If you missed the Replacements during their career—as did most people, to judge by their tepid record sales—here’s your chance to nab a crash course in the pioneering Minneapolis alt-rock outfit. As the title promises, The Complete Studio albums (1981–1990) collects all eight of their original studio LPs. Nothing for All, a 1997 collection of B-sides and non-album tracks, isn’t part of the deal, unfortunately, but there’s plenty to chew on: 95 songs and a total of just under four and a half hours of music. All of the CDs feature the remastered sound first heard on 2008 reissues of the individual albums.
The earliest stuff—particularly the 1981 debut LP, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash!, and the 1982 EP, Stink—may leave you wondering what all the critical fuss was about. There’s lots of energy, a bit of humor and some good guitar work on these initial releases, but much of the material sounds like a clamorous, dated cross between the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. By the time the Replacements issued Hootenanny in 1983, however, the amphetamines appeared to be wearing off a bit. Hootenanny is no hootenanny—the group remain waist-deep in garage punk—and at least half the songs seem like jokes, but the band sounds tighter and the music is beginning to show some diversity.
If it hadn’t been for the next two albums, however, the Replacements would probably never have gotten their box set. Let It Be (1984) and Tim (1985)—the latter the group’s first major-label release—represented a quantum leap: though still brimming with teenage angst and anger, their tunes now also seemed tuneful. The band discovered melody, harmony vocals, and a pop sensibility, not to mention instruments such as 12-string guitar and mandolin. Songs like the acoustic “Unsatisfied” and the hummable, well-sung “Swingin’ Party” and “Waitress in the Sky” would have been unthinkable on earlier albums. Ditto “Bastards of Young,” which seems redolent of the Clash’s better moments.
The three remaining albums—Pleased to Meet Me (1987), Don’t Tell a Soul (1989) and All Shook Down (1990)—lack the flashes of brilliance displayed on Let It Be and Tim. There seem to be fewer experiments on these records than bids for mainstream appeal. That said, they also evidence a much more mature and capable band than the early records and certainly have their moments. Songs like the brass-spiced, infectious “One Wink at a Time” and the poppy, exuberant “When It Began” undoubtedly left fans wondering where the band might be headed next.
In fact, it was headed nowhere, as the Replacements broke up in 1991, but that is not the end of the story: the group recently reunited and have launched a spring 2015 tour of the U.S. and Europe, presumably to be accompanied or followed by a new album. Given how much the Replacements evolved over the 1980s, it will be interesting to see what an additional quarter-century has done to their sound.