The most impressive thing about the new four-CD Elvis Costello box set, 2½ Years (Rykodisc), is its title. That's how long it took the second Elvis to release three of the best albums of the '70s plus enough non-album singles, outtakes and live recordings to fill up the 75 tracks in this set. The songs were coming so quickly and brilliantly to the former computer technician Declan McManus that they were scattered over different U.K. and U.S. versions of the albums, EPs and singles and assorted bootlegs, making it very hard for the average fan to track them all down.
Rykodisc has solved this problem by creating "universal" editions of the first three albums: '77's My Aim Is True, '78's This Year's Model and '79's Armed Forces. That means every song that was on either the U.K. or U.S. version plus any extra recordings from the same year are now included. So, for example, Armed Forces includes the 12 songs from the British release plus "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," which replaced "Sunday's Best" on the U.S. version, plus three non-album B-sides from '79 singles, plus both sides of the free single that came with the first U.K. pressing, plus the three live songs that came as a bonus EP with the first U.S. pressing. That's 21 songs in all, one of the most dazzling one-year outbursts in rock history.
The fourth CD marks the first official U.S. release of Live at El Mocambo, the March 6, 1978, show at the Toronto nightclub that was issued as a promo-only album in Canada and was much bootlegged. It captures the barely contained fury of Costello and the Attractions onstage in those early days — all bleating organ, slashing guitar and snarling vocals. While the other three albums are also being sold separately, Live at El Mocambo and the 24-page, LP-sized photo album are available only in the box set. Except for Costello's own witty, short remarks in the individual CD booklets, the set comes without any commentary. Nonetheless, these 75 songs stand up 14 years later as some of the fiercest rock-and-roll ever made, the equal in their own way to the box sets of the first Elvis.