The deluxe album packages of 2021 were heavily weighted toward expanded reissues of notable individual albums. They make for fine Christmas gifts, so here are the sets that would top my shopping list.
DELUXE ALBUM REISSUES
— George Harrison, "All Things Must Pass" Super Deluxe Edition / John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band": These debut solo albums by the former Beatles received lavish reissues this year that bring new appreciation and insight into both projects. "All Things Must Pass" is a five-disc set highlighted by 42 unreleased tracks that include two discs of Harrison's solo and stripped-back band demos. Several of the songs didn't make the album, but are worth hearing ("Nowhere To Go," written by Harrison and Bob Dylan, is particularly interesting). It makes for a comprehensive look at "All Things Must Pass" — the best solo album by any Beatle. If "All Things Must Pass" found Harrison sharing a measure of inner and spiritual peace, Lennon's solo debut, "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band" was a catharsis with its share of anger and disillusionment set to stark musical backing. This six-CD set boasts nearly 160 tracks, including a trio of remixes of the album, early demos, outtakes, rehearsals and even covers played for fun during the sessions. It all may be too much for the casual fan, but this set is an enlightening deep dive into one of the bravest, most unfiltered albums in rock history.
— The Beatles, "Let It Be": Speaking of the Beatles, fans know a ton of outtakes exist from the "Let It Be" sessions. By and large, the compilers of this five-CD set chose the cream of the crop from that unreleased music. The alternate takes often differ notably from the versions of the songs on "Let It Be." There are also early run-throughs of songs that would appear on "Abbey Road" and early solo albums by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
— The Rolling Stones: "Tattoo You": The solid 1981 album gets expanded with a full concert from 1982 and nine previously unreleased studio tracks. I'd argue the unreleased swaggering rockers "Trouble's A Comin'" and "It's a Lie" and the soulful ballad "Fast Walking, Slow Talking" should have supplanted three or four tunes that were on "Tattoo You."
— Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, "Déjà Vu" 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: This debut from David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash (and occasional fourth member Neil Young) remains the high point of this supergroup's career. The additional 38 demos, outtakes and alternate versions on this 50th anniversary edition include gems such as "Everyday We Live," three rockers sung by Stills — "Same Old Song," "Ivory Tower" and "I'll Be There" — and an extended version of "Almost Cut My Hair" with an epic dual guitar jam.
— Aretha Franklin, "Aretha": The "Queen of Soul" has already been the subject of multiple box sets and anthologies. So the people who assembled this new four-CD set to accompany "Respect," the movie biopic about Franklin, did the smart thing, liberally choosing demos, alternative versions and live performances of many of the songs on "Aretha." The result is a box set that nicely complements the anthologies that have come before this one.
— Joni Mitchell: "Archives — Volume 2 The Reprise Years (1968-1971)": The second of what promises to be a career-spanning series of box sets, "Volume 2" offers up five discs with unreleased concerts (including a London show during which James Taylor joins Mitchell for half of the set), many interesting outtakes, home demos and radio sessions drawn from this early creative peak of her career. This is a treasure trove from the singular talent that is Joni Mitchell.
OTHER WORTHY REISSUES
Here are some other notable deluxe reissues I can recommend that feature the original albums plus bonus material.
— David Bowie, "David Bowie 5. Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001)": Eleven discs with Bowie's albums from this period plus the excellent unreleased "Toy" album, 2000 BBC concert, outtakes.
— Cat Stevens, "Teaser and the Firecat": Four discs with demos, live cuts and a 1971 concert.
— The Replacements, "Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash": Four discs include a bevy of outtakes and a surprisingly tight 1981 concert.
— Pretenders, "Pretenders" and "Pretenders II": Three-disc editions of the first two Pretenders albums each include demos and full concerts, including a white-hot 1980 show on the debut album.
— The Tragically Hip, "Road Apples": Three discs include some strong unreleased songs.
— The Who, "The Who Sell Out": Five discs with numerous studio outtakes, demos.
— The Band, "Stage Fright": Two discs add a complete 1971 concert.
— The Black Keys, "El Camino": Four discs with unreleased live performances.
— R.E.M., "New Adventures in Hi-Fi": Two discs add 13 bonus tracks to what is arguably R.E.M's most underrated album.
— The Black Crowes, "Shake Your Money Maker": Three discs with studio outtakes and a 1990 concert.
— Violent Femmes, "Why Do Birds Sing": Two discs with a half dozen bonus tracks and a 12-song 1991 concert.
— Jethro Tull, "Benefit": Four discs with a few outtakes, B-sides, two 1970 concerts.
— Death Cab for Cutie, "The Photo Album": Two discs with B-sides and demos.
— The Alarm, "History Repeating 1981-2021": Two-disc anthology with 44 career-spanning songs.
— The Pretty Things, "Live at the BBC": Six CDs of live performances capture the raw energy and stylistic shifts of this long-running band.