The time has come again to review some of the most-promising CD boxed sets hitting the shelves.
The cynics among us decry the act of repackaging old music in pretty new boxes, while music buffs drool over rarities, outtakes and remastered classic albums. That said, here is simply a sampling of the best new boxed sets on the market. Whatever your tastes, you're likely to find something out there.
Get ready, get set and shop for the best deals. While some of these collections have hefty price tags, if you search for the right deals online, you might discover some ridiculously low sale prices. Most of the prices shown are taken from Amazon.com as of our press deadline.
Let's dispense with the prosaic intro—and get to the goodies.
VIRGIN; 18 CDs, 3 DVDs; $175.70
If you're surprised that this '90s Britpop band has enough material for 18 CDs, you're not alone. But just in time for the 21st anniversary of the release of their debut, Leisure, here it is: all seven studio albums, as well as more than five hours of previously unreleased material, three DVDs and a collectible book. There's even a limited-edition, 7-inch vinyl single with a song that the band recorded under its original name, Seymour. It's actually too much to list. Bandleader Damon Albarn has gone on to form such interesting groups as Gorillaz; Mali Music; The Good, the Bad and the Queen; and, most recently, Rocketjuice and the Moon. But here, you can hear his not-too-shabby beginnings.
The Complete Columbia Album Collection
LEGACY; 63 CDs; $255.99
This massive boxed set includes the Man in Black's complete recorded output for Columbia Records, from 1958's The Fabulous Johnny Cash, which featured his first No. 1 single, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," to Highwayman 2 (released in 1990), his second collaboration with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Naturally, there's a big ol' color booklet with meticulous documentation and liner notes, but the emphasis here is on Cash's music: from country and Western, gospel, blues and rockabilly, to folk and traditional ballads. Also included are two new singles compilations: the 28-song album Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar, and the 55-track The Singles, Plus. Cash may have recorded some weaker material at certain points in his career, but as a body of work, this is the latest Holy Grail in recorded music.
The English Beat
The Complete Beat
SHOUT! FACTORY; 5 CDs; $35.31
With songs such as "Mirror in the Bathroom," "I Confess," "Hands Off ... She's Mine" and "Twist and Crawl," memories of '80s two-tone ska will come flooding back. A total of 79 tracks are spread across these five discs. Included are remasters and expanded versions of the band's three studio albums, two extras discs full of 12-inch mixes and dubs, some Peel Sessions, and four cuts recorded live in Boston in November 1982.
Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection
SMITHSONIAN/FOLKWAYS; 3 CDs; $63.98
Maybe you heard about this set from the flood of publicity that heralded its release last summer to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the folk legend's birth. This 57-song set documents the work of one of the most important and influential singer-songwriters of the last century (he died in 1967), touching just the tip of a 3,000-song iceberg. The beautifully bound, 154-page book features art essays. The music includes some of his earliest recordings, some rare radio shows, 21 previously unreleased performances and six never-before-heard original songs. Many kids learn "This Land Is Your Land" in school, but Guthrie was way more than that. Folk music—indeed, all music—would not have been what it is today without him.
EPIC LEGACY; 4 CDs, 1 DVD; $34.99
Ann and Nancy Wilson, rock 'n' roll's best sister act—who released a brand-new album this year as well—may have experienced ups and downs throughout their 36-year career, but enjoying the highs always has been worth enduring the lows. This boxed set is way more than simply a repackaging of the hits: It's the first multi-label, career-spanning compendium for the band, jam-packed with album and demo versions of familiar hits (so you can compare and contrast), rarities, live tracks and outtakes. The DVD is a 55-minute live performance of the young band in 1976 (around the time I developed a crush on both sisters). There are tracks representing the pre-Heart group Ann Wilson and the Daybreaks, and the Wilsons' late-period side project, the Lovemongers. The fourth CD is an EP compiling Heart's uncanny Led Zeppelin covers.
Philadelphia International Records: The 40th Anniversary Box Set
HARMLESS; 10 CDs; $68.48
This soul compilation covers the glory days of the 1970s label, including nearly 800 minutes of pure, distilled R&B and funk by the likes of M.F.S.B., the O'Jays, Archie Bell and the Drells, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Three Degrees, Billy Paul, Instant Funk, Teddy Pendergrass, the Jacksons, Lou Rawls and many others. The package includes a 60-page booklet with sleeve notes and track details by archivist Ralph Tee. There's a reason why an entire genre has been called Philly soul, and the music here constitutes Exhibit A. Initial reviews say this boxed set tops previous similar collections for sheer volume.
Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine XX
LEGACY; 2 CDs, 2 DVDs, 1 LP; $95.49
Can any of us really imagine Paul Ryan getting into "Killing in the Name" or "Take the Power Back" from Rage's amazing, incendiary debut album? Released in 1992, this exclamatory album showed Rage to be among the pioneers in blending hip-hop, hard rock and protest music in one package, which, by the way, sounds as dynamic and innovative as it did 20 years ago. It has been preserved in all its "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" glory on this new set, which features a remastered edition of the original, commercial version of the album, a CD with the original demos for the album, two live DVDs, and an audiophile's wet dream of a 180-gram vinyl version of it. If your pocketbook can't handle the price tag, scaled-down versions are available.
The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982
VIRGIN; 10 CDs; $84.37
In one of the best deals out there, you get all eight of the ground-breaking band's studio albums in their original form, from the thorny self-titled debut—an amalgam of art-, glam- and prog-rock—to the final work, the smooth cocktails-and-boudoir record Avalon. Also included are two discs of bonus tracks previously unavailable on CD. Audiophiles will want to know that these versions used flat transfers from the original analog master tapes rather than the 1999 digital re-masters. Sounding as much like the original LPs as possible, this set will allow you to imagine how shockingly new Roxy's music must have sounded in the context of pop music 40 years ago.
Graceland 25th Anniversary Edition
SONY LEGACY; 1 CD, 1 DVD; $16.08
The unprecedented meeting of Simon's ageless pop and the sounds of South African musicians such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo (not to forget a guest appearance by Tucson homegirl Linda Ronstadt) yielded this Grammy-winning 1986 album. Here is a remastered version of the album, which includes such unforgettable hits as "The Boy in the Bubble," "You Can Call Me Al," "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and the title track. Also included is a DVD of the documentary Under African Skies, directed by Joe Berlinger, about the making-of and the controversy surrounding the album. You can also buy assorted, more-elaborate editions with more CDs, more DVDs, more booklets and vinyl. This one's a deal, though.