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Definitive or cash grab? 2018’s golden anniversary rock boxes

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With a number of classic rock titles celebrating milestone 50th anniversaries in 2018 it was a given that reissue producers would come up with a multitude of commemorative box sets to mark the occasion. Some hit the mark beautifully by checking nearly every box on the rock archaeologist’s wish list while others come frustratingly close but ultimately misfire in some significant way.

The Beatles – “The Beatles” (“White Album” super deluxe edition; Apple/Capitol)

Following last year’s acclaimed 50th anniversary box set for The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Apple set out to mark the golden anniversary of the band’s 1968 double album with a fresh remix (in both stereo and stunning 5.1 surround sound), a roundup of 27 festive pre-studio acoustic demos recorded at George Harrison’s country bungalow, 50 never-released studio takes, alternate versions and jams, and a carefully researched book to put it all in context. The result – heard over six CDs and one Blu-ray disc – is spellbinding. The Fabs’ spookiest and most diverse album has become grander in virtually every way and it has fans fantasizing about a similar treatment for “Abbey Road” next year. Indispensible.

Jimi Hendrix Experience – “Electric Ladyland” (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition; Sony/Experience Hendrix)

Of the four albums released during his lifetime, “Electric Ladyland” was Jimi Hendrix’s Mona Lisa, his David Copperfield and his Godfather: Pt. II rolled into one. More than a year in the making, the 1968 double LP presented the most fully realized evidence we have of Hendrix’s combined skill as composer, performer and creator. This 3-CD/1-Blu-ray 50th anniversary set presents an overview of how Jimi arrived at “Electric Ladyland” yet it feels incomplete. The high point is Eddie Kramer’s new high-resolution 5.1 surround-sound mix which is worth the cost of admission. Hendrix and Kramer had crafted the original to sound like this music was enveloping you. This version actually does that by sending the album’s various instrumentation and effects to different corners of the room while mostly maintaining the aesthetics of the original mix.

A new mastering of the album proper appears on the first disc. Disc two begins with Jimi’s intimate late-night New York City hotel room demos and ends with a series of studio session outtakes. Singing softly out of respect for his neighbors, you can hear the annoyance in Hendrix’s voice as his phone rings in the background. Disc three is an audio-verite affair featuring a slightly shambolic recording of a chaotic live show at the Hollywood Bowl performed three weeks before the album’s release. Apparently captured on the sly at the soundboard, the music is distorted at times but the quality of the performance warrants inclusion. With dozens of hours of ‘Ladyland’ outtakes in the vault, one wonders if Experience Hendrix had much grander plans for this box only for Sony to insist on a lower price point.

The Kinks – “The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society” (50th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Edition; Sanctuary)

A specimen of beauty in every way, this behemoth is the last word on a record that many Kinks fans hold closest to their heart. Unjustly ignored upon release 50 years ago (it failed to chart on either side of the Atlantic), ‘Village Green…’ slowly found its audience in subsequent generations rapt by Ray Davies’s elegies for the quaint customs and traditions of British village life that he saw fading into sepia-toned postcards by the late ‘60s. Created at the apex of his observational songwriting at a time when The Kinks were banned from touring in the States, Ray Davies melded the pastoral with the psychedelic through 15 otherwise loosely connected songs that continue to beguile new legions of listeners. In an act of equitable timeliness, the album was finally certified gold in the U.K. earlier this month.

Reissue producer Andrew Sandoval spearheaded this comprehensive 174-track, 11-disc box, which includes three vinyl LPs, five CDs and three 7” singles, a hardbound book of essays, interviews, notes and recording information, posters and pictures. With the album now presented in its highest fidelity to date, fresh remixes (where available) with revealing studio chatter and a smorgasbord of previously unheard recordings place this 50th anniversary ‘Village Green’ set among the finest rock box sets devoted to a single album project.

The Moody Blues – “In Search of the Lost Chord” (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition; UMe)

The Moodies’ classic third album gets the deluxe treatment on this box set containing three CDs and two DVDs. Disc one presents the album in its original stereo mix along with a smattering of A-side and B-side mono singles. Disc two offers a fresh remix of the album (with a few noticeable differences for train spotters) while disc three consists of five BBC radio recordings along with ten alternate mixes from the album sessions. The 5.1 surround mix, as heard on the first DVD, is fascinating but offers a much less discrete surround experience than those heard on The Beatles and Hendrix sets.

It’s unclear what engineer Jakko Jakszyk had to work with for the creation of the new mixes but it doesn’t sound as though he had access to the first-generation pre-bounced stem recordings. He is credited with mixing and “manipulation” of the tapes which implies that a bit of sonic trickery may have been necessary to achieve the results we hear in this set. I enjoyed it as a fun alternate listen, but it won’t replace the original stereo mix as my go-to version. The second DVD presents live performances (in black and white and color) of 1968 UK and French TV appearances in stellar visual and audio quality. In terms of value for money (about $50) this set is a groovy deal but isn’t nearly as far out as it might have been.

The Rolling Stones – “Beggar’s Banquet” (50th Anniversary Edition; ABKCO)

When ABKCO reissued The Rolling Stones 1964-1971 catalog back on dual-layered CD/SACD in 2002, they (mostly) got it right – especially when it came to 1968’s “Beggar’s Banquet.” The sonic quirks heard throughout the album (even fuzzy cassettes were employed) always sounded like the Stones running away from the previous year’s Technicolor wizardry of “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” The songs on ‘Beggar’s’ dictated the sound (rockin’ and rustic roots music) and Bob Ludwig nailed it when he mastered “Beggar’s Banquet” from the original master tapes at the correct speed (for the first time) 16 years ago.

While Ludwig is also credited with this 50th anniversary vinyl and CD reissue, it doesn’t sound as good to me. The clarity is present, but the music has a slightly squashed quality which usually means excess compression and limiting applied to the master. There is nothing new here except for an April 1968 Mick Jagger telephone interview on a flexi-disc and a 12-inch of the mono single mix for “Sympathy for the Devil.” ABKCO’s hands are tied when it comes to issuing any unreleased Rolling Stones material from those years and Jagger and Richards seem to have little interest in archival recordings unless they retain the rights. It’s interesting that on the same day this package hit stores (November 16), The Rolling Stones released a 1994 concert on Blu-ray and CD for which they do retain full ownership. Not surprisingly, that is also a more worthwhile purchase.

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