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The Best Box Sets of 2020

Here are the year’s best archival deep dives

Photographs used in illustration by Getty Images, 2; AP

We certainly have more time than usual to drill down and rediscover works by great artists, and 2020 offered a treasure trove of options, including expanded editions of classics by Prince and Tom Petty, rich overviews of Bob Marley, John Prine, and Richard and Linda Thompson, and much more.

From Rolling Stone US

John Lennon, ‘Gimme Some Truth. The Ultimate Mixes’

To celebrate what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday, his family released Gimme Some Truth. The Ultimate Mixes in the fall — a stunning 36-song collection of the late Beatles’ solo catalog. Featuring newly remixed songs from the master tapes, highlights include the searing title track, the sleek “Steel and Glass,” and the groovy “I’m Losing You” — as well as beloved tunes like “God” and “Watching the Wheels.” A copy of Lennon’s letter to Queen Elizabeth II, famously returning his MBE recognition, is just one of the many nuggets included in the deluxe edition. “It’s been a really tough year for everybody,” Sean Ono Lennon, who produced the box set, told Rolling Stone. “It’s been genuinely therapeutic to have a reason to reinvestigate all the music and listen to it and really think about it. It’s given me an opportunity to look back at my life and look at my dad’s work in a way that I don’t always have to.” A.M.(FIND IT HERE)

Def Leppard, ‘The Early Years 79-81’

Before Def Leppard became hair-metal poster boys, they led England’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal with tough riffs and songs about getting wasted on a Saturday night (much to Tipper Gore’s dismay). Their biggest hits from the era were “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” which Mariah Carey butchered years later, and “Let It Go,” which barely cracked the Top 40 rock songs in 1981. Within a year, they’d have a Number One with “Photograph,” and most of the songs from their first two albums, On Through the Night and High ‘n’ Dry, slipped from their set lists. The Early Years finally gives the era its due by anthologizing those two LPs, and includes a surprisingly crisp-sounding live album from 1980, some essential B sides and rarities (including the Def Leppard EP), and the band’s BBC sessions from 1979 and 1980. K.G.(FIND IT HERE)

Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup’

Goats Head Soup didn’t — and still doesn’t — sound like what one would have expected from the Stones after Exile on Mainstreet. After 10 years of recording, touring, and the accompanying excess, the Stones sounded burnt out, regretful, melancholic, even at times vulnerable — in other words like human beings, not invincible rock gods. The alternate mixes of some Goats Head songs don’t add terribly much, but the same can’t be said of an instrumental jam on “Dancing with Mr. D,” which lets you eavesdrop as the band locks into a groove without Jagger, and the outtake “Scarlet” is messier than the comparatively clean rockers that made it onto Goats Head Soup (credit Jimmy Page, riffing away in the background). Also included is the widely bootlegged The Brussels Affair; on what would be their final tour with Mick Taylor, the Stones sound wired and hopped up. D.B.(FIND IT HERE)

Tom Petty, ‘Wildflowers & All the Rest’

Knowing that we should always trust Petty’s artistic vision is, nevertheless, one of the foremost takeaways from the sprawling five-CD expanded Wildflowers & All The Rest, an immaculately curated version of his original plan to make a double album (an idea that his label, Warner Bros., shot down for a variety of reasons), plus several extra albums worth of outtakes, live performances, and home recordings. The collection of songs that would have comprised the second album of Wildflowers is the most revealing: long-shelved tracks like the fingerpicked “Harry Green,” or the dreamy midtempo “Something Could Happen,” or the expansive power ballad “Somewhere Under Heaven” further expand the vastness of the palette Petty was working with when he began recording the album in 1992, making the original album’s varied-yet-cohesive texture feel all the more impressive. J.B.(FIND IT HERE)

Iggy Pop, ‘The Bowie Years’

David Bowie was Iggy Pop’s greatest champion, producing the Stooges’ Raw Power and visiting Pop in a mental institution in the mid-Seventies, as the head Stooge struggled with drug addiction. They later moved together to Berlin, where Bowie produced and helped write Pop’s unwieldy first two solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life, which both came out in 1977. Pop sounded rejuvenated on songs like “China Girl” and “Tonight” (both later covered by Bowie), and his electrifying performances on the tours that followed those albums, with Bowie on keys, solidified his icon status. This box set collects those two albums, Pop’s forgotten-classic live record TV Eye, a disc of demos and rarities, and three previously unreleased bootleg live albums recorded in March 1977, on which you can hear Pop building his own legend. K.G.(FIND IT HERE)

Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘Hard Luck Stories 1972-1982’

When it comes to preternaturally wise and timeless British folk rock, there simply isn’t a better consecutive string of albums than the Thompsons’ I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974), Hokey Pokey (1974), and Pour Down Like Silver (1975). Each blend Richard’s often dark, Dickensian songwriting, Linda’s plaintive voice, and arrangements that blend ye-olde Brit-folk instruments with rock & roll electricity. These eight discs include those albums and the couple’s other three, ending in their cathartic finale, Shoot Out the Lights. The box also crams in a small cache of rarities: Linda’s unreleased vocal on “End of the Rainbow” (sung in final form by Richard), a disc of live 1975-77 material, and remnants from the long-out-of-print covers album by the Thompsons and peers like the late, great Sandy Denny (the Bunch’s Rock On). Richard has gone on to make many worthy albums since the couple’s dissolution, but these are the building blocks of his enduring castle. D.B.(FIND IT HERE)

Joni Mitchell, ‘Archives – Volume One: The Early Years (1963-1967)’

The Early Years (1963-1967) — a collection of folk-club tapes, radio broadcasts, and homemade demos from Mitchell’s pre-recording-artist years — is the first archival excavation from the iconic singer-songwriter’s vaults. The story rolled out here adheres to a long-established narrative arc for her generation of singer-songwriters. Dating back at least to Bob Dylan, the fledgling balladeer starts his or her career singing traditional folk tunes and covers in bars or coffeehouses; inevitably, he or she begins writing original songs, gradually revealing a sensibility of his or her own and leaving the folk oldies behind (but never straying entirely from those roots, either). But even when Mitchell is covering Woody Guthrie, the message is clear: I am not the typical folkie. Pretty soon, she’s introducing the prematurely rueful “Both Sides Now,” the swooping, joyous “Night in the City,” and an abandoned song about a romantic rendezvous, “Eastern Rain.”  By the end of the set, the fully formed Mitchell has arrived. D.B.(FIND IT HERE)

The Replacements, ‘Pleased to Meet Me (Deluxe Edition)’

Pleased to Meet Me was the sound of the Replacements trying for once. This new box set shows how the album could have been even better. They lost some of their danger, recording the very produced LP as a trio with a supporting cast of thousands, yet still managed to cough up two all-time classics — the beat-skipping “Alex Chilton,” on which you can hear Paul Westerberg exuberantly catching his breath, and the mellow love letter “Can’t Hardly Wait.” The Replacements recorded a lot of music around Pleased to Meet Me, much of which came out on various singles and compilations, as well as demos, alternate versions of songs, and tunes that for whatever reason were forgotten in the back of the beer fridge. The most interesting stuff here is in the Blackberry Way Demos, some of which came out on a previous expanded edition of the album. Eight of the tracks feature some of lead guitarist Bob Stinson’s last recordings with the band, and his whiplash snarls on “I.O.U.,” rockabilly shredding on “Time Is Killing Us,” and tasteful accents on “Valentine” show what the album could have been. K.G.(FIND IT HERE)

Pylon, ‘Pylon Box’

Pylon came out of the small college town of Athens, Georgia, at the dawn of the Eighties, playing a new kind of Southern rock that influenced bands from R.E.M. to Sleater-Kinney at the time, and has continued to make converts ever since. Spare but fun, disorientating but inviting, their sound was in step with the stentorian dance punk of U.K. bands like Gang of Four and the Au Pairs, but much more wide-open. Containing the band’s two early-Eighties albums (1980’s Gyrate and 1983’s Chomp), a recording of a 1979 rehearsal, and a singles/demos/outtakes disc, Pylon Box tells the story of art-student refugees living in the middle of nowhere who used their very remoteness to create freedom and invention out of unique and, in some ways, contradictory impulses. It’s exactly the deep dive their incredible legacy deserves. J.D.(FIND IT HERE)

Neil Young, ‘Archives Volume II (1972-1976)’

As soon as the pandemic hit and musicians couldn’t tour, Young spent his time churning out archival releases, from the excellent lost 1975 album Homegrown to Return to Greendale. He capped his productive year off with the long-awaited Archives Volume II (1972-1976), more than a decade after its predecessor. These 10 discs offer a stunning look back at his prolific peak, when he was releasing music faster than his label could keep up with. There are 12 previously unreleased gems, from “L.A. Girls and Ocean Boys” to “Greensleeves.” Some of the highlights include Young covering a few seconds of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” Stephen Stills joining him on a “Separate Ways” jam, and Young backing Joni Mitchell on “Raised on Robbery.” If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that not even a pandemic could stop Young from delivering to fans. A.M.(FIND IT HERE)

Prince, ‘Sign O’ the Times (Super Deluxe Edition)’

Prince’s 1987 double album was an eclectic funk-pop-rock-R&B-gospel-novelty hodgepodge of songs about love, sex, and Jesus that ended up being a masterpiece. It seems like even more of an achievement after sifting through the nearly four hours of previously unreleased tracks like “Love and Sex” on Sign’s super-deluxe reissue. He had no singular vision at the time: He was recording songs for a double LP called Dream Factory; a triple LP titled Crystal Ball; a novelty side project where he sped up his voice like a Chipmunk and called himself Camille; a stage musical he wisely abandoned; a project for Bonnie Raitt; a collaboration with Miles Davis; and on and on. It’s impossible to trace his thought process, which makes it all the more exciting to find the diamonds he left in the vault. K.G.(FIND IT HERE)

Paul McCartney, ‘Flaming Pie: Deluxe Edition’

In the mid-Nineties, McCartney revisited his Beatles years for the Anthology doc, got knighted, and hosted a freewheeling radio show, Oobu Joobu. Those experiences put him in an excellent frame of mind for whipping up 1997’s Flaming Pie, a sturdy George Martin-produced potpourri of rockers, ballads, and jams, including high-water marks like the gloriously soppy “Beautiful Night,” and the John Lennon-inspired title track. McCartney puts Flaming Pie under a microscope on the super-deluxe reissue with home recordings, studio run-throughs, outtakes, and a whole lot of Oobu Joobu. His home demos are sparse and intimate, but what pulls it all together are the inclusions of excerpts from the radio shows and a one-hour documentary guided tour of his home studio. It’s a box set where the extra pieces really help complete the puzzle. K.G.(FIND IT HERE)

Elton John, ‘Jewel Box’

Elton already has one career-spanning box set behind him, the out-of-print To Be Continued…, but Jewel Box goes out of its way to be a very different beast. Its eight discs include a substantial chunk of unheard early material, but they sit alongside an even bigger batch of songs that have already been released in one form or another, either on albums or singles. Jewel Box doesn’t just clean out the closet but the whole house. The jewels of the box are those pre-fame recordings from the late Sixties, which take up three discs. As a psychological study, Jewel Box is fascinating; it’s Elton imagining an alternate universe in which “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket,” and not “The Bitch Is Back,” is his most beloved rocker, or “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” tops “Crocodile Rock” as a crowd-pleasing jaunty rocker. D.B.(FIND IT HERE)

Bob Marley, ‘The Complete Island Recordings’

To commemorate Marley’s 75th birthday, the reggae legend’s entire catalog in getting a deluxe reissue on CD and vinyl half-speed remasterings. Beginning with classic Wailers albums like Catch a Fire and Burnin’, both from 1973, which brought Marley’s music to a large international audience, and moving through Seventies gems like Exodus and Natty Dread up to the final recordings before his death, 1980’s Uprising, and the posthumous Confrontation, Marley created one of the most peerlessly influential catalogs in pop music. This reissue series includes his mega-platinum greatest-hits album Legend, as well as the live sets Live! and Babylon by Bus. In early 2021, a limited edition run of Marley’s albums, pressed and numbered at Tuff Gong International headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, will also be available; included in that batch will be the original Jamaican version of Catch a Fire. J.D.  (FIND IT HERE)