When all goes to plan, reissues and live releases afford us a moment of pause – to reflect on what an album or an era in a band’s career meant both then and now. This Best of 2015 list focuses on those revelatory moments, those times when a shard of pristine insight cuts through the clutter of expectation and then memory.
With acts like Led Zeppelin, Les McCann and Fleetwood Mac, these reissues gave us the opportunity to dig deeper into periods that really never got their due. With Yes came another, perhaps final, opportunity to experience the wonder of Chris Squire.
With the Staple Singers and the Faces and Lead Belly, we had a chance to explore deeper into a legacy now firmly established, but not always so widely celebrated. With John Oates came an opportunity to see how time has deepen his artistry, and his clear enjoyment of craft.
We also relived a time in which Rolling Stones overcome crushing adversity, from both within and without, and thrilled as Gov’t Mule went off script in the trippiest of ways.
And, through it all, this list of Best of 2015 reissue and live projects provides something both unexpected and exciting: We heard again with new ears.
No. 10. FLEETWOOD MAC – TUSK (REISSUE): You’re reminded all over again of this deeply underrated Best of 2015 favorite’s brilliant weirdness, and its splashes of very real emotion. An expanded double-album format allowed Lindsey Buckingham to experiment with the punk and New Wave sounds of the day, even as Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks mapped out the aftermath of heartbreak. “Sara,” for instance, works almost as a response to “Dreams,” her career-making hit from Rumours. Meanwhile, the frank simplicity of McVie’s “Over and Over” is all the more powerful on a bracing, left-turn-filled release like Tusk — which had, as its bizarre lead single, this paranoid excursion of a title track that includes the USC marching band.
No. 9. THE FACES – 1970-75: YOU CAN MAKE ME DANCE, SING OR ANYTHING (REISSUE): The Faces’ earlier rarities-focused box, Five Guys Walk into a Bar, offered us the definitive backstage pass into this band’s booze-soaked party-band genius. You Can Make Me Dance does something different. Instead, we get a more polished, perhaps more definitive look at what made the Faces important (and, yeah, a loose, lip-smackingly scroungy delight too) over their far-too-brief four-album lifespan. All of those studio efforts have been shined up here, then supplemented with a slew of smartly selected extras including stand-alone singles, outtakes, rehearsal sketches and live versions. Together, they provide a bit more user-friendly portrait of the Faces, taking fewer side roads to reach the same conclusion: These guys were so, so great.
No. 8. LES McCANN – INVITATION TO OPENNESS (REISSUE): Les McCann rose to fame, of course, in an acoustic jazz trio setting, playing R&B-drenched music. By the turn of the ’70s, however, he’d become enamored with the day’s emerging mainstream soul sounds, principally that of the electric piano. This led to a too-often-forgotten experiment with a 13-member group who improvised for producer Joel Dorn around a few loose themes, very much in the style of Miles Davis’ contemporaneous recordings — and with a similarly talented all-star cast. This Best of 2015 entry is the sound of someone loosing himself from the bonds of expectation, and certainly from the oft-staid strictures of soul jazz.
No. 7. GOV’T MULE – DARK SIDE OF THE MULE (LIVE): The best cover songs build in a personal viewpoint, using early inspirations as a foundation for something that feels both old and new. Gov’t Mule’s Dark Side of the Mule did just that with the music of Pink Floyd. Perhaps as expected, the bulk of the material was derived from Dark Side of the Moon. But those six songs were coupled with a generous selection from elsewhere. The album’s most lasting moments, in fact, arrived courtesy of Wish You Were Here, rather than Dark Side. Along the way, Gov’t Mule paid tribute to the past without being shackled to it.
No. 6. LEAD BELLY – LEAD BELLY: SMITHSONIAN-FOLKWAYS COLLECTION (REISSUE): Best remembered for songs such as “The Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene,” Lead Belly’s legacy has been bolstered more recently through the release of long-lost music made for Folkways between 1941-47. The bulk of those recordings was issued in the late-1990s. As this Best of 2015 entry shows, however, there’s more where that came from. Those earlier discs have now been bolstered by 16 remarkable, previously unheard moments like “Been So Long [Bellevue Hospital Blues]” and “Princess Elizabeth,” one about his final illness and the other both literally and figuratively a world away from the piney woods of his life in the Deep South.
No. 5. LED ZEPPELIN – PRESENCE (REISSUE): Best described as a moment when they stopped for a longing look back, Presence found Led Zeppelin — then in the midst of a slow descent — returning to their blues roots. A drug-fueled decadence had set in, even as Robert Plant worked to recover from a serious auto accident. Perhaps predictably, they were introspective. But even in what should have been safe nostalgia, John Bonham unleashes newfound, and surprisingly subtle, polyrhythms. His ability to improvise on the heaviest of those heavy Led moans — including throwbacks like “For Your Life” and “Tea for One” – is heard anew on this expanded set. Then there was “Achilles Last Stand,” which finds Bonham working over roughly the first half as the lead instrument. Even Jimmy Page’s patented “army of guitars” sound is no match for Bonham’s charging fills. Amazing.
No. 4. STAPLE SINGERS – FREEDOM HIGHWAY COMPLETE (LIVE/REISSUE): By April 9, 1965, as the Staple Singers set up at the New Nazareth Church in Chicago to record the album that would become Freedom Highway, the group had moved far afield of its original gospel roots. Galvanized by the emerging Civil Rights movement, Roebuck “Pops” Staples and family offered a series of stirring protest songs like “March Up Freedom’s Highway,” “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad),” and “Washington is a Long Walk To D.C.” — moments that helped frame the era. Even so, as this concert made viscerally clear, the Staple Singers still had no trouble rattling the back pews. The original album release had been long out of print, however, with only two songs recently available via a 1999 Epic compilation – until now.
No. 3. YES – LIKE IT IS: YES AT THE MESA ARTS CENTER (LIVE): At first, most of the focus with Yes’ first concert project with Jon Davison was on the singer. He, of course, played a major role in their most recent studio effort, but was only just now being included on Yes’ live recordings. Later, however, as the full measure of Chris Squire’s loss became clear, Like It Is: Yes at the Mesa Arts Center became something else entirely: A final thunderous opportunity to explore the late Squire’s genius at the bass.
No. 2: ROLLING STONES – STICKY FINGERS (REISSUE): As the dream of the 1960s died, something changed in bands like the Rolling Stones, too. The broader loss felt by dreams deferred played out in microcosm as they struggled to overcome the death of Brian Jones, extricated themselves from their old management in order to found their own label, and tried to move on after the disastrous aftermath of Altamont. That the Rolling Stones would put out what was, for me, their best album during this time of transition seems almost laughably unlikely. They did it by swinging, alternately, between a kind of reckless abandon and this devastating introspection — perfectly in keeping, actually, with the decade to come.
No. 1: JOHN OATES – ANOTHER GOOD ROAD (LIVE): The 2014 Good Road to Follow project — a sweeping testament to passion and aptitude across a dizzying range of styles — showed that matching John Oates up against acknowledged masters like Vince Gill and Jim Lauderdale brought out the best in both. This capstone Best of 2015 entry returns the focus squarely back to Oates as a performer. It also gives us new perspective on an exciting period of musical growth, via the bonus disc’s interviews with John Oates and his more recent collaborators. He’s clearly sparked by all of this, in a way he hasn’t been since the hitmaking years with Hall and Oates.
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