As the various Radiohead releases in recent weeks prove, rock box sets aren't becoming any more sensible. The "disc box" version of the band's new album, In Rainbows, is stuffed with extras. These 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 catalogue 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 Eighties — compact discs, nostalgia — for the trend to really take off. Suddenly back catalogues were being re-packaged as grand "box 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 UK 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. Ker-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 box 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. It contained not only 50 CDs (20 of which were previously unreleased in any format), but also unusual extras such as a medallion and a rather stylish leather fetish box. Radiohead, take note.
While most artists construct box 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 hearing the stereo, mono, and a cappella versions of every original song, fans could finally enjoy treasures such 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 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. This means, for example, you get to hear 31 individual takes of the song "Loose" (at least 30 of which have been previously deemed inferior to the one you know and love), while almost a quarter of the total 142 tracks is simply titled "studio dialogue." What better way to spend seven hours 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 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 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 box sets, particularly because alternate takes of improvised jazz tracks are likely to be significantly different from one another. Most notably, the eight-box-set Miles Davis series Sony issued 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 total 43 CDs and range in size from the three-disc Complete in a Silent Way Sessions to the appropriately seven-disc Seven Steps: Complete Columbia Recordings 1963-1964.
We can but dream that Sony execs will one day 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 they can ever hope to compete with the gigantic 20-CD set The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux: 1973-1991.
But for the craziest box sets, we turn to the world of classical music (perhaps 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 the complete recordings of legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein over the course of 94 discs. Or if it's a good value you're after, a special mention must go to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose 170-CD Complete Works box set is available at Costco.com for the bargain price of $99.99, which even includes free shipping.
And the best all-around box 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 on the front. Ah, bliss.