I swore I wasn’t going to get sucked into the “Deluxe Box Set” craze. Artists and bands re-releasing the classic albums, throwing in bonus tracks, session takes, live versions, and demos struck me as one of the ultimate money grabs. It was a true attempt, I believed, to suck every last dime out of the fan’s piggy banks while taking no real musical step forward. Plus, some of them were bloody expensive! No way I was gonna go down that rabbit hole.
Forty or so sets later, I realize I might have lied.
They didn’t all show up at once, mind you. And I had started collecting them before I truly became conscious of it. When I think of box sets, I think of the LP-sized packages containing multiple CDs, a DVD or Blu-ray or two, and some kind of specially assembled book to commemorate the album in question. But a lot of the sets came in packages similar or identical in size to a CD jewel case, with the same material crammed into a smaller space. Next thing I knew, they were lining my CD shelves.
These sets have become valuable additions to my collection. Naturally, some collections are better than others. I must admit to being somewhat underwhelmed by Bill Bruford’s Seems Like a Lifetime Ago, as its remixes of classic albums by the band Bruford struck me as muted and lacking a distinct high end. There are a couple of good moments (such as a brilliant live recording and a collection of rehearsals toward an abandoned fourth album), but I don’t think I got the proverbial bang for my buck. The same can be said of the Jimi Hendrix Electric Ladyland box, which offers up a decent live set, but the sound of the original album doesn’t seem to change in any significant fashion. Where these two releases are concerned, if you have the original albums, you’re covered.
I would never ask a newcomer to an artist or band to start their collection with a box set. That’s entirely too much information. Box sets are for the ultimate fans and completists who want to hear every last note relative to an artist or their recording. If that’s not you, walk away. No harm, no foul.
With all that being said, some of these boxes stand out a little more than others. I thought I would choose ten of them (presented in no particular order) to help explain why I find them valuable. (Note: there are a LOT of box sets from a LOT of bands available, so there is a better than average chance I won’t mention one of your favorites because I don’t have or want it. Feel free to tell me about your personal favorites in the comments.)
THE BEATLES, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Well, this is where it all started, right? This is where modern rock and roll as we know it officially got wings and took flight. The number of artists and bands claiming this album as their primary source of inspiration is probably more than any of us can count. I would argue that the Beatles’ previous album, Revolver, laid the groundwork for what took place here. That being said, Sgt. Pepper’s is as unconventional a rock album as there is. No two songs sound the same, and the record was designed to make it impossible for the four band members to play it live. This is a true studio masterpiece, and the box set only helps to drive the obvious point home. The box’s packaging alone is worth the price of admission, as we are led to believe we’re opening the box of a master reel. Instead, we are treated to numerous CDs and a Blu-ray disc, along with reproductions of the album’s original artwork and a hardcover book commemorating the creation of the album. The book is loaded with essays and absolutely gorgeous photos that make this set the most complete and “bang for buck” worthy box in my collection.
THE BEACH BOYS, The Pet Sounds Sessions: I’m not a Beach Boys fan. I’ve mentioned this on another post on this page. But Pet Sounds is without question one of THE essential albums of the rock era, bar none. It is PERFECT, as I have spoken to in the past. I have had no problem telling friends that everything they need to know about making a pop album can be found within the confines of this recording. Composition, arrangement, production, musicianship, lyricism … it’s all here. That point is driven home when listening to the sessions that brought the music to life. The studio aces that helped bring Brian Wilson’s vision to light — known as The Wrecking Crew — were as good as they come. Layer upon layer of sound was executed with passion and precision. “God Only Knows” might be my favorite song of all time. It almost never fails to reduce me to tears. Being able to hear that song come together — complete with instructions from Wilson and responses from the musicians as they tried different ideas until things clicked — has the same effect. This was one of those albums I wished I could’ve seen being made. Well, at least I get to hear it. And the tears still come.
MILES DAVIS, Freedom Jazz Dance: Around the same time the Beatles were working on Sgt. Pepper, Miles Davis was working on one of my favorites from his catalog, Miles Smiles. This collection just happens to be named after my favorite track on the album (which was actually written by Eddie Harris). There is a distinct difference between listening to a pop/rock album come together, as opposed to jazz. Rock albums are, for the most part, written out in advance. Arrangements may change slightly, but little else does. With jazz, everything but the theme statement is in play. And even the theme can vary a bit here and there. So how cool is it to hear Miles (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums) gather in the studio to bring this work of art together? They discuss, explore, stumble, cajole, correct, and encourage one another toward the best performance possible, often with laughter. At some points, I found myself joining in on the conversations, which actually took place less than a month after I was born.
KING CRIMSON, The Road to Red: When I’m asked if I would ever follow my favorite band on the road for an extended period, my answer is usually no. The setlist are usually too similar, as are the arrangements and execution of the tunes in question. In other words, it diminishes the meaning of MY hometown gig once it blends in with all the other shows. There are exceptions to this thought process of course, and this is one of them. King Crimson was able to vary their setlist and add bursts of improvisation that kept their music fresh and exciting on a nightly basis, as documented in this particular box. This version of King Crimson (Robert Fripp, John Wetton, David Cross, and Bill Bruford) were about as heavy as it got in 1974, taking no prisoners as they blistered their way through their material and stretched out new and interesting ideas. Best of all, the end product of this tour, the album Red, ranks among their very best.
FRANK ZAPPA, The Hot Rats Sessions: As I’ve also documented within these pages, the “Roxy” era of Frank Zappa’s career ranks as my favorite (more on that shortly), but I’ve always admired this record, which seemed so far ahead of its time when considered in context (1969). My personal regard for Hot Rats was elevated by a factor of TEN after taking in this collection. Like Freedom Jazz Dance, we get to hear this record being assembled from the ground up. It is positively stunning to hear how much music wound up on the cutting room floor. This easily could have been — and probably should have been — a double LP. Zappa was a perfectionist almost to the point of brutality! But he knew what he wanted, and he poked and prodded his musicians until that sound was finally put on tape. Top-tier compositions combined with expert musicianship added up to one of the all-time great Zappa releases. The box also contains a book full of fantastic photos and details of the sessions that make the experience the next best thing to being there.
PRINCE, Sign O The Times: There can be no arguing Prince’s status as a superstar by 1987. Three years earlier, he conquered the world with Purple Rain, giving him a lot more latitude to chase his Muse. The Superstar truly revealed his talents and sophistication as a songwriter and musician with Sign O The Times, a two-LP powerhouse that found him transitioning from life with The Revolution into what would ultimately become the New Power Generation. But the real power was in the music. This collection is the penultimate for a Prince fan interested in the shelves full of unreleased material said to exist in the legendary vaults at Paisley Park. The box offers up multiple discs of these tunes, to say nothing of a live recording of a New Year’s Eve performance (also recorded at Paisley Park), edits and B-sides, and — best of all — a marvelous remaster of the album in question. And yes, there is a book full of great photos, essays, and extensive liner notes. I’d rate this box second behind Sgt. Pepper as my personal favorite in my collection.
PETER GABRIEL, So: It can be argued that Peter Gabriel’s fifth solo album elevated him from highly successful cult artist to international superstar. It was very difficult to evade So in 1986. His “Sledgehammer” video took MTV by storm (and yes Zappa fans, I know Frank did something similar a decade earlier) and Gabriel was well on his way to playing stadiums. The box set is a glorious look into the making of and subsequent after effects of its release. The album has been remastered and sounds remarkable. There is also a CD labeled “DNA,” which offers a look at how the tunes were built from the ground up. There is a documentary DVD on the making of the album (originally aired as part of the Classic Albums series) as well as a concert video from Athens, Greece in 1987 (said concert is also on CD in this box). If that’s not enough, there is also vinyl to be had, including a half-speed master of the album, sequenced as originally intended by Gabriel. With even more features to be found within, this box is the musical gift that keeps on giving.
Three artists/bands rated two entries on my list. No doubt a side-effect of buying nearly everything released. Sorry about that (but not really).
MILES DAVIS, Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis, 1963-1964: Probably the most surprising entry on this list, because I never gave the post-Kind of Blue/pre-“Second Great Quintet” era of 1963-64 a whole lot of thought. Shame on me. Miles made some remarkable music during this time, even if he hadn’t officially found a replacement for the departed John Coltrane’s saxophone. Sam Rivers and George Coleman kept the seat warm and played more than adequately until Miles found his true foil in Wayne Shorter. Meanwhile, the band was slowly being rebuilt as the music of this era came to pass. Miles was still playing a lot of standards, but had truly begun to give the tunes his own touch and tempo. His live shows were a non-stop thrill ride, while the studio sessions were as sharp and focused as anything Miles had done before or since. I need to play this set a lot more than I have over the years.
FRANK ZAPPA, The Roxy Performances. Every gig front to back from my favorite Zappa band that served as the basis for one of my favorite Zappa albums, Roxy and Elsewhere. Four full shows, a rehearsal, a recording session, and a sound check. What more could one ask? The skill level of this band (which featured the talents of George Duke, Chester Thompson, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ruth Underwood, and others) is nothing short of staggering. They dispatch some of the most complex music with the perceived ease of taking a walk around the block. That Frank could often lay out and conduct while the band executed his compositions with brilliant precision speaks volumes. With the original album, Volume 2 of You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore (which featured this band’s legendary Helsinki performance), and The Roxy Movie, I believe my musical needs from this band have been fulfilled. As they say in sports, everything has been left on the field.
KING CRIMSON, Heaven & Earth. While the 80’s version of King Crimson will always be nearest and dearest to my heart, the Crimson of 1997-2008 will always strike me as the most adventurous. In a quest to “re-invent the wheel,” as Robert Fripp liked to say, the 1994-97 “Double Trio” broke into splinter groups as a form of research and development toward the next record after 1995’s Thrak. What followed was a radical shift in direction that ultimately resulted in a “Double Duo” featuring the younger rhythm section of Trey Gunn (Warr guitar) and Pat Mastelotto (traps and buttons, as they say) pushing Adrian Belew and Fripp into new territory that contained a distinctly metal edge and electronics in the form of V-drums, beat boxes, samplers, and Handsonics, among other things. A new palate was being filled with unique paints often put to best use during the band’s improvisational sections in concert. Admittedly, the band’s first album, The ConstruKction of Light, didn’t land quite where intended. Even Gunn referred to the album as “the map, but not the treasure.” But this box contains a different take on the album, as the loss of Mastelotto’s original drum tracks prior to remastering forced him to re-record his parts. This time, however, he replaced his V-drums with an acoustic kit and used his electronics as augmentation. The difference is night and day, and The Re-ConstruKction of Light allows this album to resonate on a deeper level. The band’s second release, The Power To Believe, still holds up quite nicely as a shining monument to this band’s potential. The hours and hours of music made between ’97 and ’99 — known as The ProjeKcts — make for an incredible journey in and of itself.
There are other thrilling boxes in my collection, but these thrill me the most. They are not for the faint of heart or those without a little disposable income. But should you find yourself able to take the plunge, they will provide non-stop musical thrills.
You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell
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