Fall Sets From David Bowie, Freddie Mercury

The best archival releases in our fall 2020 edition of Reissue Roundup double as perfect gift ideas for music lovers during the holiday season.

New sets by late artists David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Mercury and Frank Zappa go deep into their catalogs, documenting certain eras – as the Bowie and Zappa 1969-set boxes do – or covering particular moments in time, like Hendrix’s brief Band of Gypsys project and Mercury’s short solo career.

Other albums expand beloved albums – like Gene Clark’s best solo album and R.E.M.‘s grunge-reaction LP from 1994 – and span entire careers while dusting off unheard songs from the vaults (Steve Miller‘s new box).

Then there’s sorta straight repackaging of classic material, like the 50th Anniversary Limited Deluxe Edition of the Rolling StonesLet It Bleed and Rod Stewart‘s The Studio Albums: 1975-2001, which collects the 14 records he made for Warner Bros. during his 25-year stay at the label.

They all amount to some of the best archival releases 2020 has to offer.

David Bowie, Conversation Piece

What It Is: Five CDs chart Bowie’s evolution from the music-hall compositions that populated his 1967 debut album to the period when he became “David Bowie,” all leading to the 1969 LP that included “Space Oddity.”

What’s on It: Demos, alternate takes, BBC recordings and B-sides make up most of Conversation Piece, but a new mix of the Space Oddity album by Tony Visconti brightens some corners.

Best Song You Know: “Space Oddity” is the key track here, so it makes sense that most roads lead to that 1969 classic. The song shows up several times and in various forms, leaving no doubt of Bowie’s breakthrough.

Best Song You Don’t Know: Twelve previously unreleased tracks include demos and early mixes. Home recordings of “April’s Tooth of Gold” and “Conversation Piece” subtly hint at the legend Bowie would become.

Gene Clark, No Other

What It Is: An expanded version of the late Byrds member’s celebrated 1974 solo album includes two additional discs of sessions. Give this one some time to sink in. Its “underrated classic” status is well-earned.

What’s on It: Most of the tracks on the bonus discs are different versions and alternate takes of songs that ended up on No Other. But there’s a non-LP cover of Eagles co-founder Bernie Leadon’s “Train Leaves Here This Morning” too.

Best Song You Know: “Silver Raven” became a staple of Clark’s live shows and a fan favorite, often sharing a hallowed place alongside some of his greatest Byrds songs, like “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Set You Free This Time.”

Best Song You Don’t Know: Early takes on “From a Silver Phial” and “Life’s Greatest Fool” aren’t revelations, but they prove how fully prepared Clark – who died in 1991 at age 46 – was in the studio.

Experience Hendrix / Legacy Recordings

Jimi Hendrix, Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts

What It Is: The four sets performed by Band of Gypsys on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Eve as 1969 turned into 1970 marked their debut. Some of the performances have been released over the years, but more than two dozen are new here.

What’s on It: These New York City shows were the first for Hendrix’s new power trio, which also included bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. They never got a chance to work on a studio LP before Hendrix’s September 1970 death.

Best Song You Know: “Machine Gun” is the killer track here. Four different versions are included on the five-CD box, and they get more intense as the song progresses. The version from the first Jan. 1 set made it to the original Band of Gypsys album.

Best Song You Don’t Know: Scorching versions of new songs “Earth Blues” and “Ezy Rider” are highlights. But the new trio’s updated takes on the Experience’s “Foxey Lady” and “Purple Haze” don’t shy away from Hendrix’s past achievements.

Freddie Mercury, Never Boring

What It Is: Five-disc box covering the late Queen singer’s solo career includes a new mix of his 1985 solo LP Mr. Bad Guy, as well as an expanded version of the 1988 classical album Barcelona.

What’s on It: In addition to the two solo records, Never Boring features a Blu-ray and DVD with videos and live performances. There’s also a 12-track compilation that collects stray tracks, singles and different mixes.

Best Song You Know: “There Must Be More to Life Than This” was originally supposed to be on Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space. Then Mercury cut it with Michael Jackson. It finally found a home on Mr. Bad Guy.

Best Song You Don’t Know: “Time Waits for No One” was originally called “Time” when it was part of a 1986 musical. This new version is a Mercury demo that puts more emphasis on his strong vocals.

Steve Miller Band, Welcome to the Vault

What It Is: More than three dozen of the 52 songs found on this three-CD set are previously unreleased, so this is geared more to longtime fans than to people who sorta like “The Joker,” though that No. 1 hit is here.

What’s on It: There’s lots of live tracks and alternate versions on Welcome to the Vault, many going back decades. A DVD features footage from the group’s performance at Monterey in 1967, as well as some TV shows from the ’70s.

Best Song You Know: While “The Joker” here is the original version, other classics like “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Jet Airliner” are included in alternate takes that approach the songs from different angles.

Best Song You Don’t Know: Previously unreleased takes on two of Miller’s best and most popular songs, “Take the Money and Run” and “Rock’N Me,” are tougher and less polished than their more familiar versions.

The Pop Group, Y

What It Is: This English post-punk band lasted only a couple years during their initial run, but this debut album from 1979 is a staggering work that’s gotten better with age. They were hard to pin down, which probably explains why they never made it big.

What’s on It: This three-disc set celebrates the 40th anniversary of Y with other songs from the era, early takes, different mixes and a live set that runs through the original album.

Best Song You Know: Unless you’re a fan of these art punks, whose challenging music existed on the fringes of experimental sounds of the period, you probably don’t know any of the songs. Here’s your chance to catch up.

Best Song You Don’t Know: “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” was initially released before the album came out and wasn’t included on first pressings. It’s back in the track listing here and remains their most accessible moment.

R.E.M., Monster (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

What It Is: The silver-anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s ninth album – their plugged-in reaction to 1992’s somber Automatic for the People – includes a restructuring of the record, complete with demos and live tracks.

What’s on It: In addition to the early demos and a 1995 concert from Chicago, the new Monster features a remix by original producer Scott Litt, who shuffles instruments, tones and sounds for a sorta new experience.

Best Song You Know: “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is the album’s best-known song, and it holds up better than some of the others. But “Bang and Blame” and “Crush With Eyeliner” coast through the period with some muscle too.

Best Song You Don’t Know: “Uptempo Mo Distortion,” in demo form here, sounds like the start of a great bridging of eras – part mid-’80s college-radio jangle, part mid-’90s alt-rock crunch. Too bad vocals were never recorded.

The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed: 50th Anniversary Limited Deluxe Edition

What It Is: The Rolling Stones’ sign-off to the ’60s, and one of the darkest albums ever made, celebrates its golden anniversary with a box set that adds extras like a vinyl single and a mono mix.

What’s on It: This collection includes stereo and mono vinyl LPs, and SACDs with both mixes. A picture-sleeve single replicates 1969’s “Honky Tonk Women,” which didn’t appear on the album, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which did.

Best Song You Know: “Gimme Shelter” opens the album and serves as the centerpiece – a brooding, decade-closing epic that’s all doom and gloom. It doesn’t let up, and neither does Let It Bleed.

Best Song You Don’t Know: There’s really nothing new here, but the remastered sound dusts off some of the years, giving the album a fresh vibrancy that only heightens its intensity at times.

Rod Stewart, The Studio Albums: 1975-2001

What It Is: All 14 of Rod Stewart’s Warner Bros. albums – from 1975’s Atlantic Crossing to 2001’s Human – are collected in one place. There are some good records here, especially the ’70s albums, all of which reached the Top 10.

What’s on It: Stewart made his Warner Bros. debut after releasing five LPs on Mercury. But he was ready for a new start: Faces were history, and so was recording in his native England. He stayed at the label for more than a quarter century.

Best Song You Know: “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” (from 1976’s A Night on the Town) and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”(1979’s Blondes Have More Fun) are both from this period and remain among his most enduring songs.

Best Song You Don’t Know: These are straightforward albums, no bonus tracks, so if you followed Stewart into the ’80s and ’90s, you know everything here. Worth revisiting: 1981’s “Young Turks” and “Baby Jane” from 1983.

Frank Zappa, The Hot Rats Sessions

What It Is: Frank Zappa’s best album, and the first to be solely credited to him, is expanded to six discs for its 50th anniversary. Most of the sessions took place in July 1969; they’re all collected here.

What’s on It: Many of the leftover tracks found their way onto other Zappa albums over the years, a common practice of the late guitarist in the ’70s and later. Put into perspective here, they make way more sense.

Best Song You Know: The instrumental “Peaches En Regalia” is one of the most accessible pieces Zappa ever recorded. It also opened the doors to the jazz-fusion work he’d explore more deeply in the next decade.

Best Song You Don’t Know: The multiple takes on Hot Rats‘ closer, “It Must Be a Camel,” reveal how sharply focused Zappa was in the studio. It all eventually comes together in the album’s standout master.

Various Artists, Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records Complete Singles Collection

What It Is: Rampart Records focused on Mexican-American rock ‘n’ roll for 30 years, starting in pre-Beatles 1961. This four-CD set collects 79 songs from the label’s vast catalog, many of them buried for decades.

What’s on It: The focus here is mostly on garage rock, but Rampart dipped into R&B, pop and disco too. The highlights come from the ’60s, when three instruments and volume were all that was needed to make a glorious racket.

Best Song You Know: Cannibal & the Headhunters reached the Top 30 with their cover of Chris Kenner’s “Land of a Thousand Dances” in 1965; it still surges with a sweaty exuberance all these years later.

Best Song You Don’t Know: There are plenty of forgotten songs here, many of them by artists who disappeared for good after their handful of singles. Dig in, because there’s some great rock ‘n’ roll to uncover.

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