The Byrds

Ultimate Byrds

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When the four-CD Byrds set was first released in 1990, it was something of a landmark in Columbia Records' history on several counts. For starters, it was the first box set ever released by Columbia Records' pop division (as opposed to its jazz division) devoted to a noncurrent act (that is, they'd already issued boxes on Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, but both of them were active artists), and there had been boxes of sorts on Miles Davis and some other jazz figures, but their place in music history was already a given, whereas the Byrds, to Columbia Records' management and a lot of mainstream critics and even most listeners not attuned to their history, were "nothing" but a defunct rock act. In a sense, this set was a long-overdue declaration of their importance, in addition to being the first good-sounding CD incarnation of their work ever to come from Columbia. For five years or more prior to that, listeners had been forced to endure poorly mastered, inadequate CDs of their work. It took this project, plus the work of a lot of people behind the scenes and an unending stream of complaints from consumers, to get the label to find the right source tapes and then treat them right in digitizing them. In the decade and a half since its release, the Byrds box has receded in obvious importance as the group's entire catalog was subsequently upgraded and many of the rarities and outtakes in this set appended as bonus tracks on those separate CDs of their albums. But it remains the best overview of their history ever assembled, despite a few minor flaws in its content. One suspects, for instance, that had Bob Irwin, who oversaw the later upgrading of the group's albums, been producing this box, there might be a few tracks predating the hit of "Mr. Tambourine Man," from the group's Elektra recordings (as "the Beefeaters"), or their demos as the Jet Set; and maybe the audio portion of their live set from The Big TNT Show or perhaps a track or two from the Monterey Pop Festival; and, conversely, two or three fewer tracks representing the Skip Battin/Gene Parsons lineup of the band. But strangely enough, along with British CBS' double-LP History of the Byrds and the more recent Essential Byrds, this four-disc set is one of only three attempts at doing a comprehensive history of the group, and it's still got all of the competition beat right out of the starting gate, and well worth owning.

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