2017 was a good year for old music. And previously unheard scraps left off of classic albums. And discoveries of studio works and live performances that, by whatever cruel twist of fate, never saw the light of day. Some of these were curiosities; some force listeners to rethink their assumptions about periods in music history they thought they knew.
The bulk of the activity came in the form of "Deluxe" and Super Deluxe versions of classic albums, which have superseded career-retrospective boxed sets as the reissue format of choice. These more focused editions are ideal for those who use streaming services: It's easy to skim through the newly issued material, and build playlists that enable quick A/B comparisons between versions of the same song.
There's some debate about the exhaustive nature of these packages, however: Superfans and completists now expect to have access to every scrap and false start, and the labels are naturally happy to oblige — it's easier to sell (or, more accurately, re-sell) an expanded and sonically enhanced version of a cherished classic than it is to sell new work.
A counterargument goes like this: In the process of creating the work, the artists made decisions about what should constitute any given album, and those should be honored — the "extra" material was left on the cutting-room floor for a reason. Those expecting to find a stone-cold classic amongst the already-rejected-once studio explorations are likely to be disappointed.
Still, these lavish sets do offer insights into the creative dynamic, and encourage a deep-dive listening experience that's not possible from a greatest-hits package. Below, some of the year's most interesting deluxe editions; below that, a sampling of the historically significant never-before-issued discoveries that emerged this year.
The Beatles, 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (50th Anniversary Edition)
As with many deluxe editions, the first lure here is upgraded sonics. Most people listen to this iconic work in stereo, even though at the time of creation, the band and producer George Martin devoted considerably more attention to the mono mix. Giles Martin (son of George) studied those Beatles-approved original mono mixes and translated their strategies to a new stereo version - creating a Sgt. Pepper that's visceral, spacious and startlingly impactful. The super-deluxe 4-disc version offers alternate takes, studio discussions and excerpts from the 4-track masters - including the Orchestra Overdub used in "A Day In the Life." Which is really worth hearing, at least once.
Minnie Riperton, 'Perfect Angel' (2 CD Deluxe Edition)
The original 1974 release listed the producer as "El Toro Negro" — for contractual reasons, the Black Bull, a.k.a. Stevie Wonder, had to work under a pseudonym. This expanded version of vocalist Riperton's landmark work makes his participation plain, through the chattering keyboard accompaniments and consistently interesting instrumental forays between verses of "It's So Nice (To See Old Friends)" and others. Riperton, who died at age 31 after battling breast cancer, had a crystalline voice and a daunting multi-octave range; this album also shows her gift for sultry, easygoing, conversational phrasing. Perfect Angel is best known for the blissed-out single "Loving You," but when Wonder's band Wonderlove gets to open up and play, the result is a master class in '70s studio groovecraft.
U2, 'The Joshua Tree' (Super Deluxe 30th Anniversary Edition)
It's a flooded market in deluxe treatments of U2's landmark work - we've already had a 20th anniversary edition and several packages with enhanced artwork. This year's model includes a rousing Madison Square Garden concert from the 1987 tour, swerving and erratic remixes from past and current U2 accomplices and the usual rarities and revisitations — the most musically inventive is a string-drenched Brian Eno treatment, done this year, of "One Tree Hill."
R.E.M., 'Automatic for the People' (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
This expansion of R.E.M.'s brooding eighth studio album is tremendous on all fronts. Not only does it offer several little-heard and near-essential studio tracks that didn't make the cut ("Devil Rides Backwards," "Mike's Pop Song"), interesting studio experiments ("6-8 Passion & Vox" is among a series of revealing snippets) and the band's only live performance from the year of release, it also represents the first time the Dolby Atmos system has been used on a commercial mix. This technology results in an invitingly hyper-real, super-expanded sonic landscape — just cue up "Me In Honey" and be amazed at the detail work embedded below the surface. R.E.M.'s music at this point was both textural and shadowy; the crisp separation and extreme depth render this Automatic a completely new and haunting experience.
Radiohead, 'OKNOTOK 1997-2017'
The expanded version of Radiohead's reputation-sealing OK Computer offers further documentation, if any were needed, of the creative cauldron that swirled around the band at the heady moment as it prepared to follow-up its first wide success. Though singer Thom Yorke has recalled attempting positivity in developing lyrics around this time, the band went the other way, into a superlatively vibey slow-motion maelstrom of sound. The unearthed tracks shed light on Radiohead's process - at least as far as tone and temperament is concerned. Many of those that were left off the final album ("Pearly," "Palo Alto") happened early in the sessions, and could be considered warmups for what followed — they seem downright light and breezy next to the songs like "Electioneering." Other rarities, like "Man of War" and the instrumental "Meeting Across the Aisle," plunge deeper into the doubting, questioning temperament of "Karma Police." They would have fit nicely into the downcast introspective mood of the record, but then again might have tipped things all the way over into despair.
Prince & The Revolution, 'Purple Rain Deluxe' (Expanded Edition)
Before he became a star, and well before the release of this 1984 breakthrough, Prince was a notorious obsessive about sound, famous for burrowing into the most microscopic details of his mixes. That trait pays big dividends on this upgraded set, which is anchored by a new mix and master of Purple Rain that he oversaw in 2015: Even if you know every last keyboard stab in "Take Me With You" and anguished sigh in "The Beautiful Ones," prepare to be astonished by the vivid sharpened instrumental layers and the stunningly spacious headroom around the vocals. There's a concert DVD and a full audio disc titled "From the Vault & Previously Unreleased," with material that was written and recorded around the time of Purple Rain. Among its many delights are a whiplashing hook called "Love and Sex," and an extended vamp with a classic wound-tight Minneapolis groove, "The Dance Electric." That one includes timeless advice from the too-soon-departed legend: "Listen to the rhythm of your soul." He did, and we are better for it.
The Eagles, 'Hotel California' (40th Anniversary Expanded Edition)
Released in December 1976, the Eagles' fifth studio set stands among the great time-capsule rock albums, a shrewdly-observed chronicle of Los Angeles music culture in the high-revving '70s. The band never followed it with music that was nearly as interesting — in fact, one knock on the Eagles after this is they became a dreary, perfunctory live band. Disc 2 of this set, drawn from three nights at the Los Angeles Forum in October 1976 (so before Hotel California's release), pretty much decimates that argument, with authoritative, passionately sung versions of slow-dance prom hits ("Take It To the Limit") and rambunctious rockers (the James Gang's "Funk #49").
Wilco, 'A.M.' and 'Being There'
Here's the birth of a band, in glorious stereo. Wilco was founded by guitarist and songwriter Jeff Tweedy after his much-acclaimed Americana band Uncle Tupelo dissolved; among the rarities appended to this edition of Wilco's debut A.M. is the stunning "When You Find Trouble," the last studio recording of Uncle Tupelo. From that starting point, Wilco rose rapidly — and experienced a correspondingly feverish artistic evolution. It recorded way more material than could be contained on the double album follow-up, Being There; this five-disc expanded version offers a disc of unreleased rarities (including the fervent "Dynamite My Soul"), a charged live set from the Troubadour in 1996 (complete with two versions of "Passenger Side") and a few tracks from a KCRW radio performance.
Bob Dylan, 'Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Volume 13, 1979-1981
This multi-disc set upholds the original mission of the Bootleg Series - to provide context and insight on specific moments and eras in Bob Dylan's career. This one is devoted to his controversial "religious" or "Born Again" period from 1979 until 1981, and from a musical perspective, ranks among the series' biggest surprises. That's largely because of the throttling, super-intense live performances, which are alive with the crosstalking interaction of the Allman Brothers and the deep grooves of The Meters. Even if you are sure about what Bob the Believer was up to during this stretch, Trouble No More will rip up that impression — and leave you with a different, deeper one.
The Rolling Stones, 'On Air'
Drawn from performances on various BBC radio programs between 1963 and 1965, this is a portal to that brief moment when the members of the Rolling Stones were still schooling themselves, gathering the component parts of what became an enduring sound. That means reverent covers of blues classics (Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love To You") and homages to Chicago blues (the instrumental "2120 South Michigan Avenue") and attempts at personalizing Chuck Berry tunes ("Roll Over Beethoven"). Though audio quality is sub-par at times, the band is solid throughout — check out Charlie Watts' loose, infectious pulse on "Route 66." This set might be the single best glimpse of the Stones' origins, before outsized spectacle became essential to the operation.
Thelonious Monk, 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960'
On a summer day in 1959, Monk and an ad-hoc group — his regular saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Sam Jones, drummer Art Taylor and French saxophonist Barney Wilen — spent a day in a New York studio, crafting music that would figure into Roger Vadim's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a film that drew controversy for salaciousness upon its U.S. release. Some of that music, including a rhapsodic solo version of Monk's ballad "Pannonica," was used in the film, but the material was never released in audio form. Until now. It's a sparkling recording that spotlights Monk's artfully clustered harmonies and disarmingly earnest songwriting, particularly on his original ballads. An essential glimpse of a titan at the peak of his creativity.
Ella Fitzgerald, 'Ella at Zardi's'
To mark the centennial of "the First Lady of Song's" birth, Verve Records tossed out a bunch of titles this year. These hit dramatic extremes on the quality spectrum. There was one abjectly awful experiment — Someone To Watch Over Me: Ella with the London Symphony Orchestra, which pasted Fitzgerald's vocals from existing recordings onto newly written, excessively sugary accompaniment. Perhaps to atone, Verve recently issued the delightfully zippy Ella at Zardi's. It's a real find: two sets of blithe vocal brilliance recorded in a club in 1956, before Ella became a trademark. Working with a familiar trio, she's easygoing and at times flippant, even when, as happens on "Tenderly," she forgets a line of lyric. Get this to savor Fitzgerald's assured sense of swing, and unmatched (still!) vocal dexterity.
Ray Charles Orchestra, 'Swiss Radio Days #41: Zurich 1961'
If forced to select a single night from any in his long career to eavesdrop on Ray Charles, you could do worse than this heated 1961 performance. It's early in a European tour, he's got an ace big band with charts by young Quincy Jones, and (as was custom at the time) he's doing the R&B hits and lesser-known jazz material featuring soloists like David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford. The band exudes an effortless sense of swing, supplying the requisite starched-collar snap without being too sassy or showy. Naturally, there's room for Charles' simultaneously playful and serious vocal ad-libbing, which here is as fluid and loose as anything the Genius ever recorded. No disrespect to the studio version of "Hit The Road, Jack," but you probably haven't heard it played at this intensity level before.
The Three Sounds: 'Groovin' Hard — Live at the Penthouse'
This year the Resonance label pretty much redefined the art of the jazz vault release; each of its titles, including this compendium of performances drawn from four years of Three Sounds dates at a beloved Seattle club, were meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated. This hard-swinging group led by pianist Gene Harris is often overlooked by jazz elitists, perhaps for being too "inside" or "straight-ahead." Just a few minutes of the serenely pleasurable "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" from this set shows how limiting snobbery can be.
Bill Evans, 'Another Time: The Hilversum Concert'
Recorded two days after the concert captured on last year's critically hailed vault gem Some Other Time, this features taciturn pianist Evans methodically unpacking standards ("Emily," "Embraceable You") and jam-session favorites ("Nardis") with bassist Eddie Gomez and the extremely lively drummer Jack DeJohnette. At this point, Evans might be the most thoroughly documented pianist in jazz history — there are countless multi-disc releases covering each of his significant ensembles. This particular trio was short-lived, and that, plus the spellbindingly beautiful quality of the recording, makes it a significant addition to Evans' discography.
Jaco Pastorius, 'Truth, Liberty & Soul: The Complete 1982 NPR Jazz Alive Recordings'
Many know about Jaco Pastorius' earthshattering talent on the electric bass; this never-before-available live set, recorded at Avery Fisher Hall, shows just how visionary he was as a bandleader and arranger. All these years later, his Word of Mouth band still sounds like the future. There are traces of Weather Report coolness, expressed through a tart cocktail of evocative orchestral colors — steel drums, harmonica, French horns — and rapidly morphing, highly elastic grooves. Come for the mind-bending "Soul Intro/The Chicken," stay for the lovely interpretation of Weather Report's "Three Views of a Secret."
Neil Young, 'Hitchhiker'
This 1976 recording is a ragged studio-verite document, offering a slate of enduring Neil Young songs captured in just-past-sketchbook form on a single day. It's just Young by himself, getting his ideas down in a pure and austere way. Still, running throughout is the creative intensity (or, maybe, anxiety?) that animates the well-known Crazy Horse versions of "Powderfinger" and "Pocahontas." Unexpectedly graceful and at times haunting, this demo makes you wonder what else is hiding in Neil Young's archives.