The Best (And Worst) Reissue Labels

If you happen to be a collector of the music of years past, you’ll find CD compilations to be a mixed bag, quality-wise.

In the days of vinyl, a record’s sound quality usually didn’t vary discernibly from label to label (with the possible exception of K-Tel, which often crammed too many songs on a vinyl record at the expense of sound quality). But in the world of CD-reissued music things can be much different. Many labels (such as Rhino, Shout Factory, Taragon and Sundazed) were created solely or mainly to re-release music that originally appeared on another, long-established label (Capitol, Columbia and Decca to name a few of the “majors”).

Trouble is, the reissue labels, who are targeting different market niches, have different levels of commitment to sound quality as well as presentation. The best reissue labels lovingly restore original artwork and commission new liner notes when re-presenting an artist’s original album. When it’s a compilation, you’ll find color photos and a booklet of liner notes several pages long, rather than a single fold-over page. And the difference in sound quality comes from the use of source tapes which can be either the original, decades-old studio masters or tapes any number of generations removed from those true originals.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject or a complete listing and appraisal of all reissue labels (lucky for you). I’ll just mention some of the very best, then list a few to avoid.

My personal favorite CD reissue label is Ace of London (not to be confused with a small 1960’s label named Ace Records in Jackson, Mississippi, whose music was actually reissued on the English Ace label just to make things more confusing). No label in America has shown greater care–love even–in presenting American “oldies” than this English imprint. Series such as their Golden Age of American Rock ‘n’ Roll truly set the standard:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_13?url=search-alias%3Dpopular&field-keywords=golden+age+of+american+rock+and+roll&sprefix=golden+age+of%2Cpopular%2C130

Pristine sound (Ace always, always uses the best available source tapes) and chart information for each song, as well as lavish full-color booklets show a dedication that music collectors appreciate. If you want to see how good music from the 50’s and 60’s can sound, buy it on an Ace compilation.

Eric Records is another outstanding reissue label dedicated to high-quality sound from original master tapes. Their Hard To Find 45s On CD series is the equal, or near-equal, to the Ace series mentioned above in terms of sound reproduction, with the additional appeal of its focus on songs you may have had a fondness for but a difficult time locating elsewhere:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_13?url=search-alias%3Dpopular&field-keywords=golden+age+of+american+rock+and+roll&sprefix=golden+age+of%2Cpopular%2C130#/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dpopular&field-keywords=eric+hard+to+find&rh=n%3A5174%2Ck%3Aeric+hard+to+find

Germany’s Bear Family Records claim to specialize in premium quality reissues. It’s an understatement. This label is simply off the charts for painstakingly-researched deluxe reissue packages, with a special focus on classic Country, Folk, Blues and Rockabilly. Like Jim Reeves? Bear Family has a 16-CD box set complete with a 124-page book. A Johnny Cash fan? You can choose from at least five different deluxe box sets (one of which is just outtakes). Everybody loves the Beatles. But not everybody loves them enough for the Tony Sheridan-era Beatles Bop Hamburg Days 2-disc box with 120-page hardcover book. Bear Family caters to the music collector, not the guy who’ll keep his CDs in the visor of his jeep. Even a single-disc compilation on Bear Family might come with a 78-page booklet with complete session information for each of its 36 songs (like this one does: http://www.amazon.com/Country-Music-Odyssey-Favorite-Songs/dp/B002NXX7PM/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1328131339&sr=1-1 ). (I was wondering if that was Floyd Cramer on piano on track 22. It was.)

Of these three great reissue labels, Ace, Eric and Bear Family, only Eric is based in America. Their CDs cost the least of the three on average, although still a little more than you might pay for a typical CD. Ace CDs cost more still, and Bear Family, of course, are the most expensive–and the expense is well-justified by premium packaging and sound quality, if those things are important to you.

I’d also give high marks to three other English labels, BGO (Beat Goes On), Salvo, and Repertoire. Each of these labels has a niche, a specialty, so don’t go looking for a nice James Taylor best-of here. But if you are looking for something by Amazing Blondel, Marmalade or The Nice, or if you want that first Genesis album no other label wants to bother keeping in print because it won’t sell in big numbers, these are the companies that keep lower-selling product and artists in print with deluxe editions aimed at serious fans.

  

           

Now a word about labels to avoid:

Don’t buy anything on labels like Madacy Entertainment: http://www.amazon.com/Golden-Legends-R-B-Ballads/dp/B000UWWLK0/ref=sr_1_3?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1328123232&sr=1-3  or Purple Pyramid: http://www.amazon.com/Fallin-In-Love/dp/B001BVY724/ref=sr_1_5?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1328248995&sr=1-5 Whereas quality reissue labels will make compilations by leasing the master tapes from the label who owns the rights to the recordings, labels like these see fit to fool the consumer by selling re-recorded versions of the original hits. Even if they are the original artists, they are not always the definitive versions of the songs. “Original artists” well past their prime re-record their hits years or decades later, backed by a hack studio band. It’s a quick cash-in for them and a bush-league label. Beware the bargain!

Collectibles is a record label that seems to cater to the collector and the completist. Like Repertoire and BGO they put out the niche product that the major labels don’t see enough profit in bothering with. And some of their product has been mastered from the original master tapes. But mostly not. And in fact the label has a terrible reputation for sound quality, and is regularly accused of mastering CDs from old vinyl records (sometimes the pops and scratches are still there). I only buy a CD on this label if it’s something I really want and it can be found on no other label. Typically a Collectibles CD will receive rave reviews from many Amazon.com customers who are grateful for an album’s reissue, and several low marks from more knowledgeable fans who are ticked off by careless mastering. It’s a shame, for example, that RCA turned over Perry Como’s back catalogue to Collectibles for reissuing. Perry’s voice and beautifully arranged music deserved better treatment. By contrast, Capitol’s parent EMI Records reissued Nat Cole’s music themselves, and the sound is startlingly clear, warm and immediate.

One Way Records is another label which has the reputation for mastering CDs from tapes several generations removed from the original masters. Again, I only buy it on One Way if it is available nowhere else. Which is usually the case. Which is how they sell CDs.

The bottom line is if you’re looking to revisit your past in the form of reissued music, it’s actually worth checking to see whether it’s available on one of the better labels. The difference in sound quality alone makes their product worth seeking out. Before buying, look for the label!

Bear Family: The ultimate deluxe treatment

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dave
    Feb 01, 2012 @ 20:55:18

    Nice article. I really love the Bear Family label as well. Great Hillybilly reissues.

    Reply

  2. njseahawkfan12
    Apr 08, 2017 @ 07:09:38

    I enjoyed this article…. thank you. I have a few thousand classic soul CDs, that’s my passion, and I find that the Japanese reissue labels are more expensive but most times worth it. Do you have any info on Japanese labels to avoid? In my experience, when I buy some CDs from P-Vine, the sound is so terrible with the crackles and pops. Thank you…. Rick

    Reply

  3. meyer
    Feb 26, 2019 @ 12:21:03

    A few of the Eric’s are unremarkable, like the issue of doo wop in stereo.

    Reply

  4. alexander s meyer
    May 14, 2021 @ 16:10:57

    ERIC continues to reissue older songs in their simulated stereo versions. It’s a hit and miss proposition. The older songs that never had much bass now sound gutted and lifeless. Go to their site and listen to samples of the new batch that came out May 2021. I refuse to pay full retail for discs where maybe 1/3 of the songs sound “better” or improved in Stereo – which is about more that 2 channel sound. I wish they would go back to issuing oldies using the top masters. There are so many 70’s and 60’s tunes that have been neglected. ,I wonder why…probably legal issues or an inability to locate good masters.

    Reply

  5. Harry
    Jun 08, 2021 @ 17:10:30

    Do you create high Quality cd’s if I give you a list of records

    Reply

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