The Best Compilations and Re-Issues of 2008
Part 6 of The Hurst Review’s eight-part year-in-review wrap-up.
Critics are notorious listmakers, and, as The Hurst Review prepares to unveil its own year-end list next Monday, it might be prudent to pause for a moment to consider just why listmaking is important to begin with. The purpose of listing and celebrating the best records released in a given year, it seems, is not just to honor excellence, but to honor that music– that art– that seems bulit to stand the test of time, the albums that will still be rich and rewarding to anyone brave enough to remember them three, five, ten, twenty years down the road. But what about the music that has already proven itself to stand up to the passage of time? A handful of albums remained in frequent rotation at Hurst Headquarters throughout the year, despite being recorded long before 2008.
Indeed, some of the best music released in 2008 was recorded years, or even decades ago– but that doesn’t mean it was stuff we’d all heard before. Actually, some of these vintage recordings had never seen the light of day at all– like, for instance, the vast majority of the songs on Bob Dylan’s eighth official “bootleg” recording, the two-disc monster called Tell Tale Signs. Comprised of songs recorded over the past 25 years or so– highlighted mostly by alternate takes and demos from the Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind albums, as well as some live cuts, soundtrack offerings, and a couple of reworked Modern Times tunes– the album is heavy on new versions of songs most Dylanologists have heard before, but the thing sounds for all the world like a brand new Bob Dylan album. And not just any Bob Dylan album; as my colleague Andy Whitman notes, it’s perilously close to being a masterpiece, and only Bob Dylan can piece together a masterpiece from a bunch of leftovers. A spooky, bluesy romp through old-as-dirt American musical idioms, touching on everything from country and bluegrass to pre-rock ballads and ancient folk songs, it’s an album that’s very much of a piece with his other recent masterpieces, an album about death and mean-spirited women and the end of the world, and, of course, it’s by turns heartbreaking and hilarious.
Meanwhile, The Smiths also have a two-disc compilation out, but this one’s a little different. The Smiths are notorious for repackaging the same material time after time, giving their catalog the illusion of being very large when in fact they only recorded a handful of albums, so there’s nothing on The Sound of the Smiths that will come as truly shocking or surprising to longtime Smiths fans, despite a few live cuts and rarities. But so what? Familiar though it may be, the music is uniformly great, and there’s no question that this is the essential Smiths package out there, taking every single track from the wonderful Singles compilation and expanding upon it significantly. And even if you’ve heard all these songs before, hearing them again, re-assembled in this next context, is still exhilarating, and indeed, proof that The Smiths made some of the most thrilling and enduring indie rock of the 1980s.
Finally, every year sees a huge crop of re-issued classic albums, but there are two 2008 re-issues that stand out, not only because they’re great records, but because they’ve been out of print for so long that most folks haven’t had a chance to hear them, unless they got on board when the albums first released. Both records are triumphs of production and of songwriting, and yet they couldn’t be more different: In one corner, Nick Lowe’s classic celebration of pop music in all its trashiness and glory, Jesus of Cool, is a mercilessly sarcastic, snarky album about the music industry itself, brimming with misanthropic humor and dark cynicism but also with giddy wordplay and some surprisingly tender moments. Musically, Lowe bashes out quick, hard-hitting pop songs with big melodies and zero fat, then dresses them up in a production that was cutting edge at the time of its release and still sounds colorful and full today. And in the other corner, Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue was meant to jumpstart a long and fruitful career for the underappreciated Beach Boy, who was just beginning to blossom creatively at the time of its release; his tragic and sudden death, however, ensured that this album would stand as a monument to all that he was and could have been, its sun-kissed sound standing in stark contrast to the brooding, confessional lyrics, making for an album that’s as bittersweet as it is beautiful. Its re-issue is something to celebrate, but the real joy is hearing the demos from the unfinished and never-released follow-up album, Bambu, which is,if anything, even richer and more exciting than his first album. Put together, the two albums afford an intimate portrait of a man who had more to offer than he was ever given the chance to reveal.