Christmas In A Box

The Joy Of The Boxed Set

Michael Henningsen
22 min read
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Nowadays, there's a boxed set available for just about everyone on your list. And if there's not, then there's certainly one that could change his or her taste in music forever. You are the educator, so be thoughtful. The best part is that boxed sets are easy to get your hands on at any one of the few mom 'n' pop record stores left in Albuquerque, and they come in all price ranges, from the several hundred dollar-retrospective to the twin-disc best-of to the emerging trend toward DVD/CD collections.

For your pleasure and gift-buying ease, I've compiled a list of the cream of the crop (in my own, humble opinion, of course) and tossed them into four basic genre groupings in an effort to take some of the stress out of your being the world's worst procrastinator. As usual, I suggest you shop the mom 'n' pops exclusively.

There are far too many boxed sets out there to compile an all-inclusive list, so just think of the following as goodwill suggestions for your last-minute holiday shopping needs. Some are brand new releases, while others are blasts from the recent past that are sure to please. All of the following are my personal favorites, but don't feel bound to my choices—there's plenty of boxed set territory for you to explore on your own.

Beach Boys Good Vibrations: 30 Years of the Beach Boys (Capitol)

No musical education is complete without a good lesson in Beach Boys history, and Good Vibrations is about as complete a musical curriculum as you'll find, regardless of the artist. Five CDs cover 30 years of California dreamin', jammed to the gills with previously unreleased material, much of which can't be found even on the Pet Sounds box, which we'll get to next. There are 60 pages of text and pictures to help you wade through the literal treasure trove of music included here. Good Vibrations is an absolute must for the pop music fan on your list, and besides that, the Beach Boys just make every day a little sunnier, a person's outlook a little brighter. You can't go wrong with this one.

The Beatles The Capitol Albums: Vol. 1 (Capitol)

True Beatles' fans have been waiting for this for two decades: the rerelease of the original American versions of the Fab Four's first four records. Back when Capitol first reissued the four albums found in this set, they released the original British versions, which varied in content and track order, and were available only in mono. Finally, Capitol has released the original American stereo mixes (Capitol called their patented stereo treatment technique “Duophonic”) along with the mono mixes of Meet the Beatles, The Beatles Second Album, Something New and Beatles ’65.

The 48-page scrapbook-like booklet and the fact that each disc—containing both the mono and stereo versions of the album they contain—is packaged in a miniature replica of its original American album cover means that you've now got a chance to meet the Beatles just like your parents or grandparents did.

Ray Charles Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino)

If I were to spend the rest of my life on a desert island with no hope of rescue, I'd want three things: a Discman, a set of headphones and Rhino's exquisite Ray Charles box. The five discs here span Charles' unequaled career in startling detail—from his early country days to the soul music that made him a legend. Ray Charles is an American icon, with enough class to imbue several generations with a good idea of what it means to be a gift to society. Nobody sang like Ray Charles. Nobody. This one's a little pricey, but well worth the extra pennies, especially now that Jaime Foxx's portrayal in the film Ray has Mr. Charles on everyone's mind again.

Doobie Brothers Long Train Runnin' 1970-2000 (Rhino/Warner Bros)

I took a bunch of shit for my original glowing review of the Doobies' box, but I stand behind every loving word of it. Four discs and an extensive 80-page book take the listener through every phase of the band's career—and there have been many. Fortunately, not too much attention is paid to the hellish stage during which the Doobie Brothers might as well have called themselves the Michael McDonald Band, but everything else is here, including an entire disc of demos and abandoned tracks.

Galaxie 500 1987-1991 (Rykodisc)

On the eighth day, God (and Kramer) created Galaxie 500: three college friends who couldn't play a lick at first, yet somehow managed to define and redefine slo-core in the space of just under four years. Their three studio albums still stand as some of the most beautiful indie rock ever made, and all of them—This is our Music, On Fire and Today—are included in this set, replete with several bonus and CD-ROM video tracks. But wait, there's more! The Galaxie box also includes a fourth disc titled Uncollected Galaxie 500 that, for the first time ever, throws fans a new bone or two … or 14, in the way of unreleased songs, alternate versions and some rare live stuff. All the Luna albums in the world couldn't come close to eclipsing this set.

Grateful Dead The Golden Road: 1965-1973 (Rhino)

You don't have to be a stinky hippie to appreciate the Grateful Dead, although it does seem to help. All 12 of the band's official Warner Brothers releases are collected here in their remastered entirely, along with previously unreleased material including impossibly long jam sessions and a slew of other rare material. There's a little bit of everything represented here—from the Dead's downhome bluegrass adventures to their, at times, rather absurd explorations into the psychedelic and jazz fusion. The 75-page booklet is stuffed with everything the Dead fan on your list could want: photos, essays and band commentary. No Deadhead's life could possibly be complete without this set, considering the significant amount of rare and unreleased material included.

Nirvana With the Lights Out (Geffen)

The box set spans Nirvana's entire career, from a boombox recording of Led Zeppelin's “Heartbreaker” at the band's first show in 1987 to solo acoustic performances from singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain in 1994. With the Lights Out features a 60-page color booklet with rare photos and liner notes by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and writer Neil Strauss. The three CDs, arranged largely chronologically contains home and rehearsal demos, including for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (whose lyrics “With the lights out” provides the set's title), “Rape Me,” “Heart Shaped Box” and a trio penned by legendary bluesman Leadbelly. A word to the wise here: When I say that some of these recording are “lo-fi,” I'm being kind.

Twelve previously unreleased solo acoustic tracks include “All Apologies,” “Lithium” and “Sliver.” Six previously unreleased radio performances range from “Anorexorcist” in 1987 to “Dumb” in 1991. Along with the remaining debuts are a handful of earlier issued, though rare, B-sides and demos as well as the original Butch Vig mix of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Highlighted on the With the Lights Out DVD is a previously unreleased video of nine songs performed in 1988 at bassist Krist Novoselic's mother's house in Aberdeen, Washington; the rare “In Bloom” Sub Pop music video, and 10 never-before-seen live performances. Noteworthy among them are debut renditions of “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” both from early 1991. Also premiering is an unlikely performance of Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen's “Seasons in the Sun” shot at a Rio de Janeiro studio.

Queen Greatest Hits I, II and III: The Platinum Collection (Hollywood)

If you own the Hollywood Records pressing of Queen's Greatest Hits, you don't own the original album as released by Elektra before legal matters tied the band's back catalog up for more than a decade. The rereleased version is good, but the original is better. Both are combined in this set as Greatest Hits I, and Greatest Hits II is almost as masterful. Greatest Hits III combines Queen performances of more recent songs with tracks taken from the tribute to late singer Freddie Mercury recorded live after his death with a huge cast of rock luminaries from Elton John to Axl Rose. The third disc is truly for fans only, but that's what boxed sets are all about. And the booklet is rave-worthy.

The Who Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (MCA)

Believe it or not, this set's 95 tracks strewn across four CDs barely begins to scratch the surface of The Who's catalog. Hardcore fans of the band may find themselves a little disappointed at first, just based on what's not included. What is here, though, makes for a nice screen shot of The Who's career and the various transformations the band went through on their way to the three-decade mark. Lots of live versions of familiar material and a nice assortment of b-sides and tracks featuring Pete Townshend's sometimes hilarious stage banter make this one more than worthwhile.

Stevie Wonder At the Close of a Century (Motown)

As is the case with The Who's Thirty Years of Maximum R&B, there are more detailed and inclusive boxed sets chronicling Stevie Wonder's illustrious career. But At the Close of a Century is a great place to start given that, again like the aforementioned Who collection, it offers a glimpse of the vast breadth of Wonder's entire career rather than focusing on just one stage. There are three discs here, beginning with Wonder's fledgling Motown sound, on through Talking Book and ending with a taste of Hotter Than July.

Again, there are several other Stevie Wonder boxed sets and collections available that all have their own merit. In fact, you could spend a fortune getting ahold of them all. But in order to get the broadest picture of Wonder's music in a single set, this is your best bet.

AC/DC Bonfire (Eastwest)

Not so much a complete retrospective as it is a tribute to late AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, Bonfire collects plenty of rare live and studio tracks cut before Scott's legendary drinking caught up with him, along with the somewhat curious inclusion of the Back in Black album in its entirety. With spirited live versions of “Rocker,” “Problem Child,” “The Jack” and “Whole Lotta Rosie,” Bonfire makes it resoundingly clear that AC/DC were (and in many ways still are) the preeminent blues rock band. Other tracks—“Let There Be Rock,” “T.N.T.,” “Highway to Hell” and “Touch Too Much” among them—make a strong case for AC/DC as one of the best hard rock bands of the '70s and '80s. Bonfire is an uncommon delight as far as boxed sets go, featuring four CDs of mostly previously unreleased material plus Back in Black: perhaps the ultimate tribute to adolescence in all its hard-drinking, promiscuous glory. Wanna see a metalhead smile this holiday season? This is the recipe.

Iron Maiden The History of Iron Maiden, Part 1: The Early Days (Sanctuary)

Containing two DVDs, The History of Iron Maiden, Part 1: The Early Days is a chronicle of the events that led to the rise of one of the most internationally popular and arguably important metal bands of all time. Disc one collects three early concerts, including “Live at the Rainbow,” a 1981 show featuring original Maiden singer Paul DiAnno, and “Beast Over Hammersmith,” which introduces Bruce Dickinson as the band's new singer. Disc two contains a feature-length documentary with commentary be Steve Harris and other current members of Maiden, along with that of pretty much every former member of every band Harris ever played with. The interviews are casual, most of them taking place in an English pub, and quite informative and entertaining. Following the documentary, there's “20th Century Box,” a rare 20-minute TV documentary and “Live at the Ruskin,” which features rare home movie footage of the band. Extra features gives you five promotional videos, footage from various TV appearances, extensive artwork, photo galleries and all kinds of other stuff designed to keep the Maiden fan on your list busy for several days.

Judas Priest Metalogy (Sony)

Sadly, the once mighty Priest were very nearly and thoroughly dethroned when singer Rob Halford left the band for a decade or so to pursue other things: like acting as Grand Marshall in Phoenix's annual Gay Pride Parade and putting out a crappy industrial experiment with a duo he called Two. Meanwhile, the rest of Judas Priest lifted a new singer from a Priest tribute band and continued to tour and record, as offering screenplay fodder for the Mark Wahlberg movie, Rockstar.

Now that Halford has quenched his desire to explore his craft outside the metal realm he helped create and has rejoined the archdiocese of leather and studs, Judas Priest can get back to screaming for vengeance. In the meantime, there's this rather exquisite four-disc set with 65 tracks, a detailed booklet and a bonus DVD featuring a concert during the Screaming for Vengeance tour filmed in Memphis in 1982. Everything's been remixed and remastered, so it all looks and sounds superior to the original recordings, and makes the important point that Priest are responsible in large part for just about every metal band to come after them—from Metallica to Mötley Crüe.

Motorhead Stone Deaf Forever (Sanctuary)

Who needs a collection of every song Motorhead has recorded during their 30-year-plus career? You do. Stone Deaf Forever consists of 99 songs spread across five CDs, including 19 previously unreleased tracks. The 60-page booklet chronicles the exceedingly odd life of Lemmy and his revolving door cast of band members and hundreds of rare photos documenting one of metal's most uncompromising bands of all time. Lemmy himself wrote the intro and seems as surprised to be alive as anybody. Musically, some of the earliest recordings sound as low-budget, rushed and drug-addled as they were, but in terms of consistency, no band is any match for Motorhead. You might want to listen to this one in measured doses.

Lightnin' Hopkins Mojo Hand: The Anthology (Rhino)

This two-disc anthology is the place to start getting to know Houston's finest bluesman, Lightnin' Hopkins. An accomplished organist, guitarist, pianist and vocalist, Hopkins began his career in the '20s, and the blues have never been the same since. Nimble, prophetic and highly distinctive, Hopkins was one of the most expressive musicians of the genre. He bridged the gap between rural and urban styles with uncommon fire, grace and eclecticism. Start here, then keep going.

Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)

Two discs containing everything Robert Johnson ever recorded. While essential for the blues fan, The Complete Recordings may be a little daunting in that it contains a plethora of alternate takes (sequenced directly after each master). Nevertheless, novices will get used to it and old school blues fans will instantly dig the haunting sounds of Johnson rigged up in a hotel room with a single mic and acoustic guitar making mistakes only the Devil himself could rectify.

Bessie Smith The Essential Bessie Smith (Columbia/Legacy)

There exist several boxed sets of the music of Bessie Smith, but this two-disc collection does an effective job of whittling Smith's formidable catalog down to the bare essentials. Thirty-six of Smith's most stunning tracks are here, including her collaborations with Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman. There are more extensive collections of Smith's work, but this one is first rate, offering a devastatingly beautiful look into the genius of one of the greatest blues singers of all time.

T-Bone Walker Complete Capitol/Black & White Recordings (Capitol)

T-Bone Walker could easily be called the father of the electric blues. Luminaries such as B.B. King have long cited the Texas-born guitarist as a major influence. Of all the Walker retrospectives, this one most effectively chronicles his most explosive period— the '40s—during which he perfected his guitar and vocal style. For Texas blues fans, this one is indispensable.

Muddy Waters The Chess Box (MCA/Chess)

As breathtaking as it is exhaustive, any fan of Muddy Waters or the Chicago sound in general will appreciate this three-CD collection for time to come. All of Waters' best work is here, interspersed with less familiar tracks, retakes, outtakes and unreleased material.

Louis Armstrong Complete RCA/Victor Recordings (RCA)

Again, while this set doesn't offer anything in the way of previously unreleased material, it's perhaps the most “complete” Armstrong set available. Satchmo's career between 1932-33 and 1946-47—the only periods during which Armstrong recorded for RCA. There are plenty of highlights here, with Armstrong in top vocal and instrumental form.

John Coltrane Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino/Atlantic)

For Coltrane fans and bop-o-philes, Heavyweight Champion is essential listening. The seven disc box chronicles Coltrane's two years on Atlantic and includes every shred of music the saxophonist recorded during that period. Between 1959 and 1961, Coltrane worked through the transition that saw him moving away from the “sheets of sound” aesthetic and into two-chord vamp explorations. Coltrane's Atlantic years were a milestone for the man as well as for the evolution of bop. Heavyweight Champion includes the Bags & Trane, Giant Steps, Coltrane Jazz, My Favorite Things, Coltrane Plays the Blues, Olé Coltrane, The Avant-Garde and Coltrane's Sound albums in their entirety, along with plentiful alternate takes and previously unheard versions of several numbers. Talk about a mantelpiece!

Miles Davis Quintet 1965-'68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)

Davis' most exploratory ensemble—saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams—recorded five albums together between 1965 and 1968, all of which are represented here. Davis, during this period, was getting evermore serious about pushing the mainstream toward the avant-garde, making his recordings of this particular vintage astoundingly provocative. Owners of Davis' Columbia albums (ESP, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefretiti and Miles in the Sky) may be a little thrown by this collection in that the tracks here are sequenced according to session order rather than according to the original albums. But the inclusion of 13 previously unreleased tracks and a handsome booklet should take the edge off.

Miles Davis Complete In a Silent Way Recordings (Sony)

In a Silent Way represented a transitory stage for Miles Davis that, albeit brief, resulted in some of his most puzzling, complex and creative work. The music that came after In a Silent WayBitches Brew—got all the credit for the revolution that actually began during the sessions collected here. There's plenty more to this three-disc set than just outtakes and remixes. There are months of rehearsals and rearrangements set to tape, and much of the work here is Davis at one of the most expressive stages of his career. The fact that he was joined during these sessions by pianists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, organist Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Tony Williams (drums) and John McLaughlin (guitar) certainly didn't hurt. This is a great set for the Davis-savvy.

Duke Ellington The Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (RCA)

As far as jazz sets go, this one is the granddaddy of them all: 462 tracks stretched across 24 discs. But Ellington was, after all, one of the most important figures in all of popular music during the 20th century. The boxed set RCA has put together details the composer and bandleader's career from the late '20s into the '70s. It's an exhaustive, elegant set that's not among the most affordable you can buy, and there are other Ellington sets and samplers available. But if the most important person on your list this year is a dedicated jazz fan, he or she will most assuredly appreciate this box. It's someone's jazz education just waiting to be unwrapped.

Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (Polygram)

According to the experts, there was simply no one better suited to interpret Duke Ellington's work than Ella Fitzgerald, and the evidence is contained within these three CDs. Discs one and three, recorded in June 1957, feature the support of the full Ellington band and are a complete joy. But the real highlight is the middle disc, recorded in the fall of '57, which finds Ella fronting a small band boasting Ellington’s former tenor star Ben Webster. Most of this disc includes wonderful violin from Stuff Smith and classic guitar work guitar from Barney Kessel. Of particular note are the three duets with Kessel and the consistently charming work of Webster. By combining big-band and small-band sides, this collection emphasizes the flexibility of both Ellington’s songs and Fitzgerald’s interpretive powers.

Dexter Gordon The Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige)

This one's a monster—11 CDs—dedicated to a giant. The tenor saxophonist was already one of bop's journeyman by the time he began recording for the Prestige label in 1965, and spent his time on the label, through 1973 exploring bop's harder edge while living in Europe. Powerful and exceedingly fluent, Gordon ranks among the finest exponents of the tenor sax, and there's simply a monumental amount of material here to prove it. It's a pricey set, but the lucky recipient will probably pay you back with hugs in spades.

Billie Holiday The Complete Decca Recordings (Decca)

This collection features Lady Day at her absolute best and is a must for any jazz collection. Fifty cuts on two discs offer a succinct slice of jazz history that's rare, even among larger, more extensive jazz retrospectives. During her Decca period (1944-50), Holiday was accompanied for the first time by a string section, which proved to be the perfect compliment to her timeless voice. It would be virtually impossible not to please the jazz fan on your list with this phenomenal set.

Charles Mingus Passions of a Man: The Charles Mingus Anthology (Rhino)

The six CDs in this collection feature bassist/composer Charles Mingus at his most expressive and, at times, explosive. All of his Atlantic recordings are here (including Pithecanthropous Erectus, The Clown, Blues & Roots, Oh Yeah, etc.), as well as a plethora of alternate takes and a 75-minute interview with the man himself. But it's the music, considered far and wide to be some of the best work of Mingus' career—that's essential.

Charlie Parker Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection (Rhino)

There are no previously unreleased tracks on this Parker set, but the two-disc collection is perfect for those listeners who are just becoming acquainted with the legendary Bird. Some of the altoist's early work is missing, but included are most of his classic studio sides as a leader, as well as six cuts recorded with Dizzy Gillespie in 1945. For the money, Yardbird Suite can't be beat.

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