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Remix Your Canon: How Old Music Became the Biggest Thing in New Music

Nostalgia retains its stranglehold on music. Many high-profile reissues and rereleases throughout 2023, however, suggest a new path forward to talk about (and profit off) the past—from Taylor Swift’s rerecordings to the Replacements and beyond.

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The biggest music stories of 2023 had little to do with new music.

Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour is the new benchmark for future generation-defining touring, a billion-dollar-grossing enterprise that was less a celebration of her most recent album and more a greatest-hits victory lap in her prime. Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour came close in scale and attention, one year removed from her last full release. (Both the Eras and Renaissance tours would also find second life at the box office.) Hip-hop and country had messy identity crises that we might look back on as genre turning points, yet most of that messiness could not translate into zeitgeist domination or even Grammy nominations; the big country song of 2023 was a Luke Combs cover of a 1988 Tracy Chapman song. Speaking of Grammys, SZA led the 2024 nominations with an album that came out in 2022. Even Olivia Rodrigo’s Guts retreaded the “How do you do, fellow Avril Lavigne theater kids?” snipping surrounding her previous album. History will eventually reward this year’s hidden gems or albums that didn’t stick the landing but might influence the next era of music; two months later, PinkPantheress’s official debut, which features fellow 2023 breakout Ice Spice, already feels like a misunderstood classic. Reviewing this year today, however, it feels like new music did not dominate the mainstream like film or TV, with the one-two punch of Barbenheimer or the writers and actors strikes, and video games, which had one of its best years ever and whose wealth of IP could replace superheroes as Hollywood’s next crush.

In 2023, the music industry didn’t quite know what to do with itself, wrestling with a post-COVID concert boom at a time when it’s harder to sustain most tours if you’re not famous enough to perform in Fortnite and a thriving experience economy that emphasizes music as soundtracks to events or content rather than stand-alone works. The money talks: Most new music is not a safe investment. It’s easier with current technology to reintroduce and promote old and familiar music to the masses. The future seems bleak anyway. So let’s relive the cozy soundtracks to better days, together.

It’s fitting, then, that 2023 was also a big year for reissues, rereleases, and “remix” albums, more traditional means for music fans to experience the past with new context. But unlike recent years, what makes 2023 so strange is that those same reissues ended up being some of the most interesting “new” albums of the year.

Despite—or maybe in part because of—the glut of new songs being released every day, nostalgia retains its stranglehold on music, and the reissue business has remained consistently strong since the ’90s box set boom. But for every Who’s Next/Life House super-deluxe edition from the Who, or Green Day Dookie 30th-anniversary deluxe reissue, or Prince & the New Power Generation Diamonds and Pearls super-deluxe edition, other new reissues this year were attempting to do something new. Less “It’s the 30th anniversary, let’s slap together an updated mastering with unreleased songs” and more offering a new experience built entirely out of existing music—to have a conversation with the past and challenge our collective memories, reappropriated to modern taste and sensibility. From the top of the music food chain to the most cultish albums, reissues had a banner year. The industry took notice. Artists with extensive back catalogs, the means and technology, and the fandom and mythology who refuse to burn out or fade away now have more viable blueprints for relevancy. For better or worse.

The place to start is Swift, Time’s recently minted Person of the Year. In addition to her Eras Tour, Swift’s expanding “Taylor’s Version” catalog somehow felt bigger in 2023 than ever before, the best example of the increasingly common practice (thanks to her) of rerecording one’s work to reclaim or gain ownership and take back one’s career narrative. (And often the rights to the music.) The ever-growing and now multigenerational Swifties are so on board with Swift’s game of self-empowerment chess against toxic industry types that they will gladly buy or stream content they have already owned or experienced. The quality of these new versions is moot.

With Swift’s two rereleases this year, it’s a mixed bag. Speak Now is arguably the best of her original country era, and Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) sounds great: the compelling statement of an artist chasing the best songs in her head rather than some pop trend. There’s a timelessness to these songs that speaks positively to Swift’s songwriting. The same can’t be said of 1989. While the original album earned its legacy by kicking off the mass conversion of rock and pop fans (and critics) into Swifties, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) sounds thin and dated by today’s pop standards. Swift’s songwriting is still strong, but shiny, autotune 2014 pop that screams “Remember BoJack Horseman?” doesn’t quite jell today with her now more mature voice. It’s like a 30-something trying to party like they did in their 20s: Yas, queen, I guess, but really? It didn’t help that original 1989 producer Max Martin was absent from these rerecording sessions—we must make do with a literal Martin impression. For all of Swift’s brilliance, much of her recording history can be categorized by the notable producers helping steer the ship, which are relationships that these Taylor’s Version albums seem to want to deemphasize. Again, fans don’t care. The additional “From the Vault” previously unreleased tracks from each album didn’t hurt either. These reissues reaffirm these albums’ respected influences and Swift’s monopoly on music, which was the goal all along. For her, it’s all business. Millions of copies sold worth of business, with Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) earning the biggest debut week for any album in 2023 until it was surpassed by … 1989 (Taylor’s Version), which sold a million copies in less than a week.

If Swift’s 2023 rereleases were designed to double down on and reinforce her story, other notable rereleases from this year attempted to reintroduce or expand one’s legacy—also to mixed results.

A musical rerelease in line with this year’s “You Had to Be There” economy was Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. Indeed, concert films had a moment in 2023, and Stop Making Sense was an easy film to root for. It’s a solid performance that sounds better when you see it, especially on the big screen, and A24 went all out in bringing it back to theaters with a new restoration to celebrate its 40th anniversary. (Next year will technically be the 40th anniversary, but when did nostalgia ever [checks notes] make sense.) This was a relatively straightforward rerelease treated as an Oscar campaign, big enough of a deal to get all the band members to grit their teeth and reunite for the first time in decades to promote the rerelease. Stop Making Sense feels wonderfully out of place with today’s music but was an important opportunity for people to see this film in its proper setting for the first time. In a time when concert tickets are only getting more expensive and competitive, buying just one movie ticket, even compared to expensive box sets, is a great value to enjoy the past. Stop Making Sense doubled as a predictable feel-good story and another victory for movies in 2023.

That fans received and loved rereleases of 1989 and Stop Making Sense is no surprise. What is surprising is Metacritic’s current top-rated overall album of 2023 by a wide margin: the Replacements’ Tim (Let It Bleed Edition). That this reissue even exists is a miracle, a longtime pipe dream for ’Mats fans that was better than anyone thought possible thanks to Ed Stasium’s superhuman remix of an album plagued by a notoriously poor mix. (A quick PSA: “Mixing” is when you blend and fine-tune the individual tracks on a song to make sure everything is balanced. “Mastering” is when you polish the entire mix to ensure quality and consistency ahead of distribution.) Pitchfork’s perfect 10 review suggests that this reissue could rewrite the history and legacy of the ’Mats—thus rewriting the history of American indie rock. Not every album has the mystique to pull off such a big event, yet Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) is now the gold standard for reissues that dare to promise to be an album’s definitive version.

“We’re in a pretty profound moment of recontextualizing old or familiar music in new ways,” says Bob Mehr, the Grammy-winning music journalist, author, and reissue producer credited as one of the wizards who helped shepherd Tim (Let It Bleed Edition). Over email, Mehr breaks down the yearlong journey of “fixing” an album so beloved and criticized for its sound. Mehr is the ideal person to lead such a campaign, writing the literal book on the Replacements (2016’s Trouble Boys, perfect) and partnering with the band and reissue label Rhino for a series of archival projects expanding their legacy. Mehr’s previous work already helped update the Replacements for a new generation; 2017’s For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 was the first official ’Mats live album, and 2019’s Grammy-winning Dead Man’s Pop reworked the underrated Don’t Tell a Soul. Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) feels like the pinnacle of this journey.

Mehr makes an important distinction between “reissue” and “remix.” Reissues repackage old albums with an updated mastering and often include bonus material: demos, outtakes, alternative mixes, and live recordings. From a business perspective, reissues are a relatively straightforward process that can exist simply to take advantage of the mastering technology that evolves every five to seven years. It’s like buying every new iPhone: If fans are willing to pay money for a slightly better version of something they already own, why not reissue the same album every half decade? The streaming era might make buying these reissues less of a ceremony, but marketing old music as “new” and technically being true with the lowest effort is still an easy way to gain attention.

A remix is a different, more delicate beast. There are Dolby Atmos remixes—the technology initially developed for movie theaters that give engineers more mixing power than typical stereo—and then there are remixes like Dead Man’s Pop, which didn’t include any version of the original Don’t Tell a Soul album and instead focused on producer Matt Wallace’s full-album remix. Technically, everything on Dead Man’s Pop was brand-new. Mehr says it’s more accurate to call that album a “reimagining.”

Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) is a reissue and a remix. Mehr clarifies that Tim’s issue was never its production but rather its final mixing, which Ed Stasium had to essentially reconstruct from scratch to make sure the Replacements still sounded like they were playing in 1985 instead of manifesting the uncanny valley that comes from poor or lazy remixing. Recording music is like the writer’s first draft, and mixing is the editing that turns that creativity into something more cohesive and presentable—or botches that raw material into something bland or different from the writer’s intention. (Mastering is the final copy editing.) Tim was always seen as a collection of great songs with greater promise. Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) feels like that promise fulfilled. “It’s rare that a remix will fundamentally alter and improve an album,” says Mehr, “but I think we did that.”

In 2023, the Drive-By Truckers, Bob Dylan, and Daft Punk also released unique remixes of beloved albums with backstories that suggested unfinished business. The Complete Dirty South adds back three songs that were originally meant for The Dirty South but were cut due to label pressure, and features brand-new vocal takes of “Puttin’ People on the Moon” and “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” the former of which Patterson Hood said better captures the inherent anger and despair of those songs’ lyrics; his director’s cut, as he says. Fragments—The Time Out of Mind Sessions is a recent addition to Dylan’s long-running bootleg series that hinges on a stripped-back remix of an album famous for being lost in producer Daniel Lanois’s reverb swamp against Dylan’s wishes. Random Access Memories (Drumless Edition) feels like a cash-in on the 10th anniversary of Daft Punk’s final album that still holds a mixed reception among critics: Is there a new story to tell to win over critics when you take out a vital instrument from dance music, to add to the story by subtraction? All three feel like projects driven by the artist’s desire more than fan clamor. Your mileage may vary. The Complete Dirty South is the definitive version of the Drive-By Truckers’ best album, now a double LP with more sonic peaks and valleys that feel more heartbreaking and timely today than they did 20 years ago. Like most Dylan bootleg entries, Fragments is more fitting for academic study than pleasure, though one could argue Dylan was a forefather in reexamining one’s career in real time with Swiftie levels of gushy adoration and cutthroat economics. Random Access Memories (Drumless Edition) feels the least essential and may inspire future lazy reissues. Have you ever wondered what Fugazi’s Instrument Soundtrack sounds like with no keyboard? Pay to find out!

U2 also remixed its past in 2023—in a way no one asked for. Songs of Surrender is the most curious “remix” album, more of a reworking by the Edge and Bono in an attempt to “finish” the songs they wrote when they were young men. Some people baked sourdough bread during COVID lockdowns; half of U2 figured out how to suck the life out of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” There’s an insecurity running through these quiet and spacy arrangements, as if Bono is pleading to the TikTok kids, “We know that guitar rock is embarrassing, here’s ‘The Fly’ as a vibe.” These are not the definitive versions of U2’s music. Songs of Surrender is still at least interesting. Its low-key nature highlights Bono’s underrated lyrics from U2’s more recent albums, and longtime fans will still find a few moments to love; I especially love their new acoustic rendition of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” An appropriate win for a modest one-off. And if you’re a big and legacy-secure enough artist with a fan base willing to go down your rabbit holes, why not remix your old songs? Songs of Surrender, however, feels like a footnote to U2’s bigger impact in 2023: opening Las Vegas’s Sphere venue with a futuristic greatest hits performance that already feels like an inflection point for the future of live entertainment. Again, this was the year of experiences that happened to have music. Just as U2’s ’90s multimedia Zoo TV tour prepped the music world to enter the 21st century, Bono and Co. have officially brought the Vegas lounge act—the live performance manifestation of a reissue—into the Web 3.0 era.

What else will our new tech era bring to the future of reissues? A few “new” releases this year mirror the curious state of how we may use technology to further salvage the past.

One of 2023’s more bittersweet stories involved De La Soul, with Trugoy the Dove passing away around the time the legendary rap trio’s catalog came to DSPs after years in copyright limbo. This is a quasi-reissue unique to streaming: the availability of music that is increasingly hard to find in the digital or even physical world. The end goal is the same: make sure that the current buying public has access to these albums. These albums are also technically different. According to Pitchfork, some of the original tracks’ samples could not be cleared and were replaced with rerecordings or omitted entirely. It’s mostly the albums you remember. For some, that mostly is worrying. Are we to settle with incomplete recreations that listeners will take as the new standard? For many, mostly might be enough. The positive spin is that this is the best we can hope for, that tech companies preserve rare or out-of-print music that record labels can’t or won’t. This could be the Suits effect for music: For most people, De La Soul’s music may as well not have existed in the past decade but now gets to make a splash with a demand-free, accessible return. The negative is that, for now, it feels like De La Soul’s future is directly tied to how long these DSPs keep operating. It’s like finding out your favorite movie is on Netflix: Great, but how long until it disappears, or until Netflix gets out of the movie business? Whether through physical box sets or streaming, reissues can serve as a practical service to maintain our culture’s history for future generations. Regardless of the medium, if we’re not careful, we can lose De La Soul like we almost lost Bob Seger.

A band we’ll never have to worry about losing for a long time: the Beatles.

“Now and Then” was released last month and billed as the last new Beatles song, a decades-old John Lennon demo that the remaining Beatles worked on casually over the years but now “finished” thanks to the machine audio learning (MAL) algorithm Peter Jackson developed for his Get Back Disney+ documentary that helped isolate and clean up old footage from the Let It Be sessions. Thanks to modern technology, additional tracks and orchestration, and Paul McCartney’s bloodlust for relevancy, we have a new last Beatles song that no one asked for. “Last” and “new” also feel debatable. And why bother? Especially when the result feels so generic. (George Harrison was the one who first declined to work further on “Now and Then,” supposedly calling it “fuckin’ rubbish”; George Martin didn’t love the idea of trying to make new Beatles music using the presence of a dead Beatle; now we hear what they mean.) Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) was an exercise in “What could have been?” yet still felt like a human work of love. “Now and Then” feels calculating and cold, like the tech mimicking a late Beatle. The New York Times’ Peter C. Baker was blunt about its implications: The future is bleak.

At least give credit to McCartney for consistency. On the Mount Rushmore of the Beatles’ impact on popular music, one is the group’s groundbreaking embracement of technology and teaching its pop peers to embrace every square inch of the studio and all the tools at one’s disposal. This is the same band that gave up touring at the height of its powers for, among many reasons, this pursuit of forward-thinking musical discovery. That the remaining Beatles would go all in on AI shouldn’t be shocking.

We can also trace the looming shadow of a booming reissue industry back to the Beatles. The Fab Four helped lead the ’90s reissue revolution with 1995’s Anthology, a multimedia event presenting the idea that there was more to the Beatles story that they could tell (sell) by offering an abundant amount of unreleased content. “Now and Then” was originally considered for Anthology. How fitting that it is now coming out with its own multimedia event. In the 2020s, the Beatles’ Get Back Disney+ documentary already feels like a touchstone comparable to Anthology, another event that signaled that, with new technology and enough time, you can create something new entirely from the past to deepen a story we all thought we knew. In this aim, Get Back was wildly successful, a compelling experience, and the most wonderful McCartney propaganda film ever. Is there another group so good and so committed to reselling its myth to each generation? Thanks to the Beatles, we now have a new way to fix problems that never required solving. AI “fixed” Revolver. AI “fixed” Let It Be. AI “fixed” our need for a new Oasis album, a group that was already a ’90s reissue of the Beatles. AI “fixed” “Now and Then.” How will AI fix other trivial problems?

That “Now and Then” was released close to the first anniversary of OpenAI’s ChatGPT public launch feels fitting. Popular AI chatbots like ChatGPT gain their power from their extensive pool of existing data to offer users new interpretations of their desired questions or requests, which speaks to our increasing appetite away from new music in favor of playing around with our preferred retellings of the past. This appetite appeals to both fans and artists on platforms like TikTok, which feels seemingly built to reissue popular songs and styles as something new. (Hello again, Brenda Lee.) Why bother checking in on new talent when you can look forward to Wish You Were Here (David Gilmour’s Version) or Funeral (Accordion Edition), especially if you don’t have the time or energy to find new music but still wish to recreate that feeling of hearing something you love for the first time? This appetite also unlocks the LP—the preferred medium of the serious pop era led by the Beatles—out of its monolith structure and reshapes new releases as more free-form and ever-changing playlists and turns discographies into malleable IP. It’s interesting to think that the LP could go away, though it might very well be the step to keep old music alive to inspire the next generation. Or just to go viral.

We now end this first year of the mainstream AI unknown with a more traditional yet still curious Beatles reissue: The Beatles 1962-1966 (better known as the Red Album) and The Beatles 1967-1970 (the Blue Album), the original Beatles greatest-hits collections released in 1973 now getting the 2023 remix treatment and marketed as a new beginning of an old chapter to the ongoing Beatles legacy. The Red Album now includes songs written by George Harrison, more representation of Revolver, and a new version of the Beatles’ debut single “Love Me Do” that features Ringo on drums—as opposed to the most well-known recording, featuring the original drummer, session player Andy White. That’s right. The Beatles estate, finally in control of the track listing for two previously contentious collections that gave the impression the Beatles was just the Paul and John show, has now retroactively acknowledged the greatness of George and Ringo, as simply as treating these reissues like updated playlists. And the final track on the Blue Album: “Now and Then.” History is rewritten in real time. Call it fixing the mistakes of the past. Call it preservation for the future. Call it a cash grab for present trends. It’s business as usual.

Brady Gerber is a writer, journalist, and music critic based in Los Angeles. He contributes to New York magazine and Pitchfork and has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Stereogum, McSweeney’s, and more. Brady is also the founder of OPE!, a music blog and newsletter.


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