Wrapmusic: Best box-set CD picks

You can't put an MP3 under the Christmas tree -- so here's a guide to the best of this offerings

December 2, 2007


The digital download may be on the cusp of replacing the compact disc as the way most of us acquire new music, but after the reduction in sound quality, its second biggest shortcoming is one that becomes especially apparent during the holiday season.

With an MP3 file, there's nothing for Aunt Sally to wrap and put under the Christmas tree.

Because of this simple fact, it's likely that some form of the box set will endure even when shiny plastic discs are extinct -- and even if we're only buying the packaging and an annotated booklet with a code to download the tracks illuminated therein.

Now, the CD boom of the '90s pretty much exhausted the major labels' roster of artists worthy of the lavish box treatment: All the major names have long since been covered. As a result, this year's offerings include a bounty of conceptual collections and sprawling genre overviews -- as well as a few attempts to put some old and very familiar names into new and expensive boxes. Here's a look at the highlights on the pop beat.

Various artists, "Heavy Metal" (Rhino) 2 and a half stars

Hands down, this is the coolest-looking box of the year, ranking right up there with earlier Rhino classics such as the Goth box (which came packaged in a leather corset) and the alternative-rock collection (with a cover made of Seattle coffee beans). Here, as befits the topic, we have a box that looks like a Marshall amp, complete with a working volume knob --which, in the great Spinal Tap tradition, goes up to 11.

The musical contents get more of a mixed review. The hardcore fan inevitably will quarrel with particular selections in any genre overview, especially one that attempts to cover 25 years with 70 tracks and four CDs. But the metal world in particular has long been separated into distinctive subgenres, and death metal fans have little in common with hair-metal aficionados. The fact that this set tries to offer something for all of them and many more means that no one listener will be completely happy.

The most useful part of the box is disc one, when the roots and development of metal are traced via pioneering acts such as Hawkind, Uriah Heep, UFO and Blue Cheer -- but no Ozzy-era Black Sabbath, a major omission. By disc four, Pantera is rubbing shoulders with Skid Row, and that just ain't right. Ultimately, the biggest audience for this box may be the budding young metalheads whose only knowledge of the form comes from playing "Guitar Hero."

Various artists, "Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970" (Rhino) 2 stars

Unusual for a Rhino product, the hand of the marketing department weighs heavily upon this box: Timed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, it corrupts the "Nuggets" name, originally coined for a groundbreaking collection of the '60s garage bands that laid the foundation for punk, by using it to sell four CDs with 77 tracks that are pretty much the peace/love antithesis of those groups. And in addition to some hoary flower-power anthems, including early versions of "Let's Get Together," "Somebody to Love" and "Dark Star," there's enough ham-handed folkie/bluegrass noodling to make you think that punk never happened.

On the plus side, producer Alec Palao tries to maintain some link to Lenny Kaye's original "Nuggets" comp as well as Rhino's two previous "Nuggets" boxes by unearthing a bevy of raw, ragged and long since forgotten one-hit wonders with curious monikers, among them Frumious Bandersnatch, the Vejtables, the Chocolate Watchband and the Syndicate of Sound. Honed to a well-pruned two-disc set, these acts might have been enough to redeem the Bay Area sounds of the '60s -- or at least part the haze of patchouli and pot smoke long enough to recognize that some worthwhile music did resound amid all the hippie clatter.

Various artists, "Flower Power: The Music of the Love Generation" (Time Life) 2 stars

Staying with the '60s vibes, there isn't much to be said of this 10-disc, 175-song collection of that era's chart-toppers that isn't said in the title. You want the Young Rascals' "Groovin'," Canned Heat's "Going up the Country," Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" and others of that ilk all in one handy package? Now you got 'em! Because VH1's many rockumentaries and those endless late-night TV infomercials just might not be enough.

Various artists, "The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium" (Rhino) 3 stars

Now here's a psychedelic-rock box set that works much better: An overview of the aborted British Invasion of the '90s (derailed in the States by the then-thriving grunge explosion) rounding up almost all of the key names in the swirling shoegazer movement (My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Lush), the bouncy Britpop sound (Blur, Oasis, Supergrass) and the rollicking Madchester dance scene (Stone Roses, Charlatans UK, Happy Mondays), along with some of their key influences (Smiths, Cure, Cocteau Twins).

Yeah, sure, we could quibble with some of the particular tracks, or a handful of artists missing in action. (What! No Slowdive?) But these 78 songs are amazingly consistent overall, like the play list of a good DJ on a theme night at your favorite club, and the fact that they come packaged in a replica of a British telephone booth complete with miniature flashing lights adds up to make this my favorite genre box this season.

Bob Dylan, "Dylan" (Columbia) 3 stars

Let me be clear: The relative stinginess of my star rating doesn't have much to do with the music on this three-disc, 51-song box set, because really, you'd have to be a tasteless pervert dedicated to sheer contrarianism to deny the genius of a collection charting a five-decade career that ranges from "Masters of War" to "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," and from "Simple Twist of Fate" to "High Water (For Charley Patton)." No, my problem is with Columbia Records, which has already sold us several boxes devoted to the former Robert Zimmerman, among them "The Limited Edition Catalog Box Set" (2003), "The Greatest Hits Box Set" (2002) and of course the epic "Biograph" (1985).

Devoid of deep-catalog tracks, rarities and live cuts, this box seems designed as a one-stop-shopping survey for the new initiate -- required listening for a college course entitled "Bob Dylan, Modern Musical Genius and Bard of 21st Century America." And yes, I meant to say 21st Century instead of 20th, because while the collection certainly reprises the best-known hits of the '60s and '70s, the best service it provides is putting them in context with more recent work, showing the strengths and weaknesses of both.

Devoted or even casual fans probably already own most of this, but again, they're not the audience. And Columbia cash-in or not, new listeners will certainly be better served by this set than by the two-disc soundtrack for Todd Hayne's baffling biopic "I'm Not There," with five actors playing six different incarnations of Dylan.

Genesis, "Genesis: 1976-1982" (Rhino/Atlantic) 3 stars
Genesis, "Genesis: 1983-1998" (Rhino/Atlantic) 1 star

Clearly timed to coincide with the British progressive-turned-pop-rockers' recent reunion tour, these two boxes are distinct from the earlier two "Genesis Archive" sets by virtue of the fact that they include the entire studio albums plus extra tracks from the relevant periods, all in newly remastered glory. Of course, that's a plus in the case of the good discs -- notably the post-Peter Gabriel triumphs "A Trick of the Tail" (1976) and "Wind & Wuthering" (1977) from the '76-'82 box. But nothing could save the overblown and increasingly pandering pap that dominates the '83-'98 box, with the nadirs coming on "We Can't Dance" (1991) and the Phil Collins-less "...Calling All Stations..." (1997). And neither of these sets contains material as strong as the stuff on the as-yet-unreleased third box charting the Gabriel-led band from 1967 through "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway."

Various artists, "Dick Clark's American Bandstand 50th Anniversary" (Time Life) 1 star
Various artists, "Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records" (Rhino) 1 star

Just because an historical overview of a pop-culture institution might make sense as a book, magazine article or Wikipedia entry, that doesn't mean it justifies a 12-disc, 200-song box set (in the case of the epic Clark collection) or even a smaller 117-song set (in the case of the box chronicling the output of the record label founded by Jac Holzman). Since the acts appearing on "American Bandstand" mostly faked their performances -- with notable exceptions such as Public Image, Ltd., which is missing here -- that box set is just a schizophrenic collection of chart-topping singles by artists willing to grant ol' Dick the rights. Meanwhile, with brand loyalty and respect for the label's talent scouts set aside, the Elektra box just doesn't make for an enjoyable listening experience as it veers from Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton to the Doors and Love to Bread and the Stooges.

Nick Drake, "Fruit Tree" (Fontana/Island) 3 and a half stars
Robyn Hitchcock, "I Wanna Go Backwards" (Yep Roc) 3 and a half stars

As I may have indicated in my Genesis review, I like box sets that collect the original albums in remastered form and with extra tracks -- the classic Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd boxes stand as the paradigms here. Both of these entries by unique British singers and songwriters fall short in comparison, but only slightly.

The Drake set rounds up the visionary folkie's three brilliant studio albums, but with the same mixes from the 2000 reissues, and instead of a rarities discs, we get a 45-minute BBC documentary. That DVD isn't worth the price if you already own "Bryter Later," "Five Leaves Left" and "Pink Moon" -- and you should. On the other hand, if you purchase those three individually, the total is about the same as you'll pay for this box.

More extra bang for your hard-earned buck is offered by the Hitchcock box, which includes three of the surrealistic troubadour's best and most diverse albums -- his newly remastered solo debut, "Black Snake Diamond Role" (1981), the phenomenal "I Often Dream of Trains" (1984) and the stripped-down "Eye" (1990) -- plus two discs of rarities dubbed "While Thatcher Mauled Britain." This is the first of two collections that will chart Hitchcock's voluminous solo work, and it's a promising start.

Also arriving in record stores in time for the holidays -- but not necessarily in time for this critic to review -- are the "super deluxe edition" of U2, "The Joshua Tree" (Island), which blows the 1987 original up to fill three discs with audio and DVD extras; "The Traveling Wilburys Collection" (Rhino), which includes the supergroup's two albums plus a handful of rarities and videos, and "The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 8: 1968" (Hip-O Select), yet another box overview of that legendary and groundbreaking label.

Also: Pink Floyd, "The Piper at The Gates of Dawn" (Capitol/EMI), an expanded edition of the debut album dominated by Syd Barrett, with both the stereo and mono versions of the original album and a third disc of singles and rarities; Sly and the Family Stone, "The Collection" (Legacy/Epic), with seven expanded and remastered editions of the pioneering soul band's original albums, and "Hollywood Hits: 70 Years of Memorable Movie Music" (Shout! Factory), a thematic collection designed for anyone who's been dying to have the famous whistling ditty from "The Bridge on the River Kwai," Christopher Cross' "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" and "Rainbow Connection" as sung by Kermit the Frog all in one handy, 57-song box set.