Say hello to another holiday tradition: As the year end approaches, record companies use luscious graphics, meticulous liner notes and inventive re-packaging to market to consumers hours of music that we sometimes already own in other versions.
If you're a music nut like me, you've found yourself more than once in the music section at Borders or Barnes and Noble--not unlike Ralphie in front of the department store window in A Christmas Story--staring longingly up at those deliciously high-priced boxes behind the cash register.
These are the Red Ryder BB guns for our generation: The Complete Bill Evans on Verve! The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson! Miles Davis' Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963-1964! The Complete Studio Recordings of Led Zeppelin! Ray Charles' Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1952-1959!
Notice any similarities in the above titles? Yes, boxed sets are designed to appeal to the completists among us, those specialized fans who must surely believe that hearing every note played or taped by a recording artist brings us a fuller knowledge of him. This sort of marketing also panders to the historical music buffs who have memorized each track on every John Coltrane album with a reverence that rivals that of baseball fanatics rattling off the season stats of the 1962 Yankees.
I remember, about a dozen years ago, ponying up a little cash, along with several other acquaintances, so we could collectively afford to buy Yoko Ono's now-out-of-print, six-disc retrospective Onobox as a birthday present requested by a mutual pal.
Granted, some casual music listeners might question the recipient's sanity, but I understood the fellow's passion. I searched for years for Eno Box II: Vocals, also now out of print, before finding it on eBay. My wife was happy to learn I got it for a song, considering it usually demands more than 100 clams at auction.
Sometimes, boxed sets also serve as an important introduction to an overlooked musical artist's oeuvre. Because of my age, I never had heard the music of Nick Drake, the brilliant but suicidal English folkie, before his death in 1974, so Drake's four-disc box Fruit Tree hit me like a revelation upon its release in 1991.
As a community service, the Weekly has complied the following select list of some of the most promising collections to hit stores during 2005. It is by no means comprehensive. We do have lives, you know.
By the way, caveat emptor: Your faithful music scribe has listened to and owns only some of these recordings, but not all of them. Yet. So these capsules are not meant to be definitive reviews.
All of these boxed sets should prove easy enough to locate in either local stores or through online sources. List prices are included, but savvy consumers should remember that discounts (sometimes significant ones) are available at various outlets. As old saw goes, only suckers pay retail.
The BandA Musical History Capitol, $89.98
Perhaps the standard bearer for this year's crop of boxed sets, this cornucopia by one of rock's greatest ensembles includes 102 songs (30 of them previously unreleased) spread across five CDs, a 108-page hardcover book with lots of juicy photos and--this is becoming increasingly common--a DVD full of newly issued concert footage. The Band was an exemplar of what has come to be known as Americana music--blues, soul, country, bluegrass, early rock 'n' roll, Tin Pan Alley--which is only a little odd, considering that the group members were Canadian. Robbie Robertson, the talented Band leader, produced and compiled the collection, which follows the group from its earliest work (as Ronnie Hawkins' backing band in 1963) through its collaborations with Bob Dylan to its final recordings in 1977.
June Carter CashKeep on the Sunny Side: Her Life in Music Columbia/Legacy, $24.98
Modern-day listeners may know her best as the Man in Black's true love, but June Carter Cash was a well-rounded entertainer in her own right. Born into country-music royalty, she was the youngest of the legendary Carter Family, and this too-brief two-CD/40-song set covers her performing career from 1939 radio recordings--her rendition of "Oh Susanna" at 10 years old is priceless--through comedy skits, Broadway-style and jazz tunes, traditional bluegrass and her own immortal version of "Ring of Fire," the song with which Johnny had one of his biggest hits. She sings with her mother, Maybelle, and her sisters. She sings with Johnny. She performs with her own daughters and stepdaughter (Rosanne Cash). The set begins with a snippet of the title song recorded with her family in the '30s and ends with her Grammy-nominated version from 2003.
Johnny CashThe Legend Columbia/Legacy, $49.98
Some music fans might argue that we don't need another boxed set from Cash, and there are quite a few to choose from, but this one four-disc, 104-song collection is sweet, covering as it does a wide swath through his career, prominently focusing on his time with Columbia and seminal 1950s period with Sun Records. The familiar hits are here, but the stuff for which you need to dig a little deeper is especially rewarding, such as "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," "Get Rhythm," "Long Black Veil," "Sunday Morning Comin' Down" and "Tennessee Flat Top Box." Oh, and the guest stars--from Carl Perkins to U2--number far too many to list. It's not nearly a complete career overview--that would be impossible to accomplish with only four discs. There isn't much representation of his remarkable late-period American Recordings with Rick Rubin, but big deal. That material is available on the boxed set Unearthed, and these discs can serve as an introduction to the rest of Cash's career.
Nick Cave and the Bad SeedsB-Sides and Rarities Mute, $24.98
This terrific three-CD set spans the entire 21-year career of Aussie Cave and his always-amazing Goth-punk-beat cabaret band, from its earliest misanthropic beginning, through searing folk-blues and murder ballads, to the gospel-inspired recordings of recent years. Alternative takes and acoustic versions pop up throughout, but the real treats among these 56 tracks are the songs that can't found on Cave's studio albums, such as songs recorded for movie soundtracks, as well as covers of tunes by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Roy Orbison and Leadbelly. The treasure of this set is a non-ironic duet with Shane McGowan (formerly of The Pogues) on "What a Wonderful World," which until now was only available on a single. The package's lack of bells and whistles--no book, photos, tchotchkes--probably explains the set's bargain price. So what! It's all about the music, right?
DonovanTry for the Sun Sony, $49.98
If you only know Donovan Leitch's oldies-radio-friendly hits such as "Sunshine Superman," "Mellow Yellow" and "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," it's time to learn a little more about the folk-rock artist who seemed in the 1960s like the mutant offspring of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
These three discs include 60 tunes, 15 of them previously unreleased or otherwise rare in some way, covering a 40-year period starting in 1964. This re-mastered set should please hard-core fans and newbies alike, focusing on showing the complete artist, including the darker side exemplified by "Season of the Witch," "Co'dine" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man." Also in the box is a DVD that, according to publicity information, "marks the long overdue premiere of the 1970 documentary, There Is an Ocean. Filmed during a voyage to Greece, the doc presents a revealing portrait of Donovan in the company of friends and family, with plenty of never-before-seen live performance footage included."
Rickie Lee JonesDuchess of Coolsville: An Anthology Rhino, $31.98
This long overdue three-disc, 48-song set traces the years 1979 to 2003 and was programmed by Jones herself, employing alphabetical rather than chronological order on the first two discs. Odd for a retrospective, but who cares? The music is brilliant. Highlights, of course, are the early tunes, such as "Coolsville," "We Belong Together," "Satellites," "Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)" and "Weasel and the White Boys Cool." The third disc is filled with rarities, such as demos, live tracks ("My Funny Valentine" will slay you) and collaborations with artists such as Dr. John, Bill Frisell and The Blue Nile.
King CrimsonThe 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, Vol. 2: 1981-2003 Discipline, $49.98
Following last year's worthy Vol. 1 (which anthologized the art-rock band's 1970s incarnations), this four-disc, 65-track set picks up the King Crimson tale with the band's early '80s revival, during which vocalist-guitarist Adrian Belew helped breathe new pop-rock life into guitar pioneer Robert Fripp's sometimes over-esoteric experimentation. The set wisely emphasizes the significance of the remarkable trio of albums, Discipline, Three of a Perfect Pair and Beat, which helped redefine rock in the Reagan era as dramatically as did the recordings of the Talking Heads (with which Belew also played). More recent Crimson recordings, replete with the avant-garde wanderings of the six-piece "double-trio," focus on live performances.
Lee "Scratch" PerryI Am the Upsetter: The Story of Lee "Scratch" Perry: Golden Years Trojan US, $39.98
Without Perry--a pioneer producer, musician, singer and mixing engineer--reggae, dub and even today's rap music might be vastly different. This completely re-mastered set of classic 1970s and '80s tunes also includes tracks he recorded for such stellar reggae acts as The Wailers, Max Romeo and Junior Murvin, touching down along the way on soul, rock steady, ska and mind-bending sonic experimentation. In addition to four discs containing no less than 83 songs, the set comes with a hardcover book, packed to the gills with annotations for each tune. Some diehard fans might recommend the three-disc 1997 box Arkology, but that one retails for $10 more. And the sheer breadth of I Am the Upsetter is a salvation for reggae fans.
Charlie PooleYou Ain't Talkin' to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music Columbia/Legacy, $39.98
This lovely three-CD set collecting the 1920s-era recordings of the hard-living banjo player Poole takes the prize for this season's most novel packaging: The discs come in a replica of a wooden cigar box, with cover art by the noted cartoonist R. Crumb. Poole, it is said, helped bluegrass become country music, setting the stage for more well-known and influential artists as Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. The proof is in these raw, intense 72 tracks, some of which were actual 1920s hits and all of which are available for the first time on CD. Also amazing is that fact that all of this material was recorded during the period 1925-1930. Original Poole producer Henry Sapoznik, a Grammy Award winner, provides the liner notes in the 35-page booklet.
StereolabOscillations From the Anti-Sun Too Pure/Beggars Banquet, $24.98
Another great deal, this three-disc set retails for cheap and compiles all eight of the prolific Anglo-Franco electronic band's EPs for Elektra Records, from Jenny Ondioline in 1993 to Captain Easychord in 2001, all previously available in this country only as imports. So owning this box set is not redundant if you already have the domestic CDs of Stereolab's full-length albums! Plus, like any post-modern band worth its megabytes, there's a DVD featuring rare music videos and performances from British television. Cheers!