Early Years is a strange compilation, a seeming hodgepodge of rarities and oddities that somehow works wonderfully as listening material. Opening with the single edit of "Roll Over Beethoven," the CD then jumps headfirst into the depths of the band's vault items, but in the oddest way, assembling three of the bonus tracks -- most notably "Auntie," the early version of "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle" featuring Marc Bolan on lead guitar -- from the expanded versions of Electric Light Orchestra and ELO 2 issued in 2001 and 2003. Those cuts are followed up with rare quadraphonic mixes of "First Movement (Jumping Biz)," "Manhattan Rumble," "Whisper in the Night," and "10538 Overture," all from the group's self-titled debut album. And those tracks, which fill out a body of quad mixes previously issued on the expanded version of the debut album, are broken up by the previously unissued quad mixes of "From the Sun to the World" and "In Old England Town (Boogie No. 2)," off of the group's second album, and a live BBC recording of a concert version of "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Finally, the 2001 edit of "Mama," prepared for theFlashback box set, is programmed in the midst of all of that. If all of this sounds a bit messy and confusing, it is -- the previously unissued material was obviously the real reason for the CD, but there wasn't enough of it to fill out a proper anthology, so highlights from the previous sets were included as well. That doesn't mean that it isn't thoroughly entertaining, however -- the quad mixes bring out details in the playing and arrangements that were previously hidden, and they also make for fascinating listening (it would be nice to assemble a definitive, complete quad mix of Electric Light Orchestra someday). Additionally, the live track is a good document of ELO's early live sound, before their shows became vehicles for massive laser-light shows and other distractions, showing off an impromptu jam between violin and lead guitar for a bridge to the finale and completely different from what the band finally did with the song in the studio. Further, the sound is killer throughout, which should be of special interest to American listeners -- the ELO catalog on this side of the Atlantic has never received a proper upgrade, whereas in England (where, curiously, the group struggled to find an audience) their upgraded CDs are now getting appended and expanded in new directions with releases such as this.
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AllMusic Review by Bruce Eder