Monday, 20 December 2010

News, Views and Music Issue 84 (Top Five) Releases Of The Year 2010




So, have our purchases this year been naughty or nice? Well, 2010 hasn’t has as much going for it as, say, last year (which didn’t have that much going for it either to be honest), mainly because the new releases have been so thin on the ground and those that have been new (Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Write About Love’, Ray Davies’ ‘See My Friends’ and Ringo’s ‘Y Not?’) have been rather disappointing. However, it’s not been as total waste of a year as there have been a few interesting items throughout the year, many of which were either new to CD or exquisitely packaged. There were also some very, umm, odd releases which we couldn’t possibly have guessed this time last year (such as a box set of George Harrison productions featuring Ravi Shankar, Brian Wilson doing an album of Gerhwin covers, a record fourth CD showing for The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’ with a companion show from the same tour attached and Ray Davies duetting with Metallica on ‘You Really Got Me’ among other Kinks Klassiks)... But what were the very best purchases of the last 12 months? Here’s our AAA top five...

5) Ray Thomas “From Mighty Oaks/Hopes Wishes And Dreams” (first CD issue for albums originally released in 1973 and 1974): We all wondered what would happen once the Moody Blues re-issue bonanza of 2007 died down and I’m pleased to say Decca have gone for the next best available option – deluxe editions of the solo Moodies albums they still own the rights to, starting off with flautist Ray’s two overlooked sets making their way onto CD for the first time. While I am deeply disturbed by the £25 asking price (yes, OK, so this set comes on 4 discs but that’s because there’s a 5.1 surround sound and an ordinary CD mix of both albums – surely that shouldn’t count as a box set price?) and the lack of extras (a promo video for ‘High Above My Head’ and a brief interview), these two albums are a joy to have back out on the shelves again. Songs like the delightful ‘Adam and I’ and catchy ‘We Need Love’ are the equal of any songs from the original classic seven Moodies albums, although like all solo Moodies projects you suspect they’d sound even better with input from the other four. Still, I’ve been waiting for a re-release of both of these hard-to-find albums for some time (my vinyl copies are beginning to get quite worn!) so well done Decca – more of the same in 2011 please!  

4) Otis Redding “Five Album Originals” (re-packaging of the only five solo Otis albums recorded between 1965 and 1967): Like the Jefferson Starship sets we discussed in out 2009 top five and eventually reviewed last January, there’s nothing new added to these straightforward CD re-issues of the five original albums Otis made before he died (only a couple of singles and the collaboration album with Carla Thomas are missing), but the price tag of between £10 and £15 (depending where you shop) is excellent and the vinyl-like packaging a treat. I only had two of these albums anyway, as they’re so hard to track down these days, and second album ‘Soul Ballads’ is now a firm favourite to go alongside the superlative ‘Otis Blue’ (AAA review no 4). Best of all, the record’s original sleevenotes are complete (if terribly small and hard-to-read!), including all the adverts for other albums on sale of the day, a motley collection which shows just how special and original Otis was...

3) Rolling Stones “Exile On Main Street (CD re-issue of 1972 album with bonus tracks): The world went Stones mad because of this CD re-issue this summer and I’m still not quite sure why – ‘Exile’ was never my favourite Stones album despite all the hoo-hah in the past few years and the new ‘imrpoved’ sound quality has actually made this murky and slightly mysterious album sound even more ramshackle than it already was. But the surprise of the package were the eight new bonus tracks, two of them fascinatingly different alternate versions of songs we know and love (‘Soul Survivor’, for instance, features Keef on lead instead of Mick) and six new and completely unheard songs that for the most part are the equal of anything on the record. ‘Down The River’, in particular, is a beautiful ballad in ‘Wild Horses’ mould that would have been a winner had it been finished and the eerie ‘So Divine’ and rocky ‘Plundered My Soul’ aren’t far behind either. Now just one question remains: why the heck weren’t these songs added to what must be the shortest running double album in history back in 1972 (67 minutes!!) See ‘news and views’ no 61 for more on this album.

2) Oasis “Time Flies” (New 2CD compilation of material recorded between 1994 and 2007): I was bitterly disappointed with the Oasis ‘Stop The Clocks’ compilation of 2007, released when the band were still just about hanging onto their career. I even said at the time on these pages that the band should have gone for a ‘singles’ compilation instead of the always-questionable best-of, mopping up all their best known songs and some single-only tracks that had been missed out on album up to now. So full marks to the band for marking the end of their career with only their second compilation, adding a track listing which is near sensible (although why the band should feel ‘embarrassed’ about ‘Sunday Morning Call’ – one of the best songs here – and hide it away as an unlisted bonus track is beyond me). AAA fans probably already know the fantastic run of songs in the ‘classic’ 90s years, but nearly all the better 00’s songs are here too, sounding even better thanks to a running order planned with care (unlike ‘Clocks’, which sounded random). A mention too for the tie-in DVD of the same name, ‘Time Flies’, which rounds up every single promo video for all 30-odd singles (plus 12 album tracks and b-sides) – something we’d been asking for on these pages for some time - and which is by turns poignant and hilarious (especially Noel Gallagher’s deprecating commentaries!) It may well be the best single purchase I’ve made all year, it’s that good. Now could we have a follow-up to B-side set ‘The Masterplan’ next year, please, and I’ll be happy!

1) John Lennon “Signature Box” (box set featuring re-mastered editions of all eight ‘proper’ Lennon solo albums – ie not the three sound collages with Yoko – plus a new remix of the ‘Double Fantasy’ album and a CD of unreleased demos and outtakes): While it isn’t perfect (the price is too high and it wasn’t long ago the solo Lennon catalogue has its own re-issuing bonanza of its own), this box – masterminded by Yoko - is a very fitting and rather moving release in the year that should have seen Lennon’s 70th birthday and instead saw the 30th anniversary of his untimely death. All AAA readers probably know these albums, so just a quick run through: ‘Plastic Ono Band’ is the raw and honest one (AAA review no 43), ‘Imagine’ is the over-rated one with three great songs and not much else, ‘Sometime In New York City’ (news and views no 35) is an under-rated set of raw and sometimes naive political rallies, ‘Mind Games’ is an under-rated album about Lennon’s split from Yoko (news and views no 77), ‘Walls and Bridges’ is a harrowing but tuneful set from Lennon’s ‘lost weekend’ (review no 63), Rock and Roll is a messy and rather pointless covers album, ‘Double Fantasy’ is a weak and saccharine return to work released just week’s before John’s death (but see below...) and ‘Milk and Honey’ a terrific set of outtakes from the ‘Double Fantasy’ sessions that blows that album out of the water and has been long overdue for aq re-issue.

The big new selling point is the CD of outtakes which mainly features yet more outtakes and demos of songs from the first LP (similar to many already heard on the ‘Anthology’ and ‘Acoustic’ sets) but is highlighted by a lovely demo for ‘Beautiful Boy’ far more moving than the finished version and the two previously unreleased (except to bootleggers) ‘Just One Of The Boys’ (a rather lovely house-husband era that could have become something special if finished) and the naive but sweet Rishikesh-era song ‘India’. However, there’s still so many fascinating Lernnon snippets that still haven’t seen the light of day yet (despite two CDs of outtakes and a four disc box set) that you can’t help but think that Yoko has another outtakes disc planned for 2020...

The surprise of the set was undoubtedly the new mix of ‘Double Fantasy’. This has always been the weakest Lennon LP of the lot me (as it is for most people born after he died – although many fans who remember the anticipation of him returning from his retirement love it, interestingly). Much as those of us who’ve been following Lennon’s story through to the end delight in hearing him happy, his music here is robbed of the edge and bite we so sorely miss and sounds too often like a course in singer-songwriting rather than an album from the heart (it is, in fact, the antithesis of the ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album, which might be why it starts with a ringing bell as opposed to the more threatening slowed-down church bell of the earlier album). It’s also ironic that Lennon’s last album should be the one that’s dated the most badly, with a quite hideous voice choir and very 80s synths often getting in the way of Lennon’s voice.

But here, with most of the extraneous arrangements taken away, Lennon’s songs have more room to breathe and resonate and his voice sounds full of the emotion we’re used to hearing. Now ‘Starting Over’ sounds like a genuine promise rather than a comeback record sales opportunity, ‘Clean Up Time’ pounces rather than saunters, ‘Beautiful Boy’ sounds more beautiful and ‘I’m Losing You’ sounds downright scary. Not everything works still: ‘Woman’ still sounds pretty awful in any version and the Yoko song ‘Every Man...’ has degenerated from one of the best and catchiest songs on the album to a tuneless piece of off-key singing. Best of all, we get to hear all the bits and pieces so badly mixed on the album they might as well not be there at all (especially the delightful Lennon dialogue on the fadeout of ‘Dear Yoko’ where Lennon breathlessly tells his wife all the parts about his time in Bermuda that he didn’t fit into his postcard ‘which is hanging up in your office now, right?!’) The mix can only improve what’s there of course, not invent something new, but this ‘stripped down’ version does help ‘Double Fantasy’ to sound more in keeping with the rest of the Lennon catalogue and reveals its hidden strengths rather than emphasising its weaknesses. I wouldn’t want to hear every album in my catalogue revised and remixed like this but for ‘Double Fantasy’ by and large it works. Perhaps the greatest moment of the whole set is when you realise that your least favourite album might suddenly become one of your favourites...

Honorary mentions too for the following, which just missed out on a top five placing: ‘Band On The Run’ (re-issue of Paul McCartney and Wings album, docked a few places because there’s not much new attached from the last re-pressing in 1999 considering the asking price of the deluxe set – although even when edited the ‘One Hand Clapping’ DVD documentary is far too good to languish in the vaults for 37 years); The Apple Box Set (OK so it doesn’t strictly feature any AAA members but various Beatles do pop up on the credits from time to time and those curious after reading my ‘Badfinger’ review will enjoy excellent re-issues of their first four albums); ‘The Midas Touch’ (Hollies compilation and the closest yet to a decent 2CD retrospective in the UK with some excellent track choices, although having the tracks in chronological order would have been nice and the two modern songs on it are horrible!); Stephen Stills/Manassas ‘Pieces’ (for one or two revealing songs as great as anything in their canon, although there’s an awful lot of boring country-tonk rehearsals to sit through); Neil Young’s ‘Dreamin’ Man’ (A nice concert of every single track from 1992’s ‘Harvest Moon’, although none of it is all that different from the LP), The Beatles’ Red and Blue compilation sets (for the few people in the world who don’t own them yet and in appreciation of their new discounted price – although the CD running time is still poor) and Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Write About Love’ (because at least its better than the awful ‘Life Pursuit’ album of 2006, if not up to past glories on first listen). Not a vintage year then, but still a good one – I wonder what’s up the record companies’ sleeves for 2011?...

See you next week for our last issue of 2010!


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