The Best Unearthed Music of 2018

We’re supposed to be living in the age of infinite, unimpeded access to the entire history of recorded music. The reality, of course, isn’t so simple. If streaming services are the new record stores, they can be just as susceptible to supply-side issues as their brick-and-mortar predecessors. In other words: sometimes, the album you really want to hear isn’t in stock. In the streamiverse, certain artists’ discographies can resemble digital Swiss cheese, particularly if they bounced between number of labels over the course of the career, and especially if some of those labels went belly up. Historically, reissues have taken the form of lavish packages that come loaded with outtakes, rare photos and detailed liner notes, and that often still is the case. But in this day and age, “reissue” has also just become a fancy code word for “old album I can now stream on Spotify.”

As such, some of the year’s most welcome new arrivals to the streaming world were technically reissues of once-lost records whose preceding reissues had also gone out of print, such as Simply Saucer’s crucial early ‘70s proto-punk document Cyborgs Revisited or pre-teen disco-punk diva Chandra’s 1980-era Transportation. 2018 also proved that there are still obscure private-pressed singer-songwriters (like Colorado-based pro-rock-climber-turned-troubadour Pat Ament), ‘70s space-rock groups (Canada’s Melodic Energy Commission), ‘80s post-punk bands (New Zealand’s Nocturnal Projections) and unsung ‘90s grunge groups (Australia’s Magic Dirt) out there waiting to rediscovered; still unsung funk auteurs deserving to be rescued from the crates (Tim Jones a.k.a. Preacherman); still no limit to the synth-fueled freakery lurking in the back catalog of late electronic-music pioneer Bruce Haack (check the proto-rap jam “Party Machine”); and still no bottom to the well of wiggy grooves emanating from West Africa in the 1970s (see: the Benin-focused second edition of Analog Africa’s Africa Scream Contest series).

Among more high-profile reclamation projects, The Beatles’ 50th-anniversary White Album box set proved to be the rare classic-rock cash grab whose bonus tracks are just as mythical as the original material. (On top of providing fans with official versions of oft-bootlegged curios like “Revolution 1 – Take 18”—which connects the familiar acoustic sing-along with the sound-collage chaos of “Revolution 9”—the alternate Take 10 version of “Good Night” suggests Ringo invented the third Velvet Underground album a few months early.) In some cases, reissues transported us back to a watershed moment in rock history, be it Detroit’s mid-’60s garage-band scene (via a pre-fame Bob Seger’s band the Last Heard) or Neil Young’s infamously rowdy post-Harvest/pre-Tonight’s the Night residency at the Roxy in Los Angeles circa 1973. With others, we revisited notoriously mercurial bands at a key early stage in their evolution, like when The Flaming Lips started to dress up their psych rock with bells and whistles (on the ‘92-era gem “Zero to a Million”) or when Brooklyn bruisers The Men started to infuse their punk-rock roar with more emotional undertones on “Wasted.” And then there were reissues that gave us an intimate audience to private moments of creation—like Prince’s largely improvised Piano & A Microphone 1983, Julee Cruise’s early ethereal demos, or the 25th-anniversary excavation of Liz Phair’s lo-fi Girly-Sound Tapes, which was perfectly timed to reify her profound influence on a new generation of confessional indie-rockers.

But some of this year’s most notable archival projects were less about satiating completists than commemorating lives cut short far too soon. Women guitarist Chris Reimer—who passed away suddenly in 2012 at age 26—was honored with a collection of private home recordings, Hello People, that showcased his budding talents as an ambient soundscaper. The legacy of Ross Shapiro, the late singer/guitarist for Athens indie-rock hopefuls The Glands, was fortified with the release of the outtakes collection Double Coda. The free-ranging career of Chris Cornell was encapsulated by an box set featuring a handful of previously unreleased oddities—including a cover of U2’s “One” that subs in the lyrics to Metallica’s “One”—that present a more playful portrait of the brooding grunge god. And a survey of Joe Strummer’s solo career, 001, was capped with the 1988-era castaway “U.S. North,” a valorous 10-minute cavalry charge that marks a rare reunion with Mick Jones, suggesting the sort of epic rock music The Clash might’ve headed toward had they survived into the late ‘80s. It’s a reminder that the best reissues and compilations don’t just preserve history, but allow us to imagine an alternate one.