Many classic rock and R&B albums are reconfigured and rereleased on a regular basis, making it difficult to figure out which edition is definitive and which should be dodged.
Reissues are the closest thing record labels have to a license to print money. Because they’re releasing material that millions already know and love, the usual fiscal risks involving artist development, recording, and promotion are taken out of the equation. Result: an almost certain moneymaker. Thus, many classic rock and R&B albums are reconfigured and rereleased on a regular basis, making it difficult to figure out which edition is definitive and which should be dodged.
Fortunately, a number of discussion forums devote endless go-rounds to picking apart new CD reissues. Better boards for this include The Steve Hoffman Forums, Classic Rock Forums, and Audio Review. Here’s what to get and what to avoid when it comes to some of the best-loved music of the last 50 years.
— The Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds”: The out-of-print DCC gold disc draws swoons, but the 1999 Capitol version, with both mono and stereo mixes, is much cheaper and almost as good. The first CD version (Capitol, 1990) gets the thumbs-down.
— The Rolling Stones, “Exile on Main St.”: This one’s tricky because it was made to sound grungy, condemning any attempts to “improve” the sound quality. The most recent remaster of “Exile” (on Virgin) strikes many as too spiffed-up, while an out-of-print but easily found version on Columbia keeps all the grit in place nicely.
— Marvin Gaye, “What’s Goin’ On”: Happily, the most widely available version, Universal’s two-disc Deluxe Edition, is the one. It also contains an alternate mix of the album that many Gaye fans consider superior to the one released in 1971. A 1986 “two-fer” of this album with Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” LP is from a hissy analog master tape.
— The Who, “Who’s Next”: The mid-’90s series of Who reissues is often held up by audiophiles as a how-not-to of remastering, thanks to the compression, remixing, and other tinkering the original albums were subjected to. Again, many like Universal’s Deluxe Edition, which made up for earlier gaffes with its version of “Who’s Next.” But the version that seems truest to the original master tape is a Canadian MCA pressing (MCABD-37217) mastered by Hoffman.
— The Beatles, various: The Beatles’ CD catalog is a shoddy mess. Their albums were first released on CD 17 years ago, and the few albums that didn’t contain mono mixes of easily available stereo tracks were remixed to the annoyance of purists. Meanwhile, the world awaits an upgrade to the whole catalog. Fortunately, the most care seems to have been taken with the Fabs’ most beloved album, “Sgt. Pepper.”
— The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Electric Ladyland”: No clear consensus here, which is a shame, because this album has been reissued in many different guises. Some like a German issue on Polydor, some swear by a mid-’90s MCA edition, some prefer the currently available version on Experience Hendrix. Moral: Trust thine own ears.
— Bob Dylan, “Blonde on Blonde”: The 2003 series of Dylan SACDs have drawn such raves that fans say just listening to the CD layer of them is preferable to any previous CD issue, especially in the case of this 1966 album. Stay away from early CD issues of “Blonde,” which cut the endings off songs to make them fit the then-time limit of 72 minutes.
— Pink Floyd, “The Dark Side of the Moon”: Similarly, an elusive and expensive pressing on Toshiba/EMI (Japan) gets the raviest raves. A viable alternative seems to be the Capitol pressing (catalog 7 46001 2) available at your local record store. Keep away from CD pressings from before 1992, when the entire Floyd catalog was upgraded.
— Elvis Presley, Sun Records sessions: BMG’s newest compilation, “Elvis at Sun,” while puny at 19 songs, is getting high marks for staying truest to the sound of the original recordings; “Sunrise” is the more complete collection; 1987’s “The Sun Collection” is lousy with noise reduction and other tampering, and should be avoided.