1. Dinosaur Jr.
Although singer-songwriter-guitarist J Mascis is Dinosaur Jr. for all intents and purposes, the seminal grunge band lost a little something when Mascis had a falling-out with original bassist Lou Barlow, and later with drummer Murph. And though the post-Barlow and post-Murph Dinosaur Jr. albums are generally good—and in a couple of cases, great—they don’t have anything like the ferocity of Beyond, the 2007 record Mascis recorded with Barlow and Murph following a reconciliation and successful world tour. Returning to a more basic sound—with more Neil Young-style crunch and twang and less symphonic embellishment—Dinosaur Jr. reminded longtime fans how satisfying a ringing in the ears can be. Then, having reestablished how Dinosaur Jr. is supposed to sound, the band recorded Farm, which applied that brute force to a more fully realized and catchy set of songs. The best that can be said about most reunions is that the band in question didn’t sully the memory of its early work. But with Farm, Mascis and company made an album almost as good as any from their original incarnation.
2. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
When Bruce Springsteen decided to spend some time away from his ace sidemen The E Street Band following the Born In The U.S.A. tour, he wandered in the creative wilderness for about 10 years, recording some worthy material—and continuing to put on electrifying live shows—but losing some sense of purpose. Following the release of the 1998 rarities box set Tracks, Springsteen reconvened The E Street Band (including Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, who’d been his guitarists in different E Street eras) and went on a lengthy world tour that saw him using the concept of reunion as an inspirational theme. The message proved timely. After 9/11, Springsteen and The E Street Band recorded The Rising, a collection of songs about loss, faith, and community that marked their first full album of new material since Born In The U.S.A. They went on to record the more modern-sounding (not always successfully so) Magic and Working On A Dream, while wowing new and old fans in epic concerts that show how touring together off-and-on for nearly 40 years can hone a band into a magnificent music machine.
3. The Feelies
Burying the hatchet may be tough, but try getting a band back together after one member disappears. After drifting apart and reforming several times, The Feelies took their longest break when guitarist Bill Million abruptly moved to Florida, leaving no forwarding address and putting the band on a 17-year hiatus. Singer Glenn Mercer cut a solo record heavily redolent of the band’s loud-quiet-loud take on the Velvet Underground, taking several former members on tour with him; it was The Feelies in all but name, but absent the fugitive Million, it seemed destined to stay that way. Luckily, Sonic Youth came calling in 2008, pulling Million out of the ether and initiating a surprisingly durable reunion that will pay off in June with the release of Here Before, the band’s first album in 20 years. The new songs that have slipped into live sets, like the aptly titled “Time Is Right,” stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the band’s best, so until Million does another runner, consider The Feelies back.
4. The New York Dolls
In the early ’70s, The New York Dolls came, saw, conquered, and quickly imploded. The fact that the cross-dressing band helped lay much of the groundwork for punk and glam metal earned the group a spot in the history books, but all leader David Johansen and crew were able to squeeze out the first time around were two (admittedly epochal) studio albums. Johansen went on to limited success as a solo artist, then a bit more with his cocktail-addled persona Buster Poindexter, but guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan died in the ’90s, more or less laying to rest any possibility of a reunion. Then, in 2004, Johansen, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, and bassist Arthur Kane announced a reformation—although Kane died soon after. In spite of the odds against them, though, Johansen and Sylvain came through with a 2006 album, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, that did justice to the band’s trashy legacy. They followed up with the recent Dancing Backward In High Heels, which did the same.
5. Steely Dan
During the time Donald Fagen and Walter Becker spent not being Steely Dan, they worked on each other’s solo albums, toured together, and watched from a distance as Steely Dan’s reputation improved in the critical and musical communities. A band once dismissed by some as airless West Coast studio-pop was reevaluated, as younger musicians—many of them British—cited Becker and Fagen’s pristine sound and acerbic lyrics as an inspiration. In 1993, the duo toured again as Steely Dan for the first time in 20 years, then spent the last few years of the decade periodically working on the album that would become 2000’s Two Against Nature: a set of witty, sophisticated songs in the band’s clean-burning jazz-rock style. The record became a surprise double-platinum-selling hit, and shocked even the band’s fans when it won the Grammy for Best Album in 2001, beating out Beck, Eminem, Radiohead, and Paul Simon.
Some of the most satisfying reunions happen when a band is largely unheralded during its original run, then returns to play in front of bigger audiences than it saw before it broke up. That’s what happened with Versus, a beloved ’90s indie-rock act that could never interest more than a core group of critics and fans in its shifting rhythms, poppy melodies, and wall-of-sound guitar breaks. When the band reunited to record last year’s fine album On The Ones And Threes, its label, Merge, had more resources at hand for promotion, and the younger indie bands Versus inspired spread the love around to their fans, prompting an overdue appreciation.
7. American Music Club
Sadcore specialist American Music Club signed to a major label during the great indie-rock feeding frenzy of the early ’90s, and like a lot of those bands with limited mainstream appeal, the group withered on the vine. As frontman Mark Eitzel told Pulse Of The Twin Cities in 2004, “[The breakup] had to do with people having expectations of being rock stars and then not being able to handle it when that didn’t happen.” But a decade after issuing AMC’s 1994 swan song, San Francisco, Eitzel reassembled the band following a fateful trip to California in the midst of making a solo record in Chicago with the late Jay Bennett. He realized he’d rather work with the old gang—guitarist Vudi, drummer Tim Mooney, and bassist Danny Pearson, along with newcomer Marc Capelle on keys—a recognition that resulted in 2004’s strong Love Songs For Patriots. After another lineup shift, which saw Mooney replaced by Steve Didelot and Sean Hoffman taking over for Pearson, AMC returned in 2008 with the even better The Golden Age, a gorgeous recording that found Eitzel telling more compelling tales and the band filling the album out with equal amounts of moodiness, dreaminess, and enticing folk-rock moves.
8. Spinal Tap
Since Spinal Tap was never a real band to begin with, the possibility of a comeback seemed, well, as plausible as a sequel to Rob Reiner’s 1984 instant cult classic mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. A sequel never materialized, but it speaks to the durability of the film’s original soundtrack that stars Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer reconvened in 1992 to record a follow-up album, Break Like The Wind. With the band smoothly transitioning from fictional band to actual touring entity, the record didn’t need a fresh cinematic context, and as with the first batch of goes-to-11 classics, Break Like The Wind—released at the height of the grunge boom, when old-fashioned, bombastic hard rock couldn’t have been less cool—wound up as almost its predecessor’s equal.
Pop-punk legends the Descendents have always been an on-again, off-again affair. Since forming in 1978 and crafting the template for nerdy, catchy West Coast hardcore, the group saw numerous lineup changes that finally resulted in the band changing its name to All in 1987 after frontman Milo Aukerman amicably quit to study biochemistry. All became a huge success in its own right, especially as a new generation of bands like Green Day and Blink-182 followed in its footsteps in the ’90s. But in 1996—nine years after the release of its last album—the Descendents got back together as if the previous decade hadn’t even happened. The result was Everything Sucks, an album that did everything but suck, in spite of purists’ resistance at the time.
Michael Gira already sounded like he’d been kicking around the cosmos for a few hundred millennia when he got Swans together in the early ’80s. A sludgy anomaly in the New York rock scene, Swans wound up influencing untold thousands of musical malcontents with groaning voices and detuned, distorted guitars. But by the early ’90s, the group had mutated into a more textural and sinister outfit while maintaining a strong songwriting core. Swans fell apart in 1997, after which Gira immediately formed Angels Of Light, a logical extension of Swans that seemed to summarize everything he’d been trying to do all along. (Namely, creep the shit out of people.) But in 2010, he unleashed the first new Swans album in a decade and a half, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky. Seamlessly combining members of Angels Of Light and previous members of Swans, the album also synthesized Gira’s bleak ideas about sound, mankind, and reality into one of his most powerful statements to date.
DIY indie-rock superheroes whose energetic sounds could be heard in a lot of the second-wave emo acts from the late ’90s, Superchunk issued eight studio albums between 1990 and 2001 before retreating from the spotlight. The band never actually broke up, and the four members continued to interact with each other in one way or another: Superchunk played shows and recorded a few songs, guitarist Jim Wilbur assisted with Mac McCaughan’s Portastatic side project, and McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance attended to Merge Records. But letting nearly a decade pass between albums can make any band appear spent, and considering how subdued 2001’s Here’s To Shutting Up sounded, by last year it seemed like it had been forever since we’d really heard from the band. But Superchunk finally got back into the studio and issued 2010’s Majesty Shredding, a fired-up bunch of pogo-pop tunes on par with its early-’90s heyday. Other responsibilities—including kids—mean that it’s unlikely that the band will ever tour like it used to, but releasing Majesty Shredding inspired Superchunk to hit cities it hadn’t played in years.
Geoff Barrow began his musical career by working with Massive Attack, and the first two Portishead albums are a logical extension of where trip-hop had already gone. Though its ratio of sultry to scary was inverted between 1994’s Dummy and 1997’s self-titled follow-up, Portishead basically used the same tools as its peers: timeless-sounding string and jazz samples, scratchy turntable ambiance, and a seductively self-pitying lead singer in Beth Gibbons. After a well-received live album released in 1998, Portishead went on indefinite hiatus in 1999. Meanwhile, trip-hop as a cultural force wore itself out, watered down into the innocuous chillout music of Morcheeba, or more upbeat dance music, à la Cibo Matto. When the band finally returned after 11 years, it had successfully reinvented themselves for the new sound on 2008’s Third. With Gibbons no longer afraid to make her voice sound curdled and frightening, the band barred itself from using signature sounds and instruments. Harsher elements—brutal drums, droning guitars—prevail, and there’s more negative space, but the results are just as calmly authoritative and broodingly absorbing as Portishead’s past work.
It’s easy to remain relevant when you’ve basically invented the future. That’s what Kraftwerk did with ’70s techno-pop landmarks such as Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, which set the stage for both techno and hip-hop. (See Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.”) The group kept quiet after 1986’s Electric Café, but came back in a big way more than a decade later, headlining the British dance-music festival Tribal Gathering in 1997. (The event’s Detroit techno tent shut down during the set in tribute.) Kraftwerk toured the U.S. and Japan the following year, delighting ecstatic audiences—particularly during encores, when robot analogues took over for the human members of the group. In 2003, the group also released Tour De France Soundtracks, an album built around a 20-year-old single, but featuring newly recorded material.
14. The Go-Betweens
Grant McLennan and Robert Forster titled the joint anthology of their solo years Intermission, and although the time between 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane and 2000’s The Friends Of Rachel Worth is too long to be considered a blip, they wasted no time picking up where they left off. The pair managed three albums of delicate, lyrically acute pop before McLennan suffered a heart attack while preparing for his own engagement party. Intermission turned out to be the last project they worked on together, although Forster completed three of McLennan’s unfinished songs for his 2008 album The Evangelist.
15. Mission Of Burma
Mission Of Burma is the rare band whose second act has proven as vital as its first. Although they only gig on weekends to accommodate their regular jobs, Roger Miller, Clint Conley, and Peter Prescott (with Shellac’s Bob Weston replacing Martin Swope on live sound and tape manipulation) have released three albums of pummeling noise-rock since 2004, outlasting their initial run. Miller plays with airport-runway headphones to offset his severe tinnitus, but the band’s aggression remains blissfully undimmed.
Perhaps because so much of hip-hop trades on ego, when a rap group splinters, it tends to shatter, with former partners turning on each other viciously and often publicly. The break-up of EPMD’s Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith was more vicious than most: After Smith’s house was robbed by armed gunmen in 1991, the suspects told police that they were hired by Sermon, who was upset because he believed Smith was taking a larger cut of profits. While Sermon’s involvement was never proven, the incident understandably caused some tension, and EPMD’s ironically titled fourth album, Business Never Personal, was its last for five years. According to Sermon, it took the deaths of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur to bring them together again on 1997’s Back In Business. While only the opener, “Richter Scale,” and the hit single “Da Joint” match the heights of the duo’s early albums, Back is still a remarkably strong showing, especially considering how well its throwback funk samples stood up against the increasingly gritty East Coast sound EPMD helped pioneer. Def Jam’s insistence on dishonestly marketing 1999’s Out Of Business as the group’s final album to drive up sales ironically led to it being EPMD’s real last album for nearly a decade, as Sermon and Smith dealt with various record-label woes. Still, they managed to reunite again for another solid offering, 2008’s We Mean Business, and in March 2011, EPMD leaked a hint about its future with “Don’t Get Clapped,” a throwback to the golden age of rap (aided by a sample of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party And Bullshit”) that sounds vital and timeless.