Bespoke box sets from Elvis Costello, Prince, The Kinks and many more are sure fire stocking stuffers
Since the 1980s, when Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton began digging into their respective archives for unheard gems, live performance highlights and alternate versions of some of their best-loved songs, the year-end box set has become a sure money maker for legacy artists and record companies alike. This year, of course, is no exception.
Many of this year’s archival releases were excellent, but nonetheless for diehards (like sets from Cream, Derek & the Dominoes, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney and Thin Lizzy) or budding musicologists (the Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein 8 CD deep dive was stunning, featuring lessons in not just songwriting but interpretation). And while Fleetwood Mac dug way back to the end of the Peter Green era, and beyond, Joni Mitchell and Elton John offered up fascinating looks into their respective origin stories, and the late, great John Prine’s label sought to remind us of the amazing music he made in his early prime.
Jazz legends continued to offer up some of the best archival releases – the oft-expanded Giant Steps from John Coltrane nonetheless didn’t disappoint, nor did the Charlie Parker compilation of Mercury and Clef sessions). Meanwhile, the Replacements, Wilco, Depeche Mode, New Order, the Allman Brothers Band and the Doors continued releasing fascinating expanded editions of their core catalogs, and David Bowie and Pink Floyd dug into their live archives (even while Bowie’s pal Iggy Pop released an excellent box set of their work together and the Floyd’s Nick Mason and Roger Waters remained as relevant as ever with stunning new live sets).
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
It’s no wonder, then, that for anyone with a classic rock fan on their holiday shopping list it all seems a bit overwhelming.
And so American Songwriter is offering up its first ever guide to the ten best box sets of the year. With a special emphasis on “bang for the buck,” we’ve listened to hours of music and read thousands of words to come up with what we think are sure fire gifts for fans of rock and roll’s Golden Age.
Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Super Deluxe Edition)
The best box set of 2020 is the appropriately named Super Deluxe edition of Elvis Costello’s third album, Armed Forces. Costello, of course, is still making new and vital music, and 1979s Armed Forces – Costello’s U.S. breakthrough, featuring songs like “Oliver’s Army” and “Accidents Will Happen” – has been released in expanded versions before. But with a sound that refined Costello’s early pop/punk vibe, no doubt paving the way for the mercurial but always engaging career the great man embarked on later, this is the chapter in the story where Declan MacManus became Elvis Costello in big, bold capital letters, and where the Attractions truly found their collective groove as one of the best bands of the era.
This set is no doubt exhaustive – it includes nine pieces of vinyl, featuring outtakes, demos, live recordings and unreleased songs, plus lyric-book facsimiles, booklets, recreated artwork and more — but it’s filled with gems that will thrill even the most casual fan of Costello’s music.
Prince: Sign O’ The Times (Super Deluxe Edition)
In retrospect, it seems that Prince could do no wrong in the 1980s. But his early albums were met coolly at first and, while 1999 certainly put him on the pop culture map, it wasn’t until the twin releases of the Purple Rain film and soundtrack album that he became a household name. In follow-up, he released an excellent, if oddball, neo-psychedelic album and a grossly underrated follow-up film and soundtrack, before his 1987 magnum opus Sign O’ The Times proved that he was by far the greatest and most interesting artist to come out of the MTV-era.
While we’ll never know what a Prince-curated expanded edition of his very own “White Album” might have sounded like, the folks at the Prince Estate and Rhino Records have exceeded the very high bar they set with last year’s deluxe edition of 1999. Even if the remixes and dance mixes feel a bit much, the remaster (and new vinyl pressing) of the album proper are astonishing, and the plethora of period tracks from Prince’s fabled vault are nothing short of stunning, as is the included live DVD, while the included liner notes offer a window into what it was all about.
Elvis Presley: From Elvis In Nashville
Oft ridiculed, Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas years were, on the heels of his 1968 comeback special, in fact, a rebirth. From Elvis In Nashville picks up where last year’s fantastic American Sound set left off, and shows Presley in stellar form, digging in to new material, backed by a crack band of Nashville “cats” steeped in R&B, gospel and down and dirty country music, as only one of the greatest interpreters of songs of the 20th Century could.
Even more fascinating – though hardly cheap – is That’s The Way It Is: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition, which tells the story of Elvis’s triumphant return to Vegas and the making of the 1970 film of the same name. While much of the performance material has been heard, the packaging and books included are gorgeous, and befitting a king.
Coupled with a few of the truly amazing Elvis-inspired pieces in Pretty Green’s latest collection, and you’re sure to make the Elvis fan on your list the envy of his or her friends.
John Lennon: Gimme Some Truth (The Ultimate Mixes)
There have been countless compilations of John Lennon’s solo music. In fact, the first was released just as Lennon retreated from the business to raise his son Sean in 1975, and the latest shares its name with a compilation that marked Lennon’s 70th birthday, already ten years ago. Fortunately, that’s where the comparisons end. For Gimme Some Truth (The Ultimate Mixes), Sean Lennon and a crack team of archival engineers went back to his father’s original session tapes, creating fantastic, fresh mixes of both Lennon’s best-loved songs and some wonderful deep cuts. Topped off by a gorgeous book that tells the story of Lennon’s solo years through his own words and of those who were there with him, and a 5.1 disc featuring surround mixes, Gimme Some Truth only whets the appetite for whatever might come next.
Combine the gorgeous vinyl pressing of this one with the Plastic Ono Band album oral history book, or the excellent John Lennon 1980 or Complete John Lennon Songs, for the perfect gift for the Beatles fan on your list.
U2: All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Super Deluxe Edition)
While it’s hardly U2s greatest album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is surely the one where, as Bono put it at the time, they re-applied for the job of “best band in the world.” This stunning 11 LP set, which digs deep into the period through B-Sides, outtakes and fascinating alternate versions, plus the fan favorite Elevation Live concert from Boston in 2001, and a book of photos from U2 chronicler Anton Corbijn, makes a strong case that they were serious about claiming the title. Everything you love (or perhaps love/hate) about U2 is here, and the album surely was a retreat from the band’s ambitious, if uneven 90s, and set the template for everything they’ve done since, but they did it with such panache here that this box set just had to make the list.
The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup (Super Deluxe Edition)
Goats Head Soup is literally nobody’s favorite Rolling Stones album. So when the expanded edition was released earlier this year, pretty much only diehard Stones fans were lining up. Oh, how wrong the rest of us were. This deluxe version of the album, which came on the heels of the band’s most fertile period – in which they released Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street(all of which have also gotten the deluxe treatment recently) – and just as the Stones became the stadium-killing touring juggernaut they remained until the current pandemic put a likely end to the band’s touring days, makes it plain that Goats Head Soup shouldn’t be overlooked.
Featuring an excellent new stereo mix of the album sourced from the original session tapes, plus alternate mixes and rarities, including three previously unreleased tracks, “Scarlet” – featuring Jimmy Page – “All The Rage” and “Criss Cross,” plus the oft-bootlegged The Brussels Affair, recorded live at the Forest National Arena in October 1973, it all sounds especially amazing on the 180 gram vinyl version.
The Kinks: Lola v. The Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part 1 (50th Anniversary Edition)
2018s Village Green Preservation Society box and last year’s Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire box set were stellar affairs, put together with love and care by head Kiink Ray Davies, so it’s no surprise that this season’s Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. 1 expanded edition of The Kinks’ classic 1970 album hits the mark yet again.
Offered in several versions, the deluxe edition includes a boatload of bonus material, including many unheard recordings, spread across 3 CDs consisting of the original 1970 album remastered in HD from the original tapes, plus singles from the period in both stereo and mono mixes, B-sides, BBC recordings, previously unreleased demos, outtakes, and alternate mixes, plus Ray and Dave Davies providing a spoken word commentary alongside a new “medley” of songs from the album. A pair of 7-inch singles – “Lola” and “Apeman” and their respective B-sides, “Berkeley Mews” and “Rats,” are also included, alongside reproduced artwork and band press photos. The sumptuously packaged box set comes with a 60-page hardcover book containing extensive notes, rare photos and loads of other memorabilia, all of which should make any fan of The Kinks on your list swoon.
Tom Petty: Wildflowers & All The Rest
Like Prince’s Sign O’ The Times box, it’s impossible to know if Wildflowers & All The Rest is what Tom Petty intended to release in celebration of his best-loved work and greatest artistic achievement, but there’s also no doubt that his family did right by the late rocker.
While the original album – an afterthought on vinyl in 1994 – sounds better than ever, it’s the ten songs that make up the “all the rest” disc, Petty’s intimate home demos and, most of all, the works in progress of the songs that both made it to the album and didn’t that are the draw here. The studio sessions featuring early takes of the songs we’ve all grown to hold so dear put the telepathy that Petty, keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist (and co-producer) Mike Campbell shared front and center, and the live versions of the Wildflower tracks and gorgeous book, with an excellent essay by Tom Petty Radio DJ David Fricke, is simply icing on the cake.
Johnny Cash: The Complete Mercury Recordings
Dropped by his longtime label Columbia Records, and perceived as creatively floundering like many of his contemporaries, Johnny’s Cash’s 1980s output is often overlooked. Fittingly, there’s a great compilation for the non-diehards, Easy Rider: The Best of the Mercury Recordings, featuring the choice cuts here, but the 7 LP box set is the one to get. A treasure trove of all but forgotten Johnny Cash recordings, it includes his reunion with fellow Sun Records alumni Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, plus collaborations with Paul McCartney, Glen Campbell, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and others, and inspired takes on songs by Elvis Costello, Guy Clark and Harry Chapin, alongside some of the finest songs ever written by the Man In Black.
Neil Young: Archives Vol. II 1972-76
Although it’s already sold out, make sure to grab the soon to be released second pressing of the second entry into Neil Young’s Archives series (or nab the Neil Young fan on your list a membership to Young’s site, where the set will be streaming in HD).
Mid-70s Neil Young finds the legendary songsmith at his most beguiling and betwixed. Seemingly at war with everyone around him – and himself – Young is clearly struggling with the long sought after stardom that Harvest and After The Goldrush, not to mention his association with Crosby, Stills and Nash, delivered. But that’s how many of Young’s most ardent fans like him and, like Volume I, there’s no doubt this set is full of gems from Young’s fabled archives. However, unlike Young’s first dip into his archives – from eleven long years ago – much of Volume II has either been officially released by Young himself, or is incredibly common among bootleg aficionados (which means everyone in 2020, given the ubiquitousness of YouTube, etc.). Still, there are at least two discs of unreleased gold here, with Joni Mitchell and Crazy Horse compadres Nils Lofgren and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro – where you can literally hear the birth of grunge – popping up along the way, even if it’s Young solo that is the most arresting, if darkest, music offered here.
And don’t forget to pick up the 50th anniversary edition of Young’s After The Gold Rush. It’s by far the best album the legendary rocker ever made, and sounds better than ever, even if the single bonus track feels like slim pickings given what we now know he has at his fingertips.
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