Back in the music industry’s physical media days, few things said "Christmastiiiime is heeeere" quite like a multi-disc box set; here was a whole lot of an artist’s work, all at once.
There were liner notes to pore over, packaging to admire and dozens of songs to examine — perfect for a long holiday break.
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Now, when everything is streaming, the physical box set feels even more indulgent, more extravagant and more celebratory. It’s an object enjoyable for its object-ness, an item for the devout.
Here are six box sets that could, for the right person, be the music they have been waiting for all year.
Miles Davis, "The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions" (six LPs, Craft)
From November 1955 to October 1956, the band that became known as Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet — Davis, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones and some tenor saxophonist named John Coltrane — recorded three sessions with engineer Rudy Van Gelder, sessions that eventually became the hard bop exemplar LPs "Cookin’," "Relaxin’," "Workin’" and "Steamin’." All of those records have their standout tracks, but no one album is considered the very best.
Hearing this material in chronological order rather than the original albums, which drew from all three sessions regardless of time-of-recording, it is easier to note the group’s language develop over time.
This collection might be more fetish-object and historical-revisionist than most — this material was originally released in this order on fewer CDs in 2006. But as a set of two-sided LPs, it is as if new individual albums are being forged, including an album of TV and radio appearances. It doesn’t hurt that this material, mostly standards and some originals, is lively and beautiful to a song.
Jimi Hendrix, "Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts" (five CDs/eight LPs, Sony Legacy)
This is a definitive look at Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, his power trio with drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox, comprising 43 tracks over four concerts, most of which have never been released commercially. Do you, the average rock fan, need it? Nah. Do you, the Hendrix nerd, need it? Probably. Do you, the blues and blues-rock aficionado who perhaps has an altar to, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan in their basement, need it? Oh, my, yes.
Peter Laughner, "Peter Laughner" (five CDs/LPs, Smog Veil)
Cleveland musician Peter Laughner died in obscurity in 1977 at the age of 24, but his legend began to build almost instantly.
Pere Ubu, the band he co-founded and left after two immortal singles, went on to be one of the greatest semi-popular rock acts of its era. No less a writer than Lester Bangs immortalized his pal Laughner in the sort of obituary one wishes a friend would write about them, and Laughner’s stock rose even higher when the essay appeared in the still-perfect Bangs anthology "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung."
Over the years, fans and obsessives got a bootleg here and reissue there. The internet era kicked loose more material, but this box represents the first truly vault-clearing look at this mysterious fellow.
In "Peter Laughner," we find a confluence of Dylanesque singer-songwriter, excellent interpreter in the folk tradition, and a technically proficient guitar player with strong blues and folk chops who was always toggling between Lou Reed’s excess (he adored Reed and the Velvet Underground to a life-destroying fault) and Richard Thompson’s precision.
In roughly chronological order, "Laughner" moves from a CD of the blues and folk-focused act the Original Wolverines to a CD of plenty of covers that triangulate Laughner’s catholic tastes (glam, the Stones, VU and, hello, Van Morrison).
Such influences fed into Laughner’s scrappy proto-punk in bands such as Friction, the amazing, pre-Ubu, pre-Dead Boys outfit Rocket From the Tombs and his haunting solo recordings.
It’s revelatory stuff, and some of us have been waiting decades for such revelation. The 100-page book it comes with is gorgeous, the whole package a fitting tribute for an artist who died just as he was getting started.
Motorhead, "1979" (seven LPs, Sanctuary)
Oh, hell yes. "1979" collects the two astonishing albums the thunderous trio released that year — the sound-defining "Overkill" and the more metallic "Bomber" — two grotty live sets on four LPs, an LP of B-sides, a book of press clippings and a 7-inch single. Whew.
Spinning through this beast, it’s easy to hear that Motorhead was, in fact, a perfect band.
A power trio writ large as possible, they found a form and played it to death, tiny changes in song craft blurring together in audience-leveling sets. Taken as a whole, the Motortrain keeps a-rollin’ right over you, seeming less like a group of people and more like a movement in and of itself, which it kind of was.
New Order, "Movement (Definitive Edition)" (one LP, two CDs, two DVDs, Rhino)
This is maybe not how you do it.
You know that "Arrested Development" moment when Michael says "I don’t know what I expected" in the manner of a classic self-own? That’s how one feels about this item. I am not sure what I wanted from it, but this set, and I say this as a serious New Order nerd, is neither fish nor fowl.
"Movement" is the first album from New Order, recorded very shortly after the suicide of Ian Curtis ended their previous band, Joy Division. It’s always been a mopey record, stuck between what JD was and what New Order would become.
But it was released at roughly the same time as a handful of excellent songs and various singles: "Ceremony," "Everything’s Gone Green," "Mesh," "In A Lonely Place," etc., none of which are here in finished form.
What is here is the album on LP (fine), on CD (OK), a CD of demos (a blast) and (checks notes) a DVD of various live appearances from as early as 1980 and as late as 1983.
One pines for a "1981" set: "Movement," the singles, the demos and maybe one or two live sets (on CD, not DVD; these guys are not exactly thrilling to look at). This might be Rhino’s or the band’s idea of a definitive presentation of "Movement," but it’s not mine.
Prince, "1999 (Super Deluxe Edition)" (five CDs/ one DVD, Warners)
Bootlegs and file-sharing aside, it was only after Prince died that fans got to hear official versions of things he didn’t want us to hear. Without his control-freak hand controlling his freaky legacy, we maybe could have access to demos and concert footage, not to mention his legendary vault, which was apparently deeply unorganized and could take archivists years to document.
This was his right, of course. But what exotic pleasures are to be found here!
This set comprises the earth-quaking double album "1999" along with 23 previously unissued studio tracks recorded between November 1981 and January 1983, as well as a "1999"-era concert on CD and a DVD containing another complete, previously unreleased concert from the 1999 tour.
The original album is obviously excellent, but the vault material is less barrel-scrapings than flashes of unfinished brilliance from a mind so fecund he could toss off and toss out gems in the raw, fully aware there were stronger ideas just a few chords away.
There’s the fluffy guitar pop of "Money Don’t Grow on Trees," the deeply queer "Vagina" (a shoo-in for a cover down the line), the pre-"New Power Generation"-demo "Bold Generation," the funk jam "Do Yourself a Favor," and the list goes on. Few pop brains have ever operated like the Beautiful One’s. It’s a privilege to go through his leftovers.