Recording information: Media Sound, New York; Plaza Sound, Radio City Music Hall, New York; Sundragon, New York.
Photographers: Chip Rock; Bob Gruen.
Not many bands can honestly say they changed the shape of rock & roll as we know it and upended part of the larger global culture at the same time. The Ramones did just that; by stripping down and speeding up rock & roll like a hot rod that could outrun all competition, and injecting it with a massive dose of snotty, absurdist humor, they gave the music a new lease on life, and left behind a handful of brilliant recordings that are still a solid kick to hear nearly four decades after their debut hit the streets. Punk rock first emerged from a very specific time and place, but the best of it is timeless in its joyous roar, and the first four Ramones albums absolutely live up to that description. Those four albums -- 1976's Ramones, 1977's Leave Home, 1977's Rocket to Russia, and 1978's Road to Ruin -- are included in the box set The Sire Years 1976-1981, along with 1980's End of the Century (a conceptually brilliant but musically flawed collaboration with producer Phil Spector) and 1981's Pleasant Dreams (the first Ramones album that could have been described as blah, though it has a few great tunes, most notably "The KKK Took My Baby Away" and "7-11"). The six albums appear here in the same crisp-sounding remasters that appeared in 2001 and 2002, but have been stripped of their bonus tracks, which makes one wonder why Rhino/Warner Bros. didn't opt for a three-disc set, since the albums are short enough to fit two to a CD. And while each disc gets its own cardboard sleeve that replicates the original LP artwork, there are no liner notes or any kind of accompanying booklet that would include the credits. One can quibble about the packaging and presentation of The Sire Years, yet there's no denying the strength of this music; the first four Ramones albums are essential to any decent collection of rock & roll, and though End of the Century and Pleasant Dreams pale in comparison, they still wipe the floor with nearly all of the thousands of bands who followed the Ramones' example. This isn't the ideal presentation of this music, but if your Ramones collection has mysteriously disappeared, this will catch you up on their most essential albums in one fell swoop and then some. ~ Mark Deming