One can't help but direct a hearty "bah humbug" at cynical record companies which are trying to sell us music we already have, albeit in deluxe repackaged formats, with all sorts of bells and whistles such as retrospective booklets full of essays and photos, and nifty fetish-quality boxes.
But some of these boxed sets also happen to be really cool. And I'll be damned if a couple of the sets for sale this year don't offer a cornucopia of previously unreleased, rare or plain hard-to-find recordings.
In fact, the process of researching this consumer guide has caused your humble scribe to shell out some of the cash he'll make for writing this piece on one of the sets mentioned below. (If you care, dear reader, you'll just have to guess which one.)
Keep in mind our yearly refrain: This is by no means a comprehensive list; this is only meant to be a diverting sample of what is available out there. Dozens of other new boxed sets await you in stores and online.
The prices listed are those that are "suggested" for retail. If you're patient in your search, you may be able to find your favorite set on the cheap.
The legendary Scottish bass player and vocalist gets honored with an extensive look at his career, with music recorded between 1962 and 2003. His days in the iconic late-1960s rock supergroup Cream (with guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker) are documented on 14 tracks. There's good stuff from his underappreciated solo career, most notably the terrific album Songs for a Tailor, and his forays into blues, jazz and ethnic music. Also represented here are collaborations with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, John Mayall, Manfred Mann, Frank Zappa, Carla Bley, Billy Cobham, Leslie West, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin. The set features the requisite deluxe accoutrements, including a 68-page booklet with an exclusive interview and many unpublished photos.
If you follow Dylan with the detailed attention of a sports fan who scours box scores, you've probably rejoiced as he has continued this series of releases, jam-packed with rarities, alternative takes and live performances--beating the bootleggers to the punch. Some of these collections have been revelatory, while others have featured versions of tunes relatively similar to those with which we already are familiar. Dylan nuts are going ga-ga for this one, though, since it includes daringly different versions of music recorded for his recent and highly inspired period extending from the 1989 album Oh Mercy to 2006's Modern Times. These cuts prove Dylan is not done reinventing himself--and American popular music--with each step he takes.
This third and final box set chronicling the career of the English progressive-rock band examines its innovative 1970-1975 period. If you're a serious prog fan who grew frustrated with the DayGlo-bright, pop-hits-generating Genesis of the '80s, salvation can be found in these remastered versions of five gloriously eccentric albums the group recorded prior to the departures of über-theatrical vocalist Peter Gabriel and inspired guitarist Steve Hackett. Nursery Cryme, Selling England by the Pound and the groundbreaking The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway are as essential to prog-rock fans' libraries as are the works of Roxy Music, King Crimson and (some of) Yes. The package includes rarities and outtakes, and a half-dozen DVDs so you can see as well as hear what made this band special.
Sheesh, it's hard to believe that Orbison, one of the greatest singers of the rock 'n' roll era, hasn't been honored with a box set as comprehensive as this before. This was lovingly compiled by Orbison's widow, Barbara, who also is the set's executive producer, and these 107 tracks are worth the wait. A few of the immortal Top 10 hits you'll get in this set are "Only the Lonely," "In Dreams," "Crying" and "Oh, Pretty Woman." Rare live performances and no less than 12 previously unreleased original master recordings are also included.
Some may scoff at the trend of re-releasing deluxe editions of individual albums, but such skepticism fades when the focus is on one of your favorites, and for forward-thinking rock fans, this 25-year-old classic (R.E.M.'s first full-length album) marked the beginning of what we know now as alternative music. To hear the remastered versions of these songs, which have influenced hundreds of garage and basement bands, is a treat. The second disc--a recording of a scintillating 1983 nightclub gig complete with a lovely cover of the Velvet Underground's "There She Goes Again"--is icing on the cake.
Compiled from cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes recorded by Thompson between 1965 and 1975, this audio archive was first digitized by filmmakers who were given permission by Thompson's widow to dig through boxes of tapes stored in their basement after his 2005 death. Previously unreleased, these recordings include a treasure trove of ruminations, reflections, observations and working ideas for writing. It's a privileged look into the mind of a singular artist, featuring a 44-page booklet, essays by colleagues and (of course) original cover artwork by artist Ralph Steadman. Included are notes from producer-archivist Don Fleming, known by music fans for his iconoclastic work with Sonic Youth, Hole, Alice Cooper, Gumball and the Velvet Monkeys.
If you're a fan of 1970s R&B--and who with any sense isn't?--this box is one to adore. It's the story of Philadelphia International Records, founded by 1971 by songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, which aimed to become the East Coast version of Motown. You may recognize the two halves of the title as two of the label's biggest hits, by The O'Jay's and MFSB, respectively. But there are dozens of amazing tracks among this set's 71 selections--by artists such as Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Three Degrees, the Delfonics, the Stylistics, the Spinners, Patti Labelle, Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett. Also included is material that Gamble and Huff produced for other labels, by acts such as Jerry Butler, Dusty Springfield, the Manhattans and the Jacksons. It's an embarrassment of riches.
If you're a longtime Zombie fan, you may have a lot of this material in your collection already. But if all you know of White Zombie are the excellent (although ubiquitous) psychotronic singles "Thunder Kiss '65" and "More Human Than Human," this career retrospective of Rob Zombie's old band might be illuminating. It includes all of the group's studio albums, as well as various cuts from soundtrack and tribute records. The quality of White Zombie's earliest albums, which are in a more traditional garage-rock vein, remains debatable, and some online reviews have criticized this set's cut-rate Digipak packaging, which probably could have been a little more elaborate given the price tag.
In some ways, this set is the holy grail for die-hard Hank Sr. fans. Here are 54 songs, many of them rare, taken from sessions he did in 1951 for the Mother's Best Flour Show. Although there is some familiar material--"Hey, Good Lookin'," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Dust on the Bible," "Cold, Cold Heart"--there are also 28 songs which were never recorded elsewhere by Williams. Captured live in the studio with his regular band, these recordings are known to match or exceed the quality of subsequent studio masters, and Williams was in fine voice for most of them. In between some songs can be heard chatter, studio dialogue and some Mother's Best promotions.