While all eyes tend to be fixed upon lists of the best new albums of the year around this time – and with good reason, as obviously new music is the lifeblood of the industry – it is less common to see a look back over the best entries into the increasingly impressive and imaginative ‘reissues’ market. Similar to the way that CDs evolved over the years from the lazy and ghastly ‘four page booklet, clunky jewel case and a silver disc’ packages which the record companies used in the ’80s to rob us at gunpoint, to the digipaks and multi-foldouts which tend to be the norm today, so reissues have taken the same journey in the main. (As an aside I have to comment that I still hear people claiming to prefer jewel cases, as you could replace them if they got cracked whereas with cardboard you cannot – yet oddly vinyl covers were unreplaceable cardboard, and they have always been the ‘gold standard’. Always puzzled me, but I digress). Back onto reissues, however, and I am sure we all remember those supposedly ‘cheap and nasty’ (though they were about 20 quid a pop in many cases) boxes called Classic Album Collection or similar, with about five original albums shoved into a cardboard slipcase, each one being a straight reproduction of the album sleeve, but too small to read any of the text which remained unaltered. No gatefolds either, don’t be absurd. This gouging practice slipped out of favour as reissued box sets started to become more imaginatively packaged, with newly produced booklets, legible tracklists with actual song information, and even the odd gatefolds where appropriate. All of a sudden, reissues became desirable objects to own for your shelf rather than just the cheapest way that Floggit & Scarper Records could get the stuff to you. This partly had to do with the increasing ease of simply downloading or ripping the music, as people needed a reason to want physical product, more valuable as ‘shelf real estate’ than simply saving space by having a soulless MP3 on a hard drive. With new music fighting the same battle, a real effort into the packaging of music was a priority for the first time since the vinyl heyday of the 1970s – arguably one of the few benefits to the collector-consumer of the digital listening age.
At this point I must briefly digress into something which I would term the question ‘When is a reissue not a reissue?’). We all remember when the first wave of CDs had passed, and something had to be added to give them more perceived value, and in addition to booklets and slightly nicer design, we had the advent of the Bonus Track. Reissues of classic albums would appear with the odd non-album single or B-Side tacked on, which was a very welcome addition, as well as various largely pointless single edits and demo versions, which were mostly a place to stop the disc early. Now, although that material was certainly new to the album in question, it was still always a minority adjunct to the main event, and also was always added onto the same disc, with the new and exciting 80 minute capacity (less exciting when new albums began routinely being the length of vinyl doubles in an attempt to fill that space and give false value for money, but that’s another story of course). Nowadays we have almost gone full circle with album reissue packages becoming ‘deluxe’ or ‘expanded’ editions, with whole extra discs – sometimes several – filled with previously unreleased content. Take as an example the reissue of the sole album by Bedlam, the 1970s band which contained a pre-Rainbow Cozy Powell behind the kit. A single vinyl release, it appeared as a deluxe edition of six CDs, with the dreadfully feeble original mix itself even relegated to disc two, with the massively superior remix taking pole position as the lead disc. The other four discs were all taken up with live shows and unreleased studio recordings, including a whole CD by the band under previous guises. That may be an extreme example, but it is far from uncommon to see an album accompanied by two discs of unreleased live material, which would have been a live double album back in the original days. Now, this raises the interesting question of whether a release which contains more new material than reissued material, is still a reissue? Or should it be better described as a new release including the previously released album? That may be a slightly tongue in cheek question, as the focus is generally very much around the album in question, but the term ‘reissue’ certainly seems wholly inadequate to describe something along the lines of that Bedlam release. It’s a grey area in the middle for sure, and one which I cannot actually think of an answer to, but an interesting trend certainly.
Anyhow, back to the current year’s crop of ‘whole or partial’ reissues, as we could perhaps say. As is generally the case, the market has arguably been led by the prolific Cherry Red label, with their imprints such as Esoteric, Grapefruit, HNE, 7Ts, Captain Oi!, Doctor Bird etc, covering areas as diverse as prog rock, metal, pop, folk, reggae etc. No other label is so organised in its organisation and specialisation in reissue genres, although the do also release new albums by certain catalogue artists such as Hawkwind and Van Der Graaf Generator to name a couple, so their feet are not always planted in the past. Concentrating on that area as we are here, however, there is no doubt that a raft of excellent vintage reissues and box sets have appeared from them over the past 12 months. Interestingly enough, two of the most notable have been from the same band: space-rock veterans Hawkwind. One of the most anticipated releases of the year was the 50th anniversary remaster of the classic Space Ritual live album, which came in two very distinct options depending on depth of pocket and depth of fandom! The 2CD version contained simply the original album remastered with an encore restored to the running order, and two edited tracks included in their full duration. The remaster turned out to be on of the most impressive I personally have ever heard, since as a huge fan of the original I doubted whether its sound could be cleaned up at all without being emasculated in the process, but there was no grounds for concern as it succeeded in being a profound improvement. For the more obsessive connoisseur, there was the hefty 11-disc box, which included a DVD and also a further eight CDs containing the original mix as well as the complete shows from Liverpool, Brixton and the unused Sunderland performance, as well as impressive packaging. This would be a classic case of walking the tightrope between ‘reissue or not’, since although a majority of the material from the three individual shows is previously unheard, it is nonetheless the same show with tweaks played three times. It’s a reissue with bells on, essentially, one could say. Threatening to fall over into the ‘not actually a reissue’ side of the fence is the superlative set Days Of The Underground, which contains the late-’70s albums Quark, Strangeness And Charm, 25 Years On and PXR5, but uses them as a launching pad for an eight CD (plus 2DVD) exploration of that particular period. A full four CDs contain all available material from several key shows of the time, a large proportion of which has never been released, and even what has emerged only having been on fairly obscure compilations. The other four discs contain the three albums, but also twice that amount of material again in terms of revelatory alternate takes and unreleased pieces. This is a prime example of something which cannot in all honesty be referred to as merely a ‘reissue’ with any degree of accuracy.
There has been a lot more from the Cherry Red fruit-basket of course. The Toyah reissues have continued their high standard, reframing her output as not so dissimilar in breadth and ambition from her husband Mr Fripp from the same era, while other great albums to be exhumed and graced with some tremendous bonus content across multiple discs have been Fearless and Anyway by Family, all of the 1970s output from the joyfully eccentric Stackridge, the final Big Country album Driving To Damascus, Once Again by Barclay James Harvest, Remember The Future by Nektar and a particularly shelf-friendly box celebrating The Turn Of A Friendly Card by the Alan Parsons Project. The vinyl trend has been well served with beautifully authentically packaged 12-inch versions of such classics as Fish Out Of Water by Chris Squire, A Song For All Seasons by Renaissance and the gloriously recreated packaging of Warrior On The Edge Of Time by Hawkwind, itself also impressively remastered. Box sets collecting the complete album catalogues of bands (including a round up of all available bonus material) have included uniformly excellent packages from The Runaways, Magnum, Trapeze, Frijid Pink, Girlschool, Foghat, The Heavy Metal Kids, and even some superior pop-rock output from the long-forgotten Arrows (who bizarrely had their own TV series in the late 1970s!). If something more obscure scratches your itch, full collections from High Tide, Hard Meat, and Italian band Circus 2000 will do that for you, while albums which never set the world alight first time out like Dance With Arthur Brown, Bright Lights Big City by Miller Anderson and Under Open Skies by Luther Grosvenor all got another turn in the spotlight. To top it all, there has even been a mammoth 20 CD box of Keith Emerson solo recordings, for the truly rabid!
BMG are another label who, in addition to new releases, have been producing some high quality reissues in recent years. Their ongoing Slade reissue campaign has continued this year, with coloured ‘splatter’ vinyl and well packaged expanded CDs still the norm as alternative. The underrated albums Nobody’s Fools and The Amazing Kamikaze Syndrome have had the treatment this year, as well as their fascinating debut Beginnings under the name Ambrose Slade, along with their ‘rebirth’ set at the Reading Festival in 1981 as a standalone release for the first time. Gary Moore is another who has enjoyed excellent treatment from the label in the past year, with one of his less celebrated periods being superbly repackaged in the box set The Sanctuary Years 1999-2004. Speaking of divisive releases, The Stranglers‘ Feline, whose smooth nature alienated a swathe of their old guard, got a splendid rework presentation, as did Asia‘s reunion album Phoenix, which got the double vinyl treatment. In recent years, the label have been trawling through the Black Sabbath back catalogue with some splendid box sets, as well as more modest packages of the two early ’80s Dio studio albums. This year that was followed up by the Live Evil double live album getting the four disc and handsome box job, including a tremendous remastering job on the original notoriously patchy sound.
Marillion and Jethro Tull have been enjoying superb reissue programmes over the past few years, and 2023 has been no exception, with Season’s End and The Broadsword And The Beast respectively getting beautiful multi-disc, ‘hardback book’ releases, with so much new and unreleased material that they very firmly knock on that ‘is it a reissue?’ door, with the Tull album in particular being praised widely as one of the very best of their extensive and consistently superb reissue packages. Robin Trower also got in on the act, with his often underrated debut album Twice Removed From Yesterday – often overshadowed by the following Bridge Of Sighs – getting a particularly impressive double vinyl release, complete with a full vinyl disc of unreleased tracks including a radio session from the time. Frontiers and InsideOut are two labels which, while being well known for the quantity of their new releases, have also put out a good number of reissues, both vinyl and CD, over the past year, with InsideOut continuing with their Flower Kings re-releases and Frontiers heavily servicing the hard rock and progressive metal box set collection market.
There have been many other reissues of course, which space and my unreliable notes and memory cause me to omit, but suffice it to say that the ‘vintage recording’ market – which might make a better umbrella term than ‘reissues’ come to think of it – has continued to be well served. Those wanting to upgrade their old copies of much loved albums, or simply to plug the gaps in the best way they can, will find a generous array of offerings which can be bought without fear. And even for those who continue to complain about ‘buying the same thing over again’, the increasing lean into the unreleased content on many of these releases removes that objection quite effectively. If you want to buy this stuff again, you’re mostly going to get a good amount of new bang for your buck. Just don’t get excited about those ‘single edits’ – that’s one particular type of sow’s ear which is unlikely to ever turn into a silk purse!