Given a chance to stuff five box sets into our baggage before that fateful trip, our panel of intrepid travelers has selected the Beatles and Miles Davis as must-have items. But not by much.
The Fabs received votes for their recent stereo and mono boxes, along with the Capitol Records set; John Lennon also received a nod. Miles, meanwhile, was mentioned for sets devoted to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and his celebrated collaborations with Gil Evans.
But just behind them, receiving a pair of votes from our Desert Island Disc panel, were the Byrds, Frank Sinatra, Ornette Coleman, King Crimson and the whoa-man compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era. Talk about a fateful trip! …
1. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET BAND – LIVE/1975-1985 (1986): We waited for years … YEARS … until Bruce released this set of “official” live recordings. Though lacking the fire and mystique of some of the more common bootlegs, this set documented the early years all the way up through the bombast of Born In The U.S.A.
2. GRATEFUL DEAD – SO MANY ROADS: 1965-1995 (1999): A great and quirky set of live material that does a great job of illustrating the Dead’s stylistic reach.
3. CHEAP TRICK – SEX AMERICA CHEAP TRICK (1996): Some people say that that Live at Budokan is the only “essential” Cheap Trick album. Nah, I’d say you need the at least the first three studio recordings and this box set. It’s full of B-sides, live versions, alternate takes, and unreleased songs. Also, it’s just plain fun.
4. ORNETTE COLEMAN – BEAUTY IS A RARE THING (1993): Ornette’s years on the Atlantic label were revolutionary. The amazing thing is that despite the ground covered in the jazz world since then, this music still feels fresh and vital.
5. THE CONET PROJECT – RECORDING OF SHORTWAVE NUMBERS STATIONS (1998): Never heard of a shortwave counting station? Though no government will verify this, they are though to be used as a method of spy communication. Short segments of music will play, followed by a person reciting strings of letters and numbers. Taken as a whole, the set takes on a music concrete feel.
1. THE BYRDS – THE BYRDS (1990): A four-disc package, The Byrds sends the listener on a joyride of marvelously memorable songs, marked by majestic harmonies, ringing guitars and poetic sparkle.
2. VARIOUS ARTISTS – NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE FIRST PSYCHEDELIC ERA – 1965-68 (1998): What we have here is an expanded take of the initial Nuggets album, which was issued in 1972. Aiming the spotlight on one hit wonders and no hit wonders, these four platters focus on a type of music later called garage rock. Feral fuzz guitars, distorted feedback, snarling vocals, shaking tambourines and blaring harmonicas are delivered in spades.
3. VARIOUS ARTISTS – THE BRITISH ARE COMING! (2001): Can you imagine a world without the Kinks, the Searchers, the Yardbirds, the Hollies, the Zombies, Donovan, the Mindbenders, the Tremeloes, Status Quo, the Creation, the Move, the Smoke, Manfred Mann or Peter and Gordon? I think not. Enough said.
4. VARIOUS ARTIST – MINDROCKER, VOLUMES 1-13 (2003): Originally released as vinyl albums on the Line label in the 1980s, “Mindrocker” travels a couple of miles beyond the “Nuggets” philosophy, as the series primarily champions ghastly obscure bands and singles of the ’60s. Although the main dish is garage rock, there’s some finely crafted pop pieces and terrifyingly freaky psychedelic stunts strewn across the discs as well.
5. THE BEATLES – THE CAPITOL ALBUMS, VOL. 1 (2004): Containing both mono and stereo versions of the Liverpool band’s first four American releases, this obviously captures the Beatles in what is regularly termed their early phase. Rock ‘n’ roll was still rock ‘n’ roll when Meet The Beatles, The Beatles Second Album, Something New and Beatles ’65 were recorded, and as evidenced by the discs, these lads were the best of the bunch.
1. KING CRIMSON – THE GREAT DECEIVER (1992): Four discs of live material recorded between 1973 and 1974, masterfully edited from a handful of concerts into a perfect presentation of how awesome this band could be in concert. Robert Fripp would later release most, if not all of these concerts in full, but they’d prove to be nowhere near as powerful as the carefully selected highlights presented in this set.
2. KING CRIMSON – THE PROJEKCTS (1999): After Thrak, King Crimson split into four smaller bands to continue developing musical ideas through more improvisatory processes, and the material proved to be some of the most vital and exciting the band had recorded since, well, that other box from them on this list.
3. IRON MAIDEN – EDDIE’S ARCHIVE (2002): These six discs cover a pretty good deal of die-hard fan territory. From a previously unreleased Number Of The Beast concert on two discs, to another two discs covering the band’s BBC appearances (one prior to the first album’s release), the only part of the set considered remotely disappointing would be the two-discs of b-sides, which actually hacks out a good deal of material to keep to those tight constraints (but, to their credit, it is mostly live stuff.)
4. ZZ TOP – CHROME, SMOKE AND BBQ (2003): Career retrospective sets are iffy propositions but this one does it right by culling the majority of every significant album (that’s First Album through Afterburner at about 8 songs each) and “the good songs” from their later albums, and a neat little bit of history with some previously unreleased sides from the Moving Sidewalks, Billy Gibbons’ prior band, and some rare early Top. Pretty much everything more than the casual “best of” listener would need.
5. BLUR – 21 (2012): For a perfect example of how to do a career-encompassing box set, look no further. All seven of the band’s albums paired with full discs of b-sides, non-album tracks, and demos, then a further four discs of previously unheard material (more demos, lost songs, etc.), and three live DVDs (… like the name says, “21” discs… on the 21st anniversary of their first album – cheeky lads, eh?) Let’s not overlook a beautiful, fascinating book paired with all of that, packed inside of a ridiculously massive box.
1. VARIOUS ARTISTS – NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE FIRST PSYCHEDELIC ERA – 1965-68 (1998): As Kim Fowley sort of sings, “It’s time to take a trip!”: So hear the colors, see the sounds, and journey to the center of your mind… or to the garages of America to dig up some familiar and obscure pop-rock gems among the 118 tracks of your years gone by.
2. ELLA FITZGERALD – THE COMPLETE ELLA FITZGERALD SONGBOOKS (1994): Ella Fitzgerald + Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Duke Ellington = An exceptional 16-CD salute to the American popular song.
3. FRANK SINATRA – THE CAPITOL YEARS (1990): For full evocative effect, it may be best to listen to the thematic albums individually while contemplating the cover art and pondering, say, your crushing loneliness and the wrong turns you’ve made in life. (Regrets? Yeah, you’ve had a few.) But for your one-stop Sinatra needs, it’s pretty ring-a-ding-ding to have selections from such albums as In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Young Lovers, and No One Cares so freeway close.
4. VARIOUS ARTISTS – AMERICAN ROAD SONGS FROM COAST TO COAST (2006): Road trip! This exhaustive 10-CD CD set of songs from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s — with everything from Acuff to Elvis, “Cincinnati Dancing Pig” to “Route 66”— will see that you get your kicks on several stretches of horizon-less highway. Come for the music and — for that recurring sense of wanderlust and longing to move on and start a new life — stay for what it evokes.
VARIOUS ARTISTS – SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF RECORDINGS (1984): Subtitled ‘Six Decades of Songwriters and Singers/American Popular Song,’ this set spans rom Bessie to Bing, “April Showers” to “September Song,” Berlin and Gershwin to Billy Strayhorn: ‘S Wonderful and ‘S a Lot!
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1. MILES DAVIS AND GIL EVANS – THE COMPLETE COLUMBIA STUDIO RECORDINGS (1996): A key collaborator in Davis’ long tenure as a jazz provocateur, Evans played an important role in four signature albums — Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, and Quiet Nights — recorded in a period of furious creativity between 1957 and 1968. Each is included here, along with two discs of alternate takes and rarities.
2. VARIOUS ARTISTS – HITSVILLE USA: THE MOTOWN SINGLES COLLECTION 1959-71: (1992) Every song that mattered from this era-defining engine of pop-informed R&B — from Barrett Strong’s titanic “Money” through the Temps, Tops and Smokey, all the way over to Marvin Gaye’s forward-thinking “Mercy Mercy Me” — but also cool rarities like the Contours’ “First I Look at the Purse.”
3. THE BEATLES – ‘IN MONO’ BOX SET (2009): Sure, this doesn’t include Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be — they were never issued on mono — but only one of those is essential anyway, and it’s not Let It Be. More particularly, there are stunning new sounds to discover: “We spent three weeks on the mono mixes,” Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick once said of Sgt. Pepper, “and maybe three days on the stereo.” It shows.
4. VARIOUS ARTISTS – THE COMPLEX STAX/VOLT SINGLES 1959-1968 (1991): If Motown often edged into city pop, then this was a trip to an R&B club down a country road — rougher, maybe more real. In a way, the titles say it all: “Knock On Wood,” “Soul Man,” “Green Onions,” “Hold On I’m Comin,'” “Walkin’ The Dog” and “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” Stax/Volt, this box makes clear, set the stage for the grittier soul sounds of the 1970s.
5. FRANK SINATRA – CAPITOL YEARS BOX (1998): Not to be confused with the earlier song compilation set, this massive box contains 21 complete albums recorded between 1953 and 1961 — presented in the only way they should be listened to, as complete song cycles. There remains a superlative urbane romanticism here, as the former teen-heartthrob returned with a very adult perspective, one colored by love’s losses.
1. VARIOUS ARTIST – THE HEAVY METAL BOX (2007): Maybe I’m cheating a little bit with this one, but it’s definitely my favorite ever. Rhino records collected a four-CD metal set spanning the spectrum from Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer to Pantera and Sepultura, and it covers just about every major subgenre from hard rock to glam to shock rock to thrash. A great collection, and it comes in a box shaped like a Marshall amp with a working volume knob. How can you not love it?
2. AEROSMITH – PANDORA’S BOX (1991): While Box of Fire has all of their classic albums, the catch to Pandora’s Box is that it has a lot more rare, unreleased and alternate versions of songs on it, and you need that to really sell me on a box set. None of them are really go-to songs for me, but it’s Aerosmith and, at the time it came out, that’s all I needed to know.
3. HANK WILLIAMS JR. – THE BOCEPHUS BOX 1979-1992 (1992): This is my favorite of the several Hank Jr. boxes out there because it’s not just a collection of big songs. It has quite a few live versions and outtakes, and it also makes an interesting choice here and there in the songs that it picks from the albums.
4. ‘WEIRD’ AL YANKOVIC – PERMANENT RECORD [AL IN THE BOX] (1994): OK, I’ve always been a full-on Al Yankovic geek, ever since the first time I heard “Eat It” way back when. His output of late has been less than stellar, or maybe it’s just because I don’t get current pop music, but this collects some of his best work. There’s a song here or there I really needed that I’m missing, but it’s a nice set all the same.
5. JUDAS PRIEST – THE COMPLETE ALBUMS COLLECTION (2012): I include this only because I’m really Jonesing for it right now, but can’t justify the expense. No, it’s not actually “complete.” Those Tim Owens records, a couple of which are really good, are missing from the set but, man, what a collection.
1. THE BEATLES – THE BEATLES STEREO BOX SET (2009): Fans waited a long time for the Beatles catalog to be remastered after the sub-par 1987 CDs. They finally got their wish with this complete set of all their albums plus the Past Masters Vols. I and II disc and mini-documentaries about each album.
2. VARIOUS ARTISTS – APPLE RECORDS BOX SET (2010): At last, many long-out-of-print albums from the Beatles’ short-lived record label were available through this set. A pristine remastering further clarified such gems as James Taylor’s debut and Badfinger’s stellar releases.
3. VARIOUS ARTIST – LIKE, OMIGOD!: THE 80’S POP CULTURE BOX [TOTALLY] (2002): No 1980s music fan should be without this incredibly fun and surprisingly thorough set. A booklet describes all the cuts, which includes some rarities (“General Hospi-Tale” by The Afternoon Delights, anyone?) as well as decade-defining singles.
4. STEVE WONDER – AT THE CLOSE OF A CENTURY (1999): I mentioned this in our previous Greatest Hits DID, but it’s worth including here as well. In four discs, this set takes the listener on a thoroughly enjoyable tour of his incredible career. Plus, having the single version of “All I Do” from Hotter Than July is icing on the cake.
5. JOHN LENNON – LENNON: SIGNATURE BOX (2010): This beautifully packaged set includes many of Lennon’s albums, singles, and home demos. While some albums are conspicuously absent like Live in New York City, it serves as a loving overview of his all-too-short career.
1. THE BYRDS – THE BYRDS (1990): You still need their first two albums and Sweethearts of the Rodeo, but if you don’t own them these 90 tracks are the next best thing. The four CDs have everything that’s essential from their early 12-string folk rock period to their later hardcore country days. Unless you have McGuinn and company’s entire catalog it’s a must for any fans of the genre. Accompanied by a great biography.
2. CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL – CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL (2001): A massive six-disc box containing ALL of their studio LPs, two live albums and even stuff form their pre-Creedence days. The easiest and best way to collect their entire catalog. Wonderful from start to finish.
3. SIMON AND GARFUNKEL – COLLECTED WORKS (1990): Nothing fancy, just all five Simon and Garfunkel studio albums in their entirety over three discs. Nothing more, nothing less. No extra tracks such as the outstanding “My Little Town” but if you all five studio albums in their entirety on CD, this is the way to go.
4. PETER PAUL AND MARY – CARRY IT ON (2004): Once again, everything essential. PP&M’s LPs were nice but sometimes they were a little slow and plodding. This balanced set has it all and is more upbeat in its pacing. It includes some solo works by each member. The mandatory biographical booklet is fascinating.
5. JIMMY BUFFET – BOATS, BEACHES, BARS AND BALLADS (1992): There is too much filler on Buffet’s regular albums. Each disc of this 4 CD set is devoted to a single subject as indicated in the title of the box. It’s all of the Jimmy you’ll ever need. As expected, “Bars” is the most fun.
1. MILES DAVIS – THE COMPLETE IN A SILENT WAY SESSIONS (1968-69): A chronological, meticulously documented account of the critical six months when Miles transformed from a legendary jazz artist to a rock-jazz pioneer.
2. LOUIS ARMSTRONG – COMPLETE HOT FIVES AND HOT SEVENS (1925-30): The seminal building blocks of jazz, by the greatest jazz performer of all time.
3. MILES DAVIS – THE COMPLETE BITCHES BREW SESSIONS (1969-70): The most important album of fusion jazz, supplemented by sessions from the following months. Collectively, these recordings chronicle a staggering creative spurt from a man who had already changed music two or three times, and was about to do it again.
4. ROBERT JOHNSON – THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS (1937-38): These crudely recorded, twenty-nine songs, mostly from a hotel room in downtown San Antonio, inspired countless blues and rock superstars who went on to become influential on their own.
5. ORNETTE COLEMAN – BEAUTY IS A RARE THING: THE COMPLETE ATLANTIC RECORDINGS (1959-61): More than fifty years ago Coleman started a revolution that disrupted jazz at its very foundation, and the revolution continues today. These are all the recordings by his classic quartet that got the insurgency going.
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