Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Compilations, Reissues, EP's, Soundtracks, Etc.

10) Warren Zevon - Warren Zevon (Asylum/Rhino)
Since his passing in 2003, Warren Zevon’s recording career has finally been getting the attention it so well deserves. Last year saw a sonically improved reissue of 1978’s Excitable Boy as well as an expanded version of the great live album Stand in The Fire. Those two reissues are fantastic, but they’d be hard pressed to top the treasure trove of outtakes on the second disc of Zevon’s 1976 self-titled album. Zevon’s solo piano demos of “The French Inhaler” and “Mohammed’s Radio” (with a wicked Dylan impression thrown in on a few lines) are perhaps even better than their fully fleshed out versions. The alternate take of “I’m Sleep When I’m Dead” crackles with energy as Zevon and the band gleefully rip through it. Oh, and let’s not forget that the original album (which sounds so much warmer than the previous CD version) is pretty damn good too. From the Western tale “Frank and Jesse James” (originally written for Zevon’s former employers The Everly Brothers, and includes harmony vocals from Phil Everly) to one of the best drug tales ever committed to song, “Carmelita,” Warren Zevon is chock full of great tales of losers, hustlers and other seedy characters from L.A. Zevon’s somewhat abrasive edge is taken off a bit by producer Jackson Browne, yet he shows good restraint in not allowing the huge list of guests (Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Bonnie Raitt) not overshadow Zevon’s genius. Somehow I don’t even mind that Glenn Frey and Don Henley are on a couple of tracks. (Of course, I still wonder why those two didn’t get cancer instead.)

9) ZZ Top - Eliminator (Collectors Edition) (Rhino/WB)
Here’s a simple fact—ZZ Top’s pre-Eliminator albums have held up better sonically than Eliminator (and much more so than Afterburner) 25 years later. The Eliminator drums (a mixture of triggers and wickedly e-qued actual toms) and the rudimentary synth patterns totally date all of this material. The extra tracks on the first disc are a bunch of previously unreleased live versions that simply sound like hell. So why is it on this list? Because my friends, I fucking love every single one of those sounds. Those live tracks are so low-fi and feature the sound of what I swear is a synthesizer actually dying—and it makes me cackle in joy. “Gimme All Your Lovin” comes on and once again I’m that 14 year old kid discovering how rebellious it can be to listen to that “heavy rock” station out of Albany called PYX (as in picks) 106. I figure I’m turning 40 next year, I might as well just fully let go of any shame I have about enjoying the rock of my youth. (Yes, I did download Sammy Hagar’s “There’s Only One Way to Rock” this year. Okay, I didn’t pay for that download, but I still had to seek it out.) I almost forgot to mention that this Collector’s Edition comes with a DVD with all three of the classic Eliminator car videos. No more relying on YouTube or the two hours a day VH1 Classic still shows videos.

8) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - Magic Tour Highlights (Columbia)
This digital only tour EP would have made this list if it just had one song—the last appearance Danny Federici made with the E Street Band before his death in April. (All proceeds the sales of the EP are being donated to The Danny Federici Melanoma Fund.) Add in the best guest appearance at an E Street Band show that I’ve ever heard and you’ve got something I had to download at 9 a.m. on the day of its release. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello joined Springsteen on a duet of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” at two Anaheim shows back in April. Rage had done their own cover of “Joad” back in 1997 (I even interviewed Morello specifically about their take on it), so one would figure Morello would be well prepared for his guest shot. Who knew he would steal the entire performance? Springsteen takes the first verse, Morello the second, they split the third and the trade solos in the middle. All of which are great. Then Morello takes over and delivers a solo that uses his whole bag of tricks. It’s simply jaw-dropping, and the accompanying video with the EP shows Springsteen and the rest of the band just in awe of Morello. It’s good to see that when one artist respects another artist’s work and are invited to share the stage, they take that responsibility very seriously.

7) Nada Surf - Vinyl Box Set 1994-2008 (Barsuk)
Don’t go looking for this box set in your local store or on Amazon. They only made 1,000 of them and they’re all gone. And with good reason too. This set is one of the best packages I’ve ever seen. The booklet that comes with their five studio albums (and a repressing of their debut 45) is gorgeous, with reproductions of many tour posters, pictures from the road and the lyrics to every song. The best part of the set is the download code that comes inside—those eight letters get you get digital copies of their last four albums as well as a 16 track compilation of rarities. Just like many of my favorite acts, Nada Surf leave lots of great songs off of their albums. Hopefully very soon I’ll actually get a new receiver so I can use my turntable and hear how these albums sound the old fashioned way.

6) Whiskeytown - Strangers Almanac: Deluxe Edition (Outpost/Geffen)
There are deluxe editions, and then there are truly deluxe editions. Count this Stranger’s Almanac reissue in the latter category. The first disc has a remastered version of the amazing original album plus five unreleased NPR performances. The second disc has 17 unreleased tracks, including acoustic demos of “16 Days,” “Avenues” and “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart” and seven unreleased songs that didn’t make the cut for the album. Two of these songs, “Nurse With The Pills” and “10 Seconds,” are as strong as anything else Ryan Adams has written in his post-Whiskeytown career. (And kind of makes me sad he hasn’t fulfilled the potential he had more than a decade ago.) It’s amazing that a 22 year-old kid could have come up with so many great songs in such a short time period. And I haven’t even mentioned the great covers on here—Fleetwood Mac's “Dreams,” Gram Parsons' “Luxury Liner,” and Johnny Cash's “I Still Miss Someone.” Many years ago I wrote about how Stranger’s Almanac was a “full service depression effort” because Adams’ lyrics fit various depressing parts of my life. Those memories and accompanying bouts of depression have faded away (whew) and thankfully I can still get enjoyment every time I play Stranger’s Almanac.

5) Pavement - Brighten The Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition (Matador)
Matador Records sure knows how to do reissues right. This latest deluxe edition from the Pavement catalog is packed with a great booklet of previously unreleased pics and artwork, 10 B-sides, 10 outtakes, and 14 live radio performances. What’s the most surprising about the reissue is discovering that most of the B-sides for their next album Terror Twilight were drawn from the Brighten the Corners era. I applaud Matador for including those B-sides on this reissue so that they’re in their proper context time wise. Pavement won over many critics with 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted and its follow up 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. But time and time again Brighten the Corners is the Pavement album I return to. It’s one beautiful and majestic recording, and Pavement’s most accessible. Well, I suppose I should use that term loosely when it comes to Pavement. The guitars of Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg intertwine to create a symphony of mid-tempo delights that are just downright pretty in songs like “Shady Lane” and “Type Slowly.” And 11 years later, “Date with IKEA” has come true as the Swedish giant set a new store up near the docks here in Brooklyn. So does one get the meatballs when you go on a date there? (On a side note, I preordered the reissue for Matador as it came with a previously unreleased live album on vinyl. So here’s another reason to get my ass to Best Buy and get a new receiver so I can actually listen to all the vinyl I’ve purchased in the past year. That Minus 5 EP ain’t gonna play itself.)

4) Big Dipper - Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology (Merge)
The career of Boston’s Big Dipper could be the template for college rock/indie rock/CMJ new music bands of the late 80s—have a small but loyal following, release a couple of well reviewed albums, get signed to a big deal by a major label, then overdo it on your major label debut, have fans revolt, watch one member leave, get dropped from same major label, try to carry on for a couple of years and then quietly break up. Big Dipper were one of those quintessential bands of my college era. They made jerky, rhythmic, angular pop songs with lots of guitar hooks. Their subject matter was not typical “Boy meets girl, boy never gets girl.” They wrote songs about hunting down the Loch Ness monster, former bandmates and their destructive house parties and UFO enthusiasts and astronomers. And people who liked Big Dipper really liked Big Dipper. My pal Dev kept the band’s catalog alive when his band covered the ultra catchy minor Boston hit “All Going Out Together” at every single gig I saw them do. My college friend Scott almost always brought up “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House” as one of the tunes he wished he could find on CD. Supercluster made Scott’s dream (and many others I assume) come true. This three disc set combines the band’s debut EP and two full length albums they recorded before making the jump to a major label. The third disc, subtitled Very Loud Array, serves up 15 tracks the band recorded after their major label failure. It’s a shame that this material didn’t see the light of day 15 years ago, as songs like “Edith” and “The Beast” hold up just as well as their “hits” like “She’s Fetching” and “Ron Klaus.” It’s said that Tom Scharpling, WFMU radio host and executive producer and writer on Monk, is the reason for this reissue and the band’s few reunion shows this year. If that’s the case, I’d like to ask Mr. Scharpling to start work on a Scruffy the Cat reunion right now.

3) Eels - Useless Trinkets-B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities and Unreleased 1996-2006 (Geffen)
50 songs. 50 tunes that have never appeared on an album. Jeebus, eels mastermind e (Mark Everett) is one productive mofo. Maybe next year I can subcontract some of this list out to him. Useless Trinkets has everything an eels fan could want. Drastic reworkings of favorites (“Novocaine for the Soul (Live From Hell)” makes that hit positively chilling); songs about hate (“Fucker”); thoroughly depressing tales (“Stepmother,” the collection’s title track) crazy covers (“I Put a Spell On You”), genuinely moving covers (“The Dark End of the Street”); a ton of BBC performances and a bunch of the soundtrack songs e and company seem to release every year. It’s a shame that eels will go down in most people’s minds as a one hit wonder. Just one listen to this collection of songs that didn’t even make the cut for albums proves that they’re one of the most consistently engaging acts of the past decade.

2) Creedence Clearwater Revival - Cosmo’s Factory (Concord/Fantasy)
If you are an American male between the ages of 35 and 65, it’s more than likely than at least 10 Creedence Clearwater Revival songs are imprinted upon your DNA. And there’s nothing wrong with that. John Fogerty and company crafted some of the strongest and most timeless songs of the rock era. (What artist in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wouldn’t have killed to write a song like “Proud Mary” or “Fortunate Son?”) CCR’s 1976 20 song best of album Chronicle just might be the best greatest hits album ever released by a band whose name doesn’t rhyme with meatles. Alas, Chronicle kept me from truly exploring the CCR catalog while growing up. Who needed to hear those other album tracks when “Down on the Corner” and “Up Around the Bend” and “Bad Moon Rising” were all on one hit-packed album? (Gosh, now I sound like I’m about to pitch you the latest album from the Time-Life collection.) Fortunately Fogerty buried the hatchet with his old label Fantasy Records and sort of buried the hatchet with his remaining former bandmates Stu Cook and Doug Clifford so the CCR back catalog could get a proper reissue. And 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory stands taller than the rest. Normally I would follow that up with a big ol’ “duh” since the heart of Cosmo’s Factory is three double-sided singles that hit the Top 5 in 1970 (“Travelin’ Band”/”Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Up Around the Bend”/”Run Through the Jungle” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”). This reissue is better than the other five that came out this year because of the clarity of the sound. Reissue producer Chris Clough (who was in charge of the whole catalog) was definitely on his game the day it came to remaster Cosmo’s Factory. The handclaps on “Up Around the Bend” sound as if they’re happening right next to your left ear. Fogerty’s always biting guitar leads cut through like never before. Clough and his team have pulled off an amazing feat—these songs I’ve heard thousands of times over the past 35 years or so sound as fresh as the first time I heard them. And lastly, I was able to type this entire entry with time to spare while spinning Cosmo’s Factory’s tour de force jam, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Damn, they really don’t make albums this good all that often any more.

1) (tie) The Replacements - Tim, Pleased to Meet Me and Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (Rhino/Ryko/Sire)
I could have easily put all eight of the Replacements reissues at number one. Each one is a fantastic album. And they each have a generous helping of bonus tracks. So I picked 1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, 1985’s Tim and 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me because they had the highest quality bonus material. Sorry Ma would have made it even if it just included the first proper CD release of the drunkard’s lullaby “If Only You Were Lonely.” Add in the band’s original four song demo (with the immortal “Shut Up”) and an over-the-top version of “Customer” and you’ve got a winner. Tim includes an absolute stunning acoustic band take on “Can’t Hardly Wait,” the great B-side “Nowhere is My Home” and a blistering fast take on “Kiss Me on the Bus” that just might be better than the original. (For those who know the original track, you know that is high praise indeed.) And Pleased to Meet Me includes fascinating alternate takes on “Alex Chilton” and “Can’t Hardly Wait.” There’s so much good extra stuff it makes me wonder what else could be in the vaults for when the long-rumored Replacements box set finally sees the light of day. I for one can’t hardly wait. And I can’t believe I just went for the joke.

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