Could it be that the number of special music packages for gift-giving has decreased this year? Maybe the dilemma about how to sell music—CDs, MP3 downloads, online merchandising, LPs?—has the record industry running scared. It's possible, too, that all of us discerning music consumers simply needed a breather.
No matter. There are still lots of new notable archival records available for avid collectors. Primary among them this season are Bob Dylan's The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (Columbia, 2 CDs, $18.98), which collects 47 raw, acoustic recordings from Mr. Zimmerman's early years as a singer-songwriter; and Bruce Springsteen's The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story (Columbia, 3 CDs and 3 DVDs, $119.98), which includes 21 previously unreleased songs from the recording sessions for the 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town, the original album and oodles of video. Much already has been, or will be, written about them elsewhere.
Let's look at a few others that look most interesting. Remember, the following prices are the manufacturers' suggested list prices. Savvy buyers can probably find a lot of these goodies at reduced rates. We'll start off with a couple of releases that prove the lasting significance of The Beatles.
Capitol, 11 CDs, $189.99
Imagine this: Some Lennon fans have been critical of this groovy set for its omissions. This lavish box includes all of John Lennon's solo albums, as well as the John Lennon and Yoko Ono albums Some Time in New York City, Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey; a short disc of non-album hits like "Power to the People," "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," "Instant Karma!," "Cold Turkey" and "Give Peace a Chance"; and a bonus disc of Lennon's home demos.
But a few have criticized its omission of the John and Yoko albums Two Virgins and Wedding Album, as well as other sundry items. It's not as if the collection is called "The Complete John Lennon" or anything. It does, however, present the bulk of the post-Beatles work by this 20th-century pop genius all in one place. And if you don't feel like springing for the whole set at once, each of the major individual albums is available separately in deluxe new editions.
Apple Records Box Set
Capitol, 17 CDs, $336.98
Beyond making music, The Beatles also contributed significantly to the history of pop music by assembling in 1968 the boutique label Apple Records to release their music and that of others. This limited-edition set includes 14 complete re-mastered albums, many featuring bonus tracks, originally released by Apple. Some of them feature contributions from individual Beatles.
This deluxe and pricey package comes in a box that resembles the original Apple Records crate design. In addition to a 16-page booklet, it includes four full albums by Badfinger, two each by Billy Preston and Mary Hopkin, and one each by Doris Troy, James Taylor, Jackie Lomax and non-pop entries such as the Modern Jazz Quartet, composer John Tavener and The Radha Krsna. There's also a 37-track, 2-CD collection of unreleased songs by the likes of Badfinger, Preston, Lomax and Hopkin, and the CD Come and Get It: The Best of Apple Records, a wonderful collection of 21 singles that also is available separately.
West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology
Sony Legacy, 4 CDs and 1 DVD, $69.98
One is tempted to wonder: Has there ever been a recording artist whose recorded output has been more often and more effectively re-marketed than Hendrix? Even 40 years after his death, we are still getting new Hendrix releases (case in point: this year's "new" album Valleys of Neptune). Whatever your feelings are on the issue, this collection looks amazing. It follows the guitarist's career from his beginnings as an unheralded R&B sideman through his revolutionary albums with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And it's reasonably priced.
It's a treasure chest, including demos, alternate takes, live tracks and more from all phases of his 1964-1970 career—an incredibly short time, considering the breadth and influence of his work. Some devoted Hendrix buffs may not even be familiar with his studio work on singles by the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Don Covay and King Curtis, all included here. The DVD includes the 90-minute documentary Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child, which includes interviews with Hendrix, famous live performances and some never-before-seen footage.
Station to Station
EMI, 3 CDs, $34.98
The trend toward re-releasing souped-up versions of albums you already own sometimes seems like little more than a jaded marketing move—until the treatment is given to a personal favorite. I'm such a sucker for the 1976 Bowie classic that I couldn't wait to get my hands on this, even though I already own well-worn CD and LP versions. I might even have a cassette of it somewhere.
And Station to Station proves worth the special treatment. Not only does the first disc feature the album in a pristine re-mastered version; the other discs boast the complete recording of Bowie's legendary 1976 concert at Nassau Coliseum in New York. It includes packaging with three postcards and an extended essay by the great rock journalist-cum-filmmaker Cameron Crowe about the making of the original album. Score!
Nile Rodgers Presents the Chic Organization: Boxset Vol.1/Savoir Faire Rhino/Warner Special Marketing, 4 CDs, $54.98
In the late 1970s and early '80s, Chic melded disco with pop and rock, creating something new and special with their music, but the Chic Organization also served as an umbrella for recordings by such unlikely artists as Debbie Harry, Carly Simon and Johnny Mathis, each of whom is represented in this collection. Choice cuts include Chic standards "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)," "Le Freak," "Everybody Dance" and "Good Times," as well as Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" and "He's the Greatest Dancer," and Diana Ross' "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out." Packed with studio outtakes, previously unreleased tracks, remixes and 12-inch versions, this tasty box set promises good listening whether you're on the couch or the dance floor.
The Vinyl Conflict
Sony Legacy, 10 LPs, $199.98
This limited-edition (natch!) collection features the masterful thrash-metal band's entire Def Jam/American Recordings catalog, from 1986's Reign in Blood to 2009's World Painted Blood, all overseen by über-producer Rick Rubin. This might be enough for serious Slayer fans, but it also is a record geek's wet dream. The original analog tapes have been re-mastered and pressed onto high-quality 180-gram vinyl records. Reviews from audiophiles have been pretty much unanimously favorable. Also included are reproductions of the original 12-inch album artwork, including inner-sleeve art, all in heavyweight, lithographed jackets.
All Monk: The Riverside Albums
101 Distribution/Universal Music Group, 16 CDs, $77.99
We've saved the best deal for last. This box set contains no less than 16 discs, constituting jazz pianist Monk's amazing recorded output for Riverside Records during the 1950s. It's sort of meant as a budget version of the 1991 box set The Complete Riverside Recordings, which is out-of-print and runs more than $500 when you can find it. The four quad-disc cases, thin cardboard sleeves and a meager booklet make it a modest product, packaging-wise, but all the music is there, albeit not in audiophile versions. Included are immortal albums from Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington through Brilliant Corners and Monk's Music to Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane. At this price, it's essential.