10 best music boxed sets of 2018
‘Out with the old, in with the new’ is a great motto for a new year … and one that those of us who love archival music releases try to pay as little attention to as possible. If you have some gift cards burning a hole in your wallet, now is a good time to circle back to the best boxed sets of 2018. Most are focused on providing an expansive look at a single project, be it the 50th anniversary of amazing work from the Beatles, Kinks and Elvis or a mere 25th for that young sprout Liz Phair. But occasionally, there’s still an entire-career encompassing set from a great who hadn’t been anthologized at all yet – in this case, Bobbie Gentry. There are sadder reasons for indulging, too, as a terrifically bittersweet Tom Petty retrospective reminds us
Here are 10 super-deluxes from the past year we can’t imagine living through 2019 without:
1. The Beatles, “The Beatles (White Album) – Super Deluxe” (Apple/Universal)
There’s a way in which a boxed set of the White Album could almost seem superfluous: The original double-LP was so jam-packed with disparate sounds and ideas, it felt like the seminal “super deluxe” set all by itself. So getting all the demos, alternate takes, abandoned original songs and silly covers that come as bonuses in this 7-disc set is gorging and gluttony of the highest order. Bootleggers had given us a glimpse of what lay in the vaults, but the long-leaked “Escher Demos” are in far higher quality, giving us an acoustic hootenanny version of the White Album.
It’s hard to know where to start with the in-studio bonuses: Paul busting out a raw and soulful proto-version of “Let It Be”? Ringo backed by a minimalist, all-Beatle chorale instead of a choir and orchestra on an un-gooped up “Good Night”? A 15-minute “Helter Skelter” that still seems too short? Or maybe we should focus on The Thing Itself – an album that remains the first and last word in glorious rock sprawl, now with a fresh Giles Martin turbo charge?
2. Bob Dylan, “More Blood, More Tracks – The Bootleg Series, Volume 14” (Columbia/Legacy)
Some Dylan fans thought it was perverse that they had to wait through a boxed set devoted to the born-again years before they got one collecting all the extant material recorded for his best album, “Blood on the Tracks”. That’s not a complaint you’ll hear here – last year’s “Trouble No More” was as wonderful a listen as any Dylan collection ever – but we’re definitely into 100 percent approval-rating territory recollecting him at his mid-’70s songwriting zenith. The six-CD set finds him exploring most of the “Blood” tracks in four distinct musical settings: solo acoustic; with a makeshift band in New York that didn’t work; a different makeshift NYC band that worked miracles; and the final Minneapolis re-recordings of half the album after Dylan was dissatisfied with a premature acetate.
I have a weird attraction to the part of the set everyone else would skip over – the recordings with the initial set of musicians that didn’t gel; they’re not awful so much as just an inappropriate, easy-listening take on the material. Hearing how a masterpiece could have gone wrong helps you appreciate its rightness even more. But the solo takes are the gold here: Hearing his shirt buttons bang against his guitar just reinforces the idea that we’re hearing him get blood, sweat and tears on the strings.
3. Bobbie Gentry, “The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters” (UMC)
Like most people, probably, I used to believe Joni Mitchell was unparalleled as genius-level female singer/songwriters of the late 1960s and early ‘70s went. I thought that right up to the point I got to the second of the eight sequential discs in this set and realized that Gentry, at her early peak, was really operating on Mitchell’s level of idiosyncrasy, inimitability, ambition and brilliance. That Gentry now seems like one of the best-kept secrets of the 20th century comes down to a few handicaps: She got pegged early on as “country” (deeply Southern, yes, but there’s little in her repertoire that remotely sounds of the genre – any genre). After a few years she refocused her creativity from weirdly folksy recordings into splashy Las Vegas residencies.
And there was the fact that she was drop-dead gorgeous, setting a template for everyone from Shania to Kacey and begging the same questions we’ve asked of them: Can a spectacular fashion plate also be an auteur of the first order? The real mystery isn’t what Billie Joe and his girlfriend threw off the Tallahassee Bridge; it’s why Gentry retired from public view, J.D. Salinger-like, around 1982, denying us her talents ever since. Strike that, though – the larger puzzle is why she hasn’t loomed larger as an American legend, even in absentia. This essential collection marks a small move toward redressing that oversight. Tracks to check out immediately: “Reunion”, a rhythmic hodgepodge as inventive as the best hip-hop, and “I Didn’t Know”, a great ballad about being the recipient of unrequited love that somehow took 50 years to come out in any form.
4. The Kinks, “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (Super Deluxe Edition)” (Sanctuary/BMG)
Speaking of societies, the cult that believes “Village Green” is the Kinks’ masterpiece is and always has been a sizable one. But there might have been a couple of good reasons not to join. For one, didn’t their 1968 album more or less introduce the whole concept of “twee” into rock ‘n’ roll – not quite as great a legacy as all those barnstorming rockers they did before and after? For another, how great an album could it be if Ray Davies left off “Days”, one of the best rock ballads ever written, at the last minute? But anyone who takes the time to dive into this 11-disc (!!) expansion of the album will come away a card-carrying member. The original album merits kudos not just for being one of the original rock concept albums – in a salutary essay in the package, Pete Townshend points out that it predates “Tommy” – but for being a song cycle about nostalgia.
In 1968, admitting a fondness for the pre-counterculture was about the most truly counter-cultural thing a rock icon could do. But quaintness is hardly all it’s about. The fact is, parts of the album do rock, even if Dave Davies’ riffage on “Picture Book” is subtler than a rave-up like “You Really Got Me”. There’s plenty of youthful energy as well as preternatural sophistication spread across the 174 tracks (!!!) that have been lovingly compiled by archivist Andrew Sandoval. Highlights range from the previously unreleased “Time Song” to a 2010 performance of most of the album by Ray with an orchestra that gives “Days” a deserved symphonic splendor. Nostalgia for nostalgia has never felt so guilt-free. (Los Angeles fans should be on the lookout for a tribute concert dedicated to the album on Feb 23.)
By Chris Willman