As the calendar year comes to a close, editorial in-boxes begin to fill up with record-company reminders about box sets released earlier that year. The pitch is directed toward holiday gift guides (like the one you're holding now), because nothing says, "You're special" better than nine CDs of Dan Fogelberg outtakes.
Over the time it takes the Earth to make one full rotation around the sun, record labels produce dozens of box sets, and every year it's a miracle that they still find dozens of artists to anthologize. What's even more wondrous, though, are the artists whose box-set presence is at best imperfect and at worst, nonexistent. Filled with the magical spirit of the season, let's talk about some amazing box sets that you can't — but ought to be able to — buy.
Five sets that need to be made … now
There is no excuse for the lack of a box set for Sly Stone, Neil Young, Van Morrison or U2. All four artists have extensive album catalogs to mine, as well as deep archives of unreleased live and studio material, and slew of video footage aching to be digitized. Considering the multiple single- and double-disc compilations to their names, the concept should be a no-brainer, but there always seems to be a problem.
In the case of Stone and Young, the impediment is the artists themselves. Stone's drug-fueled delusions have him insisting his career has not yet peaked, while Young's inveterate perfectionism has delayed the release of his long-planned set for nearly a decade. For Morrison, a tangled web of contracts and licensing problems is the likely holdup, and U2 is too busy saving the world to reflect on their own career beyond a greatest-hits collection.
For my fifth request, I humbly suggest the greatest American rock band of the last 30 years: the mighty Van Halen. It would be very simple; box up three CDs' worth of cuts from the David Lee Roth era, and append a CD of their Gene Simmons—recorded demos and a DualDisc CD/DVD of their performance at 1982's US Festival. Bang! A million pieces of plastic sold.
Four sets that exist,
but don't count
The box sets by Black Sabbath, Queen and Pink Floyd currently on the market are bullshit. The first two compile remastered versions of prime studio albums — the Ozzy era for Sabbath and Queen's pre-Hot Space excellence. The Pink Floyd set, Shine On (currently out of print), is a nine-CD doorstop that includes eight of the group's 15 albums in their entirety. There's The Wall and Meddle, but no Atom Heart Mother and, inexcusably, Piper at the Gates of Dawn is also excluded. A skimpy ninth disc of early singles serves as the only "bonus" material.
There are 25 CDs represented by these three box sets, yet they are useless as introductions or in-depth explorations without any unreleased or rare cuts. These are the records you can already buy in the store … just packaged more expensively.
While the Beatles are guilty of these same sins on the 15-disc Box Set, the group has other sets to their name — and none of them count either. The two volumes of the four-disc Capitol Albums series lived up to the promise of the title merely by assembling the group's U.S. Capitol releases in one place. Conversely, the three three-disc volumes of the Anthology series were a sop to the band's completist fans, made up almost entirely of unreleased tracks and alternate versions in middling to acceptable fidelity.
All of these artists deserve the ultimate box set, one that, in about four or five discs, gives an overview of their career highlights (hits, album tracks and so forth) along with an interesting peek into their creative process via unreleased tracks or even live versions. That none have that is ridiculous.
Three sets that
need to be improved
When word came out in 1999 about a Stevie Wonder box set pending release, it was during a time when Motown was doing a fantastic job of updating their catalog and digging up voluminous unreleased treasures in the process. As Wonder's creativity in the studio was rivaled at Motown only by Marvin Gaye, and considering the amount of material that showed up on Gaye's sterling 1995 set, The Master, and various deluxe reissues of his '70s albums, the thought of a Wonder set was tantalizing indeed.
Still, the four-CD At the Close of a Century set was a letdown. Although the release does an admirable job of chronicling Wonder's hits — and there are so many — there's not a single outtake or demo version to be found. Perhaps that could be explained by Wonder's rumored recording process — he supposedly erases everything he deems unworthy of release — but the inclusion of a disc of one of his incendiary '70s live performances would have more than made up for that disappointment.
An artist whose high-quality demos, outtakes and soundboard live performances are known to exist in massive quantities is the often bootlegged Prince. While 1993's three-CD The Hits/The B-Sides went part of the way toward embodying a decent box set, the absence of any unreleased cuts was a blunder. Even worse was what Prince attempted five years later with Crystal Ball, a three-CD collection of outtakes marred by track selection (e.g., the 11-minute, one-note funk workout "Cloreen Baconskin") and Prince's incessant need to overwork stuff; many tracks were re-edited or even re-recorded. If someone — anyone but Prince, actually — could put together a respectable five-disc set of hits, B-sides, album cuts, remixes, outtakes and live versions, they'd make a mint.
The alt-rock version of Crystal Ball is Nirvana's three-CD/one-DVD With the Lights Out, released in 2004. Stuffed with mid-to-lo-fi demos, solo acoustic cuts, ragged radio performances and a clutch of thrilling B-sides, the set is an absolute chore to listen to, even for devoted fans. Again, imbalance is the problem; with a healthier selection of well-recorded live performances, listenable outtakes and, well, hits, this could have been a phenomenal set.
Two sets that are excellent
Once the gold standard, 1991's 71-track James Brown box set Star Time is still impressive, covering the Godfather's high points while almost completely ignoring the low ("Rapp Payback," yes; "Living in America," no). A sprinkling of alternate versions and previously unissued cuts round the set out, making for a near-flawless audio essay.
For a group with such limited output, the Sex Pistols were surprisingly suited for box-set material. Their self-titled, three-disc box set came out in 2002, but only in the U.K. Its import-only status is a shame, as the set compiles a marvelously remastered version of Never Mind the Bollocks, nearly a disc and a half of demos, outtakes and hard-to-find studio recordings, plus a live recording from the group's legendary 1976 "Screen on the Green" concert. It is, literally, everything that any but the most intense fan would ever need by the Pistols.
One set that is perfect
Consisting entirely of non-LP material, the four-disc box set that sits in the Jimi Hendrix section at local record stores would seem not to qualify for the supreme box-set parameters laid out previously in this article, but this disc is successful on its own terms. Hendrix's hits are all present on The Jimi Hendrix Experience, albeit in alternate versions that are often superior to the released cuts.
These are accompanied by a substantial collection of fiery live tracks and fully formed studio material that never made its way to album. Eminently listenable and consistently exciting (the live version of "Voodoo Chile" makes you forget how rock-radio tired you are of hearing the song), this box is a note-perfect look at an all-too-brief recording career and an example of how all box sets should firstname.lastname@example.org