2019 saw the release of a bombshell New York Times report about how much music history was lost in the 2008 Universal vault fire, much of which the public (and the artists affected) didn’t know about until now. But for a year that found the industry grappling with tough questions about how to preserve recorded legacies, 2019 also saw the release an astonishing number of stunning and comprehensive box sets. Many of them, in fact, came from the UMe multi-verse, demonstrating that many people behind the scenes do recognize the value of physical music in addition to virtual leasing via streaming services.
Of course, Universal wasn’t the only imprint peppering this calendar year with costly treasures from the catacombs of their inventory, especially when it comes to the parade of eye-catching box sets that certainly caused more than a few music fans to skip a utility bill or two.
Here are some of the best reissues and box sets of the year.
10. R.E.M., Monster 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Craft Recordings)
1994’s Monster might be a dollar-bin regular in most used music stores, but mostly because it was a victim of circumstance — fans of the band’s orchestral pop on 1991’s Out of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People were not expecting the quartet to deliver the heaviest guitar record in their discography (especially those who barely knew the band had a whole catalog on IRS Records before hitting big with “Losing My Religion”). It wasn’t long before clearance sections of the local brick-and-mortars were chock-a-block with returned copies of Monster, which makes this deluxe edition of the ninth R.E.M. LP something akin to sweet vindication for Stipe, Buck, Berry and Mills. Channeling their collective appreciation for ’70s glam rock coupled with the experimental maneuvers of U2 and INXS at the time, they took the louder sonic elements of their 1988 Warner Bros. debut Green and cranked the amps up across powerful vamps like “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” “Crush With Eyeliner” and “Bang and Blame.” Even the ballads here exhibited undercurrents of fuzz, like the doo-wop kissed “Strange Currencies” and the haunting eulogy for Kurt Cobain “Let Me In.” Supplementing the remastered version of Monster in this set is a generous helping of previously unreleased material, including a special 2019 remix from producer Scott Litt, a disc of previously unreleased demos from the album and a complete live 1995 performance captured in Chicago. The accompanying Blu-ray offers a ton of video content, including the 90-minute film Road Movie, which documents R.E.M.’s 1995 tour, and all six music videos. With its crunchy bravado and sly sexual fluidity, Monster is the rock album 2019 needed that just so happened to arrive 25 years too soon.
9. Whitesnake, Slip of the Tongue 30th Anniversary Edition (Rhino)/The Cult, Sonic Temple 30 (Beggars Banquet)
The year 1989 was such a crucial turning point in the world of hard rock and metal, not just from the impact of a rising modern rock community on the impending alternative boom of the early ’90s but within its own crowd as well. For Whitesnake, the loss of former Thin Lizzy guitarist John Sykes should have been a devastating loss. But David Coverdale, though certainly one of the most ubiquitous figures in the genre unfairly dubbed hair metal, has always been more subversive in his goals for rock iconoclasm going back to his days in the Mark 3 version of Deep Purple, of whom Whitesnake was a direct spinoff. So for Slip of the Tongue, the King Snake managed to pluck none other than Steve Vai from David Lee Roth’s band to join the classic lineup rounded out by guitarist and co-songwriter Adrian Vandenberg, bassist Rudy Sarzo and drummer Tommy Aldridge to create a formidable follow-up to its ’87 predecessor. This 30th anniversary edition of Slip makes the case by including a host of rarities, including a bunch of demos, monitor mixes that are honestly better than the finished tracks and a live recording of this lineup’s killer set at Donnington in 1990.
The Cult, meanwhile, took on 1989 like a bull, proving to their skeptics who couldn’t look beyond their Goth pedigree that they came to America to take over your concert arenas. And on Sonic Temple, they dropped the hammer, coming together with producer Bob Rock to expound upon the T.Rex-cum-AC/DC stomp of 1987’s Rick Rubin-produced Electric and cement their place as the one best pure hard rock groups to emerge from England in the 1980s. Beggars Banquet’s resplendent 30th anniversary expanded edition of Temple comes housed in a hardcover book-style package that runneths over with rarities, including a full disc of singles, remixes and b-sides including the deep fan favorite “The River,” two full CDs of demo recordings and a disc featuring a 1989 performance at Wembley Stadium originally captured for broadcast on the BBC. It’s high time both of these albums got the respect they deserved.
8. Frank Zappa, The Hot Rats Sessions/Halloween 1973 (Zappa/Universal)
We can all wholeheartedly agree that the majority of Frank Zappa’s non-classical music rings many alarms in the climate of today’s callout culture. But unless you’re a pimp named Willie or adverse to a little organus maximus in your rock n’ roll, there really wasn’t much to argue about in terms of 1969’s Hot Rats beyond its place as a groundbreaking work of instrumental music and the continued entangling of jazz and rock. Hailed by some as his greatest work, Zappa’s first proper solo album was every bit the “movie for your ears” the guitarist had envisioned, and this gigantic six-disc collection delivers the full motherlode of sessions surrounding its auspicious creation. However, if you go to Zappa strictly for the offensive material, Halloween 73 is where it’s at. Housed in a Ben Cooper-style Frankenstein costume box (with a mask and fake hands), these two complete back-to-back performances at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago inhabit all of the rudeness and crudeness you’ve come to expect from FZ. Taking place in that sliver of time between the airtight tandem of classic Zappa in 1973’s Over-nite Sensation and 1974’s Apostrophe, not only do you get young renditions of such then-fresh faves as “I’m The Slime” and “Cosmik Debris” but also early stabs at such future fare as “Penguin in Bondage” and “Dickie’s Such An Asshole.” And the band he has with him for these shows — with George Duke on keys, Bruce Fowler on trombone, drummer Ralph Humphrey and Tom Fowler on bass — was undoubtedly the funkiest bunch of Mothers he had assembled before then, and the energy and locked-in rhythms on display here are magnified by this high-end recording. Youngest son Ahmet Zappa and longtime Zappa crypt keeper Joe Travers continue to go above and beyond in keeping the catalog of this great American composer alive and well in the 21st century.
7. The Beatles, Abbey Road: 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition (Apple/Universal)/ The Kinks, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) 50th Anniversary Edition (BMG)
When it comes to the Big 4 bands of British Invasion rock, The Who might have been the only one who gave us new music in 2019 in the form of their absolute best studio album since Who Are You?, entitled WHO. However, in terms of archival releases, the jackpot was hit with two immersive monoliths. The Beatles’ expanded Abbey Road might not have as much as its predecessors in Sgt. Pepper’s and The White Album in terms of bonus material, but the way Giles Martin forensically remastered the original LP brings a new kind of vibrancy to this beloved song cycle, especially in reference to how much the group’s experiments with the Moog synthesizer emerge from the woodwork here.
In terms of audio content, the deluxe 50th anniversary edition of The Kinks’ conceptual masterwork Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) is generous. The mono and stereo editions of Ray Davies’ fantastical story of his brother-in-law moving his sister and their family to Australia are amended with bonus tracks unique to each mix. And though it’s been released as a separate entity in the past, this golden anniversary edition of Arthur also houses The Great Lost Dave Davies Album, which older brother Ray produced when the lead Kink was also working on The Turtles’ critically acclaimed studio swan song Turtle Soup. This Dave solo LP has been one of the most coveted treasures in all of Kink-dom since it began making the rounds on the black market in the ’70s, and is supplemented by nearly double the original track listing with bonus material (mainly mono mixes). The fourth and final disc features 2019 mixes of “Australia” and “Shangri-La,” doo-wop editions of “The Future” and “Arthur” and theatrical versions of album cuts like “My Big Sister” and “Space,” not to mention a soaring rave-up of “Victoria” with the help of the DR Symphony and Vocal Ensemble, who also played a key role on much of Arthur‘s predecessor, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Both sets allow us to revisit these dear old friends in intimate new ways, giving fans the opportunity to discover them all over again.
6. Various Artists, Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records 58th Anniversary (Minky Records)
From Ritchie Valens to Bronx Freestyle to Bad Bunny, Latinos have been a crucial part of the fabric of American pop since the birth of rock n’ roll. This is both a hardcover book and a four-CD set which covers the history of Rampart Records, a label which specialized in Los Angeles Chicano rock between 1961 and 1991, accompanied by in-depth liner notes written by Luis J. Rodriguez and Don Waller. Label founder Eddie Davis, coming off his work in the restaurant business, envisioned the idea of a “Motown for Chicano performers,” and for 30 years, he succeeded in his goal, incubating a varied stable of Latinx artists who coasted along a slipstream of rock, funk, R&B and soul dubbed “the West Coast Eastside Sound.” Among the key acts to discover on Land of 1,000 Dances are The Blendells, Cannibal & the Headhunters (whose 1965 hit version of this collection’s title track was a college party staple and helped land them a spot opening for The Beatles on their U.S. tour), The Four Tempos, The Atlantics, The Invincibles, the Village Callers and Eastside Connection, among many others. Minky Records only pressed 1000 copies of this box for the Black Friday edition of Record Store Day, so time is running out to get a copy at its suggested retail price before they’re gone. And given the importance of Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records 58th Anniversary to the fabric of the music history of Los Angeles, you better act fast.
5. Pink Floyd, The Later Years (Columbia/Legacy Recordings)
Late ’80s Pink Floyd rarely gets its due. But the fact of the matter is that this particular period in the band’s life is their strongest showing during the Reagan-Bush era. 1988’s double live The Delicate Sound of Thunder (still the best official live Floyd album out there) played upon all the strengths of David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Richard Wright as a creative trinity with assistance from an ace ensemble of studio lions that included Robert Palmer bassist Guy Pratt, keyboardist Jon Carin and saxophonist Scott Page to name a few. Though this mammoth of a follow-up to the equally massive 2016 set The Early Years spans the entirety of Floyd’s post Roger Waters period, its righteous focus is on that ’87-90 era of the group’s history, highlighted by remastered versions of both the audio and video of Delicate, the long-bootlegged 1988 concert in Venice, Italy and their triumphant headlining spot at the 1990 Knebworth Festival, all of which display just how powerful this expanded lineup of Pink Floyd were in concert. Meanwhile, the group’s first post-Roger album A Momentary Lapse of Reason has been given a complete makeover by Gilmour in conjunction with longtime Floyd engineer Andy Jackson, with restored contributions from Wright on keyboards and newly recorded drum tracks from Mason that makes this underrated LP sound so much more like a proper Pink Floyd album than its guest-heavy prior incarnation. Lapse is also the only studio LP under the Pink Floyd brand with Gilmour as the primary lyricist before he turned the reins over to his wife, novelist Polly Samson, for 1994’s The Division Bell. Anyone who is a fan of Gilmour’s first two solo albums surely recognize his understated aptitudes as a songwriter, and it’s quite special to see how much of The Later Years pays homage to that period.
4. Nat King Cole, Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) (Resonance Records)
When Nat King Cole made his impression on the modern jazz scene in 1936, he literally changed the way jazz and rhythm & blues was absorbed by the American public. His early music helped soundtrack the hope of the FDR years as our nation was emerging from a crippling Great Depression, and as the U.S. entered World War II. But for far too long, these early sides of Cole and his trio featuring bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore were co-opted by a parade of budget labels who turned the recordings into cheap truck stop fare. But with the help of the Jazz Detective Zev Feldman, the King’s centennial was celebrated in 2019 in the grandest way possible by rescuing these tapes from irresponsible hands and giving them the regal packaging and miraculous remastering they so richly deserve. There’s so much more to Nat King Cole than “The Christmas Song,” and Resonance does the good work of ensuring his young lion years remain an essential part of the American pop fabric.
3. Prince, 1999 Deluxe Edition (Rhino)
When asked by Arsenio Hall about his mythic vault of unreleased music back in 2014, Prince was not prepared to dish on that ace up his sleeve. He also wasn’t expecting to die two years later. And so goes the conundrum of these deluxe reissues of the guitar legend’s classic recordings. As enjoyable and revelatory as they have been to fans, for reasons only known to the Artist himself they were not ready for primetime. Yet with the blessing of the Prince Estate, the reissues of his Warner Bros. catalog persevere, and they only seem to get better. 1999 was Prince’s first statement in full color, showing the auteur skate between new wave and R&B with seamless panache. This deluxe edition of the 1982 double album masterpiece is far chunkier than Purple Rain from 2017, but no less generous in its output of rarities to accompany the finely remastered original tracks, including all the b-sides and promo mixes on one CD, two discs of unreleased vault gems including songs meant for the storied, scrapped Dream Factory LP and live concerts from Detroit and Houston. Given how guarded Prince was of his vault, it’s an indulgence to hear it all like this. But perhaps one would like to think of it more in a Willy Wonka fashion, where it was to be the will of the creator to see it all seed out into the universe after he’s gone so his name will continue to resonate for generations to come.
2. Bob Dylan, The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings/Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (Legacy Recordings)
This was a banner year for the Bob Dylan archives, as two of the most wished upon collections finally came to retail in 2019. Coinciding with Martin Scorsese’s brilliant, bizarre documentary on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975 was this 14-disc cube containing no less than four complete performances from Dylan and his caravan of revelers that included T-Bone Burnett, Joni Mitchell, Ronee Blakley, Bobby Neuwirth, Mick Ronson, Scarlet Rivera and Allen Ginsberg with guest appearances by Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn. These shows, particularly the afternoon show at Boston Music Hall, are peak live Bob, as Dylan — hiding behind a sloppy mask of white clown facepaint — exhibits a sense of animated reverie he rarely displays onstage, with this incredible band just choogling behind his every whim. Then, for the 15th entry in the long-running Bob Dylan Bootleg Series we finally got the Johnny Cash sessions, easily one of the most requested titles in the collection’s history. And not only does Travelin’ Thru contain those storied jams between two titans of Columbia Records in a vastly improved fidelity than the garbage copy you scored off BitTorrent in 2002, we get this trove of unreleased material from Dylan’s work in Nashville with producer Bob Johnston. Alternate takes from both John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline are accompanied by a pair of scorching Johnny Cash covers featuring a young Charlie Daniels plus a 1970 front porch jam session with Earl Scruggs in Carmel, NY. Yeah, Travelin’ Thru isn’t as meaty as the last four volumes of the Bootleg Series, but in the context of Dylan’s career it’s one of the most important ones.
1. Various Artists, Motown: The Complete No. 1’s (Universal)
When it comes to the creation of a classic box set, design and presentation is just as important as sonic content for the serious collector. So when you look at this 11-CD anthology of every song Motown USA enjoyed on the Billboard Charts — especially from the perspective of someone who loves Christmas villages in addition to music — this thing is a dream come true. It’s a to-scale replica of the house on West Grand Boulevard where Berry Gordy built his empire of soul, and it will automatically earn a key spot on your top shelf of boxes, no doubt. If the art direction team of Vartan, Hugh Brown and Michele Horie don’t get nominated for a Grammy in 2020 that would be a serious oversight. However, don’t shelve it until you gut it. Produced by Harry Weinger and his team at Universal, this collection was made to be played loud — it all sounds so crisp and clear and tailor made for high volume. From Motown’s first No. 1 with The Miracles’ 1960 smash “Shop Around” to their last with Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” in 2000 (both on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart), each disc runs through every era of Motown, a label so synonymous with shapeshifting with the times that it feels like you are on a voyage through five decades of pop music history. The first three discs alone play better than any other early Motown compilation that’s ever been slapped together, just a nonstop parade of Temptations, Supremes, Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and back to the Temptations. But if you’re on that early-to-mid-80s vibe that many of us have been living in during these Stranger Things days, disc 9 will soon be a permanent fixture to your heavy rotation, packed with favorites like Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover,” El DeBarge “Who’s Johnny,” “Dancing On The Ceiling” by Lionel Richie and deeper hits like “Dial My Heart” by the L.A. Reid/Babyface startup The Boys and Guinn’s “Dreamin’,” which would be taken to No. 1 (on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) in 1989 by Vanessa Williams.
Meanwhile, discs 6 and 7 will have heads second guessing whether it was the Motor City, not Philly, that was the capital of the hottest disco music of the 1970s, especially on the strength of such trifectas as “Love Machine” going into “Love Hangover” and then into “I Want You.” The Dusty Grooves set will no doubt hang out on disc 5 quite a bit with all the funkiest hits from Stevie, The Commodores, Diana and The Temptations, both as a group and as solo artists with “Boogie Down” from Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin’s lush “Walk Away From Love.” As Smokey Robinson wrote in his introductory liner notes to Motown: The Complete No. 1’s, “We bombarded the world with hit records.” Truer words were never written when it comes to Motown’s history of chart success, which makes this box so essential to the library of any music fan who still cares about tangibility.