Happy 2021 and welcome to The Second Disc's 11th Annual Gold Bonus Disc Awards!
The past year has presented any number of unprecedented challenges. But music has filled a more important role than ever, providing solace, comfort, and escape in a time unlike any other. With that spirit in mind, The Second Disc once again wishes to recognize 2020's cream of the catalogue music crop - those exemplary reissues and box sets big and small that proved to be truly outstanding for music lovers worldwide. Despite the many delays caused by COVID-19, there was no shortage of great reissue titles in 2020; in fact, by our count, we covered well over 500 releases in all!
After much deliberation, we're excited to unveil our favorites. This isn't your run-of-the-mill Top 10, however. To cover as much ground and spotlight as many titles as we can, we've organized 26 of our favorites from A to Z, and included some additional titles that were just too good to leave out. (And while our own Second Disc Records releases were, of course, ineligible, we hope some of those made your own personal best-of lists!) As always, The Gold Bonus Disc Awards are dedicated to the labels, the behind-the-scenes players, and the artists who continue to prove the value in physical releases of catalogue music. We also want to thank all the brick-and-mortar stores that bring these fantastic titles to listeners everywhere. Most importantly, we want to recognize you, our readers, for your lasting support and good conversation. Our hearts are with the first responders, healthcare and essential workers, and families of all whose lives who have been impacted by the scourge of COVID-19.
Without any further ado, here's TSD's A-to-Z list of our favorite reissues of the year!
- Joe, Mike, Sam, and Randy
Ace of Base, All That She Wants: The Classic Collection (Edsel)
Edsel released this comprehensive 11-CD/1-DVD box chronicling the Swedish pop group's first four studio albums from 1992 to 2002. The set's 195 tracks feature numerous remixes, B-sides and other rarities from across the band's career and includes their first live gig from 1990 plus demos from the original line-up's final studio sessions in 2008. Happy Nation and The Bridge are expanded to two discs while Flowers grows to three. The 2015 compilation Hidden Gems is given a new second disc, as well. A DVD of 26 music videos and a photo gallery is also included. Ace of Base had a more complicated discography than you might think with some albums being reworked for the U.S. market such as Happy Nation becoming The Sign and Flowers becoming Cruel Summer. If you only know them from their biggest hits like "The Sign" and "Don't Turn Around," there is a lot of worthwhile exploration in this box between the audio, video and expansive liner notes from Billboard's Fred Bronson which should be the final word on this era of group. In addition, Demon/Edsel also released other excellent box sets this past year devoted to artists such as Bob Mould, Average White Band, Labi Siffre, and Kiki Dee which are worth checking out, too! - RF
Bobby Bare, Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus (Bear Family)
Bear Family has done it again! The pairing of Shel Silverstein - the humorist, cartoonist, poet, songwriter, and author of beloved children's books such as Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic - and outlaw country troubadour Bobby Bare was far from an obvious one. Yet Silverstein and Bare clicked as friends and collaborators for decades, with Bare recording over 100 of Silverstein's often-unusual songs. The lavish 8-CD box Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus collected all of their work together for the Mercury, RCA, and Columbia labels including six complete albums focusing on the Silverstein repertoire (Lullabys, Legends, and Lies; Singin' in the Kitchen; Hard Time Hungrys; Great American Saturday Night; Down & Dirty; Drunk & Crazy) plus stray, Shel-penned tracks from Bare's other LPs and singles, and a whopping 25 previously unreleased tracks. The collected works of these two remarkable storytellers, placed into context with a 128-page hardcover book, made for one of 2020's most engaging releases. Read more here! - JM
Elvis Costello - Armed Forces: Super Deluxe Edition (UMe)
Elvis Costello's oversized Armed Forces was one of the year's most exciting box sets - and also one of its most controversial, as Costello eschewed the CD format and general retail for an expensive vinyl-only collection available exclusively through the label's online storefront. But for those willing to embrace the vinyl format (or the streaming version sans packaging and annotation), everything about Armed Forces was done right - from its nine records remastered by Bob Ludwig (including 23 previously unreleased live tracks) to its bevy of cleverly-designed, pulp-style books (seven in total) with a nearly 10,000-word essay plus handwritten lyrics and ephemera relating to the 1979 album. As a hefty supplement to the 2002 definitive Rhino (U.S.)/Edsel (U.K.) CD edition, this box proved a thrilling addition to the discography of one of rock's most prolific, boundary-breaking artists. Read more here! - JM
Tom Jones - The Complete Decca Studio Albums Collection (Decca/UMC)
2020 gave us a bounty of releases from artists who have truly earned legendary status. Among them is the great Tom Jones. The box set The Complete Decca Studio Albums Collection arrived in the waning days of 2020 after a series of delays (TSD first reported about the set in May 2016!) but in that period, the 15-album set grew to include two bonus discs of 48 non-LP sides, many new to CD. While the box isn't perfect (the back covers of the original LPs aren't replicated; Jones' trio of live albums for Decca aren't in the set's purview), it's a powerful testament to his tremendous staying power as well as his often-underrated ability to make a song his own. Jones wasn't the only showbiz mainstay to be celebrated in 2020. 88 year-young Petula Clark, who was starring in the West End's Mary Poppins as The Bird Woman until COVID-19 prematurely closed the show (for now), revisited A Valentine's Day Concert at The Royal Albert Hall from 1974 on a gorgeous 2-CD set that proved to be a true labor of love from the United Music Foundation. Polly O. Entertainment saluted The Lennon Sisters on a trio of wonderful releases that brought some much-needed sunshine to the year. And while Matt Monro's life and career ended at the sad age of 54 in 1985, his velvet voice was remembered on the sublime Stranger in Paradise: The Lost New York Sessions. - JM
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, Orange Crate Art: 25th Anniversary Edition (Omnivore)
Orange Crate Art - Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks' first collaboration since 1967's initially-abortive SMiLE but happily not their last - had long been an outsider in the Beach Boys canon...until now. Omnivore's 25th anniversary reissue gave deserved attention to the dazzling, cinematic journey through the California of past and fantasy composed by Parks and brought to life as only Wilson's distinctive voice could. An entire disc of instrumental versions plus three previously unheard bonus tracks (two of which showcased Wilson's love of Gershwin, later expressed via an album-length tribute to the late composer) were added to the splendidly remastered album. You can practically hear the sunshine. Read more here! - JM
Frank Sinatra, Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra (Impex)
1950's Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra found The Voice doing what he did better than anyone: interpreting classic songs by the likes of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, and Richard Whiting and Walter Donaldson in a swingin' session. The Columbia record arranged and conducted by the all-too-unheralded George Siravo was Sinatra's first fully-formed big band album to take advantage of the long-playing format; significantly, it anticipated his groundbreaking Capitol albums of just a few short years later. To mark its 70th anniversary, audiophile label Impex Records, guided by producer-annotator Charles A. Granata and engineer Andreas Meyer, gave Sing and Dance a stunning sonic overhaul on both hybrid SACD (playable on all CD players) and 180-gram vinyl, complete with outtakes, alternate versions, and orchestra-only cuts. Both releases of Sing and Dance are packaged to the highest standard with detailed liner notes and memorabilia. Simply put, this is how Sinatra reissues should be done. Read more here! - JM
Grateful Dead, The Story of the Grateful Dead (Vinyl Me Please)
VMP invited listeners new and old to take that strange trip into the Grateful Dead's musical oeuvre with a massive, 14-LP celebration of some of the band's finest studio recordings and live albums. It's a challenging task to distill the band's 30-year career into just a few touchstones, but VMP's selections provide a succinct look at all the things that made the Grateful Dead special. It begins with the landmark 1970 albums Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, before moving backward to Live/Dead (presented in its original mix). Next up is the live document Europe '72, then the career-redefining Wake Of The Flood and Terrapin Station, followed by the all-acoustic concert recording Reckoning and the late-period live album Without a Net. The box set was curated with the new initiate in mind, but to audiophile specifications that will make every Deadhead happy. The pressings inside are not rehashes of existing versions, but fresh, all-analog remasters done for VMP by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering. (The one exception to this is Without A Net, which was remastered from original digital masters). Each LP was pressed on color vinyl at QRP and the results are flat, quiet, and uniformly dynamic and inviting. Add to it a liner notes book featuring essays from musicians who were influenced by the band, plus VMP's online community, special podcasts, and Q&A video chats with Grateful Dead experts, and you get a set that goes beyond music and liner notes and speaks to the communal ethos of Grateful Dead. Read more here! - SS
Various Artists, Cherry Red box sets
In 2020, the many labels comprising the Cherry Red group released box sets of every size and shape in almost every conceivable genre. That diversity rewarded listeners with many of the year's finest and most essential releases from such imprints as SoulMusic Records (newly-minted social media darling Dionne Warwick's Déjà Vu: The Arista Recordings 1979-1994), RPM (Kursaal Flyers' Little Does She Know: The Complete Recordings), 7Ts (Brian Protheroe's The Albums 1974-76), Grapefruit (The Tremeloes' The Complete CBS Recordings 1966-72), El (The Free Design's Butterflies are Free: The Original Recordings 1967-72), and Esoteric (Andrew Gold's Lonely Boy: The Asylum Years Anthology). Every one of these sets, and many more, were worthy of the artists they represented. - JM
Joni Mitchell, Archives Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) (Rhino)
This 5-CD box set of officially unreleased material took Joni Mitchell's legions of fans by surprise. Mitchell has been famously averse to looking back, but after listening to a recently unearthed tape of her earliest-known recording (a 1963 radio session in her hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), she realized there was a lot of quality material in the vault. She and Rhino A&R director Patrick Milligan collaborated for this staggering 119-track treasure trove which features home demos, rare radio broadcasts, and coffeehouse gigs -- all sequenced chronologically to show Mitchell's remarkable trajectory as a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and performer. Read our interview with Joni Mitchell's co-producer, Patrick Milligan, here. - SS
Joan Armatrading, Joan Armatrading (Intervention)
Intervention Records has once again delivered a knock-out reissue with their remaster of Joan Armatrading's self-titled album on 180-gram vinyl. Long a "demo disc" to show off the qualities of an audiophile system, this edition improves even more on the album's sonics utilizing an analog tape source and gentle but effective mastering choices to bring out all elements of the recording. The result? Armatrading's shimmery guitar and unmistakable voice -- not to mention the musicianship of the band backing her -- shine like never before. Read more here! - SS
Lou Reed, New York: Deluxe Edition (Sire/Rhino)
Lou Reed's New York (1989) remains one of his hardest-hitting albums, and its frequently-bleak portrait of a city on the brink has only gotten more resonant in the three decades since its original release. Recording with just two guitars, bass, and drums, the album returned Reed to the milieu of the Velvet Underground while simultaneously responding to the sleek, high-gloss sound of 1980s rock. Rhino's 3-CD/2-LP/1-DVD reissue is the most comprehensive Reed album reissue to date, and doesn't disappoint with its wealth of supplemental material to explore New York from every angle (work tapes, alternate versions, rough mixes, single versions, live tracks). "It's hard to give a shit these days," he observed on the album...but it's hard not to give a shit about this visceral, hard-hitting tribute to the late artist's most powerful solo album. Read more here! - JM
Various Artists, Thom Bell: Ready or Not - Philly Soul Arrangements & Productions 1965-1978 (Ace)
Here at The Second Disc, we've long championed the work of Philly soul maestro Thom Bell including on a pair of our Second Disc Records releases (Johnny Mathis' Life Is a Song Worth Singing: The Complete Thom Bell Sessions and the expanded edition of the original soundtrack to The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh). This year, Ace Records finally inducted Bell into their Songwriters and Producers Series pantheon with Ready or Not: Philly Soul Arrangements & Productions 1965-1978. We were certainly ready! This collection curated by Bob Stanley offers a broad overview of what makes Bell's sumptuous work so singular, featuring a cross-section of the artists with whom he worked including Mathis, Dionne Warwick, The Stylistics, The Spinners, The Delfonics, and Laura Nyro. And yet it's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Bell's oeuvre. Sophisticated, sweet soul has never sounded better. Read more here! - JM
Tom Petty, Wildflowers & All the Rest (Warner Records)
After delays, the artist's death, and litigation, the reissue of Tom Petty's 1994 solo classic Wildflowers finally arrived in 2020, making good on its promise to restore Petty's original vision for the album - and then some, or All the Rest. Warner Records released Wildflowers & All the Rest in a variety of formats of which the 5-CD and 9-LP iterations were the most expansive. These presented the beautifully remastered original album alongside the songs Petty dropped in 1994 plus several bonus discs of home recordings, live tracks, and outtakes. It added up to an intimate, vivid, and altogether engrossing tour through what was arguably Petty's most personal album. Read more here! - JM
Catholic Girls, Rock N' Roll School For Girls (JSP)
The Catholic Girls' unique blend power-pop mastery and witty lyrics made them a shoe-in for success during the early '80s. Their self-titled debut -- a concept album of sorts largely focusing on love in the modern era -- was released on MCA Records in 1982 and was well-received. Yet, record company politics and objections to their image more or less ended their shot at fame. The group remains a cult favorite, though, and whether you've been an ardent fan of the band for decades or just want to enjoy some excellent power-pop that redefines the girl-group sound, you'll want to pick up this 2-CD set. With a disc of unreleased demos and recent recordings alongside a newly remixed and remastered version of their classic debut, it's so far the definitive word on this often overlooked band. Read more here! - SS
Prince, Sign "O" The Times: Deluxe Edition (Warner/NPG)
Over the past several years, Prince fans have been treated to some exemplary collections celebrating the late artist and this year was no exception. The highlight was this lavish 8-CD/1-DVD (or 13-LP/1-DVD) package from Warner Records and NPG. 1987's double-album Sign "O" The Times has been considered one of Prince's masterpieces since its initial release for its themes and musical complexity. But even with all of the fanfare and critical acclaim, some fans were left wondering "what if?" The album had a long gestation as Prince was at a creative crossroads, and he initially turned in a 3-LP version which was cut down to two. Those questions of what might have been were finally answered with this set which included 3 discs of vault material exploring those what-ifs. The box rounds out its comprehensive look at this era with a disc of B-sides and remixes and two concerts, one on CD and one on DVD. A fascinating hardcover book of notes is included as well. All in all, this set lived up to fans' massive expectations. And Prince fans should also check out the 4-CD/1-DVD Up All Nite with Prince: The One Nite Alone Collection from Legacy. Read our review of Sign "O" The Times here! - RF
Paul McCartney, Archive Collection: Flaming Pie (MPL/Capitol)
Paul McCartney capped off 2020 by releasing McCartney III in December (in a multitude of editions!), but earlier in the year he released the latest entry in his Archive series, this time devoted to 1997's Flaming Pie. That marks the most recent album to be included in the series and also is one of the most expansive editions with five CDs and two DVDs. Paul worked on this album concurrently while participating in the Beatles Anthology compilations and perhaps that is why Flaming Pie looks to the past. Working with Jeff Lynne, McCartney did most of the heavy lifting himself but brought in family members and other guests including Steve Miller and Ringo Starr. George Martin even lent a hand on some tracks. The original album is expanded on the Archive Collection box with two discs of demos, home recordings and rough mixes, a disc of B-sides including the "Oobu Joobu" radio-show-style tracks from the original singles, an audio documentary, a video documentary, and a DVD of music videos and behind-the-scenes segments. The box is designed in the same style as previous Archive editions and includes a gorgeous hardcover book and other ephemera. McCartney's Archive series always produces impressive results and Flaming Pie is no exception. Read more here! - RF
The Doobie Brothers, Quadio (Warner/Rhino) and Company: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Dutton Vocalion) - Quadraphonic releases
Much to our delight here at TSD, surround sound is still alive and well. And we're not just talking 5.1; quadraphonic (4.0) sound has also had a bit of a comeback! Rhino was responsible for one of the year's most dazzling quad releases with The Doobie Brothers' Quadio - featuring a run of four classic albums in radically different, immersive, and discrete surround mixes - but Dutton Vocalion also carried the torch with its ongoing series of quad reissues including the long-awaited SACD debut of the 1970 Original Broadway Cast Recording to Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company. These releases only served to deepen our appreciation of the original albums while offering a new/old dimension in which to enjoy them. We're not sorry/grateful - only grateful. - JM
Rolling Stones, Goats Head Soup: Super Deluxe Edition (Polydor/Interscope/UMe)
In 2020, The Rolling Stones shone a light on an overlooked gem, Goats Head Soup. The 1973 album typically gets lost in the shuffle after those landmarks like Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. But this 3CD/BD deluxe edition -complete with remixes in stereo and Dolby Atmos, unreleased outtakes with Jimmy Page and others, restored music videos, a thrilling live collection from Brussels, posters, and a detailed hardback book -- proves The Stones still had a lot left in them and that there's much to enjoy on Goats Head Soup. Read more here! - SS
Cast recordings and soundtracks - Lolita, My Love (Kritzerland) / Maury Sings Yeston (PS Classics) / On the Level: Original London Cast Recording (Stage Door) / Midnight Cowboy and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Quartet)
Here at TSD, we're always thrilled to see releases from classic Broadway and Hollywood. One of the most unexpected yet most rewarding releases, hands-down, was Kritzerland's first-ever issue of John Barry and Alan Jay Lerner's extraordinary score to one of Broadway's most notorious flop musicals: Lolita, My Love. Unsurprisingly, audiences didn't flock to a musical adaptation of Vladmir Nabokov's novel, critics were unkind, and the show closed before making it to Broadway. But Kritzerland's complete 2-CD release of a tape made during a live performance makes it clear that Lerner's adaptation was strong, his and Barry's contemporary pop-tinged songs were top-notch, and the cast including John Neville, Leonard Frey, Denise Nickerson, and the showstopping Dorothy Loudon was well-suited to the material. Mastering engineer James Nelson has done as much work as possible to the audio quality, and the result is both eminently listenable and utterly fascinating.
PS Classics had a surprise late in 2020, too, with the release of Maury Sings Yeston, a generous 2-CD offering from the composer-lyricist of Broadway's Nine and Titanic comprising his own demo recordings of songs from shows both produced (Nine, Death Takes a Holiday) and unproduced (the abortive La Cage Aux Folles adaptation The Queen of Basin Street, the still-in-development Club Moscow and Ramayana) and everything in between (the concept album Goya: A Life in Song). There's nothing quite like hearing a composer interpret his own songs, and these demos from one of the musical theatre's most original voices prove to be no exception.
Mention should also be made of the exceedingly stellar work done year-round by the U.K.'s Stage Door Records. Stage Door has championed the reissue of classic West End and London studio cast recordings that haven't yet seen the light of day on CD, including freshly-remastered reissues of the Original London Cast Recordings of Annie and On the Level, and the Saga Records studio cast of Jorrocks. Stage Door remains a go-to destination for musical theatre collectors. Harbinger Records and The Musical Theater Project aren't quite as prolific but their releases are similarly essential including 2020's I Love My Wife: Backers Audition featuring composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart introducing their delightful score to potential investors in the musical.
In the face of the unusual challenges posed by COVID-19, film score-centric labels such as La-La Land, Intrada, Varese Sarabande, and Quartet all persevered with new and exciting titles such as Munster, Go Home, Casper, and two volumes of Goldsmith at 20th (La-La Land), The Land Before Time (Intrada), and The Wild, Wild West and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (Varese). Quartet came through with a wide range of fantastic score releases including John Addison's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Swashbuckler, and A Bridge Too Far, Goldsmith's Total Recall, Maurice Jarre's Jacob's Ladder, Lee Holdridge's Mr. Mom, a new recording of Bernard Herrmann's Endless Night, and two titles are among the label's most rewarding and most significant.
Midnight Cowboy found John Barry overseeing pop cues from Harry Nilsson, The Groop, Lesley Miller, and John Lennon's backing band Elephants Memory alongside his own moody, evocative compositions to conjure the seedy milieu of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo's New York circa 1969. Quartet's 2-CD presentation offers numerous ways to enjoy Barry's incredible work: the original soundtrack album presentation, bonus alternate versions, and the score as heard in the film. Maestro Ennio Morricone's haunting, instantly recognizable score to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly has inspired an even more lavish release: a 3-CD set with the original film score, 20 bonuses, and its original soundtrack album. Both sets have been painstakingly restored, mixed, and mastered by Chris Malone and are truly the last word on two of the most famed scores in the cinema pantheon. Read more about them here! - JM & RF
Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love: Deluxe Edition (UMC)
Tears for Fears had great success with their first two albums: 1983's The Hurting and 1985's Songs From the Big Chair. But with their third album, 1989's The Seeds of Love, the group moved a bit away from the sound of those earlier triumphs and wrote longer, more abstract material with some serious themes about adulthood. But the change in sound didn't deter fans and the album climbed to No. 1 in the U.K. (No. 8 U.S.), garnering a No. 2 Pop hit with "Sowing The Seeds of Love." After a long waiting period, Universal has followed up their deluxe presentations of the group's first two efforts with a new 4-CD/1-BD edition of The Seeds of Love. The remastered original album has been expanded with 42 extra tracks including B-sides, remixes, demos, jams and early mixes, many of which were unreleased. The set is capped off with the Blu-ray which features two masterings of the album (including the original) and most excitingly, a new 5.1 surround mix by Steven Wilson who did similar work on the The Hurting and Songs from the Big Chair. It was a long wait for fans of Tears of Fears for this deluxe edition, but the results were worth the wait. (Note that this set also epitomized another, recent trend in which deluxe box sets are selling out almost immediately. Many retailers were unable to fulfill even pre-orders, and today, the 4-CD/1-BD version of The Seeds of Love is only available from third party sellers with no word as of this writing of a second pressing.) Read more here! - RF
Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Live at the Roundhouse (Legacy)
When this live album and concert film from Pink Floyd's ever-dependable drummer was released in September '20, fans all over the world were locked up in COVID quarantine and in need of some time travel. Mason and his band delivered with a set of Pink Floyd classics and deep cuts from their psychedelic, pre-Dark Side of the Moon era. They give new life to gems that, in many cases, hadn't been performed in 40 years. It all takes place at London's Roundhouse, a venue known to many Floyd fans as one of the band's favorite places to perform in their formative years. Whether you enjoy the material on CD, LP or you choose the beautifully directed concert film, you'll be transported to another time. Read more here! - SS
Elvis Presley, From Elvis in Nashville (RCA/Legacy)
Legacy celebrated 50 years since Elvis Presley's landmark marathon sessions in Music City with a 4-CD box set featuring 76 recordings as you've never hear them before. Thanks to Matt Ross-Spang's remix, gone are the over-produced elements that were overdubbed onto the tapes for release on That's the Way It Is, Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old), and Love Letters from Elvis. Free from choirs and orchestrations, Elvis and the band finally shine on this collection of fantastic interpretations of blues, country, and rock. Read more here! - SS
Steve Wynn, Decade (Real Gone Music)
Real Gone Music teamed with the artist himself to put together this 11-CD, 166-track box set. When Paisley Underground group The Dream Syndicate broke up in 1989, original member Wynn embarked on a solo career. The aptly named Decade looks at 10 years of that period from 1995-2005 and features four albums by Wynn himself and two albums credited to him and the Miracle 3. A disc of singles is also included. Wynn compiled and sequenced the box together with Pat Thomas, who produced the set. John Sellards provided the striking design. Decade boasts 57 unreleased tracks, the stories of which are told by Wynn in the liner notes. The chance to revisit these out-of-print albums and Wynn's own involvement made this one deluxe set that's well worth your time and investment. Read more here! - RF
Elton John, Jewel Box (Rocket/EMI/UMC)
Over the years, fans of Elton John have wanted more unreleased and archival material to be released. To be fair, the artist has sporadically dug into the vault, with tracks appearing on box sets and expanded album reissues spread across a couple of decades. But nothing truly expansive appeared until this year's Jewel Box. The 8-CD set features 148 tracks, 63 of which are unreleased. The box is divided into four themes: two discs of album cuts curated by John, three discs of rarities recorded from 1965-1971, two discs of B-sides picking up from 1992's Rare Masters set, and a disc of songs highlighted in John's acclaimed 2019 autobiography Me. Listeners can experience the deeper history of John's career and learn more of the background with the excellent hardcover book included in the box. It's truly a fascinating journey, on which you can trace the evolution of the superstar singer-songwriter. When combined with 2017's Diamonds and the older Rare Masters set, fans can a get a great overview of Elton's storied career. Read more here! - RF
Neil Young, Archives Volume 2 (Reprise)
The first Neil Young Archives box set appeared 11 (!) years ago, so it's been a long wait for the second. In the intervening years, numerous projects and Young's website have kept a steady stream of archival material available for fans, but another box seemed to be what was most desired. And it finally arrived this year in a 10-CD set chronicling the years 1972-1976. The box is designed nearly identically to the first set (although this new volume is only available on CD, dropping the DVD and Blu-ray options of the first box) with a book containing period news clippings and session logs. There has been some controversy with the box: a handful of the discs were available in separate CDs previously, and the set sold out nearly immediately on Young's website. But there is a slimmed-down version coming and the deluxe edition will be repressed in March, too. But, putting all of that aside, the material on the box certainly lives up to expectations. The five years chronicled here are among the best and most fertile of Young's career and show why he is such an acclaimed songwriter and iconoclastic artist. If you at all interested in this period of Young's disography, it is most certainly worth seeking out. Read more here! - RF
Black Jazz reissues from Real Gone / Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto (Impulse!/UMe/Legacy) / Resonance Records releases
There have been several excellent jazz reissues in 2020 that are among the year's best. First up is Real Gone Music's series of reissues from the Black Jazz label on CD and LP. The Black Jazz label was the brainchild of pianist Gene Russell and percussionist Dick Schory. Founded to promote young African-American jazz musicians and singers, the label was unfortunately short-lived, releasing twenty album in five years from 1971-1975. But that brief lifespan had nothing to do with the talent on the label including such artists as Cleveland Eaton, Doug Carn, Jean Carn, Kellee Patterson, and Gene Russell himself. These albums have been long out-of-print and only available on CD in Japan so Real Gone bringing them back to the limelight is very welcome indeed. Each album has been newly remastered by Mike Milchner with in-depth liner notes from historian Pat Thomas. Equally impressive were Resonance Records' 2020 releases including Bill Evans' Live at Ronnie Scott's; Sonny Rollins' Rollins in Holland: The 1967 Studio and Live Recordings; and Monty Alexander's Love You Madly: Live at Bubba's. Each of these projects was in the mold of a mini-history book with detailed information about the artists and these happily-discovered sessions. - RF
And then there's Thelonious Monk's Palo Alto. In a move that was unsurprisingly 2020, this exuberant 1968 performance by inimitable pianist Thelonious Monk and three of his finest collaborators was almost left unreleased. Thankfully, it finally arrived on shelves in September after a brief delay to wide acclaim. The 47-minute album documents a performance by Monk, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, and drummer Ben Riley at Palo Alto High School. The gig was arranged by a student there and -- remarkably -- was recorded by the school janitor in return for tuning the piano. It was an unlikely venue, sure, but Monk and the band didn't treat it any differently from the stage at Jazz Workshop where they were contracted to play later that night. On signature tunes "Ruby My Dear," "Well, You Needn't," and "Blue Monk" listeners are reminded why Monk still ranks as one of the very best jazz pianists. His band is on fire, too, providing dazzling solos and making adventurous choices at every turn. Given Monk's personal and financial issues in 1968, and the sociopolitical climate of the time, it's a minor miracle that this high school show happened. It's even more amazing that the recording exists to enjoy. Pick it up, turn it on loud, and get lost in the magic. Read more here! - SS
America, ½ Century (America/Gonzo)
Everybody knows "A Horse with No Name," "Ventura Highway," and "Sister Golden Hair." But there's always been a lot more to America. The celebration of the band's 50 musical years continued in 2020 with the release of Half Century, a 7-CD/1-DVD box set packed with rare and previously unreleased material from early demos to an entire disc of rarities from the overlooked period of the 1990s. This "alternative history" approach - the big hits aren't here in their original versions - makes the perfect complement to the Greatest Hits disc or Highway box you know you have lying around. All of the tracks here were sourced from the band's personal archives and are exclusive to the box set. Check out our interview with America's audio archivist Jeff Larson! - JM
Various Artists, A Cellarful of Motown! Vol. 5 (Caroline)
One of 2020's most delightful comebacks was that of A Cellarful of Motown!, the rarities-packed U.K. series drawn from the Motown archives. While the last volume arrived in 2010, this 2-CD, 43-song collection curated by Paul Nixon was better late than ever with its previously unreleased and new-to-CD tracks from such household name artists as Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Gladys Knight and The Pips, and The (Detroit) Spinners as well as cherished favorites including Chuck Jackson, Barbara McNair, Billy Eckstine, Brenda Holloway, Chris Clark, and the subject of Second Disc Records' 2019 Heart Full of Soul: The Motown Anthology, Blinky. Bring on Volume 6! Read more here. - JM
King Crimson, 1969 (DGM)
The most expansive box on our list is this gargantuan 20-CD/1-DVD/1-DVD-A/4-BD set (whew!) chronicling the progressive rock band's first year of existence when they released the seminal In The Court of the Crimson King album. The producers have said that this is everything they have in the vault for 1969 and it is not hard to think that is correct! Rarely has a set dived this deeply into an era surrounding a single album. Among the contents are six discs of live material, three discs of alternate mixes, a one-disc audio documentary, six discs of sessions, and two discs of King Crimson precursor band Giles, Giles and Fripp material. Then you move onto the DVDs and Blu-rays which includes hi-res versions of the CD content, hi-res and surround versions of the 2009 and 2019 remixes of the albums, and a new 2020 Dolby Atmos mix. They've even thrown in needledrops of the original U.S. and U.K. promo LPs on one of the Blu-rays. With this set, you can explore the In the Court of Crimson King album in just about every way imaginable. It is hard to think of fans of progressive rock or the band being disappointed in the set and is well worth the deep dive it takes you on. Read more here! - RF
Frank Zappa, The Mothers 1970 (Zappa Records/UMe)
Zappa Records has kept up a busy release slate, but our favorite from 2020 was The Mothers 1970, a 4-CD look back at the Flo and Eddie-era group via studio sessions and live performances. The set proved that good things come in small packages; the compact clamshell case contained hours of off-the-wall innovation, insanity, and (Mothers of) Invention from one of Zappa's most engaging groups featuring Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan, George Duke, Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons, and Aynsley Dunbar. While not a definitive survey of the band (as it doesn't contain any of their released material), The Mothers 1970 serves as a collection of bonus tracks that any fan of this period will savor. Read more here! - JM
And just a few Honorable Mentions...
Pink Floyd, Delicate Sound of Thunder 2020 Edition (Pink Floyd Records/Legacy)
This breakout collection available in a variety of formats (originally released as part of the mammoth box set The Later Years) presents Pink Floyd's 1989 live album in a brand-new way. The live album has been expanded with extra songs and full-length performances, while the once very of-its-era concert film has been re-edited from scratch using original film to make a more focused experience that keeps the spotlight on the brilliance of the band. Read more here! - SS
Joni Mitchell, Shine (Craft Recordings)
When Joni Mitchell's 2007 comeback album Shine (originally issued on the Hear Music label) was rereleased on vinyl by Craft early in the year, it served as a reminder of the fragility of our world. Much of the material deals with greed, political corruption, environmental concerns, and other problems we face. Thirteen years from its original release, this perfectly pressed vinyl reissue from the fine folks at Craft Recordings proves that Mitchell was as prescient as ever. Read more here! - SS
Bob Dylan, Japan Singles Collection (Sony Japan)
Originally released to promote a tour of Japan that was canceled due to COVID, the 3-CD Japan Singles Collection brings together two decades of singles released in Japan from 1965 to 1985, presented in the order they were released. It includes the rarity "George Jackson (Big Band Version)" and plenty of other intriguing choices, all presented in their single-edited forms. This may be the only compilation where you'll find "Blowin' in the Wind," "Take A Message To Mary," "Tight Connection To My Love" and "On A Night Like This." It's a sometimes strange sequence, sure, but it's also a creative way to summarize Bob Dylan's greatness and his impact abroad. Read more here! - SS
Peter Tork, Stranger Things Have Happened (7a Records)
7a Records - the label dedicated to all things Monkees-related - had already gotten around to the catalogues of Micky, Michael, and Davy. In 2020, Peter Tork got the spotlight with a deluxe, generously expanded and remastered version of his lone solo album, 1994's Stranger Things Have Happened. The only part that wasn't strange was the quality of this reissue; 7a lived up to its high standards of sound, design, annotation, and repertoire with this superb presentation available on CD and in slightly truncated form on LP. As always, we can't wait to hear what this label is digging up next from this fab foursome. Read more here! - JM
Don't see one of your favorites listed above? While we hope the above list represents a host of the remarkable releases offered in 2020, we stress that there were many, many other titles equally worthy of inclusion. This is a mere sampling of what the year had to offer on the catalogue front.
Lastly, we'd like to take a moment to remember all of the greats who left us in 2020; their music will live on forever in our hearts. Here are just a few of the artists, entertainers, songwriters, producers, musicians, and industry leaders whom we will never forget.
Ronald "Khalis" Bell
Edd "Kookie" Byrnes
Billy Joe Shaver
Eddie Van Halen
Jerry Jeff Walker