Dwight Yoakam didn't need a box set to remind us he was kicking ass and taking names even before he signed with Warner Bros. in 1985. But with the four-disc extravaganza Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years
-- featuring over two dozen previously unreleased tracks -- Yoakam dazzles with his staggering artistry and infallible command of all things country -- and then some. Three of the discs collect tracks from his catalog (as well as cuts he's contributed to other artists' projects), a batch of material that handily proves Yoakam's genius when it comes to adapting traditional sensibilities to contemporary styles. Acknowledged as the foremost contemporary purveyor of the hard-edged Bakersfield sound pioneered by his heroes Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Yoakam (and longtime producer/guitarist Pete Anderson) has found touchstones in pop (Sonny & Cher's "Baby Don't Go," for one, here done as a duet with Sheryl Crow
), punk (the Clash's "Train in Vain"), Texas boogie (ZZ Top's "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide"), and rock (Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me," done to white-hot perfection). Yoakam's evolution as a songwriter is also well-chronicled here, on his own, as a collaborator, and in his transcendent partnership with Anderson. That last relationship receives an unexpected spotlight on the fourth disc, a selection of 21 previously unreleased recordings, 10 of which predate Anderson's 1981 appearance on the scene. The disc's early take on "You're the One," done as a slow, tearjerking lament, stands in stark contrast to the ferocious, Anderson-assisted version (heard on disc 1) that scalded both the country and pop charts a decade later. In addition, there are enough new recordings (three) and previously unissued live and studio tracks (including two stunning duets with Kelly Willis
, on the George Jones-Tammy Wynette classic "Golden Ring" and on Jones's "Take Me") to comprise an entire new Dwight Yoakam album in the midst of this breathtaking retrospective. Reprise Please Baby
is not only this year's most vibrant and essential box set, it's one of the all-time great ones.