Nostalgia is doing big business in music right now. The highest selling Australian album of last year was The Very Best of INXS, thanks mainly to the wooden acting and astonishing mullet wigs in a certain television mini-series. On the whole, though, streaming services have largely rendered the standard ‘greatest hits’ compilation redundant, and artists and labels are having to work a bit harder to cash in. But with the right approach, offering a balance of old and new material, there’s quite a market here.
Maybe the realisation has finally dawned that the kids aren’t paying for their music anymore. And, while the youth-obsessed model of the music the industry has failed, it is consumers of an older demographic who are prepared to put their hands in their pockets for quality material. There is also a growing desire for a physical product, as evidenced by the current boom in vinyl sales.
With this in mind, The Upside News looks back at ten ‘nostalgia’ releases of the last 12 months and ranks them. The criteria for inclusion is a recording that offer something new, while also dipping into past glories; either a mix of old and new songs, or presenting old material in new ways.
1. Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
We can all be very thankful that Jimmy Page gets the nostalgia thing, spending the past few years remastering the entire Led Zeppelin back-catalogue. These songs were made to be played loud on record and the vinyl reissues sound amazing. Because Physical Graffiti hasn’t been thrashed to death by FM radio (with the possible exception of ‘Kashmir’), it is possible to come to the album with fresh ears, and it’s a wonderful experience of rediscovery. A perfectly executed double LP, everything matters and everything works; in nearly an hour and a half of music there’s not a moment of padding.
Capturing the band at a creative peak, the album’s seamless genre shifting commands our attention. While ‘The Rover’ sets the blueprint for hair bands to follow for the next decade and a half, we also get east / west musical fusion on ‘Kashmir’, the epic blues of ‘In My Time of Dying’, an infectious funky clav groove on ‘Trampled Underfoot’, a country infused ballad (‘Down By the Seaside’), and moments of folk (‘Bron-Yr-Aur’ and ‘Black Country Woman’). With its delightful musical shifts, ‘In the Light’ is a standout.
There is not a great deal that is actually new here, but a bonus disc comprises seven alternative versions of album tracks that haven’t been released before, providing a fascinating insight into the development of material. The most interesting of these is ‘Everybody Makes It Through’, an early version of ‘In the Light’, with a completely unrecognisable opening section.
2. Pink Floyd – The Endless River
The final Pink Floyd album is made up of discarded material from the band’s sessions for The Division Bell in the mid-nineties, recently discovered by Dave Gilmour and reworked for the new release. For a band whose politics were almost as famous as their music, the The Endless River provides the final word on the band, trying to explain itself to the world one last time. Curiously this is achieved using very few words at all; in making an almost entirely instrumental album, the band make a compelling argument that it’s the music that matters. And there is some fantastic music on here. Gilmour is still in fine form as a guitarist, while the keyboard of the late Richard Wright (for whom the album serves as a tribute) is given prominence in the arrangements to very satisfying effect.
With none the material having been released before, this is the freshest offering on this list. But there are musical nods to the past: a shade of ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, a nod to ‘Dogs of War’, a moment where the keyboard swirls like ‘Comfortably Numb’. So there is still a familiarity about the record.
It’s difficult to know what to make of The Endless River at first listen, but on repeated visits it really begins to work. For an album of out-takes there is surprising cohesion here and, like the best Floyd releases, there’s a concept tying it all together: reflecting on communication, or the lack of it. The 18 tracks are arranged into four musical movements, a structure that effectively knits the piece together. Pink Floyd were never interested in the three minute single, and in this twilight release there’s a freedom to fully explore the complexities of musical arrangement, quietly challenging long held orthodoxies of popular music. It’s difficult to imagine a current band releasing something like this on a major label.
3. Jack White – Live From Bonnaroo
Once a staple of the music the industry, the ‘live’ album has all but disappeared. Superseded by DVD, Blu-Ray and YouTube, the concept was also undermined by overdubs and post-production trickery that made listeners cynical about the authenticity of audio on offer. Bucking the trend is Jack White’s Third Man Records, with its commitment to authentic live recordings, released primarily on vinyl. His own Live From Bonnaroo is a fine example of this, achieving what any good live recording should, capturing the experience of an artist in performance: listening to this makes you want to be right there in that audience.
Covering material from the White Stripes, The Saboteurs (known elsewhere in the world as The Raconteurs), and his solo work, it captures a surprisingly loquacious White in an epic performance at the Bonnaroo Festival, Tennessee in 2014: a 27 song set that ran 45 minutes over curfew (with a ten song encore). There are many highlights here: his most recent material from Lazaretto sits comfortably amongst others gems: a ripping version of ‘Icky Thump’ to kick off the set, an epic ‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’, a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Lemon Song’ to close the main set and a grand sing-a-long of ‘Seven Nation Army’ that ends the night.
The only downside here (but also adding to the appeal), is the album’s lack of availability. Released in a 3 LP / DVD package as a subscription only product from Third Man, it’s an extremely difficult find, albeit a downright rewarding one.
4. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV
Taken as an album on its own merits, the fourth Led Zeppelin record would sit comfortably above everything else here, and is to be found near the top of many “best album of all time” lists. Side one contains some of the best and most recognisable moments in rock’n’roll history, starting with ‘Black Dog’ and rounding out with the titanic ‘Stairway To Heaven’. But things don’t taper off in the second side, closing out with the folk beauty of ‘Going to California’, before John Bonham’s colossal drumming entirely transforms nineteen twenties blues tune, ‘When the Levee Breaks’ into an apocalyptic howler.
Just like Physical Graffiti, this vinyl reissue sounds incredible. But Led Zeppelin IV can be a victim of its own ubiquity and consequently doesn’t feel quite as fresh. The bonus tracks throw up curiosities, with alternative mixes of the material, but there is not a lot that is new here.
Then again, when you put together a perfect album in the first place, how can it ever be improved by adding new material?
5. Paul Kelly – The Merri Soul Sessions
This is a gem of an album, representing another highlight in Paul Kelly’s wonderful career. It only qualifies on this nostalgia list because the recording is built around Vika Bull’s version of Kelly’s 1989 single, ‘Sweet Guy’. While everything else here is completely new, the album does carry a very retro feel, mining an old school soul vibe as some of Australia’s best singers collaborate with Kelly’s house band. This was the way music used be made by recording house studios in the hey-day of Stax and Motown.
In Bull’s hands, ‘Sweet Guy’ is a darker, more urgent lament, suiting the desperate, female first-person narration of the song. The new material around this is all of equally high quality: Clairy Browne delivers a searing soul vocal on ‘Keep Coming Back For More’, Dan Sultan provides a dose of sweet Motown on ‘Don’t Let a Good Thing Go’ and Kelly combines vocals with Vika and Linda Bull against the infectious Gospel groove of album closer ‘Hasn’t It Rained’.
This is a great album, delivering some excellent new music in an old fashioned style.
6. The New Basement Tapes – Lost on the River
Following the discovery of box of unpublished Bob Dylan lyrics dating back to 1967, legendary producer T Bone Burnett was charged with the task of taking the treasure chest and setting it to music. Gathering together the likes of Marcus Mumford, Elvis Costello, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) and Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) in a supergroup under the name The New Basement Tapes, the result is the wonderful Lost on the River.
This must have been a daunting project to undertake, with considerable risk of getting it wrong and inviting great howls of criticism. But this ensemble are up to the task, managing to find an authentically Dylan flavour, while avoiding to the temptations of imitation and over-reverence. Everyone here sounds completely at ease and true to themselves, while giving listeners a fresh chance to revisit Dylan’s genius of the 1960s.
Highlights include Jim James’ slow blues opener, ‘Down on the Bottom’, Marcus Mumford’s ‘Stranger’, and the plaintive final track ‘Lost on the River #20’, performed by Giddens.
7. Van Morrison – Duets
Reworking the back-catalogue in duet with a range of well known artists might seem like a lazy path to album sales. But this recording has a couple of things going for it. First of all Van Morrison has gone with lesser known tracks (no ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ or ‘Moondance’ here), giving this project a sense of fresh energy. There are also some fantastic soul arrangements played by an expansive and colourful ensemble; it’s a real treat for the ears.
Morrison’s voice still sounds amazing and works well with most of the other artists. ‘Wild Honey’ with Joss Stone, ‘If I Ever Needed Someone’ with Marvis Staples and ‘Fire in the Belly’ with Steve Winwood are album highlights. Interestingly it’s the best known of the tracks, ‘Real Real Gone’ in duet with Michael Buble, that doesn’t quite come off. It’s a wonderfully spirited arrangement, but Buble’s smooth crooning doesn’t quite gel with the warm, searching soul of Morrison’s voice.
Running to 16 tracks, Duets presents a landscape of soul, blues and gospel that is well worth getting lost in.
8. Dire Straits – The Honky Tonk Demos
A limited edition Record Store Day release, The Honky Tonk Demos is a 2 x 7” vinyl pressing of four demo recordings made by Dire Straits before they were signed. In 1977 the songs were sent to BBC DJ, Charlie Gillett, who played ‘Sultans of Swing’ on his program and the band ended up with a record deal. The release of these original demos thus represents a significant slice of rock history.
While their subsequent self-titled debut contains some great songs, the production has always felt a little sluggish. The album version of ‘Sultans’ lacks the energy found on later live versions. The Honky Tonk rendering of the track, sounds a little raw, but possesses a lively, rollicking tone that captures this energy much better. This spirit runs through the rest of the material here, particularly ‘Down To the Waterline’. While there are only four songs on this release (all of which went on to make it to the album), The Honky Tonk Demos is a very welcome addition.
9. Bob Dylan – Shadows In the Night
This one is a bit of an oddity, and yet it works. Back in the sixties, Dylan was the voice of a generation, but at age 73 has completed an album taken from the songbook of the parents of that generation: a collection of Sinatra standards. There’s certainly an incongruity to Dylan the crooner. Try imagining years into the future Dave Grohl doing an album of Foster and Allen numbers.
But Dylan has always been an artist who’s done things his own way. Here he has chosen songs that clearly mean something to him personally, and it’s the intimacy of the recording that is real strength of Shadows In the Night. With a voice that’s been on the decline for a while, he thankfully avoids any big vocal numbers, instead making an asset of his gravelly style with earthy renditions. Similarly, there’s no big band bravado here: no big horns or lavish orchestrations. The songs are given simple, understated arrangements, enhancing the warm, intimate atmosphere.
It’s a slightly strange experience, but Dylan does as he likes, eschewing convention; he seems to be giving us all a cheeky wink on the fifth track as he sings: “Why try to change me now?”
Indeed! What would be the point?
10. Queen – Queen Forever
The title of this one could be taken as promise: there will forever be Queen greatest hits compilations to release (particularly in the lead up to Christmas). But consumers have tired of this format and the real value of this release lies in the limited new material and some lesser known album tracks (rather than hearing ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ again).
There are three ‘new’ tracks, re-hashed discards from previous projects. Album opener, ‘Let Me In Your Heart Again’, is a strong number that sits easily with the Queen canon, offering a strong vocal performance from Freddie Mercury and signature twin guitar sounds from Brian May. ‘There Must Be More To Life Than This’ is a curiosity featuring Michael Jackson, thus presenting a duet between two dead music mega-stars. Jackson just sounds out of place here, however, overshadowed by Mercury’s commanding vocal. Meanwhile, ‘Love Kills’ effectively reworks a Mercury solo piece in ballad form.
These new tracks are worth a listen, making a contribution to the expansive Queen catalogue. But having proved in their Australian concerts last year they can still rock out, they could have tried a different angle: rather than packaging these three songs with 17 existing tracks, Queen could have tried seven new tracks with Adam Lambert up front. Now that would have been something really interesting.
Written by Matthew Trainor