This year figures to go down as a memorable one for box sets and other special releases.
Several landmark albums, including the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” the Replacements’ “Don’t Tell a Soul” and Prince’s “1999” were re-issued with lots of worthy additional music. Bob Dylan’s vault got raided once again, and all-time great acts like Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones were celebrated with greatest hits sets. It means there are no shortage of good gift choices this season.
Here are my favorites:
The Beatles: “Abbey Road” — “Abbey Road” marked the end of the line for the Beatles, and my vote for rock’s greatest group went out in style with an album that showcased both exceptional songs — “Come Together,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” to name a few — and the wide range of musical styles the group had mastered. This three-CD deluxe reissue supplements the original album with two discs of outtakes that have some contrasts to the album versions, and find the Beatles sounding more harmonious than at any time since “Sgt. Pepper’s.”
Replacements: “Dead Man’s Pop” — This is the Replacements’ “Don’t Tell a Soul” album as it was originally intended by the band. Gone is the radio-ready mix that was done in 1989 in hopes it would turn the album into a hit. Instead this box set debuts a remix by Matt Wallace, the producer of “Don’t Tell a Soul,” that restores the natural sound of the band and turns an album that always had some of frontman Paul Westerberg’s best songwriting into the masterful work it should have been. Then this set ups the ante with a disc of outtakes and a full concert from 1989 that finds the Replacements mostly on point, but retaining their rebellious spirit.
Prince: “1999 Super Deluxe Edition” — I’ve always felt Prince hit his peak with this 1982 double album. This great box set does nothing to diminish that notion. It adds a disc of B-sides and remixes, 23 unreleased songs, alternate versions of some “1999” tracks and a concert from Detroit on CD and a Houston concert on DVD — both from the “1999” tour. The unreleased songs are the biggest curiosity, and they reaffirm how prolific and creative Prince was during this period. They’re almost all entertaining, and some — like the bouncy romp, “You’re All I Want,” the perky “Turn It Up,” the funk-laced rock of “Money Don’t Grow on Trees,” the reggae-ish “If It’ll Make U Happy” and the splashy piano/synth-centric jam “Bold Generation” — are among the keepers that suggest “1999” could have easily been a three-album set.
Bob Dylan (featuring Johnny Cash): “Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969 The Bootleg Series Vol. 15” — The latest collection from Dylan’s vaults focuses on his post-”Blonde on Blonde” return to his folk and country roots. Outtakes from the “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline” albums are included, but the highlight is two discs of unreleased collaborations between Dylan and Johnny Cash. The pair doesn’t take things — or themselves — too seriously here. Still, they deliver some fine performances of classic covers and Cash originals. “Travelin’ Thru” is rounded out by four tracks Dylan recorded with bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs for a PBS special and three more Dylan performed on Cash’s television show.
Steve Miller: “Welcome to the Vault” — The first in a promised series of releases, this three CD/one DVD set is packed with choice outtakes, including alternate versions of such hits as “Rock’n Me” (a frisky and fast take and a slowed down version), a grittier “Swingtown” and “Jet Airliner” (stripped back with different guitar solos), great live performances and tracks showing Miller’s love and mastery of the blues. Judging by this terrific first installment, Miller’s “Vault” series will mine plenty more musical gold.
Little Steven Van Zandt: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebel” — This comprehensive set includes all five of Van Zandt’s 1980s/early ‘90s solo albums plus 51 unreleased outtakes, most from his first two solo efforts, “Men Without Women” and “Voice of America.” A highlight is a 1977 rehearsal with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (Van Zandt wrote songs and produced for the band) that includes several release-worthy songs that never appeared on a Southside album.
Various Artists: “Ken Burns Country Music” — The five-disc soundtrack to Burns’ documentary covers lots of ground — formative early songs, key songs from the biggest names of the 1950s and 1960s and the new traditionalists of the 1980s. It’s a great summation of country’s development and an entertaining listen as well.
Various Artists: “Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 Vols. 1 & 2” — The summer of 1969 will always be synonymous with Woodstock. But this two-CD set suggests the far smaller Ann Arbor Blues Festival was plenty historic in its own right, bringing together a who’s who of the blues world. The recordings are from field tapes, but the sound is mostly clear and very listenable, and these two CDs provide a good sampling of the proceedings, but leave you wanting to hear much more.
Glen Campbell: “The Legacy (1961-2017)” — This four-CD set includes Campbell’s hits, as well as worthy album cuts and tunes he cut before he succumbed to alzheimer’s disease in 2017, making this set an excellent survey of Campbell’s long and highly successful career.
Rory Gallagher: “Blues” — This three-CD set, made up almost entirely of unreleased live performances and alternate studio takes, is a treat for fans of this under-appreciated blues rocker — and a good introduction for those who have yet to hear his work. — This comprehensive set starts with the blockbuster original album, then adds a disc of B-sides and tracks from earlier indie releases and a 1995 live show that includes many pre-”Cracked Rear View” songs. It’s everything you’d want in a deluxe reissue.
The Kinks: “Arthur or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire” — This two-CD reissue presents this underrated album from the Kinks (plus a few bonus tracks). A second disc features songs recorded for a shelved first solo album from Dave Davies, bandmate and brother of Kinks frontman Ray Davies. The songs were agreeable enough to have deserved a release back in 1969.
The Rolling Stones: “Honk” — This hits collection does a fine job collecting 36 of the Stones’ best songs from 1971 through 2016. A third disc featuring 10 live performances from recent tours, including collaborations with Florence Welch (“Wild Horses”), Ed Sheeran (“Beast of Burden”) and Brad Paisley (“Dead Flowers”) is a nice bonus.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “The Best of Everything” — This two-CD set presents 38 hits and prime album cuts from across Petty’s career. His catalog, though, was deep and good enough to merit a more expansive version.
Simple Minds: “40: The Best Of — 1979-2019” — Still alive and kicking, this three-CD set is a fine summation of this popular band’s first 40 years of music.
Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark: “Souvenir” — This fine five-disc set starts with two discs of hits and outtakes from this pioneering synth-pop group, then adds a full disc of demos and live shows from 1983 and 2011.
Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue: “The Collection” — Reale is hardly a household name, but noted guitarists Mick Ronson and G.E. Smith both passed through his band. The real stars on this 24-track CD, though, are the songs, which mixed punk, early rock ‘n’ roll, and pop. This is your chance to discover one of the best lost bands of the late ’70s.