Wednesday, December 26, 2007

SF Weekly: Bloated Box Sets

From Radiohead to the Stooges and Merzbow: The wide world of boxed sets, by Keith Laidlaw.

As two different Radiohead releases this month prove, rock boxed sets aren't becoming any more sensible. The "discbox" version of the band's new record, In Rainbows, is stuffed with extras, from useful (music) through aimless (booklets and artwork) to mystifyingly redundant (the album on CD, 12-inch vinyl, and MP3). Meanwhile, Radiohead's former label, EMI, is cashing in on the free-download delirium by releasing the band's entire back catalog as both a traditional bunch-of-CDs-in-a-box package and as a newfangled four-gigabyte USB thingy (look, kids, plug it into your Interweb!).

It's all George Harrison's fault. When he added an extra "jam session" disc to his already-double-length All Things Must Pass in 1970, thus creating the world's first triple album, record companies were awakened to the profits to be made from such additions. It took two further inventions in the 1980s — compact discs and nostalgia — for the trend to really take off. Suddenly, artists' back catalogs were being repackaged as grand "boxed sets" with all sorts of extra features, ranging in pointlessness from bonus tracks to the box itself.

For example, when the Beatles finally got round to releasing the U.S. versions of their early records on CD in 2004 (essentially the same as the previously released U.K. versions, but with the tracks in a slightly different order), each one could have fit on a single disc. Instead, the eight albums were packaged into a pair of grand collections portentously titled Capitol Albums Volumes 1 and 2, which were padded out with separate mono and stereo versions of each disc to justify the bloated price tag. Ker-ching! Of course, it didn't help that the band had already released every rarity worth listening to (and a lot more besides) on the three-double-CD Anthology series.

The boxed-set phenomenon isn't restricted to big-name acts, as Japanese experimental musician Merzbow proved in 2000. However, his Merzbox demonstrated that a little imagination goes a long way. Not only did it contain 50 CDs (20 of which contained music previously unreleased in any format), it also included such unusual extras as a medallion and a rather stylish leather fetish box. Radiohead, take note.

While most artists construct boxed sets using an entire career's worth of releases, the Beach Boys marked a new high point of musical excess in 1998 by creating one from a single album. The Pet Sounds Sessions took the 13-track original record and turned it into a 90-track, four-CD monster. In addition to stereo, mono, and a cappella versions of every original song, fans could finally hear such treasures as "Highlights from tracking date," "Stereo backing track," "Promotional Spot #1," "Promotional Spot #2," "Original speed, stereo mix," and "Original speed, mono mix" — all variations of just one song, appropriately "Caroline, No."

But in 2000 the nonsurfing surfers were beaten to the title of most needlessly overinflated single-album collection. The Stooges' 1970: The Complete Funhouse Sessions takes the concept of "complete" a little too literally by filling seven CDs with every minute of studio time used to record the original 36-minute Funhouse. This means, for example, that you get to hear 31 individual takes of the song "Loose" (at least 30 of which have previously been deemed inferior to the version you know and love), while almost a quarter of the total 142 tracks are simply titled "studio dialogue." What better way to spend seven hours and 52 minutes of your life?

For fans fearing overkill, help is at hand. Nirvana's four-disc, 61-track collection of rarities, With the Lights Out, is the best-selling box set of all time, but it is also notable for being rereleased as a shorter, more sensible 19-track single CD, Sliver: The Best of the Box, for those unwilling to trawl through all of the never-intended-for-release nuggets included in the original. Now there's a good idea.

Exclusive Bonus Limited-Edition Extra Section

Away from the world of rock, jazz artists have traditionally been better served by lovingly compiled boxed sets, particularly as alternate takes of improvised tracks are likely to be significantly different from one another. Most notably, the eight-boxed-set Miles Davis series issued through Sony's Columbia/Legacy imprint is a stunning achievement. Released over an 11-year period, concluding with this year's The Complete On the Corner Sessions, the sets together total 43 CDs, and range from the three-disc Complete In a Silent Way Sessions to Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963-1964, which appropriately enough comprises seven discs.

We can but dream that Sony will one day decide to release all eight in one awesome package — and perhaps also find enough room to throw in their live Davis boxes such as The Cellar Door Sessions (six discs) and The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (eight discs). It's the only way any of them can ever hope to compete with the awesome 20-CD set of The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux: 1973-1991.

But for the craziest boxed sets of all, we have to turn to the world of classical music (perhaps not surprising, considering a full performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle takes about 15 hours). Depending on your budget, you can either splash out around $1,600 for the Rubinstein Collection, which gathers together the complete recordings of legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein over the course of 94 discs. If it's value for money you're after, a special mention must go to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose Complete Works 170-CD boxed set is available from Costco for the bargain price of $99.99, which even includes free shipping.

And the best all-round boxed set of all? Possibly the Velvet Underground's 1995 Peel Slowly and See, which packages the band's four studio albums as a five-CD set, complete with first-rate hard-to-find and unreleased extra tracks. And it has a peelable banana sticker on the front. Ah, bliss ...

Read this article in its original setting here.

This article was also published in:
Houston Press, Dallas Observer, The Pitch Kansas City, Miami New Times, and Cleveland Scene.