“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 “Esher 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 20thcentury 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.
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 countercultural 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.)
5. Tom Petty, “An American Treasure” (Reprise)
He was… an American world. Petty took on so many personas, from sly dog to sweet cat, while never seeming unduly chameleonic, and they’re all captured in this 60-track celebration. The track list is predominantly unheard studio compositions or live tracks, interspersed with some lesser-remembered deep album cuts. Some fans have wondered why the estate didn’t open the vault doors even more widely and leave out the previously released tracks, but the approach that was taken here works, in creating a chronological audio biography that gets at its subject more through delicious side anecdotes than thrice-told tales. While further posthumous discoveries await, this is fan servicing at its thoughtful finest, from the Byrds-ian 1976 “Surrender” to the Chuck Berry-ian ‘90s throwaway “Lonesome Dave” to the tender alternate version of “You and Me” that sets up the collection’s final stretch. The deluxe version of “American Treasure” is available in 4-CD or 6-LP iterations, and the latter is particularly recommended for turntable owners, partly because of the nice, 78-rpm-album-style packaging already familiar to anyone who picked up the earlier “Live Anthology” on vinyl. The format also offers an easier way to peruse track-by-track annotation that’s full of interesting revelations from Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell and wife Dana Petty. You can’t help but be moved when Dana notes that, on the last day of his life, Petty asked her to look up on Facebook the high school crush who was the inspiration for “The Best of Everything,” because “she was the only person from my past that I ever cared about who never tried to find me.”
6. David Bowie, “Loving the Alien (1983-1988)” (Parlophone)
The annual collections of Bowie material that have been coming out have usually had cleverly appropriate titles drawn from his lyrics. This is the first time I think one of the titles misses the mark, because “Loving the Alien” captures the period when Bowie was at his least alien. As producer Nile Rodgers writes in an absorbing booklet essay about the making of “Let’s Dance”: “He says, ‘I want you to make a hit.’ I was like, ‘A hit? You just did “Scary Monsters,” bro.’” Fans have been known to break down Bowie’s catalog into trilogies — there was the Berlin trilogy of the late ‘70s, of course — and you could pretty much consider the trio of albums that make up the core of this set Bowie’s unabashedly commercial trilogy. Even the non-album tracks collected in the bonus discs, like the Jagger duet “Dancing in the Streets” and the “Labyrinthe” soundtrack cuts, speak to his stadium-friendly attitude in the ‘80s. The trouble is, one of the three core albums is widely beloved (“Let’s Dance”) and the other two are considered duds (“Tonight,” “Never Let Me Down”). That’s rectified in the last case by a nearly all-new re-recording of “Never Let Me Down” that ditches the dated sax solos and awful, thunderous ‘80s snare drums for Reeves Gabrels guitars, Nico Muhly strings and a Laurie Anderson cameo. You can have a moral debate over the posthumous appropriateness of friends making good on his stated wish to have another shot at “Never Let Me,” but it feels like a brand new David Bowie album in 2018, and that’s no small gift.
7. Liz Phair, “Girlysound to Guyville” (Matador)
“Guyville” was a nice place to visit in 1993 and it’s easy to wish we’d spent the last 25 years living there after indulging in this 4-CD or 7-LP set. Phair was a girl on phire in the lead-up to her debut album, demoing so much material that she could stock away for future albums that this collection almost feels like salute to “Whip-Smart” and “Whitechocolatespaceegg” as well as “Exile in Guyville.” In a way, she was like a Joni Mitchell for a riot-grrl generation — cultivating an instant catalog of classics filled with weird chords, a little more out of naiveté than sophistication, perhaps, but we’re talking Savant City, nonetheless. Personally, I enjoy her later “pop sellout” years as much as this rougher stuff, so it’s funny to read in the accompanying booklet about how some of her indie cohorts at the time considered even the unpolished gem that was “Guyville” to be some kind of commercial, glossy capitulation. Those concerns all seem so silly when you hear the torrent that was coming out of her in this early ‘90s hot streak — a rush of words from someone finding her voice so quickly and with such immediate influence that you think less of the Stones invoked via the original album’s title than mid-‘60s Dylan.
8. Roxy Music, “Roxy Music (Super Deluxe)” (Virgin/UMC)
The only thing plain about this beautifully designed set is Virginia. Maybe because it came out all the way back in February, this beautiful expansion of Roxy Music’s debut isn’t getting a lot of year-end attention. But it’s a debut album as worthy of elaborate expansion as Phair’s, bringing back the giddy kick of a band arriving on the scene with a fully formed voice we’d never heard the likes of before. Was it prog? Pop? Glam — whatever that meant, yet, in early ‘72? It’s fascinating to hear how accomplished the early demos are, and yet slightly off, with guitarist Phil Manzanera not yet in the picture to help achieve full liftoff. By the time they’re doing repeat BBC performances on the set’s live disc or doing TV on the DVD — with Eno still around and publicly contributing flair — it’s like they’ve discovered a new mode of rock ‘n’ roll: an almost scholarly flamboyance.
9. Elvis Presley, “’68 Comeback Special (50th Anniversary Edition)” (RCA/Legacy)
America loves a phoenix, and we sure got one when Elvis dusted off the ashes of his flailing mid-‘60s movie career and put on a black leather jacket again for the greatest of all network TV music specials. This 7-disc boxed set includes everything that was recorded for the broadcast, in-studio or on-set, including an intimate, sit-down reunion with his original 1950s combo and a flashier, stand-up-and-swivel set with a big band. Beyond having the special and complete performances in both CD and Blu-Ray form, Thom Zimny has done a video re-edit on some of the performances. It’s more fun to watch all this material after reading the collection’s written oral history of how many ways it could have gone wrong — and the Colonel was dogged in his determination to screw this up like he screwed up Presley’s entire career — yet somehow, for once, went so beautifully right. The resurrection director Steve Binder and others manufactured for him couldn’t last, but what joy it is to re-experience Elvis caught even fleetingly in hip-swiveling flight.
10. John Lennon, “Imagine — The Ultimate Edition” (Apple/Universal)
A case of nearly limitless “Imagine”-ation (sorry), this 2-Blu-Ray/4-CD set documents the making of Lennon’s second and most popular solo album quite exhaustively, and possibly exhaustingly. The double Blu-Ray component isn’t there for video programs; it’s for the additional massive quantities of audio that format offers, so completists can get the album in quad as well as hear every last demo or broken-down instrumental element. (This set has more stems than a 1971 dorm room.) The accompanying hardback book is fascinating, if confusingly edited. It’s interesting to read John’s take on why this was a less personal, more commercial album than the rawer one that preceded it, “Plastic Ono Band,” or how he balanced the idealism of the title track with his own materialism, or why for him the McCartney-dissing “How Do You Sleep?” was more of a joke among friends than some kind of all-time savaging. Ninety percent of the audio bonuses here are for hardcore fans only, but “Imagine” offers an excellent example of how to give the faithful much to them at a comparatively affordable price. And you may count yourself as among the hardcore, too, once you’ve had a listen to something that turns out to be as gorgeous on its own as the strings-only part to the title song or a purely vocal take on “Oh My Love.” Plus, this box is sort of a sequel to the White Album super-deluxe set: you get to hear “Child of Nature,” demo-ed in ‘68 as one of the worst songs Lennon ever wrote, reborn here three years later as “Jealous Guy,” one of his best.