When the Kinks' sixth album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, was released in November 1968, the band was more than three years removed from its last Top 10 hit. The preceding two albums didn't even break into the Top 130; Village Green failed to chart altogether.

It wasn't exactly the best time to be the Kinks, but creatively, they were never better.

The five-year period between 1966's Face to Face and 1971's Muswell Hillbillies yielded their greatest albums. Problem was, not too many people heard them at the time. The records have picked up considerably more fans over the years, so much so that a five-CD box set marking The Village Green Preservation Society's 50th anniversary examines just a fraction of that glorious era with various singles, outtakes and alternate versions.

Those extras make the most of their place on this set, which wisely keeps much of the focus on the original 15-song album. It's here in a remastered stereo version. It's here in a remastered mono version. It's here in a disc of recording sessions filled with alternate takes. And it's here in a disc of BBC recordings focusing on the record. (A three-disc expanded edition of the album featuring many of the same bonus tracks was released in 2004; this new version adds to that.)

The "50th Anniversary Edition" of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society makes one thing clear: Ray Davies was moving beyond the occasionally primitive and formative three-chord guitar rock that established the Kinks as one of the British Invasion's brightest groups and into music that was more challenging to both himself and the band's audience.

It started in earnest with their previous album, Something Else by the Kinks, but it culminates on Village Green, an exploration of vintage British music hall songs and Victorian mores coated in pastoral tones that were part Summer of Love leftovers, part longing for English tradition. In the end, the songs – from the title track to the single "Days," which was recorded during the sessions but left off the album and included here with other era-specific non-LP tracks – guide Davies' vision toward his masterpiece.

A half-century later, it still sounds both timeless and of its time. That's part of the appeal. Davies abandoned almost everything the Kinks were best known for on Village Green, and favored character studies and detailed bucolic scenes over guitars and rock 'n' roll history. Even the BBC sessions manage to soften the edges that usually come with live performances.

A disc including later recordings, some from the '70s, attempts to connect the dots between Village Green and the Preservation albums the Kinks released during another one of their career turns. It's not always a direct line, but the live tracks recorded with an orchestra a few decades later add muscle to songs you never knew needed it and show just how far the Kinks had come since "You Really Got Me."

The project is even sharper now, especially on the new mono remaster, even though stereo had pretty much dominated the LP market by the latter part of 1968. The single channel certainly brings more definition to the album tracks, which always seemed a little bit too busy for the music and themes in their more popular stereo mixes. It heightens the BBC recordings too.

But it all comes down to Davies' vision and his thesis statement in the title song: "Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways, for me and for you." Fifty years later, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society sums up a period and a band on the verge of something new. It's not the Kinks' entire story, but it's closer to their aesthetic than any other album in their catalog. This golden-anniversary box set colors in the surroundings for a more vivid portrait of one of rock's great records.

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