10 Absolutely Essential Rarities Albums

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There’s a new Stephin Merritt compilation out this week — it’s called Obscurities, and its contents are just that, a selection of non-album tracks and outtakes from the early years of the Magnetic Fields main man’s career. It’s interesting listening, and it also got us thinking that these sorts of collections are becoming rarer these days — B-sides are, of course, a dying breed for the simple reason that people don’t release 45s or CD singles any more, and in this age of file-sharing and album leaks, most tracks end up seeing the light of day one way or another. It’s a shame, because getting unreleased tracks used to be a reason to buy a single, and some bands used to specialize in putting out fantastic B-sides. Anyway, here’s our selection of B-sides/rarities/outtakes/otherwise unreleased-track compilations that actually deserve your attention. What did we miss?

The Smiths —

The Smiths were rightly renowned for the quality of their B-sides, so much so that there’s no appreciable drop-off in quality between their studio albums and their rarities compilations — and, indeed, there’s an argument to be made that both Hatful of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs are actually better than any of their “proper” albums (with the possible exception of The Queen is Dead). Certainly, it’s the B-sides on Louder Than Bombs that shine brightest — songs like “Half a Person,” “Is It Really So Strange?” and “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” are good enough to warrant inclusion pretty much anywhere.

Suede — Sci-Fi Lullabies

In our opinion, this is the best of the lot, for the simple reason that Suede really, really didn’t write a bad song from about 1991 until 1994. The first half of two-disc set Sci-Fi Lullabies — which collates the best of the band’s B-sides from this period, along with a smattering of those from Coming Up — is at least as good as either of their first two studio records, and substantially better than anything that came after. (The second disc, for the record, is pretty terrible. So it goes.)

Nirvana — Insesticide

It looked awfully like a cash-in on Nevermind, but the release of Incesticide wasn’t quite the cynical move it might have appeared at first glance. For a start, most of the songs here had been circulating on dodgy bootleg tapes for years, so the release at least gave fans a place to get hold of decent versions. It also served as a reminder of the band’s punk-influenced roots after the relatively radio-friendly Nevermind… and anyway, how could we not love anything with a Devo cover on it?

R.E.M. — Dead Letter Office

Apparently named after the USPS office where undeliverable letters end up, this compilation of B-sides and rarities from the band’s time at IRS Records featured amusing liner notes by Peter Buck and a pretty eclectic selection of tunes. Curiosities include a gloriously ramshackle version of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” several Velvet Underground covers, and “Voice of Harold,” a track that featured Michael Stipe reading the liner notes to a Christian record over the backing track to Reckoning album cut “Seven Chinese Brothers.”

Manic Street Preachers — Lipstick Traces

Another band with a penchant for releasing some of their best songs as B-sides, the Manics have a discography that had been begging for a good rarities compilation for years by the time this record was released in 2003. Unfortunately, Lipstick Traces wasn’t quite the exhaustive compilation that fans might have been hoping for — there are several killer songs that didn’t make the track listing — but it’s still a pretty comprehensive piece of work. And the covers that make up the entirety of the set’s second disc are also great — if you’ve ever wanted to have James Dean Bradfield’s acoustic cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas” on record, then look no further.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — B-Sides and Rarities

This mammoth three-disc set features an almost overwhelming amount of material, covering two decades of B-sides, alternate versions, and unreleased tracks. Our favorite moments include Cave and Shane MacGowan’s surprisingly tender duet on their version of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” the gospel-tinged mash-up of “Deanna” with traditional hymn “Oh Happy Day,” and amusingly titled 1990 B-side “Cocks ‘N’ Asses.” But there’s plenty, plenty more (including a three-part version of “O’Malley’s Bar” that’s even fouler than the Murder Ballads version… honestly).

Elliott Smith — New Moon

Posthumous albums of unreleased material are generally fraught with danger, but New Moon was a rare exception to the rule. The two-disc compilation contained 24 songs recorded by Smith between 1994 and 1998, and made for fascinating listening for completists and casual fans alike. The immediate delights were an impossibly fragile version of Big Star’s “Thirteen” — a song that Smith was surely born to cover — along with an early version of “Miss Misery,” but the true depths of New Moon revealed themselves with repeated listening, with the unreleased songs proving just as good as anything that Smith put out during his lifetime. And, pleasingly, a portion of the proceeds went to a charity for homeless people.

The Clash — Super Black Market Clash

The Clash released a 10″ EP in 1980 called Black Market Clash, which was essentially a collection for the US market of tracks that hadn’t yet been released on this side of the Atlantic. In 1993, the EP was released on CD as Super Black Market Clash, with the original nine tracks augmented by 12 extra unreleased dub plates and B-sides. The result was a reasonably comprehensive alternative history of one of Flavorpill’s all-time favorite bands, including key non-album tracks like the above “1977” as well as spotlighting the band’s enduring fascination with reggae.

Tom Waits — Orphans

This labyrinthine three-disc record was largely lauded on release for its 30 new tracks, but it also doubles as a pretty comprehensive outtakes and rarities compilation — along with the new material, there are 24 tracks that Waits described as “songs that fell behind the stove while making dinner… Some are from films, some from compilations. Some is stuff that didn’t fit on a record, things I recorded in the garage with kids.” And they’re pretty much all good.

And one that didn’t already exist, so we had to make it ourselves:

Radiohead

Surely the best B-side band never to release a B-sides compilation, Radiohead have spent the best part of 20 years putting out fantastic music on the flipside of their singles. “Talk Show Host” is probably the best-known, due to the inclusion of Nellee Hooper’s remix on the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack — but pretty much every single the band has ever released has come with some fantastic extra songs. Surely one day EMI will collate them all into a highly lucrative double album — but for now, you can enjoy our Grooveshark playlist. Don’t say never did anything nice for you: