U2 - Wide Awake In America, Pop, and All That You Can't Leave Behind [Vinyl Reissues] (Album Review)

For U2 fans (especially of the vinyl variety), April is a month to celebrate. The band is thankfully dipping into their back catalog and reissuing three of their albums (Wide Awake In America, Pop, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind) on vinyl for the first time since their initial releases. All three reissues have been remastered, are pressed on heavyweight 180g vinyl, and come with a download card. They will all be releasing this Friday (April 13).

While some vinyl reissues can feel like afterthoughts that suffer from thin, low quality pressings and rush job packaging, this trio of U2 releases sound, feel, and look pristine. Even if you already own vinyl copies of the original pressings, your ears and eyes will thank you for upgrading to these reissues as the heavier 180g versions shine in their rich, clean sonic output. I was very impressed with the quality of the pressings and loved hearing these albums that I already knew so well shine a little crisper and wider in their remastered forms. Also, the reissued LPs just feel sturdier than the original LPs, due to the heavier quality wax.

Because these three reissues span across 15 years of the band’s catalog – Wide Awake In America was originally released in 1985, Pop in 1997, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000 – the faithfully reproduced packaging of each album aesthetically echoes the rise of the band as well. Wide Awake In America is a 4-song EP that was released after the success of The Unforgettable Fire but before the worldwide boom of The Joshua Tree. As such, it’s simple stark sleeve artwork and lack of inserts appropriately captures that pre-super stardom period of the band. The music is the only thing doing the talking and with the otherworldy live version of “Bad” contained within its grooves, that was all that needed to be said at the time. 

By contrast, Pop finds the band at either it’s most bombastic or its most bloated (depending on who you ask). Either way, it definitely highlights the band at their most misunderstood – which is an understandable outcome for any group willing to fearlessly reinvent themselves after achieving so much worldwide success on such a grand scale. With this reissue of Pop – in my opinion, the star of the trio – the gatefold packaging, dual bright color inserts, standalone lyric sheet, and double disc presentation all combine to make a standout release that demands to be listened to and looked over. Whether you’re returning to the album as a fan or cautiously willing to change your mind about its contents, it’s unquestionably worth another spin. 

All That You Can’t Leave Behind finds the band musically returning to form a bit from the Pop era pomp but still operating at such a high level on all cylinders. This iteration of the band finding their footing while continuing to move forward is wonderfully echoed in the minimalist packaging of the black-and-white album cover photo and the beautiful 16-page booklet that features some of photographer Anton Corbijn’s most visually stunning work with the band.

While you may already own so many of the hit songs and fan favorite deep cuts contained on these three albums via CD or digital file, these vinyl reissues are really worth the pick-up due to their high quality production, both sonically and visually. If you’re only interested in grabbing one, the Pop double LP truly shines in its presentation. However, you can be confident that there’s not a dud to be seen or heard in this wonderful batch of reissues.

The Beatles – The Christmas Records (Vinyl Review)

From 1963 to 1969, The Beatles recorded a yearly off-the-cuff Christmas offering, pressed it onto economical flexi-disc material, and mailed it out to their adoring fan club members. After the band’s tumultuous year in 1970, they compiled all of the previously released holiday-themed material into one single LP (From Then To You) and mailed that out to their UK fan club members, with a similar LP release (The Beatles’ Christmas Album) being shipped out to their US fan club members the following spring. While multiple bootlegs and trading tapes have surfaced over the years, there’s never been an official release of the complete Christmas recordings available for purchase until this year’s highly anticipated and incredibly stunning The Christmas Records vinyl box set.

First things first, let’s get the logistics out of the way. The Christmas Records vinyl box set features all seven Beatles Christmas fan club singles pressed onto vivid color vinyl, tucked into original artwork sleeves, and all housed together with an accompanying 16-page booklet in a sturdy lift-top box. Since the original yearly releases were sent out on flimsy flexi-discs (a material that was so unruly that one of the newsletters included instructions on how to keep your record needle from jumping all over the disc), these new durable 7” vinyl pressings allow for the best listening experience that this material has ever been offered on. Additionally, the combination of original artwork sleeves with playfully colored vinyl strikes an amazing aesthetic balance that feels both true to the original and also refreshingly updated for old and new fans alike. Looking over each aspect of the design and production, it’s easy to see and feel the care and attention to detail that went into creating and presenting this vinyl box set in a manner that reflects the uniquely special nature of the material inside.

Amazing logistics aside, what makes this retrospective release so interesting is the manner in which it functions as an unintentional time lapse of the unparalleled trajectory of the band – professionally and creatively – in such a short time. The 16-page booklet features reproductions of the five year-end newsletters (the last two years of Christmas records didn’t include a newsletter) and there are a lot of interesting nuggets that remind fans just how much transpired during the Beatles all-too-short whirlwind career. It’s incredibly quaint to read the first Christmas newsletter from 1963 and see: “We’re all tremendously pleased to see how successful our fabulous foursome have been with their latest single “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND” and their second LP album “WITH THE BEATLES”. The next year, the holiday newsletter posits the question “How would you like to start up a pen-friendship with a Beatle Person in America?” and gives details on how UK fans can swap letters with US fans. The Beatles are top-tier pop music mythos now, so these reminders of their early days bring an extra level of humanity and significance to their seemingly otherworldy existence.

Even the cover art on the singles help track the arc of the band’s creative evolution. The first three covers (covering the era of Please Please Me to Rubber Soul) feature black and white promo shots of the fresh-faced lads with a single splash of color in either the background or line of text. The following three singles (covering the era of Revolver to The Beatles/”The White Album”) feature experimental psychedelic collage work. The final Christmas single from 1969 (the year that saw both Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road released) is just a single blurry photo with no text or discernable framework. The band was essentially no more at this point – even the material on the 1969 Christmas single was recorded separately and feels disjointed when listened to – so the cover photo of something colorful and vibrant that’s been blurred to the point of disorientation is quite fitting as commentary for where the band was at that point.

Overall, this box set is really stunning in all of its visual components (box, sleeves, booklet of newsletters, wax color choices) and reading through the accompanying annual newsletter is a really interesting experience. On its own merits, the individual collection is absolutely worth the purchase to have all of the Christmas singles in one place and presented in such a cool way. Additionally, it’s really impressive to see what it brings to the table as a larger statement by encapsulating some of the wildly dramatic moments of The Beatles career in whimsically unpolished year-end snippets. Whether you’re a Beatles fan or just a fan of pop culture musical milestones, this beautiful collection of Christmas singles is well worth checking out.


Chuck Klosterman X by Chuck Klosterman (Book Review)

My perception of reality is so inflexibly personal that it has almost no correlation to what’s happening in the world outside of my own skull.

This Chuck Klosterman sentiment from “Something Else” – an essay that starts off by discussing the reasons he appreciates AC/DC more now as an adult than he ever did as a 14-year old (short answer: “AC/DC was too real for me. I preferred artifice”) and then transforms into commentary on how his previous preoccupation with death has now flipped in the age of immediate (and extreme) eulogization after a celebrity dies (using last year’s passing of David Bowie and Prince as examples) – is a beautifully concise peek behind the curtain into the overarching worldview and writing style that Klosterman has employed in his ever-developing career as an author, writer, and journalist. His newest offering, Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century, is overflowing with these types of “existentialism via entertainment” dissertations as it collects a wide variety of his previously published pieces from the last decade and contextualizes them anew with updated introductions, footnotes, and unpublished passages.

Much like his other celebrated essay collection releases, Klosterman reveals himself to be an incredibly adept observer at the larger implications that can be mined from analyzing the deceptively ephemeral elements of our era (from minutia to mass consumption), especially when it comes to music, sports, television, film, and our popular culture at large. Throughout the book, Klosterman showcases an impressive range of topics and subjects that he handles with equal proficiency. Whether he’s interviewing musicians (Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement), profiling popular athletes (Kobe Bryant, Tim Tebow), trying (in vain) to cover the unearthing of a 50-year old time capsule in Tulsa, trying (in vain) to get Tom Brady to talk about Deflategate, discussing the significance of television shows like The McLaughlin Group, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, eulogizing Lou Reed and Jani Lane, satirically cataloging all of The Beatles albums, or writing a 10,000-word essay on KISS, Klosterman covers a lot of (seemingly) tertiary territory and (unquestionably) draws out the underlying elements of humanity that can make a story involving a non-descript 1988 basketball game between two North Dakota junior college basketball teams seem incredibly weighty and rich for examination.

Of course, Klosterman is also just an incredibly engaging writer that can be read purely for entertainment purposes as well (and I mean that as the highest of creative compliments). I especially admire the way Klosterman approaches the past from purely non-nostalgic places. For example, when he was tasked with profiling Noel Gallagher around the release of his 2011 solo album High Flying Birds, Klosterman actually takes the opportunity to get Gallagher to have an in-depth discussion about Be Here Now, the maligned 1997 Oasis album that was self-admittedly fueled by so many drugs that cocaine should’ve been given a co-writing credit. Klosterman’s reason for his line of questioning is airtight: “When you like a band, you want to hear about the good times. When you love a band, you want to hear about the bad times.” So, instead of being an Oasis fan who wants to bask in the glory of the otherworldy success of their sophomore smash (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, Klosterman is an Oasis fan that is far more interested in the follow-up faceplant of Be Here Now and how that shaped the band’s legacy and Gallagher’s future creative output. Klosterman’s swerve results in an incredibly entertaining (and quite informative) interview that show’s Gallagher weighing in on the difference between fame and success (“Fame is something that is bestowed upon you because of success. Success is something you have to chase.”), how the band’s trajectory takes on a different spin if you view their catalog in reverse, and how the idea of “perception” doesn’t discredit what the band accomplished at the beginning of their career. Using an American football analogy, Gallagher hypothesizes that if you come from behind to tie an opponent with two minutes left then you feel like you’ve won but if you were leading the whole game and your opponent ties with two minutes left then you feel like you’ve lost; however, it’s still just a tie either way. While being an Oasis fan may heighten the level of your own enjoyment regarding a piece like this, Klosterman’s angles and insights allow for multiple takeaways that don’t make familiarity with the subject a requirement.

With almost 40 essays contained within it, Chuck Klosterman X almost guarantees to have a little something for everyone who has an even passing relationship with (or interest in) popular culture and the way humans interact with (and within) it. It doesn’t matter if he’s breaking down the difference between watching live sporting events versus DVR-ed ones (“We don’t crave live sporting events because we need immediacy; we crave them because they represent those (increasingly rare) circumstances where the entire spectrum of possibility is in play.”) or he’s trying to articulate his overwhelming personal connection to Charlie Brown (“I haven’t watched A Charlie Brown Christmas in at least twenty-five years, solely because I can’t emotionally reconcile the final scene: I can’t get over the fact that the other kids don’t tell Charlie Brown that his decision to pick the tiny, pathetic tree was ultimately the right call… This will bother me forever.”) or wondering if by not being well-versed in something as ubiquitous as the Harry Potter universe, is he “doomed to misunderstand everything else” that will transpire in future decades of popular culture when the “bookish kids reading Harry Potter… almost certainly go on to control the media”? (A point that shows up again in a footnote from his profile on Kobe Bryant: ‘But that’s not a universal thing. That’s like saying every wizard within Slytherin House is a villain.’ I pretend like this makes sense.”), Klosterman navigates cultural snapshots and the passage of time with an unbelievable level of intuitiveness, wit, and dexterity.

Besides, until another writer comes along that can start a piece off with the challenge of attending a Creed concert and a Nickelback concert in the same night, discuss the differences between acceptably reflexive hate and the kind you have to justify (example: “If you criticize Dave Matthews Band within earshot of even one of their fans, you will be forced to justify every negative feeling you possess to the fullest extent of the law”), veer off into a relevant aside about the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, and then uncover what it means for two bands to represent the “most hated (yet popular) rock band” of one era and the “most popular (yet hated) rock band” of another, Klosterman’s got the market cornered.

Here's a list of Klosterman's upcoming book tour dates as well:

30 Iconic Records Turning 30 Years Old in 2017 (Paste Magazine)

(I originally wrote this article for Paste. Click on the picture for the full article.)