Music fans starved for sonic entertainment in lieu of live events can turn to box sets. There are a number of career-spanning and deluxe-album collections on the market. The only issue is where to begin since there are so many choices. Here are four of the year’s best:
The Replacements, ‘Pleased to Meet Me’ (Rhino)
One of rock’s most underappreciated band’s has given its most underappreciated album the box set treatment. Warner Bros. had high hopes for the Replacements’ second major label album. The corporation hoped the Mats would follow label mates R.E.M. to platinum status. However, it wasn’t going to happen since the Replacements couldn’t handle success.
In the age of music reality-TV competitions such as “American Idol” and “The Voice,” in which fame is its own kind of currency, it’s difficult for many to fathom a band that was repulsed by stardom. Nirvana might be famous for its reluctance to succeed, but the Replacements made an art form out of avoiding success.
“One foot in the door / The other one in the gutter / The sweet smell you adore / I think I’d rather smother,” singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg sneered during the incendiary “I Don’t Know.”
It’s obvious how Westerberg, who was the Dave Chappelle of the ‘80s, felt. Westerberg, who is arguably the greatest rock songwriter of the Reagan era, did everything his way.
That was even more so during the production of “Pleased to Meet Me.”
With guitarist Bob Stinson, who was so wild that he was kicked out of the Replacements (which featured his little brother, Tommy Stinson, on bass) due to his never-ending debauchery, Westerberg played nearly all the guitar parts.
“Pleased to Meet Me” combines uncompromising punk and the glitz of pop, which was harnessed by producer Jim Dickinson. There’s the harrowing teen suicide rocker “The Ledge,” the visceral album opening gem “I.O.U,” the quirky and jazzy “Nightclub Jitters,” the gorgeous ballad “Skyway” and “Alex Chilton,” Westerberg’s anthemic tip of the cap to his idol, the aforementioned Chilton of Big Star.
How the latter tune didn’t become a hit is a mystery, but Westerberg had a hand in self-sabotage. While touring behind “Pleased to Meet Me” in 1987, Westerberg and his bandmates were routinely blotto.
In a ’90s interview, I told Westerberg that when I was smashed into the stage in front of him during the “Pleased to Meet Me” tour, he tossed a dollar and change, which I caught while he was smashed onstage. I told him that I thought it was some form of refund since the Mats were hardly in shape to walk, let alone perform.
The “Pleased to Meet Me” tracks not only hold up, there’s a number of keepers in the outtake file. The fitting “Trouble on the Way” and Tommy Stinson’s “Hey Shadow” are well worth a listen.
Warner Bros. was disappointed that 300,000 copies sold, but considering the Replacements did all that was imaginable to undermine themselves, it’s impressive the album almost went gold. It’s a fine way to introduce yourself to one of the most unsung bands in rock history, and it’s a great reintroduction for fans.
“Pleased to Meet Me,” three CDs and one album, $38.59 on Amazon. The three-album set features 17 tracks on disc one, the “Pleased to Meet Me” remaster, 15 tracks on the demo disc and 23 songs on the third disc, which is comprised of rough mixes, alternative versions and outtakes.
Tom Petty, ‘Wildflowers & All the Rest’ (Warner Bros.)
Petty was one of the most consistent songwriters for a quarter century. The laidback icon broke in 1976 with two of his biggest hits, “American Girl” and “Breakdown.” Each was part of a precise and powerful period by Petty.
However, in 1994, Petty recorded “Wildflowers,” a looser and at times messy album that is one of the best if not the finest of his storied career. As time passed, it became evident that “Wildflowers” is one of those all-time classic albums. Just before his death in 2017, Petty talked about a reissue and tour behind “Wildflowers.”
The former came to fruition, and it’s essential for any Petty fan. The only sin Petty committed, according to his label, Warner Bros., is that the album was too long. Only 15 of the 23 tracks were part of the original release.
A number of those tracks became staples in Petty’s sets, such as “You Wreck Me,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the title track. Petty hit his nadir while writing “Wildflowers” since his marriage to his first wife, Jane, was falling apart.
Petty’s problems provided grist for his art. All of his “Wildflower” songs finally see the light of day thanks to his bandmates and family who curated the project. The 10-song set of outtakes is evidence of how Petty was on top of his game. There also are live versions and alternate takes.
It’s evident that Petty, who would have turned 70 in October, was a brilliant rock writer, who said so much in so few words, particularly throughout “Wildflowers.”
“Wildflowers,” seven-album vinyl, $152.47 on Amazon, CD, $56.30 on Amazon. “Wildflowers” album, 15 tracks, “And All The Rest” album, 10 tracks, “Home Recordings,” 15 tracks, “Wildflowers Live,” 14 tracks and “Alternative Versions,” 16 songs.
Wilco, ‘Summerteeth’ (Rhino)
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy picked up the baton from Petty and has been remarkably consistent since the release of Wilco’s 1995 debut album, “A.M.” 1999’s “Summerteeth” abandoned Wilco’s alt-country as Wilco morphed. Quirky pop and dark rock were offered throughout the Chicago-based band’s third album.
Wilco has always been Tweedy’s band, but Jay Bennett made a huge impact with “Summerteeth.” Bennett, who had been the band’s guitarist, experimented with keyboards, and the results were wildly successful.
The bouncy “I’m Always in Love” and the catchy “Candyfloss” were propelled by Bennett. Tweedy’s lyrical details (“The ashtray says you were up all night” from “A Shot in the Arm.”) help make songs such as “Via Chicago” and “How to Fight Loneliness” so memorable.
There’s a fine line between joy and depression throughout “Summerteeth.” Tweedy expertly walks that line and easily veers from exuberance to alienation. Some of the most hook-laden Wilco songs drive “Summerteeth,” and some of the most depressing are housed on the group’s finest album. The lo-fi bonus tracks with alternate lyrics are for ardent fans.
“Summerteeth,” five-album, four-CD box set, $90.86 on Amazon. Tracklist: Original album, 16 songs, outtakes and demos, 24 songs, live, Tower Records, 9 songs, Live from Boulder Theater, 24 songs.
Dire Straits, ‘The Studio Albums: 1978-1991’ (Rhino)
Fans forget how great Dire Straits was at its peak. “There really was no band quite like Dire Straits,” singer-songwriter and guitarist Vince Gill said during an interview from Nashville. “They were amazing.”
Gill would know since Dire Straits singer-songwriter Mark Knopfler offered the then-fledgling Oklahoma-based songsmith a slot as guitarist with the British band. “It was one of the hardest decisions of my career,” Gill said. “If I joined Dire Straits, I would have had security in a great band, but I may never have gone solo. It was tempting. Dire Straits is so unique.”
Knopfler combined progressive rock and country. The unlikely mix worked well. Knopfler penned provocative narratives and earned guitar hero status. The vinyl reissue of each of the band’s six studio albums is a welcome stroll down memory lane.
The hits, such as the hook-laden breakthrough track “Sultan of Swing,” the amusing and catchy “Money for Nothing” and the jaunty “Walk of Life,” sound crisper.
Dire Straits’ brilliance is evident throughout 1980’s “Making Movies.”
The band hired producer Jimmy Iovine, who was behind the board for Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Iovine added muscle and helped craft the standout “Solid Rock.” The gorgeous “Romeo and Juliet” is a stunner. And then there is the coda to “Tunnel of Love,” which is so moving.
After a spin of the eponymous 1978 album “Making Movies” and 1985’s “Brothers in Arms,” you’re reminded how spectacular Dire Straits was during its prime.
It’s a better way to remember them than the band’s swan song, its regrettable 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in which Knopfler failed to show up, and no one inducted Dire Straits.
The band, which sold more than 100 million albums and won four Grammy Awards, added to the sonic lexicon. The stylish box set is a reminder that Dire Straits released two of the finest albums of the ‘80s and still sounds relevant today.
“Dire Straits: The Studio Albums: 1978-1991,” $143.99, on Amazon, six studio albums.
Ed Condran can be reached at (509) 459-5440 or at email@example.com.