Every year, I look forward to the gems record companies unearth from their vaults just as much as I anticipate new releases. Sometimes, depending on the climate in pop, I'm more excited about the reissued stuff. But 2004 wasn't so bad. We got great singles from Usher, Lil' Jon and Kanye West, marvelous albums by Loretta Lynn, Martin Luther and the Beastie Boys. We also got a chance to rediscover some forgotten classics in gloriously remastered sound. And in some cases, we were introduced to vintage material that had stayed in the can for decades. In no particular order, here are my picks for the best reissues of 2004.
Bob Marley & the Wailers, Burnin': This album first appeared in 1973, and it was the fourth long player from the legendary reggae ensemble. The group's take-mess-from-no-one philosophy is crystallized in the classic "Get Up, Stand Up," which opens the album, and the plaintive groover "Burnin' and Lootin'." Universal Records reissued the original 10-song set with four bonus tracks plus a nice disc of a previously unreleased concert recorded at Leeds Polytechnic in England on Nov. 23, 1973.
The Pointer Sisters, That's a Plenty and Live at the Opera House: Both albums came out in 1974 and breathlessly showcased the Oakland group's dazzling versatility and energy. This was about four years before sister Bonnie ditched the group and a decade before Ruth, Anita and June re-invented themselves as electric pop goddesses with such neon-colored '80s hits as "I'm So Excited" and "Neutron Dance." On the gold-seller That's a Plenty, the Grammy-winning quartet scat through Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" at breakneck speed and imbue Son House's "Grinning In Your Face" with soulful, gospel-dipped harmonies. Live at the Opera House, released six months after That's a Plenty, captures the sisters at their early best, backed by a full orchestra. The live, extended version of their first hit, 1973's funk romp "Yes We Can Can," gets a fine workout replete with vocal polyrhythms. The Pointer CDs (and the following two) are available exclusively at www.hiposelect.com.
David Ruffin, David -- The Unreleased Album: Again, the guys at Hip-O Select reached back into the vaults and found a jewel of an album. Recorded in 1971, the tracks on this collection by the former Temptations star collected dust for more than 30 years before anybody put them out. And upon the first listen, you wonder why Motown chieftain Berry Gordy shelved this project anyway. The famed Funk Brothers provide powerful backing throughout, and Ruffin's aching vocals shine on the 23 songs. Gritty funk and subtle psychedelic flourishes (really hot at the time) abound on David, but the album still manages to sound fresh and gripping. Check out Ruffin's grown-man take on the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" or his smoldering rendition of Brook Benton's "Rainy Night in Georgia." Soul gets no better than this.
Syretta, Syretta / Stevie Wonder Presents Syretta: The singer died in July after a long bout with cancer. And the cool folks at Hip-O Select remembered the underrated Motown artist with this reissue of her most important albums: her 1972 self-titled debut and the 1974 follow-up produced by Stevie Wonder, Syretta's husband at the time. On this single-disc release, we rediscover not only Syretta's ethereal, Minnie Riperton-like voice and ambitious songwriting but Wonder's early adventurous production style. "Heavy Day" and "Spinnin' and Spinnin'" are highlights.
Johnny Winter, Second Winter: The albino guitarist is the ultimate white blues star, and this reissue of his 1969 sophomore album, originally released on three sides of vinyl, captures Winter's scorching, no-nonsense playing that even Jimi Hendrix admired. A great addition to any rock or blues collection.
Roy Ayers, Virgin Ubiquity: Unreleased Recordings 1976-1981: Technically, this is a new album because we haven't heard the cuts before. But since the 13 songs on Virgin Ubiquity were recorded more than 20 years ago ... well, that makes this an old album. And it's a banger from start to finish, a real treat for fans of Ayers' lush fusion of jazz and funk. Recorded during the vibraphonist's prolific era at Polydor Records (20 albums between 1971 and 1981), the tunes on the CD range from relentless disco-funk ("Boogie Down" with sweeping vocals by Carla Vaughn and "What's the T," featuring fiery vocals by Merry Clayton) to chilled-out soul (the dreamy instrumental "Green and Gold" and "I Really Love You," a steamy duet between Clayton and Ayers). Not one song on the album is substandard; in fact, some of the tunes are superior to what Ayers actually released between '76 and '81. So why he decided to keep these 13 tracks in the can is anybody's guess. But stay tuned. Ayers has given BBE, the label that put out Virgin Ubiquity, access to more than 130 unreleased songs in his vault. More plush funk is on the way.
Nirvana, With the Lights Out: This band was a revolution in the early '90s, and its music is thoughtfully compiled on this three-CD, one-DVD set. You mostly get previously unreleased tracks: demos and rehearsal takes of songs that finely detail the trio's evolution. Included on the DVD is a previously unreleased video of nine tunes performed at bassist Krist Novoselic's mother's house in 1988. A must-have for die-hard Nirvana fans, though With the Lights Out may not be as revelatory to the casual listener.
James Brown, Soul on Top: James Brown, a jazz singer? Not in the classic sense. But hearing the Godfather of Soul incinerate such standards as "That's My Desire," "It's Magic" and "For Once in My Life" is a fun trip. On this 1970 album, Brown is joined by the Count Basie-influenced Louie Bellson Orchestra, and the result is a sweaty fusion of swingin', big-band jazz and back-alley soul and funk. It makes perfect sense that Soul Brotha No. 1 would attempt such a project: Blues energy suffuses jazz and R&B;, and the combination had always worked for Brown. His boogaloo-style take on Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" alone is worth the price of the CD.
The Beatles, The Capitol Albums, Vol. I: Much of the Beatles catalog is in desperate need of remastering. With this four-CD set, fans finally get the American version of their first four Capitol albums: Meet the Beatles, The Beatles' Second Album, Something New and Beatles '65. Packaged in replicas of the original albums, the CDs feature stereo and mono versions of each track. And the collection is accompanied by an informative, 48-page booklet. It's still thrilling to hear "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Candi Staton, self-titled: Before she topped the charts in 1976 with the glossy disco classic "Young Hearts Run Free," Staton wailed the blues with the best of 'em at the beginning of the decade. Produced by Rick Hall at his FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., the 26 cuts on this collection sublimely showcase a brand of Southern-fried soul we haven't heard in years. Reminiscent of early Etta James and Mabel John, Staton's slightly hoarse heart-and-gut delivery wrings the pain out of every note. The tunes on the set -- "I'd Rather Be an Old Man's Sweetheart (Than a Young Man's Fool)," "Do Your Duty" and others -- have never been on CD before. Now, you can enjoy these forgotten slices of soul without the hisses and pops of worn vinyl.
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