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Rounding up the best of this year's box sets
The holidays are about more than boxes — and what comes in them — but they sure are a perk.
And in the music industry, box sets are made primarily for the holidays.
This year’s selection of ambitious and opulent packages chronicles entire careers and individual albums, historic concerts and legendary radio broadcasts. As usual, there’s plenty of previously unreleased and unheard material on each, with a wide enough range to please any music lover in your gift-giving universe.
The season’s top releases include:
Bruce Springsteen, “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” (Columbia): **** This year’s best box set focuses on one pivotal point in the New Jersey rocker’s career, the dramatic making of his fourth album (“Darkness on the Edge of Town”). Barred from the studio while in litigation with his former manager, Springsteen was not only prolific — as evidenced by the two-disc outtakes set “The Promise (The Lost Session: Darkness on the Edge of Town)” — but in transition, moving from the sonic grandiosity of “Born to Run” toward a leaner and somewhat darker approach. The 21 “new” tracks represent a whole other album (or two) that could have come during the interim, while Thom Zimny’s “The Promise” documentary is fascinating and the two other DVDs of live footage show why Springsteen became a concert legend. The notebook-style packaging is also worth the price of admission.
Jimi Hendrix, “West Coast Seattle Boy — The Jimi Hendrix Anthology” (Experience Hendrix/Legacy): *** The late guitar hero’s family has done a consistently solid job of mining his vaults since taking control of Hendrix’s catalog, and this set’s four CDs and DVD follow suit. The first disc of session work for the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and others is illuminating, while the various live, demo and alternate recordings — including some solo acoustic fare and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tears of Rage” — are welcome additions to the Hendrix canon. And the 90-minute “Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Child” documentary weaves Hendrix’s own words into an insightful complement to the rest of the package.
John Lennon, “John Lennon Signature Box” (Capitol/EMI) *** and “Gimme Some Truth” (Capitol/EMI): *** 1⁄2 The late Beatles’ widow, Yoko Ono, went into EMI’s famed Abbey Road studios in London to remaster Lennon’s recordings for these collections, which commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday as well as the 30th anniversary of his murder. The “Signature Box” pulls together his eight solo albums — a mixed bag to be sure, but it redeems any flaws with “Double Fantasy Stripped Down,” a more raw version of Lennon’s 1980 comeback album that lets the songs and his vocals stand out more. A disc of rarities and an EP of nonalbum singles make the package even more comprehensive. And don’t forget the “Box of Vision” (***) deluxe storage case released alongside the collection. The four-disc “Gimme Some Truth,” meanwhile, reorganizes the cream of Lennon’s output by subject matter — from socio-political (“Working Class Hero”) to love songs (“Woman”) — for a different but easy-to-grasp kind of perspective.
Bob Dylan, “The Original Mono Recordings” (Columbia/Legacy): ***1⁄2 Exactly what the title says, a bundle of Dylan’s first eight albums in their original mono form, which sound blessedly warm and organic even in a digital format — and just as provocative as when they were first released.
Paul McCartney & Wings, “Band on the Run” (MPL/Hear Music): **** The very best of McCartney’s post-Beatles output is celebrated in a variety of formats, the best of which is a Deluxe Edition that includes three CDs — the original album, a disc of bonus tracks and a 25th anniversary audio documentary — plus a 120-page hardbound book and a DVD of music videos and historical footage. Most importantly, “Band on the Run” itself sounds as good as it did in 1973.
The Who, “Live at Leeds: 40th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Collector’s Edition” (UMe): ***1⁄2 The third reissue of what’s considered one of the best concert albums of all time is a motherlode that features not only the complete Leeds University show but also an equally if not more explosive gig in Hull the following night, packaged with a vinyl recreation of the original LP, a 7-inch single of “Summertime Blues” and “Heaven & Hell,” and a hardbound book. Still the Who at its primal best.
Elvis Presley, “The Complete Elvis Presley Masters” (RCA/Legacy): **1⁄2 Talk about a hunk o’ “Burning Love,” here’s the King’s entire recorded output, 711 recordings across 30 CDs, in chronological order. More than 100 are rarities — alternate takes, demos, jams, home recordings and the likes — and celebrated Presley biographer Peter Guralnick wrote a new 6,000-word essay to accompany the collection. It fetches a princely sum ($750 retail), but it has more staying power than, oh, a velvet painting or a peanut butter and banana sandwich.
Hank Williams, “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings ... Plus!” (Time Life): **** Williams’ vaults have yielded plenty of posthumous releases, but this is the finest yet. This treasure trove of material — 16 discs packaged in an old-time radio facsimile, with 18 hours of music and illuminating conversation with the man — comes from 1951 broadcasts on Nashville’s legendary WSM and ranks as a priceless historical artifact of the evolution of American music.
David Bowie, “Station to Station” (Virgin/EMI): *** You can expand the experience of Bowie’s 1976 release — which featured the hits “Golden Years” and “TVC15” — via a variety of packages, with special, deluxe and super deluxe editions that include a variety of outtakes and unreleased tracks, a previously unreleased concert from the tour to support the album, assortment of memorabilia and new liner notes by Cameron Crowe.
Various Artists, “The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts” (Time Life): **** The Emmy Award-winning 2009 event, already out on DVD, comes to CD with four discs’ worth of ear-turning, once-in-a-lifetime collaborations featuring U2, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel and many more.
The Bee Gees, “Mythology” (Reprise/Rhino): ** This is the Brothers Gibb as only a mother — or the true die-hards — would love them. The hits and key album tracks are all here, but spread over separate discs dedicated to each brother, as well as a fourth that focuses on the late non-Bee Gee sibling Andy Gibb. At 81 tracks, it’s just a bit “Too Much Heaven.”
Various Artists, “CTI Records: The Cool Revolution” (Masterworks Jazz): *** Jazz purists sometimes have trouble with the smooth accessibility that marked the CTI label’s catalog. But these four discs, featuring the likes of George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington Jr., Bob James, Chet Baker and more — as well as a volume devoted to “The Brazilian Connection” of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Airto and Astrud Gilberto — reveal reservations to be jealous of CTI’s mainstream appeal.
Various Artists, “Matador at 21” (Matador): *** A five-CD set that pays homage to the influential indie rock label that introduced the world to Spoon, Pavement, Interpol, Liz Phair and many more, with remastered recordings and highlights from a 10th anniversary concert.
Todd Rundgren, “For Lack of Honest Work” (Micro Werks): *** 1⁄2 Although he’s usually been a one-man-band in the studio, Rundgren has always been a potent live act, on his own and with the band Utopia. This career-spanning set stretches 43 tunes across its three discs, mixing hits (“Hello, It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” “Bang on the Drum”) with key album tracks and even his medley of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”/“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).”
Tom Ze, “Studies of Tom Ze: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You” (Luaka Bop): *** Fair warning; you’ll need a turntable for this vinyl-only collection, but it’s well worth it to immerse yourself in the Brazilian artist’s indigenous explorations via his trilogy of stylistic “studies” of the genres that created the Tropicalista movement he’s part of. Many worthwhile surprises await.
Dinah Washington, “The Fabulous Miss D! The Keynote, Decca and Mercury Singles 1943-1953” (UMe): *** Fabulous is indeed the word for this Alabama-born jazz, blues and R&B singer (real name Ruth Lee Jones), who passed away too soon at the age of 39. This four-CD set chronicles her early days, before the triumph of “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” but still including the seminal “Am I Asking Too Much?” She was on a postage stamp in 1993 — need we say more?
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