Best of 2018: Top 10 Special Releases

One of music’s most transcendent qualities is its timelessness, its ability to exist outside of the parameters of minutes and hours, days and nights, years and decades. It can be as beautiful 50 years from now as it was yesterday. Equally, it can take on a completely new life of its own when absorbed in a different context.

This list features a variety of unique creative efforts from this year which I think are all well worth listening to. This includes great albums reimagined, amazing b-side collections, an artist’s last takes ever recorded and more.

Here are 10 of the top special releases of 2018.

Charles Bradley – Black Velvet

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Appropriately dubbed the “screaming eagle of soul,” Charles Bradley’s music was never absent of passionate performances and his posthumous record Black Velvet is no different. Backed by the theatrics of Manhattan Street Band, Bradley’s last hoorah is a triumphant one. His spirit is best captured in the swift giddy up of “Can’t Fight the Feeling,” the smooth courting on “Luv Jones”, and the epic ballad “I Feel A Change.” Highly recommend for all Daptone and classic soul fans.

Fleet Foxes – First Collection 2006 – 2009

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To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Fleet Foxes, the self-titled debut from Seattle’s favorite bearded folk musicians, Sub Pop put together an extensive collection of early recordings to accompany a reissue of the band’s first record. Now three full length albums in, Fleet Foxes are an American treasure. Their debut is rich with blissful harmonies and atmospheric acoustics, still worth revisiting a thousand times even a decade later. The 10 additional b-sides included in this release are well worthwhile too – shout-out to “In the Hot Hot Rays,” which sees the band playing an unusual but awesomely uptempo indie pop tune.

John Coltrane – Both Sides at Once: The Lost Album

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Any unreleased outtakes from John Coltrane’s career are the jazz equivalent to pirate treasure, but never before heard material from his musical prime? That could be classified as the motherload. Such is the case for Both Sides at Once: The Lost Album. An unreleased album from 1963 featuring Coltrane’s ‘core four’ musical collaborators, this collection of tracks captures Coltrane in between one of his most highly potent creative phases, although noticeably less direct and monstrous than the highly lauded A Love Surpreme. Still, there are plenty of bright, uptempo melodies to indulge in. Given its creator and the era of its inception, the energy of Both Sides is special in itself.

Lauren Ruth Ward – Happy Birthday Jim

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In honor of Jim Morrison’s 75th birthday earlier this month, Lauren Ruth Ward – the present day heiress to the legendary frontman’s throne atop the world of freaky psych-rock – covered seven classic Doors songs in tribute. Though the tunes don’t deviate too much from the original versions, Ward’s voice effortlessly slides over the bluesy guitars and is a fitting tribute to Morrison’s histrionic vocal style. Equally as fun are the visual pieces which accompany each song on the album; each video was made in a two week timeframe by a separate director and centers its aesthetic around one single color. Lizard King approved.

Lloyd Green & Jay Dee Maness – A Journey to the Beginning (A Steel Guitar Tribute to The Byrds)

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1968 produced a ridiculous amount of significant records, but few were as impactful as Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the infamous leap by The Byrds into the Nashville sound, intertwining country and rock music deeper than any pop group ever had before. A large part of Sweetheart‘s greatness can be credited to Lloyd Green and Jay Dee Maness, the two steel guitar players that brought the vision of The Byrds to life. 50 years later, the tandem teams up to reimagine the entire LP. Classic songs like “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “One Hundred Years From Now” are slickly performed – to average ears they may sound like mellow, countryside guitar songs, but in their time, no one had heard anything like them ever before.

Mac DeMarco – Old Dog Demos

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In traditional Mac DeMarco fashion, Old Dog Demos is the latest collection of b-sides and acoustic rough-cuts from the Canadian singer-songwriter, something which he’s made a regular thing following every new album he puts out. This set of demos is familiarly warm-hearted and tender in nature, especially when taking into consideration the personal writing that made up much of 2017’s This Old Dog. “Is It Boy” and “No Sunny Days” are among the more favorable unreleased tracks, though the chill summer vibes on “Trouble Believing” are equally joyful.

Neil Young – ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live

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Neil Young’s darkest record may very well be my favorite of his. The live edition of Tonight’s the Night perfectly encapsulates the eerie, dispirited place which these songs stemmed from, but it also brings to life the brilliance of Young and his supremely talented bandmates and how they embodied the raw tenacity of 1970’s rock ‘n’ roll. From the chilling performance of the title track to the laid back, storytelling on “Speakin’ Out,” the energy inside The Roxy Theatre on the three nights which this album was recorded had to be under a spell of sorts. Tonight’s the Night is a landmark album; there are only a few of its kind. To see it performed live would have been a beyond impactful experience. This recording an admirable documentation of that.

Prince – Piano & A Microphone 1983

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Too often are the posthumous outtakes of great artists turn into forced efforts to stay relevant, make some cash or other ingenuine. Such is not the case for this special collection of stripped back renditions of hits and love songs from the one and only Prince. Piano & A Microphone 1983 previously unreleased demos, alternate takes and cutting room floor performances. Even with their minimal nature, the tracks here offer a multitude of views into the creative process of the legendary performer. There’s heartbreak (“A Case Of You”), melodramatic grooves (“17 Days”), and one-of-a-kind takes on all time songs (“Purple Rain”). Plus, Prince’s reputation as a notoriously private artist makes this release all the more unique.

St. Vincent – MassEducation

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2017’s Masseduction was one of last year’s most colorful noise-pop records. It wasn’t the weirdest thing St. Vincent had ever done, but it was still comprised of her eclectic and daring musical choices. In contrast, MassEducation is a raw, reimagined version of that album, enlisting nothing more than Annie Clark’s voice and a piano to recreate the project. Tender ballads like “Happy Birthday, Johnny” and “New York” fit this mold seamlessly, while songs that were originally loud and chaotic, like “Los Ageless” and “Pills” turn into sappy, emotionally intense slow jams. The power in Clark’s vocal delivery lies not in strength and size, but rather in tone and inflection, and these stripped back performances are the perfect medium for her to evoke the more sentimental side of these songs.

Tom Petty – An American Treasure

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My biggest regret in recent memory is not seeing Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers live in concert while I still had the chance. I’ll be kicking myself for that one for the rest of my life, but since Petty’s passing last year, I’ve spent an extensive amount of time embracing the decades of musical excellence he gave us. This expansive collection of songs taken from various points in time are another welcome inclusion. For all the amazing material Petty produced in his storied career, An American Treasure has loads to offer fans of all kinds: alternate takes on classic hits, compelling performances of underappreciated deep cuts, coked out live takes, and some of Petty’s more obscure and more poetic b-sides. Rest in peace, Tom. I’ll be ready for that tribute tour, whenever it comes.

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