As fewer and fewer consumers buy music in a "hard" format, labels have gone out of their way to crack open the vaults and exhume the rarest treasures from rock, r&b, and soul's past. The ten best examples of that musical archaeology from 2012 are listed here, and you can click on the links below to hear samples, compare prices, and buy them if you like!
Although fans (and critics) consider them as important to the development of rock as The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who, the godfathers of Britpop have been somewhat ill-served by Kinks kroniklers, especially in the US. That changed forever in 2012, when At the BBC appeared. Featuring 136 tracks covering a full five decades -- four full performances of “Days” alone, and an entire Christmas concert from their late-seventies arena-rock peak -- it’s essential for any even half-serious fan, featuring rare interviews, important early concert tracks, and enough alternate versions to fill a box set on its own. The history of the British Invasion was incomplete without it.
Alex Chilton is arguably the godfather of indie-rock cult heroes, beloved for his stint, as a mere teen, in the ‘60s blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops and then, a few years later, as the guiding force behind Big Star, which laid the groundwork for the development of power-pop. Free Again, recorded between those two eras, definitely hews closer to the second legend than the first; it often sounds like the other "lost" Big Star album, a baker’s dozen of unreleased songs (recorded surreptitiously in another part of Memphis while still under his Box Tops contract to Chips Moman) gleaming with the shine of an artist who’s found his own identity and is fair to bursting with the need to declare it. So why did it take so long to uncover “new” tunes from the ultimate cult hero? Turns out the Moman contract didn’t expire until... 1996. And people wonder why musicians hate their industry.
Quick: Who was the first artist to drag the modern sound of a drum machine into the Top 40? Believe it or not, Sly Stone got there first with 1971’s smash “Family Affair,” proving black artists were experimenting with primitive electronics at the same time as their white rock counterparts, a cultural blind spot finally exposed on Personal Space. No hits here: in fact, almost all the artists here are unknown to anyone but record-bin fanatics. But as funk got glossified into disco, these cash-strapped artists were forced to go raw, crafting personal, political, and polemical dancefloor contenders out of instrumentation so underdeveloped that the result sounds like nothing less than a urban lo-fi revolution. People waste a lot of time and money trying to sound this real today.
It was easy to miss if you weren't paying close attention, but the early Seventies marked the moment where white and black strains of music were rediscovering common ground after soul, funk, and the black power movement had helped split the musical landscape. Having left pop behind in the early sixties, country artists nevertheless found themselves still in the thrall of blues and gospel, and the grittier ones delved into R&B’s new, harder mutation with no regard to the consequences. Country Funk chronicles this forbidden marriage exquisitely, combining the few swamp-rockers that did cross over (Tony Joe White, Mac Davis) with loads of obscurities. Most of these nearly lost gems made a bigger impression on country audiences than soul ones, which justifies this collection’s existence all by itself.
At the time the biggest-selling album in history, Carole King’s Tapestry signaled the arrival of both the singer-songwriter movement and the advent of -- as shocking as it seems now -- pop music for adult women. Her solo career never matched those highs, but it never had to; most artists never made such a connection with the zeitgeist to begin with. Because it starts with King's Brill Building demos, then, the modestly titled Legendary Demos is as much a portrait of a revolution as an artist... a gentle and quiet one, but a revolution nonetheless. Fitting that the demos reveal more items written for other female artists, not to mention a few unearthed gems almost worthy of inclusion on the original landmark album.
It’s not Beware of ABKCO! -- this short ten-track compilation only repeats one song from that fan favorite demo bootleg. But George Harrison’s tantalizingly titled Early Takes, Volume 1 (a bonus from the Scorsese documentary Living in the Material World, now available on its own) still manages to unearth some gems, mainly demos of songs from his two earliest (and many say best) non-experimental solo albums, All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World. The magic of George’s demos lies in the structure of his songwriting: since much of what he does gets its power from simplicity, directness, honesty, and repetition, piling on the production to make him sound “big” often obscures the emotional thrust of his message. Harrison himself came to realize this about Phil Spector, though Jeff Lynne also pumped him up a bit unnecessarily; to many fans of the Quiet One, his hushed moments are always his most compelling.
Despite the purposefully inflammatory title, there's a few “whiteys” on this excellent compilation, which chronicles the rise of black-power consciousness in pop music culture. The Last Poets and Eldridge Cleaver are here, of course, but so is Dylan and Lennon and Roy Harper, and, perhaps even more surprisingly, Gene McDaniels, reuniting with his “Compared to What” admirer Eddie Harris for “Silent Majority,” along with some comedy from Dick Gregory and an actual single by a real live Black Panther (Elaine Brown's gospel ballad “Until We’re Free”). It’s not for the squeamish -- the n-word is thrown around quite a bit -- but along with the accompanying booklet (and the original book this soundtrack was made to accompany), it’s a vital and often unexamined slice of American history.
Yet another compilation of the World’s Greatest, even a multidisc one, would seem to be superfluous at this point... Unlike the Beatles’ 1, there's no major remastering job to draw casual fans in. But the ridiculously titled GRRR!, complete with the silliest cover art of the band's career, is still vital, because in its three- and four-disc versions it combines the must-own biography of Hot Rocks with the best of Rewind and Made in the Shade, then adds just enough of their more recent past as elder arena-rock statesmen. Finally, the Stones have an essential starter kit that covers their entire half-century of history.
The folk singer’s folksinger, Woody Guthrie’s catalog has been exhumed and examined so carefully over the past century, curated as only Americana lovers could possibly do, that this 3-disc centennial celebration (released as a book/CD combo) may seem unnecessary to his older fans. There is some unreleased material, most of it collected on the third disc, but it doesn’t add anything to his phenomenal legacy, merely repeating his standard class warfare themes in new contexts. However, for new fans who want to get a good, chronological, but not exhaustive look at who this man Guthrie was, this is now the first place to stop.
After issuing the collage of false starts, underdeveloped ideas, and Beatle leftovers that was the debut McCartney album, Paul decided that the rock press wanted something more polished. As in, actually made in a studio. He was only partly correct; the world was waiting for something that sounded like a full-fledged Beatles album. They didn’t get that with 1971’s follow-up Ram, which, like so much of McCartney’s solo career, reveled in insularity. But what they did get was an energized Paul, and the result has since come to be recognized as a true indie-pop ancestor, in its own weird way as much of a personal statement as John’s Plastic Ono Band. This reissue features vastly improved sound quality, outtakes and stray songs that prove Paul was at the top of his game, and -- most importantly for rabid fans -- the 1977 Thrillington album, where the Cute One assumed the guise of a socialite bandleader and reimagined the whole album as a trad-jazz ballroom soundtrack.