How much bigger, better and pricier can CD and vinyl box sets get?
In a year that has seen increasingly lavish sets come out seemingly every other week, the upper limit — at least for bigger and pricier — may finally have been reached. Credit, and blame, for this goes to a certain member of the band Kiss and his recently released “Gene Simmons: The Vault Experience.”
It weighs 38 pounds, measures 17 by 25 inches, and includes 150 previously unreleased songs, an “In Gene We Trust” medallion, a leather-bound commemorative book, and more.
The price is — gulp! — $2,000. And, if Simmons’ “Vault World Tour” includes a stop in your city, your two grand also gets you a backstage visit, photo and a Q&A with him.
That is, unless you opt for the $25,000 Executive Producers Experience or the $50,000 Home Experience, which both include Simmons personally delivering his box set to you. The $50,000 package also lets you invite up to two dozen of your friends over for a party with him.
Hmmm. Does that price include a Gene Simmons dunking booth? Just asking.
Meanwhile, here’s an alphabetical look at some of the box sets that came out in 2017, many in limited editions and more than a few celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of some landmark albums.
The Beatles: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” Deluxe Edition
The Beatles’ decision to stop touring in 1966 to focus solely on recording paid improbably rich dividends with the five-months-in-the-making “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Like no rock album before, “Pepper’s” needed to be heard from start to finish, in one sitting, to be fully appreciated as a mind-bending work that expanded the parameters of popular music and culture at the dawning of the Summer of Love.
This truly deluxe edition features a 144 page hardback book, four CDs, a new 5.1 Surround Sound Blu-Ray disc, and a restored version of the 1992 documentary about the making of the film. The four CDs include “Pepper’s” original mono mix and a new stereo mix by Giles Martin (the son of the late George Martin, who produced all but one of The Beatles’ albums), which adds new emphasis on Ringo Starr’s innovative drumming and the quintessential vocals of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
One treat is the inclusion of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Both provided a template for “Pepper’s,” but — because they were released first on one astounding single — were left off the album at the myopic insistence of EMI Records.
An even bigger treat, at least for Fab Four completists, are the 33 different takes of “Pepper’s” 12 original songs. Hearing the evolution of such classics as the album’s title track and the epic “A Day in the Life,” replete with recording studio comments by The Beatles, offers welcome insight into their creative process. The sum total is something that, at least in this instance, money can buy.
(Capitol: 4 CDs, 1 DVD, 1 Blu-Ray Audio Music Video) $120.97
David Bowie: “A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982)”
A companion piece to “David Bowie: Five Years 1969-1973,” this formidable collection offers David Bowie’s ground-shifting 1977-1982 work in both CD (11 discs) and vinyl (13 LPs) form.
The cornerstone of this set is his famed trilogy of late 1970s albums — 1977’s “Low” and “Heroes,” 1979’s “Lodger” — which were birthed when Bowie and Iggy Pop moved to Berlin, Germany, to recover from their respective drug addictions. They were unaware Berlin was, at the time, the heroin capital of Europe.
Regardless, the music that resulted saw Bowie experiment and innovate with dizzying results, at least artistically speaking. With the exception of the title track of “Heroes,” the shape-shifting songs on these albums challenged listeners and were largely ignored by radio programmers. Collaborating with such like-minded mavericks as Roxy Music alum Brian Eno, King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti, rock’s most fabled chameleon pushed hard to reinvent himself as he boldly explored new aural terrain.
These three re-mastered albums sound terrific. So does the expanded version of 1978's live “Stage,” which appears here in re-mixed form, and 1980's “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” There’s also an EP featuring the German and French versions of “Heroes,” along with “Re:Call 3,” a disc of non-album tracks, singles and B-sides, and the requisite hardback book. The nearly total absence of previously unreleased material is a disappointment. But much of what’s here still sounds revelatory, four decades later.
(Parlophone: 13 LPs, Vinyl) $249.98; (11 CDs, both with hardcover book) $149.98
Chick Corea: “The Musician”
To celebrate his 70th birthday in 2011, jazz keyboard giant Chick Corea took over New York’s famed Blue Note club for eight weeks of concerts with nearly a dozen different bands and duos. All are featured in this 3-CD collection, which also includes a 96 minute Blu-Ray documentary. The result is a dazzling, if still incomplete, salute to one of the most eclectic and prolific musicians in jazz history.
Corea shines whether paying tribute to some of his past musical partners — including trumpet titan Miles Davis and flamenco guitar master Paco De Lucia — or duetting with singer Bobby McFerrin and fellow keyboard legend Herbie Hancock on the classics “Dolphin Dance,” “Hot House” and “Cantaloupe Island.”
On one disc alone, he reunites with the latest edition of his trailblazing fusion group Return To Forever and re-teams with former Davis guitarist John McLaughlin and their Five Peace Band. On another disc, Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton are joined by the Harlem String Quartet. In each instance, the star of the show performs with stunning skill and pluck.
(Concord Jazz: 3 CDs, 1 Blu-Ray disc) $20.19
Cream: “Fresh Cream Super Deluxe Edition”
“Fresh Cream,” the blues-rocking 1966 debut album by Cream, established an enduring prototype for power-trios. Guitarist-singer Eric Clapton, bassist-singer Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker were a mighty powerful trio indeed, although the extended instrumental jams that soon became their trademark are barely hinted at on “Fresh Cream.”
The intriguing question posed here is: How do you make a 10-song album into a four-disc box set? Answer: By including mono and stereo versions (some new, most archival), plus outtakes; early and alternative versions; 14 live cuts; various singles; two vintage interview segments with Clapton; a 64 page hardback book; and the U.S. and European versions of the original album.
Casual listeners can take a pass. Devotees wanting to hear nine largely similar versions of “I Feel Free” and seven of “I’m So Glad” need look no further.
(Polydor: 3 CDs, 1 Blu-Ray Audio disc, hardcover book) $56.30
Def Leppard: “Hysteria — 30th Anniversary Edition”
How important was 1987’s “Hysteria,” the fourth album by Def Leppard, to this hard-rocking English band’s career? Let us count the ways. It topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and sold 25 million copies worldwide (nearly half of those in the U.S.). Seven of its 12 songs, including the title track and “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” became hit singles in this country.
Four years in the making, “Hysteria” clearly lived up to its name. This remastered 5 CD, 2 DVD set includes four books, a poster, two live albums and two DVDs, which include videos, TV performance clips and a documentary about the album. One disc is devoted to the original album, which was painstakingly produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who later became Shania Twain’s producer, husband and, now, ex-husband). Two other discs are devoted to B-sides, remixes and oddities, including the band’s tour manager croaking through what sounds like an extremely inebriated version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me.”
(Mercury: 5 CDs, 2 DVDs) $100
The Doors: “The Singles”
Less is more with this colorfully packaged, limited edition box set. It contains all 20 of The Doors’ U.S. singles — A-sides and B-sides — on 20 7-inch vinyl 45s that boast the original sleeve art and record labels. A 2 CD version is also available, as is a 2 CD/Blu-Ray version.
The expected hits are here, including “Hello I Love You,” “Light My Fire” and “Touch Me.” So are obscurities, including “Who Scared You” and “Variety is the Spice of Life,” the latter being one of the songs included here that was recorded after the 1971 death of Doors’ singer Jim Morrison.
Several of the B-sides did not appear on any of the band’s albums and the mono mixes of most of the songs differed from the stereo album versions. So did the length of the songs, with the most obvious example being “Light My Fire” (which lasted over 7 minutes on The Doors’ self-titled debut album, but not even 3 minutes on the single version included here).
Rhino/Elektra: (20 7-inch vinyl singles, plus a poster) $149.98;(2 CDs) $19.98; (2 CD, 1 Blu-Ray)
Bob Dylan: "Trouble No More — The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 /1979-1981"
It was while performing at the San Diego Sports Arena in late 1987 that Bob Dylan picked up a silver crucifix on a chain that had been thrown onto the stage from the audience. In less than a week, he was wearing that same silver cross around his neck. Almost as quick as you can say “Hallelujah,” Dylan — who was born and raised as a member of the Jewish faith — had converted to Christianity.
In 1979, he recorded “Slow Train Coming,” the first of his three “born-again” albums. When Dylan returned to San Diego for two Golden Hall concerts that November, he performed 17, entirely evangelical new songs. Not one pre-dated “Slow Train Coming.” Several, including “Solid Rock” and “Every Grain of Sand,” would appear on his next two studio albums, 1980’s “Saved” and 1981’s “Shot of Love.” (The live version of “Solid Rock” that appears here is, incidentally, one of two songs recorded at Golden Hall, where Dylan performed in 1979 on Nov. 27th and 28th. Both of those concerts are available in their entirety on a limited edition exclusive bonus 2 CD set.)
By 1982, Dylan’s Christian ardor had ebbed and his 1983 album, the much underrated “Infidels,” found him back in a mostly secular music mode. “Trouble No More — The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981” focuses on the three-year period that proved to be as controversial as Dylan’s 1965 conversion from being a solo acoustic folk-music troubadour to fronting a full-on electric rock band. In 1979, fans wanted to hear him sing, not preach — never mind that many of these same fans likely regarded Dylan as a messiah in his earlier, secular music days.
His decision to abandon, at least for those three years, his wealth of earlier, pre-Christian songs polarized his longtime devotees at least as much — if not more — as his decision 12 years earlier to “go electric.” Yet, as this lavish, 8 CD and 1 DVD box set (which also includes a book) makes unmistakably clear, Dylan drew tremendous inspiration from the uproar.
Moreover, the band he led on tour during his born-again period, anchored by ace drummer Jim Keltner and featuring up to five female gospel singers, still ranks as one of the finest in his long and varied career. (One of those singers, Carolyn Dennis, would quietly become Dylan’s second wife.) As an added bonus, such special guests as “Like a Rolling Stone” organist Al Kooper and Tijuana-bred guitarist Carlos Santana pop up as guests.
Rather than package remastered versions of the three albums Dylan made between 1979 and 1981, “Trouble No More” offers an often revelatory new look at this music. Recorded live, the 30 songs on the first two discs demonstrate just how much more powerful and fully realized these songs were on stage than on their studio album versions. So do the 18 live songs recorded in Toronto in 1980 that appear on discs 5 and 6, and the 23 more from a 1981 concert in London.
More than a dozen other songs are released here for the first time. Several, most notably “Making a Liar Out of Me” and "Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One," are superb. Ultimately, the songs on “Trouble No More” — all taken from concerts, rehearsals and different studio versions than the ones originally released — present a sort of alternate audio reality. And when Dylan’s 1981 London concert finds him following up two “Slow Train Coming” songs — “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You” — with “Like a Rolling Stone,” you can hear that the “old Dylan” and the “born-again” Dylan may have had more in common than first met the ear.
(Sony Legacy: 8 CDs, 1 DVD and a book) $120.19
Eagles: “Hotel California — 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition”
There are a number of reasons the Eagles disbanded in 1980, beginning a hiatus that lasted until their reunion in 1994. One of the biggest was the group’s inability to match, let alone top, “Hotel California,” the 1976 album that remains the Eagles’ crowning glory.
This 40th anniversary edition, which was released almost a year late, is handsomely packaged in a book-like, 12-by-11 inch box that includes three posters, a replica of an Eagles’ tour book and an array of rare photos. The first of its three discs features the 10 songs from the original “Hotel California” album, while the third disc, on Blu-Ray, repeats the same songs in 5.1 Surround Sound and in a hi-resolution 192 KHz/24-Bit stereo mix.
That means the main allure — at least for fans who are not audiophiles — is the second disc, which was recorded live at the Los Angeles Forum in October, 1976. It features two “Hotel California” songs — “New Kid in Town” and the title track — and eight other Eagles’ favorites, including “Take It Easy” and “Already Gone,” the latter co-written by San Diego’s Jack Tempchin, a longtime collaborator of Eagles' co-founder Glenn Frey, who died early last year.
The absence of any early or finished alternate takes of “Hotel California’s” songs is a disappointment. Granted, the Eagles are legendary perfectionists who craft every note and nuance until it meets their exacting standards. But that’s all the more reason to let fans behind the studio doors to appreciate the time and painstaking craft that goes into making a classic album. Given the nearly $90 price tag for this box set, those fans surely deserve some added incentive.
(Asylum/Rhino: 2 CDs, 1 Blu-Ray) $89.98
Fairport Convention: “Come All Ye: The First Ten Years”
Once billed as “the English Jefferson Airplane,” England’s Fairport Convention was formed in 1967 and counted Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin among its fans (and, in the case of Hendrix, on-stage jamming partners). But what began as a folk-rock band covering songs by The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen quickly morphed into a distinctly English ensemble that fused rock and Celtic music with striking results.
This 7 CD set contains 121 songs, 55 of them previously unreleased, and a 48 page book. By skillfully embracing and reinvigorating earthy jigs, reels, airs and laments, Fairport introduced a new generation to a rich musical legacy. In Sandy Denny, they had one of the finest singers this side of the young Joni Mitchell. In Richard Thompson, they had a budding guitar great whose superior playing, singing and songwriting led Glenn Frey and Don Henley to try and lure him into the band that soon became known as the Eagles. (Thompson declined their invitation.)
Fairport’s music inspired everyone from Led Zeppelin and R.E.M. to Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons. Although the band underwent frequent lineup changes in its first decade, their work was instantly identifiable. For neophyte listeners, the 10 song “The Best of Fairport Convention” is a good starting point. But for committed fans wanting to go deep, “Come All Ye” is well worth taking a dive.
(UME: 7 CDs, hardcover book) $58.49
Ella Fitzgerald: “Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George & Ira Gershwin Song Books Vinyl Box Set”
The most beloved female singer in jazz history, Ella Fitzgerald recorded five albums in 1959 with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Each paid tribute to the timeless songs of George and Ira Gershwin. In Fitzgerald, who was recently saluted as part of the San Diego Symphony’s Jazz at the Jacobs series, the Gershwin brothers found their most sublime interpreter. Or, as Ira Gershwin put it: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”
The five albums were compiled, re-mastered and re-released in a 4 CD set in 1998. That version included nearly 60 songs, as well as various alternate takes. Now, 19 years later, comes a new iteration, this time on six, 180-gram vinyl albums, accompanied by lithographs and a hardback book.
The intended audience appears to be audiophiles seeking to replace their old vinyl copies and younger hipsters who may be acquiring these records for the first time. Both should find much to savor as Fitzgerald soars through “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” and other gems from the Great American Songbook. She is backed by a first-rate ensemble that includes San Diego-bred pianist Paul Smith.
(Verve; 6 vinyl albums, lithographs, hardback book) $166.35
Grateful Dead: “Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, Washington, D.C., July 12 & 13, 1989”
Neither heavy rains nor oppressive humidity prevented the Grateful Dead from performing its two July, 1989, RFK Stadium concerts in our nation’s capital, where the league of Deadheads improbably included Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Nancy Pelosi and Al and Tipper Gore.
This 6 CD set captures the Dead a year before the death of keyboardist-singer Brent Mydland, who is in strong form here, and six years before singer and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack at a Bay Area drug rehab center. Recorded two years after “Touch of Grey” gave this storied San Francisco band the only Top 40 hit of its long career, these concerts were recorded midway through a tour regarded as one of the band’s best since the mid-1970s — and before Garcia’s health began an irreversible downward spiral.
The July 12th concert features 19 songs, one more than the following night. Only two numbers, the improv-driven “Drums” and “Space,” were performed on both nights. This lack of repetition vividly demonstrates just how deep the Dead’s repertoire was, while illustrating — perhaps to an extreme — the contention that no two concerts by the band were the same. The audio quality is top-notch, so much so that you can hear the thunder and downpour that let loose during, appropriately, “Looks Like Rain.” And who else but the Dead would open a concert with their only hit, “Touch of Grey,” the better to quickly placate casual new fans before really getting down to business?
(Grateful Dead/Rhino: 6 CDs and a book) $64.98
John Lee Hooker: “King of the Boogie”
John Lee Hooker may not have single-handedly invented the boogie, as blues and rock fans know it, but he was certainly one of its prime architects. He was also one of the most durable blues singers, guitarists and songwriters the music has ever known, with deep, deep feeling and a sense of syncopation uniquely his own.
Featuring 100 songs recorded between 1948 and 1998 — three years before he died — this 5 CD set was released this year to coincide with what would have been Hooker’s 100th birthday. It opens with his earliest hit, the one-man-band “Boogie Chillen,” and concludes with his 1998 rendition of the same song, this time featuring him with a band that includes such high-profile fans as Eric Clapton and Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne. For good measure, Hooker’s 1972 live version of the same song also appears here, although it is spelled “Boogie Chillun.”
In each instance, he casts a haunting musical spell with his primal, intensely physical performances. The inclusion of five previously un-issued live recordings from a 1983 Berlin concert are a joy, especially since three of them are the Hooker classics “Boom Boom,” “It Serves Me Right to Suffer” and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” The other two are the rock-solid “She’s Gone” and “Hi Heel Sneakers,” the latter being only one of nine songs on this 100-song set not written or co-written by Hooker. Then there’s 1974’s “Five Long Years,” which — somewhat improbably — teams Hooker and Joe Cocker with a band that features both funk guitar ace Wah-Wah Watson and bebop and progressive jazz sax/flute great Sam Rivers.
Perhaps contractual issues led to the absence here of such rarities as “Mabel,” Hooker’s 1992 collaboration with jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and his 1993 vocal duet with Van Morrison on the Morrison-penned 1965 Them hit, “Gloria.” But there’s still plenty here to savor and the accompanying 56 page book, in which the CDs, are housed offers ample annotation.
(Craft; 5 CDs and a booklet) $43.26
The Jam: “1977”
Emerging alongside the Sex Pistols and The Clash, The Jam combined punk fury with a palpable sense of reverence for the R&B-inspired rock of The Who and Small Faces, circa 1965. This 5 CD set features The Jam’s 1977 debut album, “In The City” and its follow-up, “This is the Modern World,” which was recorded barely six months later. It also includes a disc of demos, a disc of live recordings, a DVD, a 144 page book, and more.
Now, as then, it seems remarkable a young band could do as much in just one year as the Paul Weller-led Jam did. The velocity of that year provides “1977” with undeniable propulsion that, sadly, petered out well before The Jam disbanded in 1982.
(Polydor; 4 CDs, 1 DVD) $43.26
Jethro Tull: “Songs from the Wood — 40th Anniversary Edition”
With the allure of progressive rock starting to fade as punk thoroughly roiled the music scene in England in 1977, Jethro Tull turned to a more overtly folk music-oriented approach with its rustic “Songs from the Wood” album. It was a wise move that is documented on this 3 CD, 1 DVD set.
It includes the original album remixed by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, with five alternate versions and two previously unreleased songs, two discs devoted to 1977 concert recordings — both mixed by King Crimson guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, two DVDs and a 96 page book. That’s 128 songs in all, for a price that’s $40 less than the Eagles — who, early on, toured as Jethro Tull’s opening act — are asking for their 3 disc, 38 song “Hotel California 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition.”
(Rhino/Parlophone: 3 CDs, 2 DVDS and a book) $49.98
Elton John: “Diamonds”
Over the course of his career, Elton John has released close to a dozen “Best Of,” “Greatest Hits” and career compilations collections, including his 4 CD “To Be Continued” box set in 1990. “Diamonds” is the latest addition and shares more than two dozen songs in common with 2002’s 34-track “Greatest Hits 1970-2002” compilation.
John chose the 17 songs on the third and final CD of “Diamonds.” His selections are interesting, if less than revelatory, although those who missed “Good Morning to the Night,” his 2012 collaboration with the electronic music duo Pnau, may be mildly intrigued. The inclusion of a 72 page book partly compensates for the profusion of familiar songs, which suggest “Diamonds” is probably best suited to neophyte Elton John fans who have few, if any, of his previous hits collections.
Bob Marley & The Wailers: “Exodus, The Movement Continues — Fortieth Anniversary Edition”
Also available in a 6 disc vinyl set, this expanded commemorative edition of one of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ greatest albums is a worthy tribute to the Jamaican reggae music giant. It was recorded after major changes in the lineup of The Wailers that appear to have given Marley a major boost of inspiration. He was 36 when he died in 1981.
The first disc is devoted to the original “Exodus” album, which includes such enduring favorites as “Jamming,” “One Love” and “Three Little Birds.” The second, produced by Marley’s son, Ziggy, re-imagines the album by incorporating un-used and previously unheard vocal and instrumental parts from the original “Exodus” sessions. The third is a bristling live album, recorded at three London concerts in 1977, featuring six songs from “Exodus,” plus “Positive Vibration” and the still-timely “Burnin’ and Lootin’.”
(Tuff Gong: 3 CDs) $49.98
Van Morrison: “The Authorized Bang Collection”
After leaving Them, the blues-rocking Irish band with which he rose to stardom, to launch his solo career, Van Morrison teamed up for his 1967 debut solo album with veteran producer and songwriter Bert Berns. New York native Berns had an impressive track record, having written such songs as the Isley Brothers/Beatles classic “Twist and Shout,” Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” and Them’s “Here Comes the Night.”
The two scored immediately with Morrison’s indelible first solo hit, “Brown Eyed Girl.” But major creative differences and financial complications fueled a love/hate relationship between him and Berns, who died in 1967. This schism is most painfully evidenced by one of discs in this 3 CD set being titled, accurately, “Contractual Obligation Session.” It finds Morrison ripping through such improvised song fragments as “Blowin’ Your Nose” and “Big Royalty Check,” as well as skewering songs written by Berns at a recording session attended by Berns’ widow.
The Irish troubadour’s anger was fueled by the fact that Bern’s label, Bang Records, not only released Morrison’s debut solo album, “Blowin’ Your Mind,” without his permission, but without his knowledge. “If I’d thought it was an album,” Morrison ruminates in the accompanying book, “I’d have approached it a whole different way.”
This is the most comprehensive edition of his Bang recordings released to date. What makes this 63 song collection both fascinating and painful is the opportunity it affords listeners to hear Morrison and Berns repeatedly butt heads. The suggestions offered by Morrison are repeatedly ignored. Case in point: His entirely justified frustration when the song “Who Drove the Red Sports Car?” is abruptly cut short. “Why the fade out, man?” a dismayed Morrison asks. “Why the fade-out? It’s just the beginning!”
(Legacy: 3 CDs and a book), $21.01
Elvis Presley: “A Boy From Tupelo — The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings”
Elvis Presley, The Beatles’ John Lennon once acerbically noted, died twice. The first time was in 1977, at the age of 42, after years of unhealthy living and drug abuse. The second was when Elvis began his two year stint in the U.S. Army in 1958, after which his Colonel Parker-guided career sunk into a string of cheesy movies and often bland recordings that subsumed his electrifying rock ‘n’ roll charisma in favor of middle-of-the-road pablum.
Happily, this 3 CD set focuses entirely on the first two years of Elvis’ career, when — at a whirlwind pace — he and his music exploded with searing intensity, on record and on stage. Included here are his first four recordings, which he paid $3.98 to make, plus every available radio and concert recording he did at the time, and a 120 page book.
Best of all, “A Boy From Tupelo” features his entire output — including demos and abandoned outtakes — for Sun Records. The plucky Memphis label transformed Elvis from an unknown, teen-aged truck driver into a galvanizing young rock ‘n’ roll sensation, before selling his contract to RCA Records for $40,000 (which, at the time, was considered to be an astronomical amount).
If you want to hear the finished product, there are any number of compilations that feature Elvis’ official Sun releases. But for those fans who want to hear the warts-and-all process of a young singer finding his way, stumbling here and there, as he essentially creates his musical persona, this is a treasure trove.
Presley drew from pop and country. But his biggest influences were a slew of vibrant African American blues, boogie and R&B artists, whose songs he covered in droves. As often as not, he emulated those songs and their original performers, if not note for note, then as close as he could manage. Those songs account for some of the highlights here, including his reverent versions of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama,” Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Kokomo Arnold's "Milkcow Blues Boogie" and Little Junior Parker's "Mystery Train.”
In a still racially segregated United States, the overt sexuality of many of these songs — and the unbridled stage moves of the artists who performed them — meant they went unheard by most white Americans at the time. At least, they did until Elvis came along and introduced much of the nation to a vibrant music and culture few previously even knew existed.
Whether Elvis ever really acknowledged the black artists and music that provided so much of his artistic foundation remains a sore point for some. But “A Boy From Tupelo” is a worthy tribute to them and him.
(Sony Legacy: 3 CDs and a book) $29.49
'R.E.M.: “Automatic For The People — 25th Anniversary Edition”
The eighth album by R.E.M., 1992’s “Automatic For The People” is a moody, meticulously textured album that revels in understatement. Its two best-known songs, “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” have a quiet majesty that is matched by the other 10 songs here. Their wistful, elegiac tone perfectly matches lead singer Michael Stipe’s intensely introspective lyrics on mortality and the fragility of human life, which are perfectly underscored by the finely calibrated guitar work of Peter Buck and the unobtrusive bass and drums team of Mike Mills and Bill Berry.
This 25th anniversary edition contains 3 CDs and one Blu-Ray, with one disc featuring demo versions, song fragments and such rarities as “Mike’s Pop Song” and “Devil Rides Backwards.” Another disc, previously widely bootlegged, was recorded at a club gig in R.E.M.’s Georgia hometown of Athens in 1992. A benefit for Greenpeace, it was the band’s only performance of the year. The Blu-Ray disc features videos of most of the songs from “Automatic,” along with a new mix of the album using Dolby Atmos.
The Smiths: “The Queen Is Dead”
The Smiths’ third album, 1986’s “The Queen is Dead,” is one of the two best by this short-lived but highly influential English band. Their strengths included Johnny Marr’s ingeniously crafted guitar, which somehow combined the jangle of The Byrds and crisp, British Invasion pop with the syncopations of Nigerian juju and South African township jive; the lean precision of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce’s buoyant rhythm tracks; and Morrissey’s pristine singing and alternately wry, empathetic and eviscerating lyrics.
The allure for fans here is the abundance of bonus tracks, including demos, alternate takes and one disc devoted entirely to a 1986 concert in Boston at which The Smiths were joyously firing on all cylinders. The second disc contains 13 previously unreleased tracks, which provide welcome insight into how the band — especially Marr — carefully constructed their songs. There’s also a DVD featuring “The Queen Is Dead – A Film by Derek Jarman” and a newly remastered version of the album.
(Rhino/Warner. Bros.: 3 CDs, 1 DVD) $25.56
U2: “Joshua Tree — 30th Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set”
“The Joshua Tree” catapulted U2 to global superstardom in 1987, and it’s easy to hear why. The Irish rock band’s enduring masterpiece, it captured the sound of a group approaching musical transcendence.
Like never before, U2 pushed mightily to surpass the sum of the band’s parts. With key help from producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, they succeeded, thanks to “The Joshua Tree’s” heartfelt songs — many inspired by the United States in the era of Ronald Reagan — which managed to sound both intensely personal and undeniably universal, dark but uplifting.
Thirty years on, those songs — which include “Where the Streets Have No Name,” "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking," "With or Without You” and the politically charged “Bullet the Blue Sky” — sound just as epic and majestic. Happily, the album’s lesser known songs — such as "Running to Stand Still," "Red Hill Mining Town," "In God's Country" and "Mothers of the Disappeared" — generally hold up equally well.
Also available in 2 CD deluxe, standard CD and standard vinyl packages, this 30th anniversary box set has been re-mastered and expanded in an even bigger way than the 20th anniversary edition that came out in 2007. It includes the original album, plus newly remixed versions of its songs, along with B-sides, previously unreleased outtakes, a book of photography by U2 guitarist the Edge and most of the songs from the band’s triumphant 1987 Joshua Tree tour show at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
(Island Records), 7 LPs, 180-gram vinyl or 3 CDs, including original album, live recording of “The Joshua Tree Tour” 1987) $254.98
Various Artists: “Blue Note Review, Volume One — Peace, Love and Fishing”
One of the most revered record labels in jazz history, Blue Note has been the home to numerous legends since its inception in 1939. Its roster of artists has included Sidney Bechet, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Tony Williams, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Cassandra Wilson, Jason Moran, Wayne Shorter and many more.
In a novel move, the label is now launching Blue Note Review, a biannual, limited edition, luxury box set subscription series curated by Blue Note president and famed album producer Don Was. It’s limited to 1,500 copies per release and available only by signing up online to become a member at bluenotereview.com.
Priced at $200, the debut edition lives up to its luxury billing and then some. It features eight new songs on two vinyl records and two CDs. These include selections by, among others, luminous sax stalwart Charles Lloyd and his latest band, The Marvels, the redoubtable organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, the Blue Note All Stars, former San Diego singer Gregory Porter, and Shorter and his remarkable quartet (whose side-long “Zero Gravity #913” may be reason enough for some fans to seek out this box set).
Also included is a 180-gram vinyl re-issue of trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s long out-of-print 1963 album “Step Lightly,” which teamed him with Hancock, Joe Henderson and other heavyweights. For the visually minded, the set comes with two newly released vintage lithographs of Shorter and fellow saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Both were taken by famed Blue Note house photographer Francis Wolff.
Then there’s a “lifestyle magazine,” which begins with a foreword by onetime counterculture guru Ram Dass. It also has a poem by Jack Grapes, a tribute to drum great Billy Higgins by the aforementioned Charles Lloyd and a conversation between Wayne Shorter and actor/comedian Jeff Garlin. To cap it off is a comic drawn by Keith Henry Brown about an encounter between Turrentine and Blue Note founder Alfred Lion, as recounted by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.
For the crowning touch — and in what is certifiably a first for any musical release in memory — the set contains a “modal silk blend, crinkled scarf," which was exclusively designed for Blue Note Review by noted fashion designer John Varvatos. It is, not coincidentally, the same scarf Shorter is pictured wearing on the cover photograph of this 6.2 pound box set.
(Blue Note: 2 CDs, 2 vinyl albums, a magazine, a John Varvatos scarf, and more) $200
Various Artists: “The Brain Box: Cerebral Sounds Of Brain Records Box Set, 1972-1979”
The sticker on the cover of this 8 CD collection reads: “Let there be Kraut! The first deluxe box set of the legendary Krautrock label Brain Records.” It may well be the last such set, too, since — apart from Kraftwerk — this Hamburg-based label recorded almost every German act of note in the 1970s.
The 88 selections compiled here include songs by some of Germany’s best-known musical exports, most notably Scorpions and Tangerine Dream. Also featured are such underground favorites as Klaus Schulze, Popol Vuh, Cluster and Harmonia, whose pioneering electronic music forays are notable even today.
But what makes this set, limited to just 3,300 copies worldwide, especially intriguing is the music it features by artists who — even in their homeland — never drew more than a cult audience, So, take a bow, Embryo, Emergency, Jane, Birth Control, Novolis, Blonker and Guru Guru (a band anchored by the memorably named drummer Ringo Funk).
German jazz keyboard great Wolfgang Dauner is featured on one track (a plus), while Anyone’s Daughter is allotted four cuts (a minus). Adding sonic spice is the disc devoted to Brain artists who were not German, including Hungary’s Locomotiv GT, Finland’s Tasavallan Presidentti and England’s Steamhammer, Gryphon and Atomic Rooster.
(UME: 8 CDs, hardcover book and Brain Records tote bag) $104.47
The Who: “Maximum As&Bs, The Complete Singles”
The Who is rightly heralded for such landmark albums as “Tommy,” “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia.” But this 86-song collection is a vibrant reminder that, before — and even after — they mastered the art of making great albums, The Who made a slew of great singles.
This 5 disc set spans 50 years, from 1964’s ”Zoot Suit” (released when The Who was still a fresh-faced Mod band known as The High Numbers) to 2014’s melancholic “Be Lucky.” It features every single — both the A sides and B sides, hence this box set’s title — and EP the band released in the United Kingdom during that period on the Brunswick, Reaction, Track and Polydor labels. There’s also a 48 page book.
Not surprisingly, there are hits aplenty, including “Substitute,” “Magic Bus,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Squeeze Box,” to cite just five. But it’s the more obscure songs — such as “Shout and Shimmy,” “Waltz for a Pig,” "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and a terrific 1972 version of Marvin Gaye’s 1964 gem, “Baby Don’t You Do It” — that provide a welcome edge.
(Polydor: 5 CDs and a book) $58.49
Wilco: “Being There — Deluxe Edition”
Released in 1996, Wilco’s third album was an artistic breakthrough for the Jeff Tweedy-led band. Fusing his pop-rock sensibilities with the rootsy alt-country and Americana stylings of his previous band, Uncle Tupelo, he creates songs that exude youthful delight about the creative possibilities at hand.
“Being There” lacks the daring sense of experimentation Tweedy would embrace with Wilco just a few years later. But it nicely showcases his increasingly assured craftsmanship and his gradual emergence as a distinctive voice in American song. The inclusion of 8 previously unheard numbers and 15 alternate takes and previously unreleased demos, along with 24 live cuts from two 1996 performances in Los Angeles, make this 5 disc set a sound addition to the Wilco catalog.
(Rhino: 5 CDS) $25.66
Frank Zappa: “Halloween 77, The Palladium, NYC”
Former San Diegan Frank Zappa performed six Halloween concerts at The Palladium in New York in 1977 and all are included on this nearly 16 hour set’s 24-bit WAV audio USB stick. The voluminous music it contains highlights his singular blend of rock, blues, jazz, metal, psychedelia, contemporary classical and more.
The inclusion of a low grade Zappa Halloween mask and costume would likely have this late iconoclast rolling his eyes from the great beyond. Fans will focus on the deviously intricate music. It is performed here by a typically virtuosic Zappa band that includes young drum monster Terry Bozzio. Given the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, however, some fans may find parts of Zappa’s stage patter regarding certain social issues — such as welfare recipients — to be draconian at best.
Many of the songs performed at these half-dozen concerts were repeated from show to show. That makes this 158-track set tailor-made for Zappa obsessives, who will note that five versions of “Peaches En Regalia” here clock in at exactly 2 minutes and 42 seconds each, while the sixth is 2 seconds shorter. Conversely, the five, vocal-free versions of “Conehead” vary in length from 5 minutes and 50 seconds to 9 minutes and 19 seconds.
For Zappa fans, vive la difference!
(Zappa Records/UME: 1 USB stick, Frank Zappa mask and PDF booklet) $83.95