Though digital downloads are now the preferred format for many music listeners, you still can’t beat the extras that come with a well-conceived box set. Here’s a guide to some of the more notable multi-disc packages released this year (listed alphabetically by artist):
David Bowie, “Station to Station — Deluxe Edition: The Ultimate Fan Experience” (EMI, $165.98): This over-stuffed box is for hardcore Bowie-philes only, a trove of music and memorabilia from his brilliant if drug-zonked “Thin White Duke” phase. In 1976, Bowie released “Station to Station,” a futuristic mix of space-rock, funk and electronic music, bridging “Ziggy Stardust” glam and his experimental Berlin albums. Two differently mastered CDs are included, plus DVD and vinyl incarnations (Where’s the cassette and eight-track versions?). The prize is a previously unreleased ‘76 concert, with Bowie in top form with a killer band. Fans on a budget can get the essentials in a more affordable three-CD format.
Bob Dylan, “The Original Mono Recordings” (Sony, $129.98): This is Dylan as he intended to be heard on his first eight, game-changing studio albums, from “Bob Dylan” (1962) through “John Wesley Harding” (1967). “Original Mono Recordings” is a long overdue addition to his official catalog; bootlegs and used vinyl copies of the original mono recordings have been selling at exorbitant prices for years. During most of the ‘60s, mono was the preferred format, and Dylan and his engineers focused most of their energies on getting the mixes just right. That’s especially apparent on the classic “Blonde on Blonde” (1966). Though fans may prefer the sharper separation of the instruments on the stereo mixes, the mono versions get at the heart of Dylan’s rough and tumble sound, with the vocals in the midst of the instrumental fray rather than pushed out in front of it. The rockers especially sound more menacing than ever; “Like a Rolling Stone” has never sounded better.
Jimi Hendrix, “West Coast Seattle Boy” (Sony Legacy, $69.98): It’s amazing how many “rare” versions of Hendrix staples such as “Fire” and “Purple Haze” keep turning up. But this four-CD, one-DVD box does present fans with a few must-hear moments. The first disc gathers 15 tracks that feature the guitarist when he was a scuffling session musician for the likes of Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. He’s languidly expressive on The Icemen’s ballad “(My Girl) She’s a Fox” and a stallion ready to run on Rosa Lee Brooks’ “Utee” and Jimmy Norman’s “That Little Old Groove Maker,” flashing hints of the psychedelic frenzy to come. Also of note: a half-dozen tracks that Hendrix recorded with a friend in a New York hotel room in 1968. The intimate, highly informal performances find him taking on the Bob Dylan-Band collaboration “Tears of Rage” from the as-yet-unreleased “Basement Tapes” and working out what are essentially demos for key “Electric Ladyland” tracks “1983 (A Merman I Shall Turn to Be)” and “Long Hot Summer Night.”
Syl Johnson, “Complete Mythology” (Numero Group, $79.99): The Chicago-based soul singer, songwriter and band leader is best known for the recordings he made in Memphis during the ‘70s. But hip-hop DJs and producers who have been slicing up his funky ‘60s beats for decades know better. “Complete Mythology” does a tremendous job of collecting Johnson’s far-flung, difficult-to-find recordings for various Chicago labels in the ‘60s, when he was blending uptown-soul sophistication with syncopated groove. He never scored that big breakthrough hit, but his music had personality and bite, and the “Is it Because I’m Black” album — presented in its entirety as part of this six-LP, four-CD box — stands as an under-appreciated civil-rights era milestone.
John Lennon, “Signature Box” (Capitol, $189.99): Even though it contains 11 CDs, this bulky package focusing on Lennon’s solo career is by no means comprehensive. It excludes the excellent “Live Peace in Toronto” album, the first three experimental albums he recorded with Yoko Ono, two posthumous live releases, and the recent stripped-down remix of his final studio album, “Double Fantasy.” But collectors will jump on a disc of studio outtakes and bedroom recordings, including a raw take of “God” that illustrates how Lennon refined this heart-breaking purge. Also included are Lennon’s primary studio albums as a solo artist and three collaborative albums with Ono, plus a disc of singles. Original mixes are used, so don’t expect to hear the beefed-up sound featured on the spate of Lennon remasters that were issued individually in the last decade.
Neu, “Vinyl Box” (Phantasm, $194.79): The hugely influential German art-rock band gets the deluxe treatment, with their key studio releases from the early ‘70s all represented with lavish liner notes and graphics. Also finally tweaked to founding member Michael Rother’s specifications is the “lost” fourth Neu album, “Neu ‘86,” which was released without Rother’s authorization in the ‘90s by his former bandmate, drummer Klaus Dinger. “Neu ‘86” can charitably said to be of its time, an era when synth-pop was the epitome of cutting edge. But the duo’s ‘70s work remains beyond reproach, its endless grooves and scenic textures providing the perfect soundtrack for a cross-country drive or a long journey between the headphones.
Slayer, “The Vinyl Conflict” (American, $199.98): Ten crucial chapters in metal history presented on 180-gram “audiophile” vinyl. These pressings convey the band’s awe-inspiring power more persuasively than my CDs do while bringing the blinding intricacy of the guitar-drums interplay vividly to life. The band’s formative early material is missing, but essentials “Reign in Blood” (1986), “South of Heaven” (1988) and “Seasons in the Abyss” (1990) have never sounded better. And a strong case is made for the latter-day return to form on “God Hates us All” (2001) and “World Painted Blood” (2009).
Bruce Springsteen, “The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” (Columbia, $119.98): The centerpiece of this three-CD, three-DVD box is ostensibly the remastered version of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the 1978 album that is still the leanest, toughest music Springsteen ever recorded. But the real news is the trove of outtakes and rarities from the lengthy recording sessions that make up a scrappy, alternative “Darkness” (available separately as a two-CD set, “The Promise”). The music presents Springsteen and the E Street Band in garage-rock mode as the romanticism of the “Born to Run” era gives way to adult confrontation.
Various artists, “Apple Records Box Set” (Apple/EMI, $336.98): The Beatles vanity label, launched in 1968, was testament to the group’s voracious appetite for new sounds. For five years, the label brought together an array of artists from the worlds of folk, jazz, soul, classical, Indian music and rock, including future star James Taylor, cult-rockers Badfinger and session mainstay Billy Preston, with contributions from individual Beatles scattered throughout (Jackie Lomax performs a knockout version of George Harrison’s Beatles outtake, “Sour Milk Sea”). This 17-disc box pulls together 14 studio albums from across the roster, a “best of” collection and a double-disc of outtakes. It’s far from essential, but it does provide a snapshot of the Beatles’ tastes as music appreciators. Ringo Starr was a fan of both British classical composer John Tavener and UFO enthusiast Chris Hodge — who knew?
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