As the year draws to an end, American Songwriter offers an opinion on the best boxes for holiday giving
Get ready to dig deep in those sofa cushions for loose change. There’s an abundance of box sets to fill out your holiday shopping lists this year. Don’t bother asking Santa; these are fifteen compendiums that might potentially weigh down his sleigh. Nevertheless, the cost is well worth it considering the wealth of rarities, prominent packaging, and the opportunity to dig deep beyond the better-known catalog collections.
1. The Beatles’ Revolver box is a viable goldmine of rarities and unreleased recordings spawned from the sessions that eventually produced what many argue is the band’s best album, even to the extent it outshines Sgt. Pepper, the effort widely hailed as the Fabs’ masterpiece. After all, Revolver foreshadowed the experimentation and acid influences that would show up on its successor. This edition boasts four discs, including a new stereo mix, the original mono and two CDs of rehearsal recordings and early attempts to nail the new songs. A coffee table book adds extra worth to what is assuredly an essential acquisition.
2. With Joni Mitchell’s return to the public eye courtesy of her surprise appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, Rhino’s four-CD set, The Asylum Albums, offers an opportunity to get reacquainted with four essential post-Reprise albums—For the Roses, Court and Spark, the live Miles of Aisles, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. After the bare honesty and tripped-down simplicity of seminal efforts, Song to a Seagull, Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon and Blue, in particular, this series of efforts boasted more sophistication and richer arrangements than before, paving the way for the excursion in jazz that would follow soon after. Effectively remastered and featuring cover art by Mitchell herself, this is indeed one for the ages. Rhino ranks as a leader in box set realms and this effort offers one more reason why.
3. Widely hailed as Neil Young’s early masterpiece, and his most commercially credible album up to that point, Harvest gets a 50th-anniversary re-release courtesy of a deluxe edition that includes two discs of Harvest outtakes, a CD featuring a BBC broadcast from February 1971 and a DVD documentary of the same. Extensive liner notes and a fold-out poster add extra allure, but inevitably, it’s the songs themselves that make this the ideal example of Young in the seminal stages of his career. As always, he’s been markedly prolific lately, given his multiple archival offerings and spate of new releases (World Record being the latest), but the compact box provides opportunity to find Young going back to the basics and showing that his “Heart of Gold” still beats best.
4. It’s still hard to believe that Tom Petty left us when he did, given the vital music he made and his indelible impact on heartland rock and roll. There’s some consolation to be found with Petty and the Heartbreakers Live at the Fillmore – 1997 four CD or eight LP set, boasting 58 songs culled from the band’s 20-night residency at the famed Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. The musicians themselves called it the culmination of their time together as a band and given the wealth of riches shared over that nearly three-week stand, it’s hard to disagree. There have been other live Petty performances of course, but this particular set is unique in that consists mainly of covers of songs originally recorded by those that served as seminal influences. Collectors will crave the extra as well —an embroidered patch, a laminate backstage all-access patch, a reproduction of a 1997 newsletter, and a booklet detailing the series of shows.
5. The late Clash frontman and subsequent solo artist, Joe Strummer, was another of those legendary artists who left us all too soon. So while his earlier efforts may have provided his initial claim to fame, this collection, aptly titled Joe Strummer 002: The Mescaleros Years effectively sums up his later work with the band that served as his musical mainstay. It includes all three original studio albums and a collection of rarities, outtakes, and demos, effectively offering everything the band ever recorded. The book that encases the discs provides an essential introduction for those who may be unaware as well as a timely reminder of Strummer’s lingering legacy for those whose dedication remained intact up to the end. The fact that it was released on George Harrison’s Dark Horse solo record label makes it somewhat significant as well.
6. Not surprisingly, there’s been a steady spate of archival offerings from David Bowie’s estate in the years since his untimely passing, but taken in tandem, Divine Symmetry—The Journey to Hunky Dory is arguably the goldmine that Bowie fans will worthy of any investment. Spread across four CDs and Blu-Ray audio, it offers demos, live recordings, alternate mixes, and singles selections that led to the album being widely recorded as Bowie’s first true masterpiece. It’s a sumptuous set in every regard, not to mention the extraordinary insight it offers into Bowie’s transition from a weird, wannabe pop star to the conceptional artist he would soon become. The discs are closed in a sumptuous coffee table book boasting photos, extensive text, and detailed liner notes about each of the several d open selections. The reproductions of young David’s lyrics and notes are a treasure trove of exploration all in itself.
7. Expanding on the uncovered, newly released classic concert by Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Album Hall, a new two-CD, three-LP, and DVD further illuminates that classic performance in the most remarkable way imaginable. It was, of course, a highlight for both the band and fans, one that brought to bear their greatest hits and aback-to-basics approach that stood in strict defiance to the psychedelia and abject experimentation that dominated the sound of rock as the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s. Nevertheless, like the Band, the Byrds, and the Burrito Brothers, Creedence maintained a back-to-basics approach that would eventually morph into Americana. This particular concert, shared on audio and video, gives Creedence the credit they deserve.
8. Even during the height of Monkees mania, Mickey, Peter, Davy, and Mike were never given the credibility and respect they eventually came to crave even as their handlers’ prospered and the fortunes reaped by their recordings and TV series put them at the peak of popularity. Consequently, Headquarters, the band’s third album, was proudly touted as the first to find the group performing the music all themselves, eschewing gate need for the stand-in session players that too the reigns on the first two albums that bore the band’s banner. A previous reissue offered a re-release with added tracks, but this new four-disc set delves deeper into the album’s creation with tracks recorded in January, February, and March of 1967, with a number of added extras besides. The majority of the add-ons consist of backing tracks as the band works out the rudiments of what would eventually become fully fleshed-out songs. Given their newfound freedom, it’s interesting to follow the progress and, in a way, witness the history being made. It also adds a vinyl 45 (“All of Your Toys/B/W “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”) and insightful liner notes detailing the music that was made.
9. Paul McCartney took a defining step with each of the three albums released under the McCartney moniker. Even ardent fans tend to debate the role each plays in McCartney’s catalog, but in truth, the same can be said of practically every album he’s released since early on. Nevertheless, this box, which boasts limited edition 180g audiophile vinyl re-releases should find instant appeal with diehard devotees who cherish everything with the Macca branding. Three color prints offer further enticement with personal reflections from Paul added to each. Alas, no bonus material punctuates the package, but collector consideration will likely override all.
10. Motown may have defined the sound of soul in the ‘60s, bit in retrospect it might be argued that Philadelphia International Records did the same in the ‘70s. To prove the point, an eight LP box set appropriately dubbed The Story of Philadelphia International Records package eight albums by the label’s heavy hitters — The O’Jays, Billy Paul, MFSB, The Three Degrees, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Dexter Wansel, The Philadelphia International All-Stars, and Leon Huff — to full flesh out that premise while providing all the audio evidence needed. It’s an ideal introduction for the uninitiated and a welcome return for those that enjoyed it all the first time around. In that regard, it’s an ideal anthology via a trip back in time.
11. As they did with earlier albums, Wilco makes a revisit to their career-defining opus, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a sprawling excuse for discovery thanks to a 20th-anniversary reissue boasting less than 84 unreleased tracks. Along with demos, drafts, and instrumentals, it includes a series of live recordings and a book that details the making of the album featuring reflections from the band’s principals along with heretofore unseen photos taken during the album’s sessions. It might very well seem overwhelming at first to all but diehard fans, but once indulged, it becomes a fascinating audio adventure, one that helps define the band’s outsized intents. A remastered recasting of the original album brings the nuances to light, providing further reason to indulge and invest.
12. Nirvana belongs to another era, one that saw the rise of the Seattle sound and the legitimization of grunge as part of a post-punk legacy. It’s only right then that the band’s undisputed masterwork, Nevermind gets a full 30th-anniversary reboot courtesy of five CDs and a blu-ray that reprise the original album along with four seminal concerts in Amsterdam, Australia, Tokyo, and Del Mar California. Much of the material is unreleased, offering an outstanding example of how the band was able to transfer their edge and angst to live performance. Given the supposed martyrdom of Kurt Cobain, it’s a fitting tribute to the man and his music, and the groundbreaking efforts that still stand as key components in his and his bandmates’ lingering legacy. Smartly packaged, the new Nevermind serves this tenacious trio well.
13. Against the Odds 1974-1982 is nothing less than the perfect Blondie compendium, one that gives the dedicated devotee the band’s entire output stretched across six CDs that boast the band’s seminal albums bolstered by bonus tracks and two additional discs fleshed out with rarities, demos, home recordings, and alternate takes. The 129-page hardback book is an essential element as well, thanks to a treasure trove of photos, memorabilia, essays, and documentation that details the band’s ongoing evolution. It is, in short, a sumptuous set, one that’s certainly worthy of a band that began as prime punk provocateurs before finding surprising success through commercial credence. Against the odds indeed. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect postscript.
14. Credit Capitol/Universal for offering with shedding new light on the brilliance of the Beach Boys through a steady series of expanded editions focusing on the band’s landmark albums. The latest in the series, Sail On Sailor 1972, follows suit courtesy of a remarkable eight-CD set that includes two of the original lineup’s later efforts, Carl and the Passions – So Tough and Holland, Brian Wilson’s fanciful fairytale “Mount Vernon and Fairway,” and a wealth of unreleased bonus tracks, live recordings from Carnegie Hall and various sessions, all spread over eight discs in all. Although the band had a difficult challenge before them in trying to top Surf’s Up, Sunflower, Pet Sounds, and, of course, the aborted Smile, these later albums were masterpieces in their own rights as well, although sadly, they somehow seemed like afterthoughts as the ‘60s morphed into the ‘70s. Brian Wilson had retired from the road and his role within the band wasn’t as prominent as it seemed before. Still, as this sumptuous box and its liner notes make clear, the band was still capable of making imaginative and innovative music even when the world wasn’t watching. Consequently, any fan of the band ought to consider Sail On Sailor 1972 nothing less than essential.
15. It should be added as a footnote, that in addition to the aforementioned releases, UMe has taken a lead in releasing a steady stream of expanded offerings throughout the past year. The range is impressive, encompassing a three-disc 20th-anniversary rerelease of Norah Jones’ landmark debut album, Come Away With Me, to a previously unreleased two-CD set that includes the entirety of the Rolling Stones’ legendary intimate gig at Toronto’s El Mocambo clubs, a secret two-night stand that preceded the band’s 1977 North American tour.
It all begs the question —who said history can’t be repeated?