The newest David Bowie box set is "Loving the Alien (1983-1988)."
The newest David Bowie box set is "Loving the Alien (1983-1988)."

David Bowie: Loving the Alien (1983-1988) (Parlophone, 11 CDs, 9:54:52). This is the fourth box set in a chorological series of Bowie reissues that include plenty of new stuff. This box includes the original studio albums "Let's Dance" (one of Bowie's best), "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down," as well as an exclusive new remix of the "Never Let Me Down" album, two double-disc live albums (one previously unreleased) and two new compilations (a single disc of dance mixes and a double-disc of single versions, non-album singles, B-sides and soundtrack music).

Most exciting for me personally is that the two live albums are from the two tours I saw at Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. The excellent first live show, "Serious Moonlight" (92 min.), was recorded Sept. 12, 1983 in Vancouver for an HBO pay-per-view event. The show I saw was less than two weeks earlier, on Aug. 31. This is the first release of the full concert on CD, as only five performances had been previously released, although the show was issued on DVD in 2006. The Vancouver show was the smallest one of the tour, which lasted from May to December and included 96 shows in 15 countries. Nearly every song is a highlight and there is big use of horns on "Heroes" and "Cracked Actor." Bowie, then 36, performs three songs from his "Station to Station" album, with the title track stretching to 8:50, and covers "Sorrow" by The McCoys, "White Light/White Heat" by the Velvet Underground and "Wild Is the Wind," which Johnny Mathis recorded. There are four songs from "Let's Dance" and three from "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)." A personal favorite is "Life on Mars?"

The other live album is "Glass Spider (Live Montreal '87)," recorded Aug. 30, 1987 and taken from a 2007 DVD release. The concert I saw was two shows and four days later. What I enjoyed about this tour is guitarist Peter Frampton joined longtime Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar on stage. Frampton is excellent on "Loving the Alien." Frampton, who has had his own hit-filled career, also played on the "Never Let Me Down" album. Frampton's work with Bowie helped resurrect his career, which had declined after his "Frampton Comes Alive" became the best-selling live album at the time.

Bowie and Frampton knew each other while attending Bromley Technical High School, where Frampton's father, Owen, was head of the art department and Bowie, then David Jones, played guitar and sax. The two, along with George Underwood (famous for injuring Bowie's eye, leading to a frozen pupil that gave Bowie the appearance of two different colored eyes), used to practice guitar licks together. Frampton and Underwood played in a couple of bands together, until Underwood quit music to concentrate on art. He would work on the covers of three Bowie albums: "David Bowie," "Hunky Dory" and "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars."  Meanwhile, Frampton left school at 16 to join The Herd and then Humble Pie. The latter band was on the same tour as Bowie, when his "Space Oddity" was number one and Humble Pie's "Natural Born Boogie" was number two on the charts.

The "Glass Spider" tour was done as a theatrical show, with spoken-word intros, vignettes, projected video, theatrical lighting, stage props and five dancers, and was broken into two acts, plus an encore. Bowie and Toni Basil (of the catchy "Mickey" hit) handled the choreography. There are only eight repeats -- mostly hits -- from the earlier live album and 17 new songs. The show starts with a mini-play, followed by a mostly a cappella "Up the Hill Backwards." Then, Bowie does the spoken verse intro to "Glass Spider."

Of the studio albums here, "Let's Dance," produced by Bowie and Chic's Nile Rodgers, is brilliant. "it contains the catchy "Modern World" (just sung by one of the characters in Sunday's episode of "Madam Secretary"), the smash "Let's Dance" (with its jazzy touches), a wonderful cover of "China Girl," which he co-wrote with Iggy Pop for one of Iggy's albums, and the fiery "Cat People (Putting Out Fires)," co-written with Giorgio Morooder, who contributed to so many Donna Summer hits. "Ricochet" features an interesting beat and horns. Bowie financed the album himself, as his deal with RCA had expired. Although he was not well-known then, the album features lots of strong lead guitar by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Rodgers participated in the remastering for this release and contributes a six-page essay on the making of the album in the 128-page hardcover book that accompanies the box set.

"Tonight" (1984) yields the box set's title, as it is the name of the first song, which is about religion and history. The track is sweetened by strings and extends just past 7 minutes. There is reggae in the cover of Iggy's "Don't Look Down" -- Iggy co-wrote four others, as Bowie did not want to do much writing and had so little new material prepared after the 8-month tour that followed "Let's Dance" -- as well as in the title track, performed as a duet with Tina Turner. The single "Blue Jean" is more in the "Let's Dance" style, with hot sax playing. "Tumble and Twirl," written by Bowie and Iggy, is an Afro-tinged look at Borneo and Java. Bowie also covers Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows," in slightly strange style, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "I Keep Forgettin'," originally recorded by Chuck Jackson. Hugh Padgham, who produced and mixed the album, contributes a 4-page essay on its making.

The third studio album is "Never Let Me Down" (1987), with eight of the songs by Bowie himself, while Alomar contributed to the music on the title track and "Bang Bang" is a cover of an Iggy song. "Time Will Crawl" evokes genocide and extinction, as does "Shining Star (Makin' My Love)," while "Beat of Your Drum" echoes "Rebel Rebel" in its backing track. Frampton plays sitar on "Zeroes." The album also has "Glass Spider," with its spoken intro verse, the pulsating "New York's in Love" and the rocking "87 and Cry." Iggy's "Bang Bang," with horns, closes the album.

Exclusive to the box set is a new production of "Never Let Me Down." The seeds of this new reimagining were first sown in 2008, when Bowie asked Mario McNulty to remix the track "Time Will Crawl" and record new drums by longtime Bowie drummer Sterling Campbell, along with strings. The track was issued on the" iSelect" compilation and, in the notes for that record, Bowie remarked "Oh, to redo the rest of that album." Thus, in early 2018, McNulty entered Electric Lady Studios in New York with Campbell, Tim Lefebvre on bass, who was in the "Blackstar" band, and Reeves Gabrels and David Torn on guitars. All of the musicians had a history with Bowie. Nico Muhly, whom McNulty first met when they were both interns working for Philip Glass in 2001, handled the string arrangements.

The re-workings reveal a dark thematic thread running through the songs. The 2018 version of the album also features newly "remixed" artwork, reflecting the album's subject matter and with unseen images from the original cover photographic session from the archive of Greg Gorman. McNulty contributes a 3-page essay on producing the new sessions and building these versions  up from Bowie's vocals and bare bones drum machine tracks. For example, there is a darker introduction to "Beat of Your Drum" and "Day-In Day-Out" is more stripped down. New strings have been added to the title track, which retains Bowie's harmonica, and the stripped down "Zeroes" retains Frampton's sitar. There is a very spacey, then ambient start to "Glass Spider." A guest vocal by Laurie Anderson replaces the original rap on "Shining Star," while "New York's in Love" is grittier and there is a half-time feel to "Bang Bang." The 2018 version is a solid re-working and highly recommended.

The new "Dance" compilation (72:29) features seven extended mixes and five remixes. "Shake It" is fun and "Dancing With the Big Boys" is funky. There is a dub mix of "Loving the Alien," a more experimental "Underground" and a fun "Time Will Crawl." Several tracks make their CD debut (also vinyl debut in that edition of the box set). "Re:Call 4," a 30-song, 2-disc new collection, exclusive to the box set, contains six single versions, six vinyl album edits, three remixes (includes the reggae "Don't Look Down" and the collaboration with Mick Jagger on "Dancing in the Street"), live duet versions of "Tonight" and "Let's Dance" from a Tina Turner concert, a live version of "Bang Bang" and 10 songs performed in film scores. The latter includes "This Is Not America" from "The Falcon and the Snowman," the title song from the animated "When the Wind Blows," three from "Absolute Beginners" (includes an 8-minute version of the title track, the bit jazzy "That's Motivation" and a cover of "Volare," sung in Italian) and five from "Labyrinth" (including "Opening Title/Underground" and the bouncy "Magic Dance").

The booklet, in addition to including personnel notes for each track and the aforementioned essays, also includes an excellent September 1984, 13-page interview of Bowie with New Musical Express' Charles Shaar Murray, as well as rarely seen and previously unpublished photos and historical press reviews (including of both concerts). Grade: A+

John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Imagine/Gimme Some Truth (1971, Eagle Vision, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 68 min. + 64 min.). These two films by Lennon and Ono, which center around the "Imagine" album, have been restored from the original film reels and remastered in high definition, as well as remixed in surround sound by triple Grammy Award-winning engineer Paul Hicks. They come with three bonus outtakes (12:44) and a David Bailey photo shoot (7:02).

The "Imagine" film is a collage of color, sound, dreams and reality. Produced and directed by Lennon and Ono, it includes brief guest appearances, including Andy Warhol and Miles Davis during the outdoor party scene for "Crippled Inside"; Jack Palance and Dick Cavett during "Whispering Piece"; and Cavett, George Harrison, Fred Astaire and Palance during "What's That in the Sky?" (each enters a room arm-in-arm with Ono and look out a window). Much of the film was shot at the couple's Tittenhurst Park home in Ascot, England, as they began recording sessions for the "Imagine" album. Shooting continued in New York, where the album was completed at the Record Plant, with Phil Spector co-producing.

The "Imagine" film is widely regarded as one of the first video albums, since it features a different visual treatment for every song on the record, starting with Lennon at the piano, playing the title song, while Ono opens the room's curtains. The two are picked up by a car and driven to a lake on the estate during "Jealous Guy," then play chess with all-white pieces during Ono's song, "Don't Count the Waves," which is basically a chant. Her "Mrs. Lennon" has a more traditional song structure. Both are in military gab in New York City for "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Wanna Die" and later dance down a New York City street. Ono also sings a '60s-ish rocker, "Midsummer New York," that is quite good. For Lennon's slap at fellow ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?," they play pool while blindfolded.

"Gimme Some Truth," which won a Grammy Award, chronicles the creative process of making the "Imagine " album, providing a glimpse into Lennon’s creative genius and including many striking, special moments between the couple. The film serves as a fly-on-the-wall document of how the album came into being. We see Lennon playing "Imagine" on the piano for the first time for the band, and he says only three songs on the album are totally new, while the rest are reworked older compositions. In the studio, we see Lennon recording the vocals for "Jealous Guy" and "Gimme Some Truth." Harrison performed throughout the album, and we see him playing "Oh My Love," with Lennon at the piano. Lennon smiles as he plays "How Do You Sleep?" for Harrison and refers to the song as "the nasty one." Grade: A

John Lennon: Imagine -- The Ultimate Collection, super deluxe version (Universal Music Group, 4 CDs + 2 Blu-rays, 4:32:10). This box set concentrates on the music of Lennon's 1971 album, "Imagine." There are a variety of ways to listen to the album and its elements that are both immersive and intimate. New Ultimate Mixes reveal new levels of sonic depth, definition and clarity. The iconic album topped the charts in six countries, including the United States and United Kingdom. The title song, a plea for world peace, was the best-selling single of Lennon's solo career and was rankled number three among Rolling Stone magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." However, the album is brilliant throughout.

The original album has been remixed from the ground up by Paul Hicks at Abbey Road Studios under the supervision of Yoko Ono Lennon. In the box set's hardcover book, Hicks says, "Yoko was very keen that these Ultimate Mixes should achieve three things -- to be totally faithful and respectful to the originals, be generally sonically clearer overall and should increase the clarity of John’s vocals. 'It's about John,' she said. And she was right. His voice brings the biggest emotional impact to the album."

The first Blu-ray includes the remixed album in 5.1 surround and stereo, as well as six singles and extra tracks. There also is a remastered version of the album in a quadrasonic mix, plus 16 outtakes in both 5.1 surround and stereo new mixes. The remixed album , singles and extras also appear on the first CD, but in a different stereo level. The album, of course, contains the classics "Imagine," "Crippled Inside," "Jealous Guy," "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Wanna Die," "Gimme Some Truth," The beautiful love song "Oh My Love," the Paul McCartney slap in "How Do You Sleep?" (Lennon says he was upset with his former bandmate's "Too Many People" on his first solo album) and the joyful "Oh Yoko!" The other two songs, "It's So Hard" and "How?," are not too shabby either. Among the musicians were George Harrison on guitar, slide guitar and dobro; Nicky Hopkins on piano; Klaus Voormann on bass; Alan White or Jim Keltner on drums; and King Curtis on sax. Joey Molland and Tommy Evans from Badfinger play acoustic guitars on "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Wanna Die."

The singles and extras include "Power To the People," "Well ... (Baby Please Don't Go)" and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." The outtakes cover all 10 album tracks and the six extras. The outtakes include  the demo and first take of "Imagine"; a looser, buskier "Crippled Inside" (plus a version with a different guitar solo); a Lennon guitar solo on "It's Hard"; "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier" with more of a reggae beat; "How?" with vibes instead of strings; and just Lennon and Ono singing "Oh Yoko!" in the Bahamas.

The second Blu-ray, and what can be fitted on the other three CDs, includes new 5.1 surround and stereo mixes of the raw studio mixes of both extended album versions and 11 outtakes. These versions have no effects, such as reverb and tape delays. Then, there are the Elements mixes from the master multitracks, each highlighting something "buried" in the original mix, including Lennon's lovely string arrangements for "Imagine," "It's So Hard," "How Do You Sleep?" and "How?" There is Hopkins' piano for "Jealous Guy" and Harrison's slide guitar for "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier." These selections are offered in 5.1 surround and stereo.

Additionally there is the audio-only, 105-minute "Evolution Documentary" (mono) in which Lennon talks about how each song was developed, how ideas were tried out and abandoned, and a 17-minute montage of life at Tittenhurst Park, some of the latter being the same as heard in the "Gimme Some Truth" documentary. Finally, there is the Blu-ray only excerpts from Elliot Mintz's audio interviews with Lennon over the years (29:40). They talk about aging when Lennon had just turned 31 (bittersweet as he was murdered nine years later), of a possible Beatles reunion (Lennon was in favor), why "How Do You Sleep?" and on gurus.

The box set comes with a wonderful 120-page hardcover book that contains lyrics, recollections and commentary on each song, as well as the various versions, complete personnel listings and vintage photos. It is a delight. Grade: A+

In addition," Imagine" is available as a 2-CD Deluxe Edition, a single CD remaster, and a 2-LP 180 gram heavyweight black vinyl edition, as well as 2LP limited edition 180 gram clear vinyl. The digital Ultimate Collection will include all audio from the four CDs, and the deluxe and standard versions also will have digital equivalents.

Big Brother & The Holding Co.: Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills (Columbia/Legacy, 2 CDs, 2:18:14). Before launching her solo career, Janis Joplin made "Cheap Thrills," the classic, final album with Big Brother & The Holding Co. Based in the blues, along with the psychedelic sounds of 1968, the album was very representative of the San Francisco of that era. With songs like "Ball and Chain," "Combination of the Two," "Piece of My Heart" and a stunning slow interpretation of the Gershwins' "Summertime," the album vaulted to the top of the charts and built upon the heat Joplin and Big Brother generated at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

This collection, released under what was to be "Cheap Thrills" original title, before the record label deemed it too controversial, presents 29 studio outtakes -- 25 previously unreleased -- and a previously unreleased live performance of "Ball and Chain" from the Winterland Ballroom on April 12, 1968. The set, which does not include the original album, comes with liner notes by Big Brother  & The Holding Company drummer David Getz and Jefferson Airplane frontwoman Grace Slick. Of Joplin, Slick writes: Good Lord -- spontaneous explosions of every emotion -- no holds barred ... Janis had no trouble sliding from the apron clad Fifties into the no bra Sixties."

Also in the band were Sam Andrews and James Gurley on guitars and Peter Albin on bass. The set comes with a 24-page booklet, with some great vintage photos and an extraordinary center illustration by Natasha Robinson. Talk about the Sixties and white rabbits.

Among the standouts are the long instrumental middle to "I Need a Man To Love," which at 8:06 is almost double the length of the original album version (the second disc has a 7:07 version of the song); the stormy guitar on  "It's a Deal"; the softer "Easy Once You Know Her," with a bit playful beat; and a longer version of the psychedelic "Oh Sweet Mary." Nine of the 16 tracks on disc two never made the final album at all, including the nice "Farewell Song," "Misery'n" with its sudden vocal harmonies, and the very melodic "Magic of Love." Throughout both discs is Joplin's wonderful, expressive voice, which was stilled much too young. Grade: B+