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Review: ZZ Top, “The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990”

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ZZ Top Rhino box“My friends, they all told me
Man there’s somethin’ gonna change your life…”

-ZZ Top, “Brown Sugar”

I hate to play favorites, but from day one, I’ve been a fan of Legacy Recordings’ “complete albums” concept. The slick packaging of an artist’s classic albums in one package, with nicely-crafted mini jackets, replicated label art on disc and the always promising idea of bonus content is often too good to pass up. I’m probably not the typical target buyer – really, when am I ever – but as someone hungry to dive in with a beloved band, these boxes really do the trick.

I’ve often hoped to see other labels follow suit on the concept, and the newest catalogue project from Rhino, ZZ Top’s The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990 (Warner Bros. 8122-79664-2), is exactly what I’m getting at. This little set is the one to buy if you’re looking to cannonball into the Texas trio’s brand of Southern-smoked boogie.

ZZ Top are one of those bands that just know how to keep their fan base. The lineup of lead singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard hasn’t changed in four decades – nor has their commitment to raw, good-time 12-bar blues. With Hill and Beard as a whip-cracking rhythm section, Gibbons allows his six-string skills to shine in a way that few other rock guitarists allow. He’s distinctive without laying it on too thick – just flashy enough to stay ahead of the pack. From rockin’ singles like “La Grange,” “Tush” and “Sharp Dressed Man” to lesser-known cuts like the ballads “Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell” or “I Need You Tonight,” Gibbons – and, by extension, ZZ Top – are a master of their craft.

Keep reading about the “little ol’ band from Texas” after the jump, and find out what else we like about the box, too!

What makes this consistency all the more interesting is that they not only survived but thrived in the ’80s – a time where their overdub-light production style could have easily been laughed off the Warner  Bros. Records roster – by embracing current trends. After seven down ‘n’ dirty studio albums, starting on 1981’s El Loco, the trio began adding guitar and drum effects to their already-catchy tunes; follow-up Eliminator (1983) was their most perfect blend of art with artifice, enhancing the songs with synth undercurrents and shooting fun music videos to advertise their singles on the nascent MTV. To see ZZ Top – a trio clad in dusters and sunglasses, with Gibbons and Hill (but not Beard, in one of rock’s greatest ironies) sporting waist-length beards – posing and playing alongside cool cars and gorgeous models remains one of the network’s greatest success stories.

Revisiting Eliminator within this box set (a CD/DVD collector’s edition of the album was released years back), it’s amazing to hear how comparatively natural the record really sounds. The synth pads and splashy drums don’t undermine the band’s songcraft or ability as players; Beard’s drums, to note just a third of ZZ Top, were already that precise. It was post-Eliminator that the band earned any backlash they got: follow-up albums Afterburner (1985) and, to a lesser extent, Recycler (1990) seem far more impressed with studio trickery than some soulful, Texas-style blues.

And then there was The ZZ Top Six Pack. In 1987, Warner reissued six of the band’s albums on a three-CD set, remixing and overdubbing them to sound as if the studio trickery was always part of their sound. It obviously wasn’t – but it was an accidental stroke of revisionist history that really prevented the band from getting their true recognition in the CD era. (All individual CD pressings of the albums – save for the inexorably spared Degüello and the already-overdubbed El Loco – used these inferior masters; before this box set, only Tres Hombres and Fandango had been properly restored on CD.)

Therein lies yet another joy of The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990. Even if you’ve owned these records before – and if you’re the buyer Rhino’s likely looking for, you surely have – you’ve never quite heard them like this on CD, ever. These mixes are well-represented on these discs; although no mastering credits are given, they sound pretty darn good. (Fans have noted disparities in volume between discs; it’s honestly not enough to bother this listener, who’s satisfied that nothing on here is terribly pumped up to play loud on CD.)

This is a box that really lets the music do the talking. Design is strong if a tad minimal: the flip-up box simply collages all ten albums with the familiar Eliminator-era ZZ Top logo, no booklet is included, and the CD wallets, while featuring great scans of the original album sleeves (and, in one case, a gatefold sleeve), are not printed on the same kind of sturdy stock that Legacy uses on their complete boxes. (One humorous packaging detail: disc labels recreate not the original LP art for London and Warner Bros. but the way ’80s, text-based layout for Warner Bros.’ earliest CDs!)

For the absolute completists, The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990 is maybe 90 to 95 percent of everything the band put out for the label. Depending on how literal you take our phrasing, you’re missing the two tracks from 1992’s Greatest Hits, the ’80s-era single mixes (some of which were included on Rhino’s Chrome Smoke and BBQ box set and the bonus live tracks from reissues of Tres Hombres, Fandango and Eliminator. But (outside, perhaps, the great single mix of “Legs”) those are minor quibbles.

I’m still not sure of the type of buyers who are snapping up boxes like these, but if future sets are made with the kind of quality and collectible factor ZZ Top’s The Complete Albums 1970-199o – well, then it’s an idea that can only grow in viability over time.

Order your copy of this great box from Amazon right here!

Written by Mike Duquette

June 18, 2013 at 12:50

Posted in Box Sets, Reissues, Reviews, ZZ Top

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9 Responses

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  1. My only complaint with boxes like this, and I have several of them, is when they don’t replicate the inner sleeves as well. They should at least include a brief booklet recreating any packaging elements missing (or hard to read) from the replica LP sleeves. The Billy Joel complete box should be the template, although that was a pricey set. Hard to really complain about a set like this when you consider the price. Thanks for the excellent and thorough review.

    • Love the Sony Legacy “complete” boxes…Cheap Trick, ELO, Blue Oyster Cult, Leonard Cohen, Billy Joel…because of the booklet (TWO booklets with the Billy Joel one) included, the designing with the white borders on the CD sleeves, all bonus tracks…these Warner sets are highly disappointing compared to the Legacy ones…no booklets, no credits, just take the CDs, make cheap cardboard sleeves and slap em in a box together with little thought…the Green Day one was disappointing in this light, the Madonna, Chicago (bigtime bad with all the Rhino reissued booklets with great liner notes that were made) and Joni Mitchell ones same thing…this ZZ Top one is a little better with the original mixes, but still, no booklet is a BIG notch below!!! Unless you can download a digital one…the 5-disc mini-sets are even worse!! Cheap and dinky-looking!!

      Larry Davis

      June 18, 2013 at 18:46

  2. It’s too bad they didn’t use the original LP art for the box itself. You can see on the Eliminator cover (on the box) where it says “CD+DVD”. How do slip-ups like this get through?


    June 19, 2013 at 06:39

    • That’s a pretty good catch, Grant – not something I initially noticed…I’m glad they at least used the proper sleeve on the mini-jacket itself.

      That “Eliminator” cover art, sans “CD+DVD” has proven in the past awfully hard to find a good scan of online. Took me awhile before I found one for my iTunes library I was content with.

      Mike Duquette

      June 19, 2013 at 12:19

  3. nice review…the boys did an awesome short set recently on Howard Stern’s Sirius XM show….i always wonder with catalog titles like all of these, they COULD most likely afford to do a nicer more deluxe package….speaking as a designer myself, i gotta think their internal art department, or what’s left of it, would have access to a TON of photos and memorabilia, etc…..


    June 19, 2013 at 12:49

  4. Nice to have all of the original mixes on CD, but horrible execution by WB. If only these boxes came out during the Rhino years, when consistent mastering and packaging quality ruled the day. Or, if only the entire catalog followed ZZ to RCA when they signed, maybe we’d have gotten some incredible Vic Anesini or Mark Wilder mastering across the board.

    Instead we got some great sounding remasters, some thin sounding older masters, and one slammed-loud remaster with all it’s great bonus tracks lopped off, all packaged in blurry, bootleg-thin cardboard sleeves with ’80s era CD text-work, and no one to take credit or blame for the package.

    Oh, and it was just discovered that the channels are reversed on the First Album.

    Well done, Warner. At least I got it cheap.


    June 21, 2013 at 22:25

    • UPDATE: On further listening…apparently the first five tracks of Tejas have their channels reversed as well. Unbelievable.


      June 24, 2013 at 10:46

  5. Thanks to all. I’ll just get the vinyl that’s been restored?/remastered. Rhino used to rule the day.


    June 24, 2013 at 17:05

  6. So they have restored the original drums on all the albums? That’s good news.

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