As two different Radiohead releases this past December proved, rock boxed sets aren’t becoming any more sensible. The “discbox” version of the band’s new record, In Rainbows, is stuffed with extras useful (music), aimless (booklets and artwork) and mystifyingly redundant (the album on CD, 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!)
Radiohead performs “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” from In Rainbows on Webcast.
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 rock’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, from endless bonus tracks to the box itself.
For example, when the Beatles finally got around 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 collections 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. Never mind 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 could go 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.
Whereas most artists construct boxed sets using an entire career’s worth of releases, the Beach Boys marked a new high point of packaging 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 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 of those were variations of just one song — appropriately, “Caroline, No.”
Away from the world of rock, jazz artists have traditionally been better served by lovingly compiled boxed sets, particularly because alternate takes of improvised tracks are often 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 and concluding with 2007’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 aptly contains seven discs.
For the craziest boxed sets of all, we turn to the world of classical music (perhaps not surprising, considering that a full performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle takes about 15 hours). Well-off enthusiasts can pour out around $1,600 for the Rubinstein Collection, which gathers the complete recordings of legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein over the course of 94 discs. If it’s value for money you’re after, though, 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 peel-off banana sticker on the front. Ah, bliss.