They’re expensive, exhaustive, and exhausting, but all those boxed sets taking up space in record stores are, in a sense, critic-proof. You probably know at least one person who would love to wake up Christmas morning and find dozens upon dozens of tracks by the Clash or Yes or Ray Charles under the tree, all of them preserved forever on gleaming CDs nestled in a lavish cardboard box with a photo-jammed booklet.
But when it comes to the boxed-set glut — over two dozen have been released this year alone — even major fans have to weigh some serious questions. Are the rarities contained in each box worth shelling out $50 or more? Are some artists better served by an earlier greatest-hits album that’s more cost- effective and contains only the essential cuts? And (beyond financial gain for record companies) is there an artistic agenda behind each box?
With such questions in mind, we slogged through the season’s notable pop, blues, and rock boxed sets, considering what might appeal to each artist’s fans, what might irritate listeners new to each artist, the quality of packaging, and, in what we will affectionately call Boxed-Set Hell, moments of excess that make us question the wisdom of making boxed sets at all.
Intention: You think Guns N’ Roses were the first loud, sloppy, excessive hell-raisers? Wait’ll you hear these 1972- 82 recordings by the Beantown bad boys!
Achievement: Although Axl Rose should be forced to study Pandora’s Box to see how rock-star indulgences can screw up even the most successful bands, early ’70s tracks like ”Dream On,” ”Toys in the Attic,” and ”Sweet Emotion” still set blooze-rock standards.
Fans, Behold: A 1966 recording by Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler’s first band, Chain Reaction; unreleased song fragments and live tracks from radio broadcasts and 1978’s Texxas Jam.
Newcomers, Beware: Don’t bother with disc 3 (the band’s post-1977 decline); better still, just stick with previous Aerosmith compilations, Greatest Hits and Gems.
Boxed-Set Hell: Eight unreleased jams that show Aerosmith could never really, uh, jam. Most Unintentionally Amusing Comment in Booklet (tie): Guitarist Brad Whitford on ”Round and Round”: ”I don’t remember a whole lot about this one.” Drummer Joey Kramer on ”Krawhitham”: ”I’m a little confused over exactly when we recorded this.” B
Intention: To make sense of the long and winding career of the 47-year-old guitar god, from his mid-’60s days with the Yardbirds through his hit-or-miss post-’70s solo albums.
Achievement: Makes a solid case for Beck as an unsurpassed technician but not necessarily as a great record maker, particularly over the last decade.
Packaging Minus: Booklet has 63 photos chronicling Beck’s grimaces during solos.
Fans, Behold: Recordings by Beck’s first professional band, the Tridents, plus rare B sides and live tracks with the Yardbirds and Beck, Bogert, Appice.
Newcomers, Beware: Since this is the first-ever Beck overview, it’s Beckology or nothing.
Boxed-Set Hell: Third disc features his contributions to the soundtracks of Twins and Porky’s Revenge. B-
From the Top
Intention: To prove that the late Karen Carpenter shouldn’t be remembered just for her bad eating habits — that she and her brother, Richard, were, in fact, underrated talents.
Achievement: The Carpenters’ music can still seem painfully banal, but at its best it defined middle-of-the-road pop in the ’70s, with the sad, dark hues of Karen’s voice suggesting underlying currents of angst. The point is diluted, though, by soda commercials, forgettable ’80s recordings, and other padding.
Fans, Behold: Early recordings by the Richard Carpenter Trio featuring teenage Karen’s nascent jazz drumming; unreleased songs from Karen’s canned solo album, including the ominously titled “My Body Keeps Changing My Mind.”
Newcomers, Beware: Stick with the second half of disc 1 and all of disc 2. Or buy The Singles 1969-1973, the Carpenters’ greatest-hits package. Also: Richard rerecorded some of his keyboard parts to improve their CD sound quality.
Unintentional Morbid Touch: Tracing Karen’s weight loss through chronological photos in booklet.
Boxed-Set Hell: A version of the insipid ”Sing” partially sung in Spanish. B-
The Birth of Soul/The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings 1952-1959
Intention: To remind us that the old pitchman in the Pepsi commercials has given more to civilization than ”You got the right one, baby, uh-huh.”
Achievement: Vital early music — Charles’ big-band mesh of blues, soul, and gospel still jumps out of the speakers. But given the wide scope of Charles’ work (the tracks here include none of his later experiments with pop and country), the cumulative effect is narrow and a bit monotonous.
Packaging Minus: Erudite liner notes occasionally describe Charles with silly highfalutin phrases like ”Promethean musical polymath.”
Newcomers, Beware: Only top 10 hit here is “What’d I Say, Parts 1 & 2.” For ”Hit the Road Jack,” ”I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and his other ’60s hits, you’ll have to turn to earlier compilations on Rhino.
Boxed-Set Hell: With one or two fewer tracks, this 151 minutes of music could have fit onto two CDs, but that would have cut into the record company’s profits, right? B
Clash on Broadway
Intention: To ensure that we remember the Clash for their tear-down-the-walls punk and not because they led to such watered-down offshoots as Big Audio Dynamite.
Achievement: Box seems a tad pretentious for a band that only released five albums and an EP; the last third documents their increasingly bloated sense of self-importance. But the Clash’s most protean tracks still make current alternative rock sound diluted and compromised.
Packaging Plus: Clean, readable layout with terrific selection of period photos.
Packaging Minus: Clean, readable layout seems somewhat at odds with concept of punk.
Fans, Behold: Rare 1976 demos; B sides and studio outtakes.
Newcomers, Beware: Opt for essential albums like London Calling and The Clash or the serviceable anthology Story of the Clash Volume 1. A-
The Patsy Cline Collection
Intention: To be “the first (compilation) to survey entire career chronologically” of the country queen, who died in a 1963 plane crash.
Achievement: Cline’s countrypolitan music — a slicker, less ornery but tough-hearted brand of C&W — paved the way for the spunky post-’60s likes of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. But after plowing through all four overstuffed CDs, you too may (to paraphrase one of Cline’s songs) fall to pieces.
Packaging Plus: Beautiful booklet with reproduction of the front-page story in the Nashville Banner about her death.
Fans, Behold: Early recordings reveal Cline to be a lot friskier than you may remember from such smooth later hits as ”Crazy.”
Newcomers, Beware: Stick with discs 2 and 3 for most of the hits, or try an earlier, leaner compilation, The Patsy Cline Story. B-
Crosby, Still, & Nash
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Intention: Remember when they were young and skinny and could hit all the high notes?
Achievement: The current image of CSN — chubby, aging hippies with frayed voices and lazy work habits — can’t negate the allure of those harmonies and songs, and the box does a good job of pruning not just the best group work but also noteworthy tracks from erratic solo and duet albums. Given how up-front they’ve been about their problems, it also makes for a four-CD shrink session.
Packaging Plus: Booklet with family-tree chart.
Packaging Minus: Abundance of photos of young, skinny CSN doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
Fans, Behold: Unreleased CSNY reunion tracks from the ’70s; interesting alternate takes of standards like ”Helplessly Hoping”; original eight-minute version of ”Almost Cut My Hair.”
Newcomers, Beware: High list price; stick with discs 1 and 2 or just buy the group’s first two albums, Crosby, Stills & Nash and CSNY’s Deja Vu.
Boxed-Set Hell: Too many Graham Nash songs. B+
”They Call Me the Fat Man…”/ The Legendary Imperial Recordings
Intention: To demonstrate that the chunky piano player was responsible for more than just ”Blueberry Hill” and ”Ain’t That a Shame” — a lot more, in fact.
Achievement: Good to be reminded that Domino gave us such oft-covered anthems as ”I’m Walkin”’ and ”I Hear You Knocking.” But you don’t need 100 songs to know that.
Packaging Bonus: Sumptuous booklet with detailed session listings and chapter-by-chapter life story.
Fans, Behold: Barrelhouse R&B recordings on disc 1 — featuring tenor sax of Herbert Hardesty — prove Domino was no wimp.
Newcomers, Beware: Stick with EMI’s single-CD compilation, My Blue Heaven.
Most Unintentionally Amusing Comment in Booklet: ”Fats Domino didn’t record many throwaway songs. Just about all his tunes are mini-classics.” Uh-huh.
Boxed-Set Hell: By disc 2, he’s already rewriting ”Ain’t That a Shame,” and there are still one and a half more CDs to go. B-
Intention: To bolster the posthumous reputation of rowdy, bullheaded ’70s Southern rockers, three of whose members perished in a 1977 plane crash.
Achievement: Relatively concise length (for a box). And the proud, fierce rock & roll of tracks like ”Saturday Night Special” and ”Sweet Home Alabama” does make you think back fondly on Southern rock.
Packaging Plus: Booklet contains reprint of original band-in-flames cover of album Street Survivors, which was pulled by MCA after the crash.
Packaging Minus: Booklet essay has footnotes.
Fans, Behold: Unreleased early recordings and live tracks; demo version of ”Free Bird.”
Newcomers, Beware: Gold and Platinum hits package has all the basics.
Boxed-Set Hell: Two versions (totaling 13 minutes) of the great but overplayed ”Free Bird.” A
Listen to the Band Intention: To promote, in the words of the liner notes, the ”musical legitimacy” of the prefabricated ’60s singles group by focusing not just on hits but also on obscure album tracks.
Achievement: Remixed versions of ”Daydream Believer,” ”Last Train to Clarksville,” ”Pleasant Valley Sunday,” et al. prove a band can be manufactured and still produce timeless pop. But the box tries too hard to invest the Monkees with unnecessary significance.
Packaging Bonus: Enclosed fab poster!
Packaging Minus: Garish, pseudo-psychedelic cover!
Newcomers, Beware: Arista’s 11-track Greatest Hits beckons you.
Most Unintentionally Amusing Comment in Booklet: Peter Tork: “‘Can You Dig It’ is about the Tao.”
Boxed-Set Hell: Micky Dolenz’s antiwar ”Zor and Zam” and other later attempts on the group’s part to show they were deep-thinking sages. B-
Back to Mono (1958-1969)
Intention: To collect all of Spector’s greatest singles for the first time in one place and, simultaneously, remind us how he led the pop parade during the ’60s.
Achievement: Spector’s low profile over the last two decades guarantees that most people under 30 won’t understand, but for those who grew up with AM radio in the early to mid-’60s, Spector’s Wall of Sound will outlast the Great Wall of China.
Packaging Plus: All the hits (sung by the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, the Righteous Brothers, and others), plus — complete! — Spector’s only album, A Christmas Gift for You.
Newcomers, Beware: This is your only option, since all previous Spector anthologies are out of print, but the price is high. A-
The Chess Box
Intention: If you think Robert Cray qualifies as blues, wait’ll you hear the sand-gravel voice and songs of the Delta bluesman who gave us ”Spoonful,” ”Little Red Rooster,” and much more.
Achievement: An essential blues compilation — Wolf’s demented-gremlin vocals still make his closest peer, Muddy Waters, sound like a teddy bear.
Packaging Plus: Appropriately scholarly, yet critical, liner notes.
Fans, Behold: Crude, early recordings never before released in the U.S.
Newcomers, Beware: A one-CD Chess anthology, His Greatest Sides, Vol. 1, gives an overview. B+
Intention: To convince us that progressive ’70s rock wasn’t all that bad.
Achievement: Some of these tracks — ”Roundabout,” ”Going for the One,” and a few later cuts like “Owner of a Lonely Heart” — are still state-of-the-art art-rock, but the genre remains an acquired taste.
Packaging Plus: Four-color booklet with family-tree history of the band.
Packaging Minus: Given song lengths averaging 10 minutes, cost per track is an unusually high $1.52 (compared with about 77 cents per song for other boxes).
Newcomers, Beware: Opt for albums like Fragile or Close to the Edge.
Most Unintentionally Amusing Comment in Booklet: Drummer Alan White: “I call Yes the egg — a kind of embryo that people keep falling out of and falling back into through periods of time. It’s an egg that you’re part of.”
Boxed-Set Hell: Chris Squire’s sludgy solo-bass version of ”Amazing Grace.” C+