So many excellent compilations, reissues, and lost albums came out this year. And they were right on time; who didn’t want to escape the present in 2020? Then again, the more the archival release market heats up — and it shows no sign of cooling off — the more essential this category feels each year. There’s so much to learn from albums like these, whether they’re filling in a musical blind spot (as is the case with Light in the Attic’s endlessly awesome exploration of 20th century Japanese music) or helping you delve deeper into an album or artist you already loved. I’ve chosen five to highlight, but be sure to comb through the bonus list below them. So much retrospective fun in there.
Brother Theotis Taylor — Brother Theotis Taylor
I would recommend this to absolutely everyone. The joy it brings — the way it changes the air in your house when it starts spinning — is in a class all its own.
I look at compilations curated by Chris King much the same way I look at John Coltrane’s work — I may not hear all of what more trained ears are able to hear, but the mere fact that I’m engaging with the texts and working toward a deeper understanding of them makes me feel like I’m growing. Like I’m inching taller by continuously grasping at something just out of my reach. I may jokingly call King’s earlier Third Man comps “stressful Greek music” to get a laugh out of Mrs. YHT, but I spin them often and am constantly amazed at the depth of feeling in the recordings. How the River Ganges Flows inspires and amazes in the same way.
Dancing in the kitchen. Dinner on the stove. This is the stuff that comes to mind when I see the (totally gorgeous) cover art for this second installment in Light in the Attic’s excellent Pacific Breeze series. It’s so fun. This has been my go-to album for celebrating something, whether it’s actual good news or just the elusive event that four cooped up family members are in a good mood at the same time. LITA’s ongoing reexamination of 20th-century Japanese music is truly a gift that keeps on giving.
Time and time again, Cairo Records manages to put together soul collections that are otherworldly in terms of their impact. These compilations hit hard, in a way that reminds me of the supernatural quality folks often cite when describing Harry Smith’s work on the American Anthology of Folk Music. It’s like the tracks gain power by being next to one another. This is the fifth comp from Cairo, and while each one is utterly brilliant, the last side of this set is a cut above — the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” gone Ghanaian, Nina Simone’s version of “Suzanne,” and a downtempo version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that may actually eclipse the original version Prince’s estate finally released a couple years back. Don’t believe me? Listen below:
Gillian Welch — Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs
This would be a stunning set of songs regardless of how they came to be. But once you know the backstory for Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs — how these compositions were whipped up quickly to satisfy an unwanted publishing contract (Hanif Abdurraqib’s New York Times piece is a great place to read more) — listening to them is like looking directly at the sun, or trying to imagine how many times you’ve blinked in your life. The scope of her talent is just incomprehensible.
Case in point: I picked “Here Come the News” as the opening track for one of my Bandcamp Friday mixes simply because it has the word “here” in the title and therefore fits a dumb naming scheme I’ve been trying to keep going each month. I’ve since gotten to know “Here Come the News” inside and out and am convinced of two things: 1. It could be the best song on just about anyone else’s album from the last 50 or 60 years, and 2. I would reach that same conclusion if I were to arbitrarily obsess over any of the other 47 songs on Boots No. 2.
While I eagerly made my way through Vol. 1, I’m taking my time with the second and third. The sun lets you look a little at a time, right?
Other reissues/archival releases I enjoyed this year:
Robbie Basho — Songs of the Great Mystery
Bon Iver — Blood Bank (Having the whole thing on one side at 33 1/3 RPM with live versions on the other side is A+.)
John Coltrane — Giant Steps 60th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition
Bill Evans — Live At Ronnie Scott’s
Joni Mitchell — Live At Canterbury House – 1967
Oneness Of Juju – African Rhythms 1970-1982 (more to come on this one)
Tom Petty — Wildlflowers & All the Rest
The Replacements – The Complete Inconcerated Live
Various — A Little Bit at a Time: Spacebomb Family Rarities (more on this to come on this one as well)
Wilco — Summerteeth
Neil Young — Homegrown