Live albums and reissue projects often do much to shape the broader idea we have about a musical legacy, and this year was no different — with impressive sets devoted to Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and the Smiths along with key live dates from the Rolling Stones, Freddie Hubbard, Levon Helm and Rockpile, among others.
Here are my Top 10 selections for 2011, along with five key honorable mentions … Click through the titles for expanded reviews …
ROCKPILE — LIVE AT MONTREUX 1980: Rockpile opened the door for every throwback moment of the coming decade — not to mention new wave. Yet this late 1970s-era rockabillying power-pop supergroup came and went so quickly, they rarely get their due. Dave Edmunds co-led the group with Nick Lowe, providing whatever name-dropping credence that Rockpile has anymore. But unsung second guitarist Billy Bremner and remorseless drummer Terry Williams made important contributions, if only through force of nerve and noise. The result: A fizzy blend of pre-mop top rock and the rowdy, window-rattling bashings of punk, with a dash of the looming MTV generation’s urbane pop sensibility. This great live document showed once again how they sounded like a band who knew all about the past — all while remaining steadfastly unconfined by it.
BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS — LIVE FOREVER: The aptly titled Live Forever didn’t sound anything like a concert by a man just moments away from the end. Instead, it underscores the indomitable spirit of the singer and his song. Marley had collapsed while jogging in New York just two days before, on Sept. 21, 1980, but appeared for this sold-out date in Pittsburgh, anyway. Though it would become Marley’s last concert before cancer felled him in 1981, the album crackled with fiercely independent lyrics, snarling guitars and these trace-inducing, simply unassailable grooves. As the concert concluded, we found Marley — in his final moments before his fans — poignantly urging them, again and again: “Don’t give up the fight.”
THE SMITHS — COMPLETE: A sprawling Rhino reissue project, overseen by guitarist Johnny Marr himself, this featured all four Smiths studio albums, the live project Rank, and three compilations, each of which appeared over a span between 1982-87. Also included in the package were DVDs, art prints, artwork posters, codes for high-quality MP3 downloads, booklets and new liner notes by Marr. Oh, and this: Towering, decade-defining moments like “How Soon Is Now?.” The Smiths’ eloquent reshaping of youthful angst took Brian Wilson’s air-tight 1960s-era childhood-bedroom reveries right to the edge of the window sill. They then looked down at the parents’ quiet, darkened backyard below … and almost really jumped. “How Soon Is Now” is the scream you’d hear next — either way.
FREDDIE HUBBARD – PINNACLE: LIVE AND UNRELEASED: The late Hubbard, whose brilliant technique and warm tone were occasionally obscured by unfortunate settings, is perhaps to blame for his own dimmed star. Recordings like this one made his case all over again. Punchy and full of solos that are both demonstrative and then incendiary, this 1980 live set worked as a powerful reminder that, while Hubbard’s career was perhaps the victim of poor timing — straight-ahead jazz had fallen into popular disfavor by the time he came into his own in the 1960s, sending the trumpeter into less interesting crossover formats — he still possessed the ability to astonish.
BILL WYMAN’S RHYTHM KINGS — COLLECTOR’S EDITION BOX SET: A great opportunity to catch up with Bill Wyman’s old-school R&B and blues revue arrived in the form of this sweeping five-disc retrospective focusing on the former Rolling Stones bassist’s subsequent Rhythm Kings band. Those looking for a more direct connection to Wyman’s days with his old band will find guest appearances and a Stones cover. More generally, though, the set works like a pocket history of 20th century roots music — and a testament to Wyman’s continuing vitality as a musician. Though never known as a composer during his lengthy stint with the Rolling Stones, Wyman wrote or co-wrote 23 of the 66 tunes here.
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JUNIOR WELLS, with BUDDY GUY — HOODOO MAN BLUES: Wells and Guy made a bunch of other records, notably a subsequent Delmark forgotten gem called Southside Blues Jam, but they never made a better one. There’s a fun, closing-time wildness to Hoodoo Man Blues, but it also illustrated how Wells and Guy drew out broader complexities from one another, too. There were times when the sessions for this 1965 gem, reissued with a batch of additional moments of in-studio chatter and a sparkling booklet with photos and new notes from producer Bob Koester, had the feel of the jazz date — in the sense that the pair made such distinctive use of rhythm and space. They play with the same symbiotic closeness too, like long-lost classmates who can finish each other’s sentences as they recall a story no one else has heard yet.
LEVON HELM – RAMBLE AT THE RYMAN: We’re reminded again on Ramble at the Ryman, a record both timeless and new, that Levon Helm was the loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, its yearning storyteller and gritty soul. Their records were drawn from continuity, bringing in dizzyingly diverse, age-old influences and performed in a chorus as if by brothers. That has always made a treasure hunt out of selecting any individual triumph on their old records. Not here, as this Ramble becomes a showcase for Helm. It’s also an important reminder: The Band’s principal songwriting credits may have gone to guitarist Robbie Robertson, but they were then — and are here, again — often completely inhabited by Helm’s carnal Arkansas drawl.
ROLLING STONES – SOME GIRLS / SOME GIRLS: LIVE in TEXAS ’78: Companion pieces that showcased the wit and power of the Rolling Stones, on perhaps their last great album. (1978′s Some Girls, a vast improvement over the band’s sloppy, uneven efforts through the mid-70s, would go to become the Rolling Stones’ best-selling album in the U.S., eventually moving more than 6 million copies.) Both the expanded album reissue (notable for its inclusion of a smart new track, “No Spare Parts”) and the live set found them again playing with a knifing sharpness — even as they incorporated the sinewy, rattling elements of punk and the sleek ironies of disco.
THE BEACH BOYS – THE SMiLE SESSIONS: Brian Wilson’s long-shelved masterpiece was finally issued in expanded form, nearly 45 years after its conception. If there was anything that kept it from the top spot on our list, it was this: While the original album has been referred to as the Beach Boys’ Holy Grail, this massive — and we do mean massive — collection of studio recordings, outtakes, snippets of dialogue and song fragments was probably better received by musicians and the serious music fan. Novice passersby might have found it a bit much. That said, there are more than few moments when this new box shined — rendering moot the newly recorded version of this project released by Wilson in 2004. You can still hear the promise that this doomed project always held.
RAY CHARLES — SINGULAR GENIUS: THE COMPLETE ABC SINGLES: Ray Charles, sightless and orphaned by age 15, led a life that sounded like a blues song. But the range and scope of his talent could never be contained within one genre, no matter its lasting joys. After signing with ABC-Paramount, Charles would expand his reach into every corner of American song — from R&B to pop to Tin Pan Alley to soul to country — throughout the 1960s. You hear all of that on Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles, like a travelogue through the country’s musical landscape. This digitally remastered 106-song collection from Concord presented the A and B sides of 53 singles for ABC-Paramount, including 11 No. 1 hits. Twenty-one of the songs were making their digital debut, as well.
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2011 LIVE AND REISSUE HONORABLE MENTIONS: The new Bestival Live deftly tied together a series of disparate eras of the Cure’s music, making it a must-have for longtime fans of their layered art pop and a good entry point for everyone else. … 1986′s Horses and Trees was fusion in the most complete sense of the word, as Ginger Baker melded jazz, funk, world music, electronica, reggae, hip-hop and something noiser still. … A reissue of the 1991 gem Laughing Stock underscored how Talk Talk served as the taproot for Radiohead’s experimental new-century art-rock sound. … Another listen to Woody Shaw’s 1981 release United illustrated why he’s sometimes considered the last of the true innovators at the trumpet. … ZZ Top’s newly released 1980 date Live in Germany was a refreshing throwback to their original amalgam of blues, rock and long-haired Texas-bred don’t-give-a-damn.