eMusic Year in Reissues 2008
The reissues that stood out on eMusic in 2008 are the same reissues that stood out everywhere else. These came three major categories: African funk-rock from the ’70s; European rave from the early ’90s; and anything London’s resurgent Strut label wanted to throw our way.
The exuberant Nigeria 70 — Lagos Jump was the tip of two icebergs, a superb collection of vintage Afrobeat, highlife and Afro-rock as well as one of Strut‘s 2008 head-turners. Strut began in 1999, in the same general period as another widely respected London reissuer, Soul Jazz, and with a similar agenda: beat-driven classics from around the world, served up in smart packaging. Where Soul Jazz early on concentrated on Jamaica, jazz, and post-punk, Strut offered collections of vintage hip-hop breaks, Afrobeat, Brasiliana, and New York cult disco before folding in 2003.
Five years later, leading dance label K7 revived Strut as its reissue arm, and the label has been busy making up for its long absence. What’s especially noteworthy is how far-flung Strut’s 2008 compilations were while maintaining a consistently high level of quality. The creamy funk of Italo Disco — Essential Italian Disco Classics 1977-1985 has little in common with the pan-Caribbean overview Calypsoul 70 apart from both being very diverting. Two that have more in common are Disco Not Disco 1974-1986 (a sequel in all but name to a pair of early-’00s Strut comps of the same title, though not the same years) showcases post-punks getting down on the dance floor, while Kid Creole — The August Darnell Sessions chronicles the turn-of-’80s work of Darnell, whose work with Ze Records helped shape NYC’s post-disco future. It also features one of the most notorious pop records ever made, Cristina‘s glorious razoring of Lieber and Stoller’s “Is That All There Is,” which the songwriting duo sued out of legal existence until the mid-’00s.
Nothing quite so dramatic kept golden-age African pop from reaching U.S. ears the way it did in 2008. That’s a simple matter of a market opening up, which began happening in the late ’90s, when everything from rock to hip-hop to dance music seemed pretty stagnant. Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques compilations and Universal’s series of Fela Kuti reissues grabbed the ears of post-post-punk listeners who wished to avoid the more simple-minded aspects of boutique internationalism. This tended to paint some very good music as a lot more boringly “good-for-you” than it actually was. But they marked a breakthrough to young listeners looking for the next unique thing. For them, these old, dissimilar twin beacons from Africa made a new kind of sense- — not least because they could be approached as cool, mutant strands of pop history, rather than yet another kind of contemporary music in a landscape already overrun with them. A flood of reissued Africana like 2008 has seen was inevitable.
The giant whale of these is Soundway’s Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-76, nearly two hours ‘worth of what-was-that? goodies, oddments, rhythm bombs, and instrumental textures to die for. (Hearing the opening notes of George Akaeze & His Augmented Hits ‘”Business Before Pleasure” is like biting a ripe nectarine.)
Along with a spate of other titles, including Nigeria 70 and further Nigeria Specials oriented toward rock and disco, reissued Nigeria was where much of the action was. But in 2008 we also got to better know the Congolese guitarist, bandleader, singer, and songwriter Franco. Born FranÃ§ois Luambo Makiadi in 1938 and dead of AIDS-related disease in 1989, Franco began his career as a teenage session guitarist before forming his own OK Jazz (later TPOK Jazz) and becoming the grand master of Congolese rumba, recording more than 80 albums and towering over African pop like no one else of the past half-century.
Franco saw not one but two double-CD compilations in 2008, both fantastic and barely overlapping. Classic Titles is nonstop hits, from the early “La Rumba OK” to the mid-’80s hits “Tres Impoli” and “Mario,” both monster workouts (17 and 14 minutes, respectively) that showcase Franco’s fleet, dazzling guitar especially well. But if it’s overview you seek, hustle over to Francophonic Vol. 1: 1953-1980 and feast your ears on a chronologically ordered array of goodies that tell the story of how the man’s music evolved and grew over time: a history lesson you can’t stop moving to or humming.
Speaking of history, it’s one thing that 2008 was the 20th anniversary of England’s Second Summer of Love, when rave went above-ground. But the reissues that mattered were the ones covering the Brit-rave’s 1991-94 second wave, the stuff that reflected dance music’s shift from optimistic and ecstasy-driven to tampered-with and woozy, from house aspiration to an influx of breakbeats that gave the music a serrated, excitable edge that infuriated the early faithful while spawning some of the most potent pop of its era.
Sometimes this “pop” actually went pop, as with the two Prodigy tracks on XL Recordings ‘The First Chapters showcases two tracks by the Prodigy that wound up in the British Top 40. But for anyone who paid attention to dance music during that era, First Chapters and the R&S Records overview In Order to Dance will sound as obvious, and glorious, as a grunge or rap collection from those same years. Techno and its offshoots may have moved on from SL2‘s “On a Ragga Tip” and Dance Conspiracy‘s “Dub War” (from Chapters) or Joey Beltram‘s “Energy Flash” and Second Phase‘s “Mentasm” (from Order), but that doesn’t necessarily mean it improved.
The 12-inches collected on Awesome Records Classics Part 1 tell a slightly different story: these anthems weren’t heard as far ’round the world as XL’s or R&S’s, but as a bridge between breakbeat hardcore and not only jungle (exemplified by Jo’s “F-Zero” and “R-Type”) but the happy hardcore that stubbornly held to its ecstatic roots (of which Jay J & Devious D’s “Time of Our Lives” is the ur-pattern, or might as well be). This music evolved fast, and you can hear the progress in motion throughout the early Reinforced Records catalog, particularly the Reinforced Presents: The Early Plates collections of Manix and 4Hero, the latter of whom would help bring jungle into full fruition. But hearing them figure out which direction to take it is worth the trip by itself.