SMiLE sessions

Pop culturists will always wonder about the what-ifs and could-have-beens. What would Kubrick’s unrealized Napoleon film would have looked like? How would Nirvana sound if Kurt Cobain hadn’t offed himself and the band followed the direction of “All Apologies”? But one of the most enduring counterfactuals is what if The Beach Boys had finished SMiLE? We like the idea of an album so perfect it destroys the creator, something so absolute and pure that it disintegrates upon entering our earthly realm. In the past forty years the album’s lore has only grown and while there may have been SMiLE-era song appearances on other albums, bootlegs of the Smile Sessions that floated around for decades, and a Brian Wilson-led recreation (2004’s Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE), they were all poor stand-ins for the incomplete, perfect product. Now fans finally have definitive closure. The SMiLE Sessions is the final word on that album, a reconstitution from the original tapes based on Wilson’s original notes. Although it may be a few notches below the Teenage Symphony to God Wilson had in his head, it is still a monumental release, answering that counterfactual: if The Beach Boys had released finished SMiLE, people’s heads would have exploded. As is stands, even in fragmented, stitched up form, SMiLE is one of the most forward-looking albums ever made, spanning baroque pop (“Heroes and Villains”) to collage avant-noise (“Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow). Listening to it I was struck by its kaleidoscopic journey through American song. As psychedelic and awe-inspiring as anything by The Beatles—but supremely more sophisticated—The SMiLE Sessions is a positively stunning, heedless sugar rush of an experience.

The Specs: The $140 box set contains a smattering of SMiLE Sessions ephemera. In addition to the 5 CD/2 LP/2 7” (featuring the album as planned as well as multiple discs worth of demos and outtakes) the box contains a 60 page book with liner notes by the Wilson and company and is graced by Frank Holmes’ original artwork.

Primal Scream – Screamadelica: 20th Anniversary Edition

1991 was a great year for music, or so they say. But more than Nevermind, Acthung Baby, or Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, our favorite release from the year punk (went) broke has less to do with being a punk and more with tripping the light (and drugs) fantastic. Who would have expected, based on Primal Scream’s previous two albums (Sonic Flower Groove and their self-titled Stones homage) that they would get swept up in the early nineties dub and house movements, much less produce one of the most durable musical statements of those genres. Screamadelica is one of those album albums.  With all its long, drippy tracks, suites, and interludes, it sounds like a complete immersive sojourn.

The Specs: 4CDs/1 DVD/ 2LP that includes a remastering by the band and frequent collaborator Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine).

R.E.M. – Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982–2011

Having fulfilled their contract obligations with Collapse into Now, R.E.M. decided to disband, inciting music journos to issue hundreds of appreciations and eulogies. Not that R.E.M isn’t worthy of the remembrances, but the main point that all seemed to drive home was that, here was one the most successful rock bands ever, stepping out with class, amid relative amiability amongst its members. Sure maybe the last few albums aren’t worthy of the band’s everlasting legacy—inward, cerebral jangle pop of their early output—but hey the band still worked hard, wrote hard and kept everything democratic. And yeah, fine, the band walked away relatively clean, with a decent epitaph (Collapse into Now is certainly better than Accelerate and Around the Sun) but the band’s legacy is seemingly split into to halves: the quality of their early work and the quality of their work ethic that created mediocre to okay albums in the last fifteen years. In celebrating the band’s achievements, music writers hold R.E.M as an example of how a rock band should function, disregarding, somewhat, that R.E.M hadn’t produced a knockout album since Automatic for the People.  Instead of wholesale classic records, what the band has produced in the later half of its existence are occasional great songs, one or two per album, which is why it’s not surprising that Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982–2011 is the band’s third greatest hits album.  This band-curated compilation gives the best view of the band throughout its arc; from the sensitive heroes of Murmur and Reckoning to the glammed up rockfathers of Monster and Accelerate. Chronologically ordered, what we have here is the story of the band, according to the band.  The early albums may be slightly underrepresented and the album mostly sticks to singles, but Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982–2011 is still a great entry point into the band’s immense catalog. Not only is it the only R.E.M compilation you’ll ever need, aside from Murmur, Reckoning, and Automatic for the People, it might be the only R.E.M. record you’ll need.

The Specs: As with most greatest hits cash grabs, this one features a few new tracks, two Collapse into Now holdovers and a new track “We All Go Back to Where We Belong”