To younger music fans—or at least those hipper than I—the idea of CD box sets must seem hopelessly passé.
Given file-sharing and the growing number of digital-download Web sites, both legal and otherwise, owning a bunch of music by one artist on several CDs in a cardboard box—no matter how cool the graphics and extras—is so old-school.
And, when you can store your entire music collection in files on your MacBook Pro, it's space-consuming, too.
But some of us still buy box sets for ourselves and as gifts; they are among the coolest luxury entertainment items available. Record companies must also find them to be moneymakers, because they still make and market the things.
And why not? All the labels usually need to do is repackage music that, for the most part, has already been recorded and released, pay some media celebrity or hot-shit journalist to write new liner notes, and tie it all up with unearthed photos and archival items.
What follows is a selected list of some of the more promising box sets to hit the market this year. The Amazon.com prices as of our press deadline are listed here; prices in stores will vary.
Not mentioned here are potentially interesting new box sets by such artists as Frank Sinatra, the Thompson Twins, The Doors, Nirvana, the Rolling Stones, Richard Thompson, AC/DC, Genesis, Yo-Yo Ma, Depeche Mode, Credence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young, Philip Glass, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Paul McCartney, the String Cheese Incident, Kraftwerk and The Smiths, as well as retrospectives from the record labels Death Row and Def Jam.
We'll begin with this year's Holy Grail for music geeks.
The Beatles Stereo Box Set
EMI, 16 CDs, $175.49
Sure, stores may have sold out of this box during its initial release in September, but did you ever doubt that supplies would be re-stocked in time for the gift-giving holidays? No previously unreleased cuts were dug up and reissued here; it's just great-sounding recordings of classic music. The remastered versions of all 14 of the legendary band's studio albums, as well as the two-CD Past Masters singles collection, sound uniformly wonderful. The early albums are included here in the original United Kingdom versions, not the repackaged American editions.
Of course, for you real audiophiles, there's The Beatles Mono Box Set ($229.99), which presents the first 10 albums in remastered mono, as well as a double album of singles and EPs, called Mono Masters.
Do What You Want, Be What You Are
SONY LEGACY, FOUR CDS, $44.98
OMG! One of the most successful pop-music duos in history hasn't done much for us lately, but the late 1970s and '80s hits by this Philly soul partnership are unforgettable. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your personal tastes.
Hall and Oates produced no less than 22 Top 20 singles, including six that reached no. 1. All of those are included here among 74 tracks that originally were issued by seven (!) different record labels. Also on the discs are 16 previously unreleased cuts, live versions, studio outtakes and remixes.
A couple of the duo's more obscure albums are underrepresented here, so you won't want to get rid of that old vinyl. But I couldn't do without "Sara Smile," "She's Gone," "Rich Girl," "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," "Everytime You Go Away" and "Kiss on My List." Heavily annotated, and it contains track-by-track commentary by Daryl and John!
Keep an Eye on the Sky
RHINO, FOUR CDS, $62.98
This set examining the 1968-1975 career of the Memphis soul-pop band—featuring songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton—is an amazing retrospective that shoehorns 98 songs onto four discs, including all three of the band's studio recordings, unreleased demos, unused mixes, alternate versions of songs and a 1973 concert. Great packaging includes lots of liner notes, rare photos and insightful essays about an immortal and influential band that got scant airplay and is rarely heard of today—outside of music-geek circles, that is.
Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968
RHINO, FOUR CDS, $53.99
Is Rhino Records not the best reissue label? Further proof is provided in the 101 songs on these four discs—part of the ongoing exploration of 1960s music that is the Nuggets series. (Last year saw the release of a similar box looking at the San Francisco scene of roughly the same period.) You can't go wrong with this exciting collection of early, pivotal tunes by the likes of The Byrds, Love, The Doors, the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, Captain Beefheart, the Mamas and the the Papas, Lowell George, Iron Butterfly, The Seeds, Electric Prunes and many more. Groovy!
SONY LEGACY, FOUR CDS, $39.49
Few women in country music, or music in general, can match the quality and hit-making output of Ms. Parton, who finally gets her due with this career-spanning set. Almost 100 tracks of pure country gold include early cuts, rarities, previously unreleased tracks, iconic duets with Porter Wagoner, material from her collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and historically significant songs that have become part of our cultural heritage, from "Jolene" to "I Will Always Love You." Can't go wrong here.
Depend on Me: The Early Albums
HIP-O SELECT, TWO CDS, $26.99
What a bargain! Motown fans have been clamoring for decades to see these records re-released. The first five Miracles albums—before Smokey Robinson received top billing—are here on two CDs. The music is full of ageless beauty, from "Shop Around" to "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." Here can be found the genesis of brilliance that would take the world by storm years later.
Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More
HIP-O SELECT, SIX CDS, $107.99
Again, it's about time. This influential Texas-born genius helped create rock 'n' roll and classic pop-rock in the 1950s before his untimely plane-crash death. Often, fans wonder what he might have done in the decades following. That's a moot point, considering the landmark achievements and legacy he left behind.
The set includes 203 tracks, from his early teenage recordings to work for labels such as Decca, Coral and Brunswick. Six previously unavailable tracks are included, along with timeless singles such as "Not Fade Away," "Peggy Sue," "Oh Boy," "Everyday," "That'll Be the Day" and many more.