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ZZ Top, ‘The Complete Studio Albums (1970-1990)’ – Album Review

ZZ Top Complete Studio Albums
Warner Bros. Records

Back in 1987, at the dawn of the CD era, ZZ Top released a three-disc box set called ‘Six Pack’ that included the band’s first five albums plus their seventh. Still flush from the mega-success of 1983’s ‘Eliminator,’ and its 1985 follow-up ‘Afterburner,’ someone decided to take the original recordings from the ‘70s and remix them with added ‘80s-style percussion. It wasn’t long before every ZZ Top CD for sale came with the newly recorded mechanized drums that helped make ‘Eliminator’ a hit. One thing ‘Tres Hombres’ didn’t need was robotic percussion.

The 10-disc ‘ZZ Top: The Complete Studio Albums (1970-1990)’ rights these quarter-century wrongs by reissuing the LPs in their original mixes. And if that means some of them – like 1971’s ‘ZZ Top’s First Album’ – sound a bit sludgy, and others — like 1975’s part-live ‘Fandango!’ – aren’t as crisp or as clear as you once thought, at least the heavily processed mixes that have plagued the records for years are no longer around.

That leaves you with the music itself. And, as you’ll quickly figure out as you plow through this hefty box, ZZ Top were a spotty band during their first 20 years. The first two albums especially (‘ZZ Top’s First Album’ and 1972’s ‘Rio Grande Mud’) are loose, hazy and scattered. The trio didn’t really find focus until their terrific third outing, 1973’s ‘Tres Hombres,’ which sounds big, full and powerful in the remastered version here. So do most of the immediate follow-ups to that breakthrough album.

By the time ZZ Top entered the ‘80s, they were ready for a change. You can hear the seeds of it taking root on 1981’s ‘El Loco,’ but 1983’s ‘Eliminator’ is the record that turned the dust-covered boogie band from Texas into global pop stars. It still sounds like a monster today, charging forward with some of the era’s most inventive blend of synth-pop hooks and old-school rock. ‘Afterburner’ and 1990’s ‘Recycler’ are more of the same, but without the initial knockout punch.

The set is aimed at collectors, with all 10 albums packaged in reproductions of their original sleeves (i.e. the ones that came in gatefolds include gatefolds). Several of the records received aural upgrades over the years restoring their original mixes, so the most devoted fans probably already own them. But this is the first time a handful of them have been available like this and the first time they’ve all been gathered in one place. ‘The Complete Studio Albums’ is the most definitive collection of the band’s first 20 years. You just have to decide if it’s worth purchasing again.

Next: Top 10 ZZ Top Songs

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