Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg, Vol. 1

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Billy Bragg's first and best music reflected a union of two complementary musical approaches that had yet to be brought together -- the tradition of topical songwriting which dated back to the earliest days of British folk and championed in the 20th century by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs, and the working-class ranting of British punk, which reflected life, love, and frustration in both the dole queue and the bedsits of a generation of alienated young people. With his big, fuzzy electric guitar chords and passionate bark of a voice, Bragg was often cited as "a one-man Clash," but he dealt with the nuts and bolts of the political issues of the day with far more specificity than, say, Joe Strummer, and his songs about love and confusion were more in the manner of a grittier Ray Davies, or a warmer and wittier Paul Weller than the likes of Sham 69. Volume 1 is a box set which collects the lion's share of Bragg's early work, including his debut EP Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, the albums Brewing Up with Billy Bragg and Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, and three other EPs (Between the Wars, Live and Dubious, and The Internationale). Listening to the set in sequence offers an interesting opportunity to observe the evolution of Bragg's music, as he begins with the Spartan guitar/vocal approach of 1983's Life's a Riot and gradually adds more ingredients to the mix until he graduated to the rich and fully furnished production of 1990's The Internationale; the politics of Bragg's music also become increasingly pointed with the passage of time, though he's clearly more concerned with Joe Public than the Powers That Be and still hasn't forgotten about the mysteries of romantic interaction. Each of the four key releases included in this box (Life's a Riot, Brewing Up, Talking with the Taxman and The Internationale) has been paired up with an additional disc of bonus material, which in the case of The Internationale is a DVD of television performances from Lithuania and East Berlin, while the other audio discs feature unreleased songs, alternate takes, and single or compilation sides. All four double-disc releases have also been released separately, but this box set includes a book of lyrics, photos, and additional credits, as well as a second DVD featuring an appearance of Bragg from a 1985 edition of The South Bank Show, and another concert recorded for television broadcast in East Berlin in 1986. Volume 1 is an exhaustive chronicle of Billy Bragg's formative era, and contains some of his best and most moving recordings; it's a fine set for those upgrading their old vinyl versions of his albums, but some might prefer to pick and choose among the individual releases Yep Roc has also put out.

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