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 release, In Rainbows, is stuffed with extras. They range from useful (music), through aimless (booklets and artwork), to mystifyingly redundant (the album on CD, 12-inch vinyl, and MP3). Meanwhile, Radiohead's old label, EMI, is cashing in on the free download delirium surrounding its ex-signings by releasing the band's entire back catalog as both a traditional bunch-of-CDs-in-a-box package and as a newfangled 4-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 became aware of the profits to be made from such additions. It took two more things in the 1980s — compact discs and nostalgia — for the trend to really take off. Suddenly, 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 around to releasing the U.S. versions of their early LPs on CD in 2004 (essentially the same as the previously released U.K. versions, but with the tracks in a slightly different order), they could have just issued each one on a single disc. Instead, they packaged the eight albums into a pair of grand collections portentously titled Capitol Albums Vols. 1 & 2, which were padded out with separate mono and stereo versions of each disc to justify the bloated price tag. Ka-ching! Of course, it didn't help that the band had already released every Beatles 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 Merzbow, an experimental musician from Japan, 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 were previously unreleased in any format), but it also included such unusual extras as a medallion and a 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 their 13-track original and turned it into a 90-track/four-CD monster. In addition to the 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 non-surfing surfers lost the title of most needlessly overinflated single album compendium. 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. That 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 one 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 boxed set of all time, but it is also notable for being re-released as a shorter, more sensible 19-track single CD titled Sliver: The Best of the Box for those of us unwilling to trawl through all of the never-intended-for-release nuggets included in the original. Now, there's a good idea.
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Away from the world of rock, jazz artists have traditionally been better served by lovingly compiled boxed sets, as alternate takes of improvised jazz tracks are likely to be significantly different from one another. The eight-box set Miles Davis series that Sony put out through its Columbia/Legacy imprint is a stunning achievement. Released over an 11-year period, concluding with this year's Complete On the Corner Sessions, the sets together total 43 CDs, and range in size from the three-disc Complete In a Silent Way Sessions to Seven Steps: Complete Columbia Recordings 1963-1964, which, appropriately enough, comprises seven discs.
We can only dream that Sony will decide to release all eight in one awesome package — and, perhaps, also find enough room to throw in their live Miles Davis boxes, such as The Complete 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 (not surprising, considering a full performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle takes 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, or if it's value you're after, a special mention must go to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose Complete Works 170-CD box set is available from Costco for the bargain price of $99.99, which even includes free shipping.
And the best all-around 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-able banana on the front. Ah, bliss.