Here are the most notable box sets of the season in rock and pop:
Beach Boys, “The Smile Sessions” (Capitol/EMI, $137): Review HERE.
Leonard Cohen, “The Complete Columbia Albums Collection” (Columbia/Legacy, $170): How much of one artist do you really need? Complete discographies are all the rage this box-set season, and they’re obviously not intended for the casual fan. The Canadian songwriter is a tough self-editor, releasing only 10 studio albums since the late ‘60s. And even then he occasionally messes up; his original version of the classic “Hallelujah” is weighed down with soggy synthesizers and reverb. He honed his approach on subsequent live recordings; he’s released six such discs over his career, and they often allow him to reinterpret and rearrange brilliant tunes that got botched in studio sessions the first time around. For students of masterful songwriting, there are few better artists to investigate this comprehensively.
Earth Wind & Fire, “The Columbia Masters” (Columbia/Legacy, $160): Though they had a string of hits in the ‘70s, this horn-powered R&B group remains underrated against the more celebrated legacies of funk contemporaries such as Parliament-Funkadelic and the Isley Brothers. But EW&F is well worth exploring in depth, their ambitions embracing both sci-fi futurism and their African heritage, particularly in their use of that most ancient of psychedelic instruments, the kalimba, or thumb piano. Founder Maurice White created conceptual frameworks that bridged the mother country’s indigenous sounds and attitudes with contemporary African-American music: blues and jazz as well as soul and funk, heard to stunning effect on what remains one of the era’s essential live albums, “Gratitude.” The band was running out of steam by the late ‘80s, but this 16-CD set definitively demonstrates that there was more to the band than radio ear candy.
Nirvana, “Nevermind: Super Deluxe Edition” (Geffen, $116): Review HERE.
Pink Floyd, “The Dark Side of the Moon” Immersion Box Set (EMI, $119): The 1973 album just keeps selling and selling, and the repackagings keep coming. This time the original disc is primped out with decent live performances on CD, DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as Alan Parsons’ original album mix, assorted outtakes, demos and memorabililia. There are even three “collectible” marbles, a handful of coasters and a scarf. It’s overkill – but that’s the point, isn’t it?
Pink Floyd, “Discovery” (EMI, $179): Remastered versions of all 14 Floyd studio albums. For every masterwork (the Syd Barrett-led “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” “The Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here”) there are clinkers (Roger Waters-less “The Division Bell” and “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”; the Waters solo album in everything but name, “The Final Cut”). The sonic upgrades from earlier remasterings aren’t readily apparent. The liner notes also are lacking, as if the Floyd caretakers couldn’t be bothered to comment and left the heavy lifting to art supervisor Storm Thorgerson, who compiles a retrospective booklet of images.
Elvis Presley, “Young Man with the Big Beat” (RCA/Legacy, $85): One day every minute of Presley’s life will have its own box set. This is as good a place as any to start fulfilling those ambitions, as it documents 1956, a pivotal year in Elvis-mania: his first two breakthrough albums for RCA, his first nationally televised appearances, his first No. 1 hit (“Heartbreak Hotel”). Over five discs, the two RCA albums get their due, with accompanying singles, B-sides and EPs. There are also a collection of outtakes and interviews, but the real action is on a disc of live recordings; most have been previously released, but a new find from a December 1956 gig at the Louisiana Fairgrounds documents Presley’s growing confidence as a performer, a nonstop stream of Southern charm, sly humor, ravenous vocal tics and lusty rock ‘n’ roll. Then there’s a day-by-day diary of a year in Presley Land, in which we find that on Aug. 1 the singer was given a shotgun by a Biloxi shoe store “as a token of appreciation” and that on Oct. 25 he flew to New York accompanied by “cousin Gene” who is “charged with, among other duties, making sure that Elvis doesn’t sleepwalk.”
The Smiths, “Complete” (Rhino, $62): The musical union of Morrissey and Johnny Marr produced four resonant studio albums brimming with dry discontent, guitar-driven melody and twisted anthems in the ‘80s. They also stuffed three compilations of singles and B-sides, plus issuing a live album. As such, there’s more than a little overlap among these eight CDs – “Hand in Glove” appears three times. But then the band’s obsessive fans (are there any other kind when it comes to all things Morrissey?) will hardly mind. They’re likely to raise more of a fuss about the notion that “Complete” really isn’t -- a few stray Smith songs aren’t included. Nor are there any bonus tracks, demos or other outtakes to sweeten this recycling job.
Phil Spector, “The Philles Album Collection” (Sony Legacy, $55): The architect of pop’s monophonic “Wall of Sound” -- in which teenage hormones intersected with three-minute mini-symphonies – was all about singles. So this collection, focusing on early ‘60s albums by the Crystals, Ronettes and Bob-B-Soxx and the Blue Jeans, might seem gratuitous. But for collectors, it’s a trove of kitsch, weirdness and the odd deep-album-cut revelation. For every “Uptown” by the Crystals, there’s a throwaway such as “Frankenstein Twist” and a curiosity such as the masochistic “Please Hurt Me.” Best of all, the seven-CD box also includes a set of Spector-orchestrated instrumental B-sides with the famed Wrecking Crew musicians, who take on everything from New Orleans R&B to be-bop with rollicking swagger.
U2, “Achtung Baby” Super Deluxe Edition (Mercury Records, $136): It wasn’t until the tour that followed the 1991 release of “Achtung Baby” where the album fully began to make sense to diehard fans. Some never forgave the Irish quartet for abandoning the anthemic guitar roar of its ‘80s hits, but countless more came on board – thrilled by what is still the finest arena tour of the last two decades. Part of the enhanced appeal was the visuals, the way the band integrated media with music to deepen meaning and context. So it makes sense that “Achtung Baby” would get the sensory overload of a box set loaded with four CDs of outtakes and remixes, four DVDs (including a complete 1993 concert with countless rapturous moments, including a virtual duet with a decaying video of Lou Reed on “Satellite of Love”), a packet of Anton Corbijn photographs (alternately garish and stark, in keeping with the album’s decadent, Berlin origins), and a hard-cover book (including a reprint of a classic essay by Brian Eno, who served as the band’s stereotype-busting conscience during the recording). And – almost incidentally – there is not only the original, remastered “Achtung Baby,” but its often overlooked 1993 studio offspring, the excellent and decidedly stranger “Zooropa.” The outtakes contain no hidden masterpieces (though the doo-wop vocals on the previously unreleased soul ballad “Heaven and Hell” are an enthralling detour). But they point to a band shooting out in all directions, obsessed with a fresh approach to rhythm. It prompts a reassessment of just who or exactly what made “Achtung Baby” great: more than ever, it’s clear that the rhythm section of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen pulled U2 out of the ‘80s and gave them a new sense of swing that, 20 years later, still sounds more vital than anything the band has done before or since.
Various artists, “City Sounds: Step 1 – Berlin” (Naïve, $64): A must for new-music buffs, this box presents a recent musical history of a city that both breeds and attracts innovators. It divides their accomplishments into six discrete, well-sequenced CDs, from the ‘70s electronic glide of Harmonia and the ‘80s new wave of Nina Hagen to the electro-clash of Peaches and the neo-soul of Jamie Lidell. Best of all, an entire disc is devoted to contemporary artists who will likely pave the way for the next such compilation three decades from now.
Various artists, “Boddie Recording Company: Cleveland, Ohio” (Numero Group, $50): When it comes to documenting the hidden corners of American music, nobody does it better than Chicago-based Numero Group. This three-CD set is another beautifully packaged example of scholarship and curation, making the case that Cleveland’s legacy of soul and gospel at least belongs in the conversation with its better-known Midwestern neighbors in Chicago and Detroit. None of these artists ever became famous -- “a Who’s Who of ‘who’s that?’ ” as the liner notes aptly declare -- and Boddie went out of business nearly two decades ago, barely a blip in the city’s musical lore. But many of these eccentric shots in the wilderness and determined, give-their-all one-offs sound astonishingly vital.
The Who, “Quadrophenia” Director’s Cut (Polydor, $126): The 1973 rock opera is repackaged yet again, the double-album supplemented by two discs of Pete Townshend song demos, eight songs on DVD in a 5.1 surround sound format, reproductions of handwritten lyrics and song notes, a 45-rpm single of “5:15” and a hard-cover book containing a Townshend essay. The original endures as the best of Townshend’s long-form works, but this hefty box doesn’t quite justify the hefty price. The Townshend solo demos are exquisite, presenting more subdued takes on songs that would be turned into rampaging hard rock once bandmates Keith Moon, John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey had their way with them. And the songwriter’s insights into the recording sessions are a must-read for Who fanatics. But this is otherwise a skimpy “Director’s Cut”: Where are the full-band outtakes? The video? Live performances from the tour? And why only half the album in surround-sound?