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The Best Box Sets of 2019

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December 17, 2019 12:28PM ET From the Beatles’ final masterpiece to Dylan’s Nashville sessions to Prince’s amazing ‘1999’ era and beyond. Rolling Stone Here is our rundown of this year’s best deep-dive archival collections, every one of which expands our understanding of essential moments in music history. Abbey Road has always represented a historic peak of…
The Best Box Sets of 2019

From the Beatles’ final masterpiece to Dylan’s Nashville sessions to Prince’s amazing ‘1999’ era and beyond.

Rolling Stone, 2019, Boxsets

Rolling Stone

Here is our rundown of this year’s best deep-dive archival collections, every one of which expands our understanding of essential moments in music history.

beatles abbey road

Abbey Road has always represented a historic peak of pop invention and perfection — that’s why Drake just got the cover tattooed on his arm. To this day, it remains their biggest seller. But it’s also their bittersweet goodbye. Giles Martin and Sam Okell have done a new mix in stereo, 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Atmos. The mix does wonders for moments like the three-way guitar duel in “The End,” with Paul, George and John trading off solos live on the studio floor. The Sgt. Pepper and White Album sets were packed with mind-blowing experiments and jams, but Abbey Road is considerably more focused. In these 23 outtakes and demos, you hear a band in the zone, knowing exactly what they want to do, working hard to finesse the details, even the ones only they’ll notice. They’re playful, like when John messes with the lyrics of “Mean Mr. Mustard”: “His sister Bernice works in the furnace!” But it’s four confident men, determined to show off for the world — and more importantly, for each other. R.S. 

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rem monster

1994’s Monster was loose, loud, and unsentimental, akin to their Emotional Rescue or maybe even Lou Reed’s New York . A new, six-disc anniversary box set offers a holistic look at the album with demos, a completely remixed version of the LP, and a live recording. There’s also a Blu-ray with the album in surround sound, the band’s Road Movie concert film, and all the videos they made around that time. But what’s most curious is the way they’ve pulled back the veil to show us how on how Monster became what it was. The record went to Number One, the singles didn’t do as well as the ones from the album’s predecessors, but it was a record of the times, for the times, and a quarter of a century later, it still sounds unique. K.G.

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the Kinks

Featuring classics like “Victoria” and “Shangri-La,” the Kinks’ 1969 album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)  wistfully evoked English life to stand among their finest Sixties works. This deluxe 4-CD set features a remastered edition of the original album in stereo and mono, bonus tracks, demos, rehearsals, remixes and BBC performances. The gem of the release is a “lost” Dave Davies solo LP started during the Arthur sessions but never completed, that includes fantastic songs like “Mindless Child of Motherhood,” “I’m Crying” and “Lincoln County.” J.D.   

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jimi hendrix

Jimi Hendrix ended the 1960s in one of the greatest weeks of live music in history at New York City’s Fillmore East. On New Year’s Eve 1969, Hendrix debuted Band of Gypsys, his radical soul-funk trio with pals Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, playing songs so new he was still figuring out names and lyrics for them. The touchstone Band of Gypsys LP documented six songs from the 1/1/70 shows, but this five-disc set features vivid alternates of “Machine Gun” — trenchant, chilling, and timely as ever in our era of mass shootings — plus new jams, studded with rough, rich vocal harmonies, that didn’t make the LP: an inventive cover of Howard Tate’s northern soul nugget “Stop” that tilts it into southern rock; the call-and-response-spiked “Earth Blues;” and the bereft, breakneck “Burning Desire.” There are overhauls of signatures like “Foxey Lady” and “Wild Thing,” too. But the Buddy Miles-sung “Changes” outlines the MO. The booklet adds deeply personal essays from Cox and Rolling Stone veteran Nelson George plus photos, conjuring history in a way streaming platforms don’t. W.H. 

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pink floyd

The Later Years shines all its lasers on David Gilmour and how he shaped and super-sized Pink Floyd for a new generation, beginning with 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason — featured here in a remixed, somewhat more understated form. The heart of the set is two concert films, 1988’s Delicate Sound of Thunder and 1995’s Pulse. Regardless of how you feel about these releases, the collection makes a case for the sheer scale of the Gilmour era and what it meant to the band’s fans.The box also adds odds and ends like interviews, standalone reels of the projections they cast on the circular screen, replica tour programs and a lyric book. The accouterments are all well considered and, like the concert films and albums, feel very “Pink Floyd.” K.G. 

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bill bruford

Countless rock artists have dabbled in or paid lip service to jazz but few have invested in the genre to the extent that Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford did. Containing around two decades’ worth of material across more than 20 CDs and DVDs, this handsome set documents the entire live and studio output of Bruford’s band Earthworks, which started out as a quirky instrumental outfit propelled by the leader’s Simmons electronic drums and ended up as a tight, no-frills postbop band that could hang with the world’s best. If you only know this legendary player from Close to the Edge and Red, consider this an invitation to an alternate universe. H.S. 

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black sabbath

Many bands can claim responsibility for the genre’s bludgeoning guitar lines and intensely intense vocals, but the group most responsible for metal as the world knows it today is Black Sabbath.The band’s first eight albums, the ones made by Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward, are still vital, enigmatic, and inspiring. Those albums, compiled into Rhino’s new limited-edition LP box set, The Vinyl Collection: 1970 – 1978, represent the multifaceted essence of not just Black Sabbath but metal and hard rock as a whole, proving why they weren’t just the first but also the greatest metal band. K.G. 

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david bowie

Named after a folky Bowie song from 1969, this five-CD box features 12 previously unreleased demos and tracks from 1968 to 1969 and a new mix of “Space Oddity” by Bowie’s producer-collaborated Tony Visconti — plus BBC radio sessions, studio recordings with guitarist John “Hutch” Hutchinson and his work with the experimental group, Feathers. It all comes packaged in a sleek white coffee table book replete with striking photos of various Bowie ephemera: handwritten set lists, early vinyl demos, newspaper articles, and plenty of photos of the man himself. Even the biggest Bowie fans will find something miraculous and new. B.E. 

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down in jamaica

VP Records has been essential to the development of reggae since the Seventies, so this four-disc collection (which also includes also includes four 12-inch and four 7-inch records) doubles as a history of modern Jamaican music. You can hear the sound evolve from roots reggae and dub — the Congos’ sublime “Fisherman” with a Lee Perry remix of same, the Heptones’ “Party Time,” the Wailing Souls’ “Fire House Rock,” Gregory Isaacs “Slave Master” — into the digitally-driven dancehall of the Eighties and Nineties that became as synonymous with VP as Sixties soul did with Motown. There’s transitional jams like Barrington Levy’s “Prison Oval Rock,” Yellowman’s “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng,” Michigan & Smiley’s huge (if lyrically questionable) “Diseases” and J.C. Lodge’s “Telephone Love,” alongside latter-day bangers by Beenie Man, Ninjaman, Buju Banton, Capleton, Lady Saw and Sizzla. It’s a non-stop party that, at the dawn of its fifth decade, the label’s still rocking.

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bakersfield

California’s hot-pickin’ electric style of country music probably had a greater impact on rock than Nashville’s, and if Ken Burns’ Country Music could’ve gone deeper on it, this ripping 10-disc overview from the esteemed Bear Family label is a corrective. Bakersfield country was regional working-class party music at heart; guitar-slinging godfather Buck Owens succinctly described it as a cross between the Texas Playboys and Little Richard. But as the set’s 200+ tracks and 225 page, LP-sized book demonstrate, he transcended that notion, alongside Merle Haggard, Ferlin Husky, and many others. It’s essential history for fans of the Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons, and all the “Americana” that followed. W.H.

woodstock

It only took 50 years, but this 38-disc box finally unearths nearly every note of music played at the historic festival, including many gems —like the entire Grateful Dead, Creedence, CSNY, and Joan Baez sets — that have never been officially released before. Equally entertaining are the between-set stage announcements — “please meet Harold at the stand with the blood pills” — which add another level of audio verité. Mud and sleeping bags not included, but these unadulterated and sometimes eye-opening recordings more than compensate. D.B. 

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curtis mayfield

When he went solo, Mayfield had already made history with the Impressions, who raised the bar for R&B-style vocal music — particularly in Jamaica, where a generation of singers, including Bob Marley, studied their sound. These politically-engaged, self-released soul-funk touchstones  — Curtis, Roots, Back to the World and Sweet Exorcist — would inspire a new generation. Sampled by Kanye (“Move on Up” in “Touch the Sky,” “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gona Go” in “Jesus Walks”) and Kendrick (“Kung Fu” in “King Kunta”), Mayfield blueprinted a musically-sophisticated, spiritual, activist pop that also laid groundwork for Prince, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and beyond. R.I.P. W.H.

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kate bush other sides

Like her American soulmate and former collaborator PrinceKate Bush generated cartloads of top-flight recordings during her hyper-creative peak years that, for whatever reasons, didn’t make it onto albums. This set finally bundles the evidence: 34 tracks, including some of the avant-pop auteur’s most gorgeous, extravagant, intimate, and bonkers material — B-sides, remixes, and an album’s-worth of stray, often strange covers. Bush’s oeuvre is singular, and has stood alone for decades. But lately its brilliance feels especially prescient, reflected variously in the sound and approach of (among others) RobynFlorence Welch, and Annie St. Vincent Clark, whose confession of tipsy karaoke-ing “Wuthering Heights” is one of the highlights of that delicious 2014 Bush documentary. So the timing of this deep-cuts set couldn’t be better. Most of the tracks feel as contemporary as they ever did; maybe more so. W.H. 

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the band

Looking back all these years later, it’s shocking that the Band made their self-titled second LP in a Hollywood hills pool house and not a steamy log cabin in the woods. Down to its sepia-toned cover emblazoned with lyrics from the 1917 standard “Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” the 50th anniversary reissue of this Americana masterpiece stays true to its roots. Robbie Robertson had reservations about the studio remix, insisting to engineer Bob Clearmountain the importance of preserving the album’s “homemade” quality. Six of the 13 outtakes are previously unreleased, the highlights being the ragtime piano introduction on the alternative version of “Rag Mama Rag,” the rollicking instrumental mix of “Look Out Cleveland” and the sparkling, intimate a cappella/stripped down version of “Rockin’ Chair.” Despite its release nearly 20 years ago on the LP’s 2000 remix, the alternate take of “Whispering Pines” is still the most stunning outtake. The subtle beauty of Manuel’s vocal is hilariously interrupted within the first 40 seconds, as we hear “Who’s squeaking around in the beginning so much? Is it your chair, Richard?” before he starts up again. A.M. 

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ELVIS PRESLEY in Las VegasYou are licensed for one editorial reproduction only

The 11-CD Live 1969 compiles the dinner and midnight engagements Presley performed from August 21st through 26th at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. This isn’t the “Vegas Elvis” in a white jumpsuit that’s become a pop-culture caricature and cautionary tale of overindulgence. Here, he’s mainly performing in black two-piece suits that evoke the leather-clad badass from his TV comeback special a year earlier, and arriving onstage not to the fanfare of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” but to a rock & roll vamp by his band. At only 34, Presley is lean and at the top of his vocal game. With Presley reciting the same stage patter nearly word-for-word in each of the 11 concerts, it’s these gaffes and unexpected moments that keep Elvis Live 1969 from becoming just an overly repetitive entry for Presley completists. Instead, the box set serves as a snapshot of a world-class entertainer successfully but gingerly rediscovering the magic that made him so in the first place.  J.H. 

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gene clark

With its country-rockified version of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the lush, self-consciously poetic album from the former singer and songwriter in the Byrds occupied its own patch of land in 1974. Yet an album that barely made it into the top 100 has since become a cult classic, newly revered and appreciated and saluted in tribute concerts. Now comes the inevitable expanded treatment: No Other has been reissued as a single disc, a double CD with outtakes, and a deluxe three-CD box that includes even more alternate takes, a documentary about the making of the album and an 80-page booklet with a detailed history not only of the sessions but the old-world Hollywood castle where Clark’s cover photo shot took place. D.B. 

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replacements

Rhino’s deluxe edition of the Minneapolis punk heroes’ 1989 album Don’t Tell a Soul documents the record’s difficult making, with a disc of demos and outtakes, as well as a 1988 session with Tom Waits (who said he loved the band’s “broken” sound), and a two-disc live set. The jewel of Dead Man’s Pop is original producer Matt Wallace’s new mix of the album, which is closer to his intent than the bigger, slicker sound Warner Bros. got after commissioning the record’s final mix to omnipresent Eighties go-to Chris Lord-Alg, who famously bragged that his technique put records “on steroids.” Wallace’s mix is revelatory, turning a decent album into a very good one by taking away period stuff like the “gated” drums and “grand reverb”; it lets the songs (and, just as importantly, the guitars) speak for themselves. J.D. 

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1999

Purple Rain may be Prince’s biggest-selling and arguably best album, but his 1982 double-LP 1999 was his most pivotal. It was a lot of music, but it was also just enough, and that fact is all the more impressive considering Prince was busier than ever, writing for the Time and Vanity 6 in addition to making the album. This has never been more apparent than on the six-disc, Super Deluxe Edition 1999 box set, which pairs the album with two discs of mostly unreleased outtakes from his fabled vault and electrifying live recordings from the era. There are stunning live-in-the-studio takes of 1999’s “International Lover” and the B-side “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” that show how the album might have sounded looser if that’s what suited his whimsy. “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got” is a Farfisa-organ–accented rocker that radiates the same positivity as Controversy’s “Private Joy.” The collection also contains artifacts that Prince obsessives have long read about but never heard, like an early studio version of “Possessed,” which marries his loose, funky Seventies sound with the keyboard overload that became his fixation in the early Eighties. K.G. 

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bob dylan

Dylan’s iconic late-Sixties Nashville sessions with Johnny Cash serve as the core of Travelin’ Thru, the 15th “Bootleg Series” release. But since the Man in Black is spry and dominant throughout — he’s the true star here — it could also be a new entry in his own Bootleg Series. The songs the duo perform together come mostly from Cash’s catalogue (though it includes two versions of their take on Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” which appeared on Dylan’s 1969 country album Nashville Skyline). The collection also includes audio from Dylan’s lively appearance on The Johnny Cash show, some bluegrass banjo playing with Earl Scruggs, and outtakes from his own albums, including a quicker paced take on John Wesley Harding’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” a more somber “All Along the Watchtower,” and a sparser version of Nashville Skyline’s “Lay Lady Lay.” K.G.

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mary j blige

After the grandiose tone of much Eighties R&B singing, Mary J. Blige’s down-to-earth “hip-hop soul” offered a new direction that paved the way for a generation — tough but vulnerable, stripping away any pretense of glitzy persona to honestly explore her own struggles and desires on songs that were shaped by and helped transform that sound and real of New York City rap. Available in three formats (7-inch singles, a double LP and CD), this set chronicles her mid-Nineties rise, from early singles like “You Remind Me” and “Real Love” (appearing here as a “2019 remix”) through 1997’s Nas-assisted “Love Is All We Need,” the debut single from her third LP Share My World. It’s heavy on remixes and collaborations with the likes of LL Cool J (on “Mary J (All Night Long,” the self-offering opening track on her 1992 debut What’s the 411?), Method Man (on their Grammy winning duet with Method Mad “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By,”) and several featuring Diddy, who helped Blige develop her sound as producer on her early releases. It’s a wonderful history of an essential singer, and the era she helped define. J.D.

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