Nowadays, they say that the best barometer of a box set's quality is the amount of unreleased material that it contains, a philosophy that leads to collections that are more like legal bootlegs with good sound quality (see The Beatles' Anthology series) than well-rounded analyses. This is a new metric. In the past, box sets were designed to provide sweeping, comprehensive and chronological overviews of important artists' careers. This approach led to the too-common "second-and-third-disc syndrome," in which all the best material pooled in the middle of four-disc sets: The first disc covered the unsteady identity-gathering of a nascent career; the last, the unavoidable artistic bankruptcy and creative decline.
Two things happened to change that. The first was the industry's crack-addict dependence on repackaging catalog; whereas you used to have one greatest-hits collection, a box set and perhaps an odds-and-sods set for noteworthy musicians, now you've got anywhere between three and five different "hits" collections of varying sizes, and maybe two or three box sets, and any number of different downloadable configurations available from iTunes. This means that you can get a good idea of an artist's creative arc in any number of different sizes and costs, so why shell out for the boring first and last discs of a box set that you're never gonna listen to anyway?
The second and most obvious contribution to change was the rapid depletion of the list of "important artists." The last decade has seen the business increasingly dependent upon one-hit wonders in the pop field and soundalike anonymity in the rock world. To that end, there are only a few contemporary artists (Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Flaming Lips and Radiohead being the most obvious) who have both the material and the clout to deserve box sets.
What this means is that there are very few "classic" artists left who need to be anthologized Sly Stone, Van Morrison and Prince come to mind and a similar number of modern artists who deserve to be. But the box sets just keep on coming, only now they've got to lean heavily on unreleased material to justify their existence.
Appropriately, recent box sets by Michael Jackson and Nirvana do a lot to spell out the difference between the old and new approaches. Both document the careers of indisputably important artists, and each boasts a selection of rare cuts and the obligatory DVD. (Jackson's is a concert, Nirvana's is a hodgepodge of rare amateur video footage.) But that's where the similarity ends.
Pushing the new philosophy of "the bootleg box" to a heightened extreme is the long-awaited Nirvana box set. Whether due to the vast quantity of materials in the Cobain archives or just to the fact that Nirvana only released three studio albums, almost nothing on this collection has seen the light of day before, and what has didn't see very much of it. To be sure, the audio material all 60-something tracks of it is illuminating, but in a spooky and sort of grotesque way. Early demos, home recordings, non-album mixes, B-sides and compilation tracks chronicle an alternate history of the band and, often, provide a voyeuristic peek into Kurt Cobain's musical machinations that in my opinion is as invasive and unfair as reading his journals. (Oh wait, we've done that too.)
Several of these cuts have already been widely bootlegged, but the sound quality on many With the Lights Out tracks will be a revelation for even the most obsessive Nirvana collectors. Though some cuts (the Butch Vig mix of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the "demo" version of "Aneurysm") differ little from their more well-known versions, and other cuts (like the excellent version of "Return of the Rat," probably my favorite Nirvana cover) don't quite qualify as "rare," the cuts that are new are bracing. The simple and fragile acoustic version of "Sliver" completely recontextualizes the song, while the grunting paroxysms of "Anorexorcist" give good evidence that Cobain picked up his sense of assaultive dynamics from somewhere other than Surfer Rosa.
This box isn't an appraisal of Nirvana's music: It's a chronicle of their creative process, warts and all. Still, it's absolutely amazing the full force of the band's influence rushes at you through a detailed chronology of sound that shows how unstoppably creative and non-commodifiable Nirvana was. From the brief and touching liner notes by Thurston Moore to the just-breaking-the-surface number of rare tracks (seriously, they could do at least two more of these boxes and that's without doing a live collection), this box is as much nostalgia for a great rock band as it is for a lost era of rock & roll potential. Especially for those of us who were there and are still scratching our heads at what, exactly, went wrong.
Despite the trove of unreleased material in the Nirvana box, it must be said that Michael Jackson's Ultimate Collection is just as rewarding, but in a completely different way. Essentially a four-CD greatest-hits package covering the Jackson 5, the Jacksons and his solo career (padded with a handful of unreleased material and a concert DVD), it's not nearly as imaginative as the Nirvana set, nor does it give Jackson's legions of hard-core fans very much new material to chew on. Jackson has already released a number of rare tracks on recent "special edition" remastered versions of his Epic albums, but the loose and funky demo version of "P.Y.T." that shows up here is so good and so different from the already stellar album version it alone is worth the price of admission.
So The Ultimate Collection doesn't really function as a vault-cleaner, but as an overview of an astonishingly successful pop career. And as an adherent to the "old-school" concept of box sets, it's a blazing success. Hit after hit after hit rolls on by, and by the beginning of the third disc (the Bad/Dangerous disc), you can't help but be amazed at the man's facility with a hook, a beat and a falsetto squeal. Sure, you've heard the songs a million times before, but taken collectively, they're nearly overwhelming. Which, when you get down to it, is the better use of a box set: not to gather up the detritus of an artist's career, but to give an overall impression of his artistic and commercial impact. These are two areas where, as tough as it might be to believe, Michael Jackson obliterates almost every contender. That is, of course, until that Prince box set gets released.