x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Boxsets of the year

Our pick of some of the best boxset special editions and re-releases out this year includes David Bowie, REM and The Cure.

Even if you're always on top of the newest music releases, the current glut of boxsets can provide an opportunity to explore the back catalogues of favourite artists - and the best offerings are not only remastered but include rarities such as B-sides and demos that can make you rethink whole careers.

Fables of the Reconstruction - REM (Capitol)

REM's third album, originally released in 1985, was for many years regarded as the black sheep of the band's early catalogue, unloved by the group and attracting few of the critical plaudits that routinely rain down on classics such as Murmur and Lifes Rich Pageant. There are no great revelations on this 25th-anniversary reissue, but it does serve as a timely reminder of what a truly wonderful record Fables of the Reconstruction is, perhaps the most mysterious and evocative album the band have ever made. Recorded long before major label, stadia-filling status stripped much of the magic from REM's aura, Fables is suffused with the strange mystique of small-town southern America, the songs filled with the sound of trains, minor key melancholy, oddball characters and the sweet ache of home, not to mention the angular beauty of Feeling Gravity's Pull, one of their greatest songs. Fleshed out with an additional CD of original demos, the only genuine rarity on offer is Throw Those Trolls Away, an early version of I Believe, but bemoaning the lack of lost treasure is to miss the point. Beauty of this nature is rare in itself.

Station to Station - David Bowie (EMI)

This lavish revamp of Bowie's 1976 classic initially felt as though the record industry had taken to ludicrous extremes its determination to squeeze every last drop of profit from archive material. The Deluxe Edition somehow succeeded in transforming the original six-song record into a five-CD behemoth, with the frankly unnecessary additions of the 1985 CD master and an EP of "single edits" of five of the tracks. The less obsessive three-disc Special Edition, however, is a joy. It comprises a new Dolby 5.1 mix of Station to Station and a double CD of Bowie's much-bootlegged March 1976 concert from Nassau Colisseum, a superbly dramatic merging of his chilly new euro-soul direction and old favourites such as Suffragette City and Life on Mars, with an occasionally berserk reinvention (Changes barely survives its experimental makeover) thrown in for good measure. It all looks and sounds wonderful but, much like Bruce Springsteen's over-rated The Promise, the irony is that the primary achievement of this lovingly restored artefact is to make the listener appreciate all the more keenly the austere, focused majesty of the original release.

Sandy Denny - Sandy Denny (Universal)

Consisting of 316 tracks spread over 19 CDs, Sandy Denny offers more than 21 hours of music: that's almost a day of Denny. Clearly, this vast box-set isn't for the faint-hearted, but it cements once and for all Denny's position as not only one of Britain's most wonderfully expressive folk voices, but also her gifts as a songwriter and a highly creative interpreter, as well as a versatile musician. Eleven discs cover previously released work, from her earliest recordings with Alex Campbell, Johnny Silvo, and the Strawbs, through to Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and her solo albums, with new content - out-takes, TV and radio recordings - running right up until her untimely death in 1978. Then there's a further eight discs of bonus material, much of it previously unreleased, comprising solo home demos, an entire 1974 concert with Fairport Convention, and her over-produced final album, Rendezvous, stripped of many of its original gaudy, unnecessary overdubs. The result is a career-defining box that doesn't merely cover old ground but forges into new territory, establishing Denny as an effervescent talent who had so much more to give.

Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends - Kris Kristofferson (Light in the Attic)

This album of gnarled, knotty demos was recorded by Kristofferson, with only sparse musical accompaniment, between 1968 and 1972, mostly in the Nashville offices of his publishing company Combine. Already in his early 30s, Kristofferson had moved to Nashville in 1965 to pursue his dream after spending a year as a Rhodes scholar at Merton College, Oxford, then becoming a captain in the US Army. Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends covers the next chapter in his life, his evolution from obscure songwriter to aspiring recording artist to outlaw superstar. In the process, Kristofferson challenged country music's cosy conservatism, forcing it to grapple with its dustbowl roots and the more current concerns of the counter-culture. This album includes the first-ever version of the classic Me and Bobbie McGee, which later became a posthumous hit in 1971 for Janis Joplin, Kristofferson's on-off girlfriend, who is remembered here in a deeply moving demo version of Epitaph, written in her memory. This is an earthy and rough-hewn collection that captures an auspicious period in country music history.

Disintegration - The Cure (Fiction / Polydor)

A dark, shadow-struck masterpiece, Disintegration was initially released in 1989 and proved an unlikely commercial success for The Cure, selling more than three million copies and establishing them in the US as a reluctant stadium rock band. Following a period in which they had excelled as off-kilter pop minxes, Disintegration finds Robert Smith and his cohorts largely returning to their Goth-rock roots. The default setting is long, layered songs of existential introspection (Smith was, apparently, stricken at the prospect of turning 30) such as Pictures of You and Prayers for Rain, with only the spooky-sexy Lullaby and relatively perky Love Song providing occasional relief. This three-disc reissue is a fascinating look at the pre and post-album creative process. The second disc comprises Smith's home demo recordings, early band rehearsals, rough mixes and guide vocals, allowing the listener to hear a group edging slowly towards their goal. The third disc is a magnificent recording of the entire album played live in sequence at Wembley Arena, captured in 1989 during the Prayer Tour. At the centre of it all sits the original album, sounding as thrillingly, epically miserable as ever.