For Once-Obscure Music, a Golden Age of Reissues

Why are so many cult albums being re-released?

llew throbbing gristle jazz funk greats 615 reissues.jpg

Industrial Records

The curious few who were lucky enough to have bought Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats when it was originally released in 1979 were in for a treat. Possibly one of the most subversive albums of all time, the cover features the band posing in a pastoral field of wildflowers near a cliff's edge, warmly offering the possibility of '70s jazz funk that lay inside. Rather than easy-listening hits, the listener would soon discover they had purchased an album of pounding industrial vitriol from the "wreckers of civilization." The cliff the band was standing near was an infamous English suicide spot.

Until the rise of online file sharing, obtaining such an influential anti-pop album meant frequenting obscure, eclectic record stores that trafficked in independent, experimental recordings. Since then, though, 20 Jazz Funk Greats' importance has become more widely accepted—so much so that the album was remastered and re-released this past November.

The Throbbing Gristle reissue comes amid a wave of reissues for once-obscure bands, providing another sign that we're living in a renaissance for cultural omnivores.

The stream of now-classic, once-hard-to-find albums that have been recently reissued, and those still to be released, would have been once unimaginable. The list of boxed sets from this year alone is worthy of awe: collections from American primitivist John Fahey, Chicago punk band Jesus Lizard, DC hardcore outfit Void, krautrock originators Can, Turkish psych pioneer Erkin Koray, Seattle funk, indie rock stalwarts Neutral Milk Hotel, music of the Ottoman-American diaspora, and Ghanian folk. Over the last 10 years, this list would expand to include Orange Juice, Bad Brains, Big Star, Fela Kuti, Gang of Four, Kleenex/Liliput, Les Rallizes Dénudés, Neu!, Suicide, the Fall, the Homosexuals, the Buzzcocks, Métal Urbain, the Raincoats, ESG, Beat Happening, the 13th Floor Elevators, Wire, and the Stooges. Then there are the collections of girl group sounds from the '60s, Indianapolis funk, murder ballads, punkabilly, unending collections of international garage and psychedelic rock, or music from countries like Mauritania with no previously recorded output. And while the Beach Boys don't rate as obscure, the 2011 release of their long-languishing Smile tapes handily encapsulates the trend: What was once sought after on bootleg by a relatively small group of collectors has been packaged for official release, to be displayed on Best Buy shelves across the country.

The unifying element across this list is that the original recordings weren't commercially popular. These bands might draw a fervent cult following in certain circles or parts of the world, but few of these names would have been recognized in the larger forum of pop music when they first started. Some were independent musicians with unique sounds, and some weren't interested in marketing—or were actively antagonistic to the idea of marketing.

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Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, Morning News, Washington City Paper, and the Awl.

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