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|By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The idea of the boxed set, and everything it entails, is an easy one to fall in love with. Multiple discs, rare b-sides,
alternate takes, unheard studio banter, all the nuggets that can and usually are thrown into mix can be revelatory,
shedding new light on artists you may already have thought you loved.
But there’s more to the box set than just bonus tracks and home demos. Like anything else, there has to be a
reason and natural order to the thing. Songs can’t just butt up against each other randomly, because each track
is like a page in a book, and each disc a chapter. Boxed sets have a story to tell, and since usually only hardcore
fans will spend the $50-plus on a set, the story has to have new twists and surprises.
Some, obviously, work better than others, but each one takes a different approach in telling their story.
have found a
place in the
The setup of the modern boxed set is universally
credited to the 1985 release of Bob Dylan’s
Biograph, a 5-LP and 3-CD set that chronicled
perhaps the most important musical career of
the second half of the 20th century — no easy
task, indeed. But Biograph did the job. Working
with a logical flow, the set mixed hits (“Blowin’ In
The Wind,” “Tangled Up In Blue”), unheard tracks
(“Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” “The Groom’s
Still Waiting at the Altar”) and alternate takes
(“Every Grain of Sand”) that blew their original
album versions away. Throw in Cameron
Crowe’s revealing essay and a career-spanning
photo cover collage, and the boxed set as we
now know it was born. It became an immediate
hit and the copycats were born.
Some boxed sets of the late 1980s, like Eric
Clapton’s Crossroads, became catalog staples.
Others, like the Allman Brothers Band’s Dreams,
helped to revive careers. Topping them all at the
time was Led Zeppelin’s untitled 1990 set. In
this era, CDs were not digitally remastered and sounded like the tinny replications of their vinyl and cassette
counterparts that they were. Zeppelin took 54 of their album tracks with only a couple of unheard gems thrown in.
Maybe it’s the power that Zeppelin fans have historically had on the industry, but it didn’t take long for it to
become the biggest seller of its time and spawn a Box Set 2 sequel.
And, like anything else in the 1990s, the market got bogged
down with the sets. Everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Neil
Diamond had their careers given the box treatment. With that,
they lost some of their special feeling, but there were still
several worthwhile sets that gave careers new prominence.
The Who’s Thirty Years of Maximum R&B became a hit, while
Bruce Springsteen’s Tracks delivered a treasure trove of
unreleased cuts to fans of Jersey’s favorite son. Other bands,
including Pink Floyd, Zeppelin and, later, the Grateful Dead,
opted to package all of their albums in high-priced and fancy
units for the most dedicated.
The turn of the century, though, saw something of a rebirth in
the box. Thinking in new ways, box sets took new meaning.
Nirvana’s With The Lights Out finally gave the band a proper
eulogy, taking unreleased tracks from their earliest days to
final moments, throwing in a DVD, and packaging the whole
thing in sleek silver and black. Not even Courtney Love could
completely screw it up, even if she did withhold the great “You
Know You’re Right” for a separate best-of disc.
And there’s more. T. Rex was remembered as rock’s master of the 3-minute hook with 20th Century Superstar.
Buffalo Springfield’s Box Set gave new insight to the early careers of Stephen Stills and Neil Young. Johnny
Cash’s Unearthed gave Cash fans, still mourning the legend’s death, a boatload of unheard material that gave
even more depth to the great singer’s career. The Faces delivered their ultimate statement with Five Guys Walk
Into A Bar. Each set, in their own way, worked to shed new insight onto each artist.
Jimi Hendrix’s The Jimi Hendrix Experience was hailed by Rolling Stone's
David Fricke as “the Rolls Royce of posthumous sets,” and rightfully so.
Slamming the listener with an intimidating mix of unheard studio and live
gems, Experience quickly became the standard by which all unreleased
sets should be measured. It showed Hendrix at his creative best, and the
songs gave a nice sense of Jimi’s story, demonstrated by the final track,
“Slow Blues.” The tape cuts out midway through the song, bringing the box to
a halt and providing a nice parallel to a career that was criminally short to
begin with. Add in a felt cover that was soft to the touch and a booklet packed
with nice memorabilia, and the industry was presented with the new
standard-bearer by which boxes could be measured.
One recently-released set that is garnering a lot of attention is Miles Davis’
The Cellar Door Sessions 1970. The release chronicles the shows that the
live album Live Evil drew from, presenting the full picture to this stage in
Davis’ career. At 6 discs, it’s a lot of material that is intimidating to the casual
listener, but, like all the great boxed sets, it’s a godsend to the dedicated fan.
Of course, there are downsides to the boxed set revolution. The high prices
make them nearly useless as new-fan primers, and the prices themselves
keep climbing. While a retail CD commands an average of about $15.99
these days, the Davis set, for example, retails at about $109.99. It can be
found for much cheaper, but still, the price keeps them out of range for many.
|The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Also, while many sets contain material that was previously unheard, often, that was the case for a reason. Some
sets of home and studio demos can be tedious listens, leaving the average music fan bored or angry, especially
after forking over some hard-earned dough for a four-disc set.
But on the whole, boxed sets are usually a rewarding listen. Either as the perfect gift for an ardent fan or a guilty
pleasure purchase, they lend a healthy and surprising summary to already distinguished careers. The boxed set
has found a permanent place among fans and become a cash cow for the music industry. In that sense it's
unique; no other item has kept the industry as happy while actually leaving fans feeling rewarded. Who says
customer service is dead, eh?