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Selective sets

Lennon performs in 1972 (Associated Press)

Selective sets

A multidisc Imagine benefits more from slimming down than does a Kinks edition

One sign that gift-giving season has arrived is the release of critically acclaimed rock ’n’ roll albums in boxed, freshly remastered, multidisc editions tantalizingly marketed as the best-ever way to experience the music contained therein. It’s an impression cemented by the enthusiastic reviews that inevitably flood the relevant publications and that get collated into verbal highlight reels for the packages’ Wikipedia entries.

What almost no one will admit is that often much of the material in these box sets tends to be either inferior to what has long been available on the “official” versions or redundant, and that after you’ve plowed through all of the alternate versions, rehearsal takes, and other arcane offerings once, you may never want to hear them again.

Buyer’s remorse has been known to ensue.

The compilers of the Super Deluxe Editions of John Lennon’s Imagine: The Ultimate Collection (Capitol) and the Kinks’ The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (Sanctuary/BMG) (in commemoration of the latter’s 50th anniversary) have taken this phenomenon into account and made slimmed-down, wallet-friendlier versions of their respective projects available.

In the case of Imagine, the decision was wise. With the exception of its head-in-the-clouds title track, the album still retains its political, personal, and/or philosophical acuity despite the 47 years that have elapsed since its initial unveiling. The six-disc Super Deluxe Edition’s multiple takes, incomplete versions, and alternate mixes (which only make you say, “Why, yes, that one does sound a bit different”) water down the effect.

Imagine’s effect is worth experiencing at full strength. The song “How?,” for instance, could pass for a pop-level distillation of G.K. Chesterton’s oft-quoted statement about the uselessness of the word progress (“Progress takes for granted an already defined direction: and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree”).  

And both the two-disc and the single-disc editions of the “ultimate” Imagine include among their “singles and extras” the song “God Save Us” (aka “God Save Oz”). From its playful musicality to its invocation of a Deity with whom Lennon was known at least briefly to be friendly, the song makes imagining there’s no heaven seem dull by comparison.

The single- and double-disc editions of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, on the other hand, don’t so much preserve and refurbish the original’s unique charms as whet the appetite for more. It’s an appetite that the Super Deluxe configuration’s five CDs, three LPs, three 7-inch singles, one 52-page book, and assorted swag succeed in appeasing.

About those unique charms: In the wake of the Kinks’ having gotten themselves banned from the United States after their first stateside tour in 1965, Ray Davies doubled down on his Englishness, writing songs based in part on his memories of the people and the places that he’d known and loved (or at least closely observed) while growing up. Recording began in 1966 and ended 23 months later.

The lyrics were specific and sharp, funny and sad (sometimes in the same line), the music rollicking, the melodies indelible. No two songs sound alike, yet each enriches the others. And, as the Super Deluxe box attests, there was more material where those came from.

Strictly speaking, some of it falls outside Village Green’s chronological parameters (“Where Did My Spring Go?” and “When I Turn Off the Living Room Light,” for instance, were both recorded in 1969, the previously unreleased “Time Song” in 1973). And, of course, there’s surfeit.

But it’s really wonderful surfeit.