Best of the boxed sets.
Play music, and play with the box
With the album under attack by the iPod, boxed sets have become more and more like retrospective museum exhibitions.
Technology has freed music consumers to hear the individual song they want, when they want it. But along with the immediate gratification of the pleasure principle, there's a concomitant need to make sense of it all, and take a measure of an artist's overall output. And for some listeners - the old-fashioned kind, anyway - there's a need to hold a physical object in the hand, so they can look at something other than an LCD screen as they listen.
That's where the boxed - or box? - set-makers come in. And that's why many of the collections reviewed here (all with at least three CDs) are as much about packaging as the music.
box looks like an amp that goes all the way up to 11, while the Brit-pop box resembles a telephone booth that lights up with the flick of a switch (batteries included). And almost all contain lovingly detailed booklets full of vintage photos that cater to the superfan.
These blurbs don't cover everything - there are multi-CD sets for enthusiasts of Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Genesis, among others. But some didn't make the cut because they had too little rare or unreleased material.
The Complete On the Corner Sessions
(Sony/Columbia ***). Come hither ye hipsters for the studio recordings and a dozen unreleased tracks that trumpeter Miles Davis made between 1972 and 1975, starting with the album
On the Corner
. Its coolness is calculated to explode in the brains of squares. Funky grooves abound over a gurgling bottom. Tunes with names like "Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X" seem to float on cymbal haze while electric sitars and tablas add a worldly distortion. Many worthies - including Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Fortune and John McLaughlin - are represented. After 6½ hours of listening, you may feel enlightened, or like an unhappy patient of Miles' dentist father. (6 CDs, $140)
- Karl Stark
Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems
(Rhino ****). As the title says, this is not a greatest-hits set. However, the sweet-voiced Harris long ago went from country hit-maker to influential, tough-to-pin-down cult artist, and the collection can stand as definitive in terms of painting a picture of who she really is. The 78 audio tracks, including 11 previously unreleased, focus on personal favorites from her albums, cuts from tribute discs, and collaborations with others (where many feel she really shines). A monument to great taste and unerring instincts. (4 CDs, 1 DVD, $75)
- Nick Cristiano
I Wanna Go Backwards
(Yep Roc, ***1/2). Lighting candles at the twin altars of John Lennon and Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock melds his oblique lyrical obsessions (with, as a recent portrait put it, "sex, death and insects") to crystalline folk-rock tunes of aching beauty. Reissuing and augmenting three solo albums -
Black Snake Diamond Role
I Often Dream of Trains
- this set adds a two-disc collection of beguiling but inessential demos from the period, as Hitchcock puts it, "when Thatcher mauled Britain." Hitchcock's unsettling whimsy has repelled many a potential fan, but songs like "Queen Elvis" and "Beautiful Girl" show him at his most unadorned, heart on his flowing sleeve. (5 CDs, $58)
- Sam Adams
A Voice in Time, 1939-1952
(Legacy ***½). Corporate mergers aren't all bad. Thanks to the Sony-BMG union, Frank Sinatra's early music released on the Columbia and RCA Victor labels can be found in one place. Serious Sinatra fans will have most of this music already, but this set does an excellent job of tracking the rise of the skinny Italian kid from Hoboken through his tender-voiced years as he rose to become the original American idol, and it contains enough rare radio recordings to tempt completists. (4 CDs, $50)
- Dan DeLuca
(Sony Legacy ***). This set makes a pretty much incontrovertible case that Luther Vandross was the premier soul singer of his time. When it comes to posterity, however, the unfortunate thing for Vandross, who died in 2005, is that his '80s-to-mid-'90s heyday coincided with an era of slick R&B production. But his music was always unabashedly romantic and free of grit, and on track after track, his luxurious voice floats above his troubles and leaves the dated instrumentation behind. (4 CDs, $50)
The Brit Box: U.K. Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium
(Rhino ***½). This set looks like a London telephone box and pulls from the third British Invasion: not the '60s, nor punk, but what came after - ranging from crafty '80s guitar-pop bands such as the Cure and the Smiths to cascading-guitar "shoegazers" like My Bloody Valentine and cool '90s rockers Oasis and Blur. A lot of this music never really crossed the pond, which is what makes the Brit Box kinda-sorta essential for indie-geek boys and girls of a certain Anglophilic stripe. While you may not need to own the complete works of the Primitives and Cornershop, for example, you gotta have "Crash" and "Brimful of Asha." (4 CDs, $65)
City of Dreams: A Collection of New Orleans Music
(Rounder ***). With bare-bones packaging,
City of Dreams
gathers Crescent City brass bands, soul singers, piano professors, Mardi Gras Indians, and blues men (and women), recorded over the last 21/2 decades. Big names like Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band are here, but this set is stronger on capturing the essence of the working-roots musician than corralling hits. Because it's limited to one label, this
doesn't tell the whole story, but it's a syncopated snapshot of a scene whose value has come into stark relief since Hurricane Katrina. (4 CDs, $33)
(Rhino ***). This box goes all the way up to 11! This set is shaped like a Marshall amp, with a volume knob that turns up louder than 10, just the way Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel liked it. It kicks off with Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" from 1968 and runs aground with Sepultura's "Dead Embryonic Cells" in 1991, just as grunge was stealing metal's thunder. In between it gathers most of the hairy heavy hitters, from Kiss and Alice Cooper to Metallica and Megadeth. The story's incomplete, though, because a few key headbangers refused to participate, including Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne and Def Leppard. (4 CDs, $65)
Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets, 1965-1970
. (Rhino ***) It's been a year of 40th anniversaries, from
to "Respect," mostly celebrating 1967 as the sacred year of the counterculture. This
set drinks deep from that cup of boomer nostalgia. While it's every bit as hippy-dippy-trippy as you might imagine (or recall), it also ties together the multifarious strands of a music scene in the epicenter of the youthquake, showcasing an impressively deep talent pool, from the Jefferson Airplane to Sly & the Family Stone, Santana to Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks. (4 CDs, $65)
People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938
(Tompkins Square ***½). Just as
Law & Order
rip crime stories from the headlines, so it is with the balladeers, songsters and troubadours gathered here. In the words of intro author Tom Waits, the likes of Blind Alfred Reed, Fiddlin' John Carson, and Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt use "cyclones, flood, famine, drought, shipwrecks, pestilence, hurricanes, suicides, death of child, murder . . . the T-bone streak of the news business" as fodder for musical morality plays. People, take warning: This is a scratchy, old-timey collection, but an excellently conceived, curated and compiled one that captures a fascinating slice of American musical history. (3 CDs, $52)
Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection
(Shout Factory ****). Vee-Jay Records of Chicago predated Motown as a successful black-owned record label, but its roster was much more diverse, offering blues, doo-wop, gospel, soul and rock-and-roll. This hugely entertaining set mixes them all together as it covers the label's 1953-66 tenure with artists such as Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, the Staple Singers, the Swan Silvertones, the Dells, the Four Seasons, and many lesser-known but deserving talents. (No Beatles, though.) (4 CDs, $60)
The War: Soundtrack and Music From the Second World War
(Legacy ***). This audio companion to the Ken Burns PBS 15-hour telling of the American World War II story is an odd hodgepodge. There's a soundtrack disc, with a suitably sincere Norah Jones performance of Gene Scheer's "American Anthem," along with bluesy new compositions by Wynton Marsalis and oldies-but-goodies from Bing Crosby and Count Basie. Another disc gathers classical pieces. The treats, however, are the two discs of 1940s hits from Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Frank Sinatra, among others, sure to rekindle the memories of any WWII veteran on your gift-giving list. (4 CDs, $50)
To hear samples from some of the boxed sets, go to
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