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2010: Classic Rock Record Collector's Year In Review

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It was an interesting year for fans of the old guard. As time passes, our beloved dinosaurs are being forced to adapt or die, in an environment in which their only property of value - material recorded a long time ago - is no longer so easy to sell for a profit. They have responded by creating box-set packages large and gaudy enough to appear to be worth something. Most of them are loading up not with hours of unheard music, but elaborate booklets and perhaps a vinyl copy you may or may not need, ratcheting up the price without adding much musical content. Used to be if you spent $75 or more on a box set, you had a full week’s worth of listening ahead of you. Now, you may just have the same admittedly classic material in a couple of formats, a handful of extra music, and maybe a smidgen of of video content that’s likely to end up being broadcast on VH1 anyway. Buyers are encouraged to use discretion before spending large in the current climate.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this new form of marketing came with the Rolling Stones’ multiple re-releases of the 1972 album Exile on Main Street. Most people would opt for the standard, two-disc setcontaining the remastered original album plus bonus tracks for around $25. But heavy collectors who wanted to go the extra mile had to plunk down eighty bucks more for the super-deluxe edition, which adds double vinyl, an extra- nice book, and a thirty-minute DVD containing roughly ten minutes of footage from Robert Frank’s C---sucker Blues and brief excerpts of some other commonly available material. That extra $80 is a hell of a premium for an enlarged book, half an hour of video, most of which can be purchased separately in complete form, and vinyl that’s going to sit unplayed on a lot of shelves.

Fortunately, cheapskates satisfied with their current copy of Exile could also buy a $10 single disc at Target containing only the newly released bonus tracks, which was the route I took, and the one I recommend, provided you already own the original. While the Exile outtakes that were recently completed with new vocals and lyrics from Mick Jagger are no more special than what can be found on any Stones album of the last thirty years, it was worth ten bucks just for the handful of completed tracks from the 1972 sessions, including a greasy, four-in-the-morning take on “Loving Cup” that outperforms the official version. More great stuff from those years is known to exist, and will probably surface on the next overpriced Exile reissue; part of the problem with justifying the expense for a fancy Stones edition is the knowledge that they’re still skimping on the goods, waiting for the chance to sell you another heavily cut bag on the next go-round. Time remains on their side.

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The Stones fan’s biggest bang for the buck this year came in the form of the DVD release of the 1972 feature film Ladies And Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, capturing a nearly-complete concert from the ’72 tour. While the camera’s obsessive focus on Sir Mick becomes annoying at times, it’s easily the best document available of what a fearsome live band they were, far superior to the choppy Gimme Shelter, the artsy, not-really-about-the-Stones C---sucker Blues, or any of the dozen films they've made since Mick Taylor’s departure.

One of the jazz albums most often owned by sixties-rockers, Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew would seem to have been covered rather completely with the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions package a few years ago. The modestly priced 40th Anniversary standard set takes a different approach, combining a fab sounding transfer of the original double album’s ninety-four minutes with some alternate tracks and amusing seven-inch edits that trim the sprawling LP cuts to three minutes each (Miles circa ’69 was not really a singles act), and tosses in a DVD of a phenomenal seventy-minute performance from Copenhagen in fall of 1969, after the album was recorded but prior to its release. The live set is illuminating, revealing the elemental themes at the heart of the seemingly formless jams on the LP while shooting them into entirely new territory.

Rabid fans might be tempted to spring for the Super Deluxe set, adding a double vinyl pressing of the LP and an expanded book, along with an audio CD with a performance from a slightly altered lineup of the Davis band from Tanglewood Music Shed in Massachusetts from summer of 1970. Again, it’s about an eighty dollar jump for basically an hour of live material plus the records. And again, the standard edition is probably going to be sufficient for most peoples’ purposes. If you must hear the Tanglewood show - which is pretty great - head over to Wolfgang’s Vault and listen for free.

The Who’s Live At Leeds has no problem living up to its own reputation as one of the most essential live albums ever recorded. However, it’s also earned a reputation as one of the most-reissued albums of all times, and some fans are getting testy. “I’ve already bought this album four times!” say the lightweights - this reviewer owns no less than eleven copies of Leeds, official and otherwise. Many in the fan camp have griped for years about the mastering quality and unnecessary vocal fixes by a later-generation Daltrey on the 2002 Deluxe Edition, the only official release to include the complete Tommy set at the heart of the show. This box re-uses the 2002 master, so the core material is no improvement - a crying shame given the steep asking price, and the sincere demand for a correction.

But the kind of Who fan that spends time with bootlegs will be unable to sleep at night without owning the bonus material, a full set from the following night in Hull. Not every band can stuff a live album package with another live album, containing the exact same songs, played one night apart, and make it more essential than it was before. But this is the Who, at their absolute prime, and even compared to the totemic Leeds performance, the Hull show has much in its favor. It’s one of Keith Moon’s finest recorded moments and contains some of the tightest three-part harmony singing you’ll ever hear the band do. Due to a technical flaw, John Entwistle’s bass parts had to be flown in from the Leeds masters for the first four songs - leading to some fans referring to the set as “Magic Bass” - but the fix is barely noticeable, and his playing on the remaining hour and a half is tremendous.

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The original six-song Leeds set in its old mix on 200-gram vinyl, crackling noises and backwards guitar on “Magic Bus” intact, and an LP-sized booklet are included. Listed at $80, it’s overpriced, and no cheapskate version of the Hull set alone is available, except via download. Only superfans are going to get a cost-benefit return, but the quality of the new content is high enough that they’re not likely to regret it.

Jimi Hendrix recorded a lot in his short life - any attempt to put together a “complete recordings” collection - every take, mono and stereo mixes and professionally recorded live shows - would require enough CDs to recreate the years 1966-70 in real time. West Coast Seattle Boy (Experience Hendrix/ Legacy Recordings) is instead a quick dip through the archives, offering a disc’s worth of his early session work on the Chitlin Circuit (including some truly amazing recordings with the Isley Bros. and Don Covay), and then three discs worth of his own recordings, including alternate studio and live versions of familiar tunes as well as some things even boot collectors haven’t heard before. The ripping Axis outtake “Mr. Bad Luck” exposes the link between “Purple Haze” and the Coasters, while the instrumental tracking session for “Are You Experienced?” gives a rare opportunity to hear the skeleton of the song without its assertively psychedelicized overdubs. The stunning acoustic performance “Suddenly November Morning” that closes the set, a glimpse of the tapes known as Black Gold, much talked about but never heard before, gives notice that they’re not anywhere near done plumbing the vaults yet.

Plenty of arguments could be made about what could and should have been included here at the expense of marginally interesting bits like Band of Gypsys’ awkward, lead-footed attempt at “Fire” or the guitar-and-drum instrumental version of “Castles Made Of Sand.” But even the set’s minor moments have their pleasures, and its major moments are extremely major. The accompanying DVD documentary is excellent, featuring the words of Hendrix as read by Bootsy Collins, and using period footage, letters home and press interviews to trace the steps of his career. Considering how many documentaries have been made about the man, this felt like a fresh and revealing take.

It’s kind of amazing to think there’s never been a comprehensive Michael Jackson video collection prior to the three-disc Michael Jackson’s Vision, but here we are. Spending an hour with Jackson’s eighties output is actually tiring - the sheer amount of information in those videos is a lot to process. The number of ideas, the number of songs you know by heart without ever having owned a copy of them, the number of iconic images, combined with the recovered memory of where you were the first time you saw and heard them, becomes overwhelming. If you have room in your life for one Michael Jackson product, this is probably the one to get.

And finally, here are some new albums by old people that still have some life in them…

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Leave it to Neil Young to explore new ground in his fifth decade as a professional entertainer. Le Noise (Warner Bros.) is one of only two true Young solo albums, its lone predecessor being the instrumental soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s existential western Dead Man. Aside from a couple of ethereal acoustic moments, Young fills the personnel gap by cranking it up, playing electric guitar and screaming lyrics through digital delays that send his riffs back at him, creating a dense swirl of sound that resembles the inside of a long tunnel, as the feedback loop threatens to overcome the signal. Song-wise, it’s his best in a while, and while it seems kind of perverse that he’d release what sounds like a great Crazy Horse album without those guys even on it, bless him for continuing to make an effort, to put a record that is, actually, different from all of his others without alienating.

Richard Thompson, like Elvis Costello, is one of those hardworking guys that can be easy to take for granted after a while, even when they rise to a moment of inspiration. Dream Attic(Shout! Factory) isn’t structurally much different from Thompson’s other recent efforts, but for reasons hard to poinpoint, it feels like his most satisfying since Mock Tudor. Thompson’s best songs are born sounding ancient, like emotions people have been having for thousands of years. It’s nice to report that once again, forty minutes with him is once again time well spent.

At first, word of Bryan Ferry’s Olympia (EMI) brought inevitable disappointment. So this is what we get out of the supposed Eno-era Roxy Music reunion: a handful of tracks with various combinations of Roxy personnel alongside guests like Flea and David Gilmour, all at Ferry’s command. While the final product does still feel like a Ferry solo album, it sounds like a particularly good one, good tunes under his unmistakable voice. “Song To The Siren,” the song with the largest Roxy contingent, is an obvious higlight, but “Me Oh My” also stands out as one of his most lovely and affecting moments to date.

Finally, Carlos Santana’s Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics Of All Time (Epic) deserves special mention as the worst classic rock moment of 2010. It gives me no special pleasure to bash the Great Carlos, who no doubt had his moments back in the day. But man, if you’re going to cash the checks after enlisting Gavin Rossdale from Bush to find the one, isolated moment of agony and despair in “Get It On (Band A Gong)” so he can worry it to death - incidentally the moment occurs with the lyric “You got the teeth of the hydra upon you” - then you’re fair game. Guitar Heaven sounds like a horrible concept to begin with - marry the track list to Freedom Rock (As Seen on TV) with the truly great singers of today like Rob Thomas, Jacoby Shaddix and Scott Jesus H. Christ Stapp, with accompaniment from Carlos and his band at their most unmusically ham-fisted. But the execution is more mind-blowingly, skull-crushingly deadening than my cynical, black little heart dared to fear. Before hearing it I had marginal hopes for the weirdest collaborations, but Nas on “Back In Black” is just awful, and India.Arie with Yo-Yo Ma dutifully sawing beside her can’t do anything to “My Guitar Gently Weeps” that Carlos and his henchmen can’t nail to the wall, puntuating every phrase with another cliched widdly noodle. Worst of all is the auto-tuned, beat-detected and compressed-to-shit digital production which makes everything sound like a very special episode of Glee, rendering even Joe Cocker’s valiant attempt to save “Little Wing” utterly useless. It’s enough to make you wish that we the people got to attend those meetings with Clive Davis and his advisors, since we’re the ones that have to pay for their mistakes.