Friday, December 10, 2010

Compilations, Reissues, EPs, Soundtracks, Etc.

10) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Damn the Torpedoes: Deluxe Edition (Backstreet/Geffen/UME)
In the era in which seemingly every album needs to be reissued or repackaged as a deluxe edition (sometimes just a few months after the disc was first released) it’s slightly surprising that it’s taken this long for one of Tom Petty’s albums to get afforded this treatment. The extra disc that comes with Damn the Torpedoes is kind of flimsy as these types of things go. Nine tracks that barely scratch 30 minutes doesn’t seem like a lot when compared other packages further down on this list. Yet those nine tracks are of extremely high quality. The two previously unreleased leftovers, “Nowhere” and “Surrender,” could easily fit in on Torpedoes or its follow-up Hard Promises. The alternate take of “Refugee” shows a fascinating window into how the song developed into the monster hit. Anyone who’s listened to a classic rock station over the past 30 years can sing most of those lyrics. The original album gets a nice facelift, too, as songs like “Even the Loser” and “Century City” sound much, much better than the ones on the CD version I’ve owned since 1988. Hopefully the rest of Petty’s catalog will be spruced up soon. I’d kill for a deluxe version of Southern Accents. (Well, not literally kill. Hmm. Maybe if I could kill one certain older person my co-worker know and get Southern Accents as a reward. Yeah, that’ll do nicely. Let’s get cracking on that Universal.)

9) Doves - The Best of Doves (The Places Between 2000 - 2010) (EMI/Astralwerks)
I find it hard to believe that a band that’s issued only four albums over a decade could be doing a best of collection, especially in the era of cherry-picking single tracks. Yet here we are, with single disc, double disc, and two CD/one DVD packages from the UK trio Doves. I’m not trying to demean the quality of these collections--Doves have been one the most consistently rewarding bands I’ve been exposed to over the past decade. They have more than enough great songs to fill up an entire CD. The new song “Andalucia" that closes out the single disc version is on par with the other tracks that precede it. The two disc version of The Place Between comes with 19 rarities, B-sides and alternate versions. And these guys know how to make quality B-sides. After having to collect singles and download EPs the past few years, it’s nice to have a bunch of them all in one place.

8) Sweetheart 2010: Our Favorite Artists Sing Their Favorite Love Songs (Hear Music)
It finally happened. I bought a disc sold only at Starbucks stores. (Well, it was sold through iTunes too, which is where I downloaded it.) The years of iced venti skim chais took over my brain. Heck, I’ve even got a Starbucks Gold Card because I spent so much on my regular Starbucks card. The next thing you know I’ll be going to McDonald’s or ordering things online through Amazon and using a Microsoft web browser to do it from my desk at a Clear Channel owned company. (Oh, wait…guess my level of selling out to corporate America has already been rather high. I feel less guilty now. Thanks.) No matter what the origins were for Sweetheart, they’ve attracted a great roster of artists. Jose Gonzalez (tackling Kylie Minogue), Spoon (transforming a song by The Damned), Broken Bells/Shins frontman James Mercer (a low key take on Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident”) and Yo La Tengo (doing justice to The Zombies great “You Make Me Feel Good”) deliver some great covers. One stands way above the rest—The Long Winters’ stripped down piano and vocal version of ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin’.” It’s one of the smartest reworkings of a hit song I’ve ever heard. Singer John Roderick takes Billy Gibbons words and turns them from some oversexed dude demanding more booty to a plaintive cry from a man struggling to keep a relationship going. It’s a stunning achievement, and one of the best covers I’ve heard. Go to iTunes and download it now. You’ll thank me later.

7) Nada Surf - If I Had a Hifi (Mardev Records)
When a band does an entire album of covers that’s usually a warning sign that something is amiss, as if they’ve run out of original ideas and they’re just looking to have something to tour behind. That might be the case with Nada Surf, but If I Had a Hi-Fi sounds like more than a holding action. Matthew Caws, Ira Elliot and Daniel Lorca give this wide array of songs their personal stamp without losing sight of what makes the originals worthwhile. The arrangements are imaginative, with the trio bringing in top notch guests like guitarist Doug Gillard and keyboardist Joe McGinty to broaden the scope of the music. It’s obvious to see why they would cover tracks by fellow pop lovers The Go-Betweens and Dwight Twilley, which makes the choices of The Moody Blues and Kate Bush that much more interesting. The cover of the Moody’s “Question” surprisingly hews the closest to the original. I love the original Bush track “Love and Anger” and I honestly had a hard time picturing a man singing it. But Caws uses the upper range of his voice to deliver a beautiful performance. “Love and Anger” has a big expansive sound that I’d love to hear them try with one of their originals. Hopefully, whatever the trio learned in making this album can be applied to their next original project.

6) Norah Jones - …featuring Norah Jones (Blue Note/EMI)
Norah Jones became an in demand duet partner since the release of her 2002 blockbuster debut Come Away With Me. Invariably these duets would require Jones to tap into sultry, low key delivery that she used to great effect on her debut and the albums that followed. While that sounds like a very limited use of Jones’s talents, ...featuring proves otherwise. This collection brings together 16 of these duets (as well as songs from two of her side projects, The Little Willies and El Mad Mo) with a wide range of collaborators. Jones sounds as comfortable trading lines with Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton as she does sweetening up tracks from Q-Tip and Outkast. Jones pulls off a neat trick on these songs—with the veteran acts she gives them a youthful vibe, while the acts more her age get a touch of classy elegance. All these tracks might have appeared on other artist’s albums first, but when put together in this format, they seem to belong only to Norah.

5) Through a Farway Window: A Tribute to Jimmy Silva (Steadyboy Records)
Any tribute album that includes four songs with lead vocals from my friend Scott McCaughey is going to make this list. McCaughey and his two bands Young Fresh Fellows and The Minus 5 have appeared on plenty of compilations and tributes over the years. But this one, which sees a roster of cool acts covering the late Jimmy Silva’s pop gems, holds a special place in McCaughey’s heart. So instead of me blabbering on trying to explain why Silva’s music is worth checking out, I asked Scott to pen a few words about his friend:

"Jimmy Silva was a great friend of mine, and probably the guy who most got me started at writing and recording my own songs. (Don't hold that against him!) The half a million or so who bought the Smithereens first LP were privileged to hear them tearing up Jimmy's creepy ‘Hand of Glory.’ Until his untimely death in 1994, he was a constant companion/collaborator/inspiration in the Young Fresh Fellows historic rise to, uh, whatever we rose to. Here, the YFF's extended family pay tribute to the songwriting greatness of our obscure, stage-shy, legendary, brilliant, and sorely-missed pal. Roy Loney of the Flamin' Groovies, Sal Valentino of the Beau Brummels, Dennis Diken of The Smithereens, Jon Auer of The Posies, Chris Eckman of The Walkabouts, John Wesley Harding, the Minus 5, and of course the Young Fresh Fellows. Amongst others. Hopefully this heartfelt sampling will encourage fans of The Who/R.E.M./Byrds etc. to seek out Jimmy Silva's four albums, most of which are still available on CD or LP by mail order from PopLlama Products ( Kudos to Freddie Steady Krc and Jud Cost for herding the cats and making this album a reality. You can get more info at:"

4) Bob Dylan - The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9) (Columbia)
This two disc compilation serves up 37 songs Bob Dylan recorded for his publisher at the time, Witmark and Sons. And Dylan wasn’t in a true recording studio when making these demos—it was a tiny room at the publisher’s office. That gives these recordings of some of Dylan’s greatest songs (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War”) an intimacy that’s at times breathtaking. These familiar songs receive a new level freshness when you hear Dylan thump against a microphone or someone quickly closing a door as they were trying to leave before he starts the next demo. It’s a fascinating look at these songs in their infancy. As the collection goes on, you can hear Dylan get more confident in his own songwriting voice. It’s Dylan truly becoming “Bob Dylan” and it’s just as thrilling as it was almost 50 years ago.

3) The Monkees - The Bird, The Bees & The Monkees: Deluxe Edition (Rhino Handmade)
I was very fortunate to get the deluxe versions of the first four Monkees albums—The Monkees, More of The Monkees, Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.—for free from the folks at Rhino. Alas, as the record industry slow dies, the gravy train of free collections has dried up. Along with that, labels are also more wary of mass producing reissues of minor releases from well known artists. So The Bird, The Bees & The Monkees: Deluxe Edition was produced in very limited quantities by the Rhino Handmade division of the amazing Rhino label. My co-worker Mike got a rare promo copy of the three disc box, so I borrowed it and ripped it into my iTunes. The original album features two killer singles (“Daydream Believer,” “Valleri”) and some cool deeper cuts, but damn, this box is chockfull of great songs that didn’t make the album that the four Monkees were recording on their own. Forty-five out of the 88 tracks are previously unreleased, a stunning amount of productivity for a group dismissed by critics over the past four decades. One listen to the gems on The Bird, The Bees & The Monkees: Deluxe Edition might make people change their minds.

2) Weezer - Pinkerton: Deluxe Edition (DGC/Geffen/UME)
As write this I’m exactly three weeks away from going to see Weezer on their Memories tour, which has them playing their self-titled debut album (a.k.a. The Blue Album) in its entirety one night and then Pinkerton the next. Unfortunately, the album performance comes after they play a set of “hits,” which will likely include such crap as “Memories,” “Beverly Hills” and a bunch of shit from their last three insanely horrible albums. I can predict that when any of those songs are being performed, I’ll either be at a bar at Roseland or checking Facebook and Twitter on my iPhone. To prep for that show, I’m sure I’ll be playing this fantastic reissue a few times. The two disc version of this 1996 classic gathers up all the B-sides, tons of live performances and a bunch of unreleased tracks in one handy package. In that spirit, I thought I’d gather up some greatest hits of writings about Pinkerton over the years:

1996 RT 20: “Many people have slammed it for not being as sonically smooth as their Ric Ocasek debut, but there’s nothing wrong with sloppiness (just look at my handwriting).”

SOTW 5/13/05: “I could go on and on about Pinkerton's impact on me and the many messed up young adults who worship the album, but plenty of other folks have already done that. I will say that its crazy, mixed up, self-loathing lyrics resonated with a self-loathing unconfident 26 year-old, and they still do to a much more confident, yet still incredibly self-loathing 35 year-old.”

2005 RT20: “Thankfully they only did five songs from Make Believe, and redeemed those poor selections by doing a few songs from Pinkerton. Those tracks got me pogoing, and then gave me the Achilles heel problem I’ve battled for most of the year. So thanks for that leg pain Weezer, it was worth it.”

(Postscript to that last one: my right heel has bothered me ever since. Oh, joy.)

1) Bruce Springsteen - The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story (Columbia)
I feel like I offered up most of my thoughts about this incredible box set during the two part podcast I did last month with my friend and fellow Springsteen fanatic Bob Giordano last month. (Check it out at Basically, this was perhaps the most productive time in Springsteen’s career. Between the proper Darkness album, the Darkness-era outtakes on the 1998 box Tracks and the 22 songs included on The Promise (the two disc collection of unreleased material available in the box or as a standalone album) there are over 40 tunes that Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded in 1977 and 1978. The dude wrote four albums worth of material to boil it down to one. Amazing. It’s a staggering amount of songs to create. The best one that never made any album, the full band version of “The Promise,” I think ranks among the best 20 songs the guy has ever written. It’s an epic song that takes some characters from “Thunder Road” and puts them in the prism of Springsteen’ own legal hassles with his manager after Born to Run. It’s easy to see why he scrapped releasing it, as it’s an unflinching look into the battle of artistic vision versus the harsh realties of business. The Promise also includes “Racing in the Street (’78),” a powerful, souped-up version of the Darkness ballad. It’s such a 180-degree turn from the album take that if I didn’t know the original’s lyrics, I never would have known they were the same song. And I hate to say it, but I think it’s better—much, much, much better that the version Springsteen decided to release all those many years ago. I’m very happy to have it right now, as I listened to it three times in a row composing this paragraph.

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