Now that the holidays have come and gone, there’s a good chance you are thinking about what to purchase with those shiny new gift cards. Here are some of the best pop culture releases of the year, all of which could be great for gift card buys.
Bob Dylan – The 1966 Live Recordings (36-CD Set)
At age 75, Bob Dylan hasn’t slowed down a bit. In October, Dylan become the first ever musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He followed up that tremendous honor in November by releasing a monumental CD box set through Sony Legacy Recordings which includes every known live recording available from his 1966 concerts throughout Australia, Europe, the UK and the United States.
This 36-CD set was quite the undertaking. In collecting every known recording from that tour, producers turned to several sources – official recordings made by Columbia Records at four shows for possible use on a live album, rough audience recordings, soundboard recordings made by Dylan’s sound engineer Richard Alderson and recordings made by local television outlets for broadcast. While this “cobbled-together” approach results in varied sound quality throughout, ranging from virtually unlistenable to nearly pristine, shortcomings from any single show are outweighed by the importance of providing the most complete accounting of the 1966 tour as possible.
In addition to being lovingly compiled, the set is also well packaged. All 36 CDs are housed in slip cases that feature photos culled from noted filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker’s footage of the tour, the tracklist and any recording details. The concerts are presented chronologically, except for discs 32-36. The audience recordings of those five shows from earlier in the tour are of such low quality that they needed to be set apart.
The 1966 concerts are especially notable and historic because they mark the first time Dylan hit the road for a tour with electric accompaniment. Following four all-acoustic albums, he made waves in March 1965 with the release of Bringing It All Back Home, an album which featured a side of electric rock recordings. Dylan then went on to show that his initial experiments with rock were not mere dalliances in July 1965 when he plugged in for his first electric concert performance at the Newport Folk Festival, of all places. Given the focus of the festival and the ardent nature of the folk fanbase at the time, there is no doubt that this electric debut was a statement of intent from Dylan about the future of his art.
Despite the fact that a vocal group of fans wanted Dylan to remain the torchbearer for folk music, he was clearly not interested in resting on his laurels. Conversely, Dylan was enamored with the creative possibilities that came with electric instruments and the rock sound and he had to follow that muse – fans be damned. Dylan’s new artistic direction resulted in a tension between musician and fan – a tension that was palpable at his concerts the following year, making it the defining characteristic of this archival set.
Each concert on this tour follows the same general format – a solo acoustic set, during which fans were largely held in quiet and rapt attention, followed by a noisy and chaotic electric set that elicited a boisterous response from the crowd – one that included both applause and derision. These second sets are where the magic happens, where tension and noise meet in a glorious cacophony of rock.
The most infamous of the second sets on this collection is the one from the Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966 (Disc 20 on this set), during which a fan yelled out “Judas” during a break between songs. Dylan responded with, “I don’t believe you…you’re a liar” before commanding the Hawks to, “Play it fucking loud!” Dylan and company then launch into a scorching rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” that is met with thunderous applause. The show is well known thanks to bootlegs and a 1998 full-show release, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert, but this is by no means the only example of the tension between audience and artist in transition. Shows from Leister (Disc 16), Liverpool (Disc 14), Edinburgh (Disc 23) and Newcastle (Disc 25) all feature between-song exchanges with the audience that help convey the odd dynamics of this tour.
During the Leister show, Dylan pauses following his usual second-set electric opener, “Tell Me, Momma,” to introduce “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).” During that lull, an audience member is heard shouting something at Dylan, who responds by mockingly booing himself before imploring, “Can’t you yell any louder than that? Similarly, the Newcastle show had a toxic vibe. While introducing “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” an audience member seemingly shouts “Go home Dylan,” which elicits a response from the stage of, “You’re talking to the wrong person.”
The concert in Edinburgh had an altogether different vibe. It wasn’t until several songs into the electric set that negative reactions are heard and when they were, there is an audible “shush” from other audience members. This one never turns into a shouting match and Dylan never responds.
The Liverpool show, on the other hand, was a particularly raucous affair. Following every song of the electric set, the audience was loud with a mix of applause and yelling, including someone shouting what sounds to be, “Not Bob Dylan.” Ultimately, the applause was louder than the jeers – a characteristic shared by every show on this tour. This loud and volatile mix of both dissent and adoration is what defines this tour and what makes this box set an interesting listen from start to finish.
While the repetitive setlist from this tour makes binge listening to this box set a bit of a task, any listener who tackles this collection is ultimately rewarded by being able to experience a pivotal moment in popular music history in as full a way as possible. Not everything is perfectly preserved, but considering these shows are more than 50-years-old, The 1966 Live Recordings is a remarkable musical document.
The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series (24-Disc Blu-ray Set)
The Twilight Zone has been rightfully heralded as one of the most influential and well-crafted television series of all time and this massive new Blu-ray box set presenting the show’s 156 episodes over the course of five seasons in high definition, along with a wealth of bonus features, is about as good as it gets when it comes to a complete series release.
The artistic vision of writer, producer and narrator Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone was an anthology series that covered a lot of artistic ground, including genres like science fiction, thriller, psychological thriller, fantasy, supernatural and even an occasional comedy episode. A top-notch production from top to bottom, the program succeeded by bringing together amazing writers, actors, directors and composers. The results speak for themselves. While many shows of that era have been largely forgotten by the modern audience, The Twilight Zone has enjoyed enduring popularity (the first episode aired on October 2, 1959 – more than 57 years ago) with new generations of fans regularly discovering the magic.
From a technical standpoint, this Blu-ray set offers the best sound and video ever available for the series in any home video format. The video is superb – AVC encoded 1080p high definition in its original 1.33.1 full frame aspect ratio, which was scanned from the original 35 mm negatives. There are a few exceptions when it comes to the visual quality. A select few episodes from the series’ second season were shot on video for budgetary reasons and those episodes have a completely dissimilar feel to them. They aren’t bad, but there is a noticeable difference in quality.
When it comes to sound, there are two mono options – original and remastered. What you choose depends upon how you want to experience the series. The original version more faithfully reproduces the audio from initial broadcasts and has a bit of a buzz during dialog sections, while the remastered version has a cleaner and fuller sound.
No matter which version you choose, the episode scores shine on these discs – benefitting from the Blu-ray technology. Though often not given as much attention as the writing and acting, the scores by legendary composers like Bernard Hermmann, Jerry Goldsmith and Nathan Van Cleave were as responsible for the mood and feel of the episodes. An excellent example is Van Cleave’s pioneering use of the Theremin on the score to the season one episode, “Perchance To Dream.” The electronic instrument’s ethereal sound builds on the suspense and paranoia of that mind-bending tale.
While it would be easy to simply compile all of the episodes on a bare-bones Blu-ray set to cash in on the series’ continuing popularity, credit needs to be given to CBS and Paramount for putting together something fans will really love. These discs are jam-packed with goodies like the original series pilot, audio of Rod Serling lectures, vintage interviews, isolated scores, radio dramas and episode-specific audio commentaries from actors, directors, producers, writers and most notably, screenwriter Marc Scott Zicree, the historian who authored The Twilight Zone Companion – the definitive episode guide to the series.
The only downside to the set is the packaging, which stores the discs in a flimsy and tough-to-use plastic case. This is likely a move to cut down on both cost and the space needed to hold 24 discs, but it is not the most user-friendly storage method. That said, it is also not a deterrent to anyone interested in this collection. The quality of the episodes and the nearly overwhelming collection of bonus features housed within more than make up for any packaging shortcomings.
The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection: Restored Edition (3-Disc Blu-ray Set)
One of 2016’s most anticipated Blu-ray releases lives up to lofty expectations as five of the most beloved theatrical comedy feature films by the legendary Marx Brothers appear in high-definition home video for the first time in this new collection from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
There’s little argument that the group’s first five feature films, released between 1929 and 1933, are their best theatrical efforts. These five films – The Coconauts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup – are also the only ones to feature all five real-life brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo. Therefore, it is fitting that this Blu-ray box set would focus on those films.
Anyone familiar with Marx Brothers home video releases will know that these films have not always been treated well – suffering damage over the years that cause the end product to be less than stellar on both VHS and DVD. Understanding that the source materials aren’t the greatest will help set realistic expectations for the content of this box set. That said the new 1080p high-definition transfers, which preserve the films’ original 1.33:1 full frame presentation, are stellar and allow these films to look as good as they may ever appear. Sure, there are still moments when damage and lost footage are evident, but this is so much better than anything available prior and should be a revelation to Marx Brothers fans.
Of particular note here is the work done to restore Animal Crackers. Not only did the producers collaborate with the British Film Institute on this one to utilize a duplicate negative from that organization’s vault that hadn’t been previously edited, but they also completed a new 4K scan. As a result of this partnership, a small amount of additional footage not found on any previous home video release because it was cut in 1936 in order to meet production code standards is now seeing the light of day for the first time in 80 years. Not only will this little piece of seemingly lost history please fans, but the improved overall look of the film is sure to wow anyone enjoying Marx Brothers releases in previous formats.
It addition to the restored films, this set is a must-own for fans due to the amount of bonus features included. Not only does every film get its own brand new commentary track, with contributors ranging from noted film historians/critics, including Leonard Maltin, to Bill Marx, the son of Harpo, but there is also a new full-length documentary called The Marx Brothers: Hollywood Kings Of Chaos, that covers the group’s career and popularity in great detail. Rounding out the bonus features is a nice collection of archival interviews and home videos.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment deserves a lot of credit for spending the time and resources to produce this outstanding box set. The five films included here are some of the funniest and most influential comedies ever committed to celluloid and it is great to see that they have been treated with the reverence they so richly deserve.
Kris Kristofferson – The Complete Monument & Columbia Albums Collection (16-CD Set)
In celebration of Kris Kristofferson’s 80th birthday, Legacy Recordings released a humongous box set of studio albums, live recordings, demos and bonus tracks – a collection befitting his stature as one of the most influential singer-songwriters in popular music history.
This set, which is neatly contained in a small box and includes reproductions of his original album artwork for each individual CD sleeve, covers all of the studio albums he released either as a solo artist or in conjunction with his musical compatriot and former wife, Rita Coolidge, for Monument Records between 1970 and 1981. It also includes 3 live recordings from the early ‘70s, only one of which – the fabulous Live At The Philharmonic – has been previously released. Two stand-alone discs round out the set, one focused on previously unreleased demo recordings from the same era and one featuring 23 songs that were either B-sides, bonus tracks on other releases or songs from compilations or soundtracks.
This set is assembled to appeal to both long-time Kristofferson fans and those new to the artist. For newbies, this collection offers a great introduction to the man and his music, especially his first few albums – 1970’s self-titled debut and 1971’s The Silver Tongued Devil And I, both of which are hands-down classics, along with the great Border Lord (1972) and Jesus Was A Capricorn (1973).
For those already aboard the Kristofferson train, the most appealing components of this set are the rare or previously unreleased live and studio recordings. The outstanding Demos disc offers 16 previously unreleased demo recordings. What’s most staggering here is the quality of these demos. From the twangy “Nobody Owns My Soul” to “Fallen Woman,” a jangly little song that feels like a lost and forgotten British Invasion single, and the gorgeous duet “No One’s Gonna Miss Me,” these are well crafted and produced songs that could have easily fit on a studio album.
With the exception of a few tracks previously included on compilations or collections, the combined 23 tracks included on Live At The Big Sur Festival and Live At RCA Studios 1972 have also never been released – a wrong that is righted with this set. The former is a rousing set from 1970 at the penultimate Big Sur Folk Festival in Monterey, CA during which Kristofferson joined a diverse set of artists on the afternoon bill, including Joan Baez, John Phillips, John Hartford and The Beach Boys. His set, which included accompaniment by Zal Yanovsky (guitar), Donnie Fritts (organ), Billy Swan (bass) and the hugely talented instrumentalist Norman Blake (guitar), covers some of the biggest songs from Kristofferson’s early albums. How incredible it must have been to see Kristofferson and his compadres finish the nearly 40-minute set with the incredible triumvirate of “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Me And Bobby McGee.” Prior to that set-closer, Kristofferson tells the crowd, “I swear, this is the last one.” It’s hard to tell the context in which this comment was made, but it’s even harder to imagine an audience wanting this performance to end.
Although only removed two years from the festival performance, with Live At RCA Studios 1972 we get a more polished artist and presentation. The studio setting, a different lineup of supporting musicians and two more years of live experience and songwriting under the belt are all likely contributing factors to this change. Regardless of the cause, the two separate performances offer fantastic new archival recordings in varied settings and times that make this an even better collection.
The most striking thing about this box set is the abundance of great music Kristofferson has produced over the years – both in the studio and during performances. Not everything collected her is of equal quality, but even the less successful or acclaimed albums are worthy artistic statements that warrant another listen. There is literally no filler on The Complete Monument & Columbia Albums Collection – a testament to why Kristofferson is rightly considered a legend.
Until next time, enjoy the music & movies!