The standard for making this list is that these projects — some lavish remastering jobs, others new live interpretations — illuminate corners of an artist’s work that we’d never noticed before.
Certainly, big-box treatments that focused on Otis Redding, R.E.M., Duane Allman and Stephen Stills uncovered rare gems that gave fresh context to their careers. But, really, how could sets with such sprawling parameters do anything less?
Just as intriguing, really, are the single-disc reissues and concert recordings that do all of that heavy lifting in a much more compact time frame.
So, we’re also talking about the deep cuts unearthed to produce a new recording from the late Jimi Hendrix; a sparkling redo of Paul McCartney and Wings’ energetic Rockshow; and a deeply personal live set from Greg Lake, who co-founded both King Crimson and later Emerson Lake and Palmer.
Within this context, it’s almost as if Ringo Starr was cheating, as he amassed a nearly unbelievable roster of talent for his latest All-Starr Band — including Steve Lukather, Richard Page, Todd Rundgren and Gregg Rolie — and then set up at Nashville’s historic Ryman. The result was a show for the ages …
No. 10: ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA – ZOOM (REISSUE): Though there was little or no market for such things by the time Zoom finally arrived, this is precisely the album — tune-focused, lean — that Jeff Lynne should have issued as the 1980s dawned. There’s plenty of patented Electric Light Orchestra songcraft, and a notable lessening of the rote “I Am the Walrus”-inspired trickery. Sadly, instead, Zoom is likely the best ELO record that nobody’s ever heard.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: An intriguing new entry in the ‘Lost Broadcasts’ series focuses on the Move, illustrating that it was always far more than simply a precursor to the Electric Light Orchestra.]
No. 9: R.E.M. – GREEN: 25th ANNIVERSARY DELUXE EDITION (REISSUE): Tracks like “Pop Song 89″ and “Stand” received airplay on the big-stick stations, but the real supernova moment for R.E.M. was, of course, still to come. For now, at least, those moments were tucked in with songs that still hearkened back to the smaller, more personal albums that had made them underground darlings in the first place. If there’s a complaint to be made about the album, it’s that there are so many things going on, beyond the pop hits and the now-familiar jangly, mumbly hagiography of R.E.M., that Green never comes together into a cohesive whole. Still, the addition of a show from the period erases any reservations about how good R.E.M. still was.
No. 8: STEVE EARLE – THE WARNER BROS. YEARS (REISSUE): This set represents an often-overlooked period, and one of intense experimentation, for Steve Earle — who couldn’t have been further removed (personally or professionally) from his earliest triumphs on Guitar Town and Copperhead Road. In the meantime, Earle had run afoul with the law, amidst a whirling descent into drug abuse. Cleaned up at the end of 1994, he began his career anew — in more ways than one. Being sober had led Earle to a new focus on trying new sounds, on trying new things.
No. 7: JIMI HENDRIX – PEOPLE, HELL AND ANGELS (REISSUE): Jimi Hendrix’s legacy has been so brazenly, endlessly plundered, it’s fair to approach any so-called “new” material from the late guitarist with a deep distrust. Circumspection this time soon transforms into pure joy. Exploring a series of roving, post-1968 sessions after the dissolution of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, People, Hell and Angels does, indeed, include freshly discovered sounds — though separate takes, in some instances, have seen the light of day. Finally, though, Legacy Recordings has gotten it right — blessedly, finally, right.
No. 6: GREG LAKE – SONGS OF A LIFETIME (LIVE): Greg Lake offers something greater than mere retrospective here — though, certainly, there are familiar tunes from King Crimson and ELP. With its powerful sense of reminiscence, Songs of a Lifetime ultimately becomes a more personal journey. Lake tells stories, witty and filled with disarming humor, even as he weaves in songs from throughout his youth — there’s Elvis, the Beatles, Curtis Mayfield — to complete a touchingly autobiographical portrait. Songs of a Lifetime is like an audio book, narrated by the subject and smartly embellished with a series of relevant contextual tracks.
No. 5: STEPHEN STILLS – CARRY ON (REISSUE): Even now, with all of it laid out on Carry On, it’s difficult to comprehend the leap that Stills makes from the timid folkie copycat on very early songs like “Travelin’” to the vivid, brutal truth telling that surrounds “For What It’s Worth,” from just five years later. He remained the restless musical sojourner, moving on to CSN and then to create a series of solo efforts that often bore little resemblance to anything that had come before. Carry On, by pulling together all of Stills’ career highlights and situating them with pieces designed to give broader context, illuminates more fully these many paths.
No. 4: PAUL McCARTNEY – ROCKSHOW (LIVE/REISSUE): What you’re struck by is how loose and engaged Paul McCartney seems — how utterly thrilled by it all. To be on stage playing his own songs, separate from the Beatles; to be part of a band again. And Rockshow underscores that sense of musical camaraderie early and often. Along the way, there seem to be a few implicit points: That this was his new thing, and that it was a pretty good thing, and that he was having a complete ball.
No. 3: DUANE ALLMAN – SKYDOG: THE DUANE ALLMAN RETROSPECTIVE (REISSUE): For those who don’t know much about Duane Allman beyond the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East and Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, this ambitious seven-disc, 129-song set is a revelation. Hurtling along with the same restless, furiously creative impetus as its subject, Skydog moves with a sometimes blinding speed through his tragically short but incredibly varied career.
No. 2: OTIS REDDING – THE COMPLETE STAX/VOLT SINGLES COLLECTION (REISSUE): The best-known songs on Disc One alone are more than enough to make the case for Otis Redding, and for this three-disc compilation of every single he ever released. But every one of those hits, it seems, had a blistering b-side. And for every one of those smashes, there were others that slipped through the cracks. Even across a far-too-short career trajectory, he was already helping to create the very language of modern R&B singing.
No. 1: RINGO STARR, STEVE LUKATHER, GREGG ROLIE, TODD RUNDGREN, JOE WALSH – RINGO AT THE RYMAN (LIVE): Don’t let the goofball demeanor fool you: Ringo Starr is the model of consistency these days, as solid and professional a frontman as there is — and maestro of one of the last decades’ most reliably entertaining guest-packed tours. So the question for any All-Starr concert comes down to the chemistry among the patch-work amalgam of musicians he assembles on stage — and the 2012 edition might just be the best (or at least the most reliably cohesive and entertaining) since Ringo’s very first lineup, back in 1989.