• The Beatles — The Beatles Stereo Box Set/The Beatles Mono Box Set (Capitol/EMI/Apple) In a busy year for special releases, there was none more celebrated than the issuance of the whole remastered Beatles catalog, made available in stereo and mono box sets, as well as individually in stereo. The sonic upgrade given to The Beatles CDs lives up to its advance billing. Yes, the box sets are a bit pricey. But it’s worth every penny to finally hear, in vivid clarity, the 13 albums that make up what is still the greatest catalog of music from any act of the Rock era.
• Big Star — Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino) For a band that only released three studio albums (not counting the more recent “reunion” release), it’s pretty amazing to think that Big Star could justify a four- CD box set. But this is precisely the case with Keep an Eye on the Sky. Virtually every studio cut that made Big Star one of the most influential Power Pop bands in history is included — many with improved mixes — along with a bevy of demos and alternate versions and even a few unreleased tracks. The fourth disc — an unreleased concert from January 1973 — is a treat. Despite the depth of this set, there is surprisingly little fat — just one Pop thrill after another.
• Various Artists — Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm (Rhino) Of the many Woodstock-related releases in 2009, the 40th anniversary of the famed three-day festival, this six-CD box set was the headlining event. It is simply the most complete audio document yet of Woodstock. It boasts 30-plus previously unheard performances, including a spunky version of “Bad Moon Rising” from Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who storming through “Amazing Journey” and “Pinball Wizard” and Joe Cocker rolling and tumbling through “Feelin’ Alright.” The collection is well worth its rather substantial price.
• Richard Thompson — Walking on a Wire: 1968-2009 (Shout Factory) For my money, Richard Thompson is one of the finest artists to ever grace the music scene, a terrific songwriter and exceptional guitarist who remains severely overlooked. But don’t take my word for it. This four-CD career overview makes the case quite emphatically. It traces Thompson’s career from its late ’60s beginnings in the influential English Folk Rock band Fairport Convention through his fruitful period of recording with his wife Linda and long (and still vital) solo career. In short, Walking on a Wire is a superb and thorough look at the genius of this gifted artist.
• Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers — Live Anthology (Reprise) Anyone who has seen Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in concert knows this is one of Rock’s very best live bands. This four-disc set spans performances from 1980 through 2007 and, as expected, there are stellar performances of many of the band’s hits. The Heartbreakers have also always had a special talent for covers and Petty smartly includes a generous amount of outside tunes here (songs by Bo Diddley, The Grateful Dead and Van Morrison are among those represented). Still, even at 47 tracks, Live Anthology actually feels a bit thin. How about a sequel, Mr. Petty?
• Various Artists — Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum Live (Time Life) The highlights of the annual induction ceremonies for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have generally been the all-star band performances.
That’s no surprise — where else will you see Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger trading vocals with Ringo Starr and George Harrison (among many others) playing The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There”? Or how about Eddie Vedder joining R.E.M. for “Man On The Moon?” This three DVD set assembles 43 such memorable musical moments, plus induction speeches and footage from the ceremony rehearsals. This may not be just like being there for the performances, but it’s not far off.
• Various Artists — Where the Action Is: Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968 (Rhino) The latest addition to the series of Nuggets box sets (devoted mostly to obscure Garage Pop gems from the mid-to-late-1960s) centers on one metropolitan area — Los Angeles. Some acts included here will be familiar — The Doors, Mamas & The Papas, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, to name a few. But this set also unearths plenty of entertaining obscure Pop tunes, such as “The People In Me” by The Music Machine, the boisterous and soulful “Jump, Jive & Harmonize” by Thee Midnighters and the Beatleesque “Listen, Listen” by The Merry- Go-Round. There are definitely some misses here, but there’s enough quality on Where the Action Is to make the case that few cities had a more active and vibrant ’60s Pop scene than Los Angeles.
• AC/DC — Backtracks (Columbia) The venerable Australian band takes fans on a trip through its back pages with this set, available in two versions. There’s the standard one, with a CD of studio rarities, a CD of live rarities and a DVD of videos, as well as a very worthy deluxe edition that features additional studio rarities, a second CD of live songs and a DVD of a 2003 concert from Germany. Studio rarities, such as “R.I.P. (Rock In Peace)” and “Down On The Borderline” and most of the abundant live performances are more than enough to make Backtracks essential listening for AC/DC fans. The studio outtakes also debunk the famous knock that AC/DC has basically been re-writing the same catchy, bareknuckled Rock song for 35 years — the track “Love Song” is an actual Pop ballad, complete with jangly guitar parts and a crooning vocal from the late Bon Scott. Now that’s a side of AC/DC few would have ever expected to hear.
• Hank Williams — Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings (Time Life) Recently recovered from the vaults, WSM, the radio station of the Grand Ol’ Opry, found a collection of 72 shows Country legend Hank Williams recorded for sponsor Mother’s Best flour and farm feed. This three-CD companion to the box set The Unreleased Recordings was culled from the best of these radio shows from 1951. Williams recorded many of his classic songs for the show (“Move It on Over,” “Cold Cold Heart” and “Moanin’ the Blues”), as well as a bevy of B-sides and lesser-known tracks. The range of music is impressive, running from Mountain Folk to hymns and raw Country Blues. The songs, spiced with commentary from Williams, offer an up-close look at Williams at an early career peak with an unfiltered authenticity that rarely emerges on the original studio tracks.
• Elvis Presley — Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight (RCA/Legacy) This new four-CD set, which arrives just in time for what would have been Presley’s 75th birthday in January, is hardly the first box set devoted to “The King.” And actually, the early 1990s sets, The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll (covering his 1950s output) and From Nashville To Memphis (devoted to the 1960s), remain the definitive sets, with many more songs, including rarities that aren’t part of Elvis 75. But if you want a full career-spanning collection, Elvis 75 is a good choice. It has all of Presley’s notable hits and a good sampling of the better album tracks from throughout his career.
• Dolly Parton — Dolly (RCA/Legacy) Forget the big hair and the even bigger youknow-whats — this four-CD set proves that Parton is both an accomplished songwriter and a first-rate singer who was versatile enough to shift from pure country in the ’60s and ’70s to a crossover Pop sound in the ’80s.
• The Rolling Stones — Get Yer Ya- Ya’s Out: The Rolling Stones in Concert (ABKCO) This set adds five unreleased tracks to the famous original live album, as well as a disc documenting the performances from opening acts B.B. King and Tina Turner. It makes an already great live album even better, capturing The Stones, as well as King and Turner, at their late ’60s peaks.
• Hall & Oates — Do What You Want, Be What You Are: The Music of Daryl Hall & John Oates (RCA/Legacy) The best-selling duo in music history, Hall & Oates get a long-overdue box-set treatment. It’s all here, from early tracks to the run of ’80s hit singles to more recent songs. A decent number of unreleased studio tracks and live performances give this box something special for long-time Hall & Oates devotees.
• Frank Sinatra — New York (Reprise) Four CDs and one DVD give a career-spanning survey of Sinatra in concert at several venues in his favorite town, New York City. He’s in peak vocal form in the 1955 and 1963 shows. Two 1974 concerts are fine except for ill-advised covers of Bread’s “If” and Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” which sound like Sinatra parodies. Three more recent concerts feature many of his best-known songs. Throughout the collection Sinatra shows his mastery of Jazz-inflected phrasing and his command of the live stage.
• Rod Stewart — The Rod Stewart Sessions 1971-1998 (Warner Bros.) This four-CD set collects a bevy of alternate versions from Stewart’s vault of unreleased recordings. Some songs (such as an alternate take of “Maggie May” with different lyrics) are mainly curiosities. But others, like the edgy “Innocent (The Killing Of Georgie Part III),” an unreleased sequel to “The Killing Of Georgie” from the A Night On The Town album, are good finds.
• The Doors — Live in New York (Rhino) This six-disc set captures The Doors live show with four complete concerts from January 1970. The band is especially energized during the two late shows included, as it runs through songs from its forthcoming Morrison Hotel album, some big hits and quite a few blues and early Rock & Roll covers. Some of these tracks already appeared on the Absolutely Live CD, but it’s nice to have a complete document of these late-era Doors shows.
• Kenny Rogers — The First 50 Years (Time Life) If you’re a fan of Kenny the crooner and his story-songs like “The Gambler,” romantic ballads such as “She Believes In Me” and famous duets such as “Islands In The Stream” (with Dolly Parton), this three-CD set is for you. Three new songs are also included.
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