The Byrds are still among the most underrated bands in rock history. One reason is that they didn’t have a unique, charismatic frontman: Five California folkie boys came together one jingle-jangle morning in 1964 and then careened around musically for a decade. The Byrds also ran into more than their fair share of trouble, maybe because they weren’t great friends — when things got crazy, they’d just rotate out another member. One example: When singer Gene Clark freaked out and refused to get on an airplane in 1966, the rest of the Byrds kept flying. Clark, their best songwriter, left the band.
Another reason the Byrds were underrated, of course, is that they were overshadowed by British groups like the Beatles and the Stones. But the Byrds’ appeal isn’t limited to bald-eagle rock fans rooting for the home team: They came up with harmonizing folk rock that sounds like liquid sunshine (“I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”), they brought Bob Dylan to the top of the charts for the first time (with “Mr. Tambourine Man” — many Dylan covers would follow), they pioneered trippy psychedelic guitar rock (“Eight Miles High”) and pretty much invented country rock when Gram Parsons joined them for 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Bands from the Eagles to R.E.M. are in the Byrds’ debt, as is just about any musician who ever picked up a twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar.
Ten years ago, Columbia began elegantly refurbishing the Byrds’ back catalog, reissuing the records with essential B sides and outtakes (and, in the case of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, releasing the Parsons vocals that got wiped from the original disc for legal reasons). Now the label has finally upgraded the band’s 1990 box set with this four-CD, ninety-nine-track release. There Is a Season draws mostly on the Nineties CDs but also includes five previously unreleased live tracks. There is, in addition, a fifth disc, a twenty-six-minute DVD — and it’s dated in a way that the Byrds’ music isn’t. In ten vintage clips, you can groove to artifacts of the era: Roger McGuinn’s granny glasses, lots of shimmying go-go dancers and, most improbably, a young, skinny David Crosby.