Music reissues, good and bad: Happy Super Deluxe Holidays

Smith Galtney

It’s that time of the year again, when the music industry (or what’s left of it) tries to dupe boomers and Gen Xers into buying another pile of music they’ve already purchased two or three times. As a 43-year-old music obsessive, I’m the primary target for this type of swindle, not to mention a seriously cheap date. All anyone has to do is whisper the words “Bowie” and then “reissue,” and chances are I’ll come to sometime after Christmas, my naked body covered in liner notes written by Cameron Crowe, wondering where the hell my wallet is.

But like so many things involving major-label companies, “easy” gets complicated real fast. Instead of just giving me what I want—quality repackaging of the music I adore—they’re always trying to tell me what I need. And every year, they get worse and worse at it.

The most common mistake they make is thinking bigger equals better. In the ’80s, they made me replace my vinyl with a CD. In the ’90s, I upgraded to a “new remaster, with bonus tracks.” In the ’00s, it was all about the expanded, two-disc Deluxe Edition. Now comes the era of the Super Deluxe Edition, in which landmark albums are re-released as ginormous, multi-disc box sets. But what goodies do these behemoths hold? Well, the 45th anniversary release of The Velvet Underground’s self-titled 1969 classic contains three different mixes of the album—at least two of which fans already own from previous regurgitations. When a collection touts “previously unreleased mixes” instead of songs, that’s basically shorthand for “stream on Spotify.”

The record labels also seem to believe that if I love an artist I’ll want to hear every single hiccup they ever recorded. Columbia has reconstituted Bob Dylan’s fabled Basement Tapes as a six-disc tome complete with multiple takes and false starts, all arranged chronologically as to provide a revealing glimpse into Dylan’s “process.” I don’t particularly enjoy unfinished music, but since the press dutifully touts any new Dylan bundle as “essential,” I still put this on my Christmas list. Until I saw the $120 price tag and remembered, wait, I don’t even like the original album all that much anyway. Pass!

What’s still on my list, however, is Bruce Springsteen’s The Album Collection, Vol. 1: 1973-1984. A wet dream disguised as a vinyl box, it features his first seven albums, all re-created in their original packaging, remastered and repressed on quality 180-gram vinyl, with the requisite 60-page booklet tossed in for gravy. Stop taking my favorite music and molding it into some unwieldy coffee-table tchotchke! This is what gets me hot and bothered: the objects of my youth, exquisitely restored, enclosed in something I can easily archive and fetishize.

If only they’d done this with Bowie’s catalog instead of putting out Nothing Has Changed, yet another greatest-hits compilation. And why exactly has Tears for Fears’ Songs From the Big Chair gotten the Super Deluxe treatment when that Purple Rain box Warner Bros. promised is still a no-show? Sometimes life makes no sense.

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