Thinking of giving or asking for a box set of music for Christmas? Here are reviews of selected box sets released this year:
The Smiths, “The Smiths Complete” (Rhino)
Everybody’s got one in their life. That kid — a nephew or daughter or neighbor — who’s alone in a crowded room, gloomy on a sunny day, a wardrobe leaning toward black coats and heavy eyeliner.
We have the perfect Christmas gift for that kid (even if she hates Christmas): “ The Smiths Complete.” It’s a swank box set, in both CD and vinyl, containing all four studio albums released in an astounding flurry between 1984 and 1987 and four more discs of live bits and odds and ends.
Morrissey’s sweetly crooned rancor and cutting indignation remain a soothing balm all these years later, and Johnny Marr’s diamond-lattice guitar work is still every bit as engaging as it was in the mid-1980s, despite all the copycats and pretenders over the years.
These albums were grenades lobbed at the establishment at the time and should find fresh ears in the 21st century.
The Smiths have aged very well. “The Queen is Dead” and “Vicar in a Tutu” remain vibrant and alive, the sneer still fresh on the lips. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “I Want the One I Can’t Have” remain just as heartbreakingly sad. And songs like “How Soon is Now” and “London” still rock with an unexpected ferocity.
— Chris Talbott, AP
Regarded as one of the most important albums in pop thanks to its unprecedented life on the charts and timeless sound, it should come as no surprise the iconic album “The Dark Side of the Moon” gets the box set treatment.
“The Immersion Collection,” as it’s called, consists of six discs centered on the album, and lots of collectibles, including a 40-page booklet, marbles, drink coasters, and a scarf. That’s right, a scarf, complete with the album’s trademark dispersive prism.
While these items may be cool for a few minutes, the real value of this collection lies in the album’s original mix, which up until now, has never been released. Unlike alternate takes that seem to pervade these types of collections, the early mix of this album stands on its own merit. Presented in its entirety, it provides a different perspective of the version of the album burned into our minds over the past 37 years.
“Dark Side” seemed to culminate the experimental soundscape of the band’s seven previous albums with the right blend of mainstream appeal. So this cut of the album serves as the step before their masterpiece was complete.
Roger Waters wrote the album about a daily stresses of living, and David Gilmour sings most of the songs on the album with the exception of the final two, “Brain Damage,” and “Eclipse,” which were sung by Waters. The album marked a major change for the band as they went from a psychedelic rock band to rock ‘n’ roll history. It stayed in the Top 200 for a record 741 weeks.
If you ever wondered what “Great Gig in the Sky” would sound like without Claire Torry’s non-lexical vocals, or a different maniacal laugh on “Brain Damage,” then you’ll get to hear those versions and much more.
There’s even an instrumental of “Us and Them,” which was the song’s earliest version. “The Violent Sequence,” as it was originally titled, was written by keyboardist Richard Wright for the Michelangelo Antonioni film, “Zabriskie Point.” The director rejected the track, and it found new life with Roger Waters’ haunting lyrics.
Another track, “The Travel Sequence,” was a piece the band did in concert since 1970. For “Dark Side,” it would eventually evolve into “On the Run.” For fans of the album, this disc, along with an included 2003 documentary on the making of the album, is a history lesson.
— John Carucci, AP
Twisted Sister “From The Bars To The Stars: Three Decades Live” (Eagle Vision)
Twisted Sister is one of the most visual bands in the history of heavy metal, and this five-DVD box set chronicles their rise from New York bar band extraordinaire to worldwide metal legends, in all its cinematic glory.
The set includes their 1982 performance at Long Island, N.Y.’s Northstage Theater, and the 1982 coming-out show at England’s Reading Festival, where the band won over a skeptical audience that began the afternoon by throwing garbage at them and ended up cheering them. It also includes the 2001 New York Steel benefit concert for the families of police officers and firefighters killed in the World Trade Center attacks, a show that reunited the band for the first time in 14 years.
In addition, there’s “Live at Wacken,” their 2003 festival show for a rabid German audience, and “A Twisted X-Mas,” a video culled from three Christmas shows they did in December 2009 at the Las Vegas Hilton. This disc is the only one in the box set that hadn’t previously been released. It begins with strippers pulling singer Dee Snider onto the stage on Santa’s sleigh (hey, it’s Vegas!) and includes numerous songs from their brilliant 2006 heavy metal Christmas album “A Twisted Christmas.”
The box set also comes with some cool swag, including a silver Twisted Sister Christmas ornament, a vintage hot-pink band button from the 1970s, a laminated backstage pass from the New York Steel show, and a photocopy of the very first typed-out newsletter the band mailed to fans in 1979.
It’s the definitive video history of one of the most underrated bands in heavy metal, drenched with band interviews and rehearsal footage (check out Snider grafting the vocals to “Gloria” (as performed by The Doors) onto Twisted’s “Shoot ‘Em Down” while guitarist Jay Jay French sings “Wild Thing” — all at the same time). Moments like this are why God created box sets.
— Wayne Parry, AP
Billy Joel, “Billy Joel: The Complete Albums Collection” (Columbia/ Legacy)
We live in a fragmentary culture. Songs are “quoted” in commercials, sampled in other songs, heard in slivers in all corners of our landscapes.
How odd, then, to be able to listen to the entire arc of a singersongwriter’s artistic life in one package — and see, as close as is possible in art, the complete picture of who someone has been.
So it goes with “Billy Joel: The Complete Albums Collection” — a 15-CD (15!) collection that takes the Joel oeuvre from the dawn of the 1970s into the 21st century. From “Piano Man” to “Just the Way You Are” to “Uptown Girl” to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and beyond, it’s quite a ride.
In recent years, Joelbashing has become a not-uncommon exercise. He’s saccharine, people say. Hackneyed. Not too relevant. Syrupy.
That’s unfair. Joel is one of the premier pop songwriters of his generation, and even his more uneven efforts are generally good listening.
If you can — and it’s a lot to ask, true — take the time to listen straight through to the more than 11 hours of music in these albums. Taken together, it’s an epic portrait of an era and how it unfolded, in New York City and beyond.
— Ted Anthony, AP
“ Tony Bennett — The Complete Collection” (Columbia/ RPM/Legacy)
This 73-CD, three-DVD collection, priced at around $ 400, reflects Tony Bennett’s lifelong ambition to create a “hit catalog rather than hit records.” It contains more than 1,000 individual songs recorded over more than six decades, from his first recording, a rare 1946 V-Disc with an Army band in Europe, to tunes from his first No. 1-charting album, “Duets II,” released in September, pairing him with today’s stars, including Lady Gaga and Carrie Underwood.
The consistent thread running through Bennett’s career has been his determination to record good songs — many from the “Great American Songbook” — that wouldn’t become obsolescent.
That hasn’t always been easy. In the ‘50s — as indicated on the six CDs with Bennett’s Columbia singles — the young singer often butted heads with producer Mitch Miller, who pushed him to croon often forgettable songs in a stiff operatic voice with choral groups and saccharine string arrangements. But Bennett’s singing became more relaxed and jazzier once he began recording albums with more “Songbook” standards starting in 1955 with “Cloud 7.”
Bennett’s ability to blend pop with his jazz inclinations is what ultimately distinguishes him from his peers, and some of his best albums feature jazz greats. In the late ‘50s, he recorded “The Beat of My Heart” with Art Blakey, Jo Jones and other leading jazz drummers and became the first white vocalist to record with the Count Basie Orchestra.
Later, he made two memorable duet albums with the lyrical, impressionistic pianist Bill Evans for Fantasy during his 1972-86 hiatus from Columbia that followed perhaps his most ill-advised album, “ Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today” (1970) with covers of songs by the Beatles and others.
There are more jazz treasures on two CDs filled with rarities and outtakes, including an exuberant duet with Frank Sinatra on “New York, New York.” Of particular interest are two neverbefore released albums: “On the Glory Road” (1962) and “Live At the Sahara: From This Moment On,” documenting his 1964 Las Vegas debut.
The collection is augmented by three DVDs, including a rarely seen BBC show from 1971, “ Tony Bennett Sings … with The London Philharmonic Orchestra.
What’s particularly noteworthy is that about a third of the collection has never before been released on CD — and this collection gives Bennett the standing he deserves among the pantheon of American pop singers.
— Charles J. Gans, AP
Sting, “Sting: 25 Years” ( 3 CDs, DVD) ( A& M Records)
Sting’s three-CD box set offers an intriguing portrait of the artist in his quartercentury quest to marry the many flavors of music. Bundling his early and later work together presents an excellent chance to really get a clear reading of how he has tweaked pop music and expanded its core.
His early solo compositions after leaving the Police veered largely toward jazz and world beats, and his first CD, “The Dream of the Blue Turtles” featured an impressive roster of jazz players: Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim and Darryl Jones.
“If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” from that seminal 1985 album showcases Sting’s flirtations for both jazz and rhythm and blues, while he revives the reggae that also influenced the Police in “Love Is the Seventh Wave,” with its infectious refrain: “There is a deeper wave than this, rising in the land/There is a deeper wave than this, listen to me, girl.”
World beats and jazz, of course, are offered up again and again over the years — “Desert Rose,” for example, from 1999’s “Brand New Day,” where Sting’s vocals with Cheb Mami, share Middle Eastern inflections. “I Was Brought to My Senses,” from 1996’s “Mercury Rising,” reflects just a taste of the Scottish Highland in its opening before floating to smooth jazz riffs.
Sting’s musical explorations became even more interesting in 2003 with his “Sacred Love” album where Bach influenced “Whenever I Say Your Name,” a song that had Mary J.. Blige on vocals. And there are tunes from his recent works, “Symphonicities,” from 2010 and “If on a Winter’s Night …”
The boxed set comes with a nicely packaged book of writings and photos, and a DVD, and lyrics to each tune. Sting is an intelligent lyricist, which for some fans can be a turn-off. But like it or not, Sting’s very complexities elevate his music, from the peppiness of “Brand New Day” to the edgy narrative “I Hung My Head” to the sweetness of “When We Dance.”
Sting has truly given the gift of music.
— Dolores Barclay, AP
Wynton Marsalis, “Swinging Into the 21st” (Columbia/Legacy)
Over the past 30 years, Wynton Marsalis has gone from teenage trumpet prodigy to an institution unto himself. He’s celebrating his 50th birthday with an 11-CD box set commemorating the monumental creative and stylistically diverse outburst that ushered in the millennium when he released nine albums between March 1999 and August 2000. The collection is capped off by one of his definitive works, the sacred composition “All Rise,” recorded just days after 9/11. Only a player like Marsalis — trumpeter, bandleader, arranger, composer and educator — could have undertaken such a challenge.
Marsalis’ trumpet virtuosity is on full display on the 11 and a half minute version of the standard “Cherokee” on one CD, which features selected highlights from his seven-CD “Live at the Village Vanguard” box set released in 2000. A relaxed Marsalis has fun playing with three different septet lineups — including such outstanding players as pianist Marcus Roberts, alto saxophonist Wessell Anderson and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon — performing both originals and standards at the iconic New York City jazz club from 1990-94.
As an educator, Marsalis continues his “Standard Time” album series paying respects to jazz giants on two CDs. His septet explores Thelonious Monk’s repertoire in depth— skipping some of the pianist’s greatest hits like “’Round Midnight.” On “Mr. Jelly Lord,” Marsalis reinterprets the works of jazz’s first major composer, Jelly Roll Morton, augmenting his band with several New Orleans veterans — trombonist Lucien Barbarin, clarinetist Michael White, and Harry Connick Jr. (on piano on one track).
The collection also includes two diverse jazz scores for ballets; a neverused film score full of American roots music from blues and gospel to bluegrass intended for director John Singleton’s “Rosewood.”
— Charles J. Gans, AP
Robert Johnson, “Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters. Centennial Edition” (Columbia/ Legacy)
Pulling together a box set of recordings by Mississippi Delta blues legend Robert Johnson shouldn’t be that tough a task. Johnson only released a handful of songs from two recording sessions in 1936 in 1937, in San Antonio, Texas and Dallas respectively.
But Johnson was no ordinary musician, and justly, Sony’s Legacy division has treated his work with respect and detail. In the box set titled “Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters, Centennial Edition,” homage is paid on 100th anniversary year of Johnson’s birth with a dozen 78 rpm replicas of each of his released songs.
The set also contains two CDs of 42 master and alternate takes. For a retrospective of the times in which Johnson made his music, one of the CDs contains 10 songs from various artists recorded on the same days as the Robert Johnson sessions all those decades ago. There’s a DVD documentary as well which takes a look at Johnson’s short 27 years on Earth.
But to be clear, Johnson’s vinyl is the centerpiece here. To hear the bluesman play classics like “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and “Love In Vain Blues” on this medium is a treat. The slight crackle from those original recordings feels right at home between the newly etched grooves on a vinyl platter. Johnson deserves this analog attention, and not merely the 128 kbps stream of an MP3 on an iPod.
For the re-mastering of the vinyl records themselves, Sony turned to 78 rpm format expert Harry Coster, who keeps a record press in a Netherlands barn and handmade new polystyrene pressings especially for this effort.
Johnson is one of the most important American artists ever recorded. Thus, this sort of packaged adoration seems fitting for a young man who influenced so many.
— Ron Harris, AP
Grateful Dead, “Europe ‘72: The Complete Recordings” (Rhino)
How much is too much when it comes to the Grateful Dead?
That question is being tested like never before with the 73-disc box set “Europe ‘72.”
For the venerable band’s detractors, even more than a couple minutes of jamming sends them running for the exits.
But to Deadheads who started trading shows on tape 40 years ago and continue to snatch up archival releases from the vault, there appears to be a bottomless desire for more.
“Europe ‘72,” which includes all 25 shows from their revered 1972 tour of Europe, is the boldest release to date.
It’s a lot of Dead, to be sure.
The 25 shows amount to 73 discs, more than 70 hours of music. And at $450 the price isn’t chump change, either. Although, when priced out it comes to just $6.25 per disc.
The box set was originally offered in a limited numbered run of 7,200 in a replica travel trunk, complete with a hardcover book. After those sold out, the musiconly version of the set was put up for sale. Those unwilling to take the tour from Copenhagen to Amsterdam and all stops in between can also buy individual shows.
But for those with the cash, the entire tour is something to behold. In typical Dead fashion, every show is unique and some are better than others. Only one song — “Mr. Charlie” — showed up every night.
In general, the Dead is in prime form while in a period of transition. Original keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was ill but still performing, while his eventual replacement Keith Godchaux was already on board along with his wife, backup vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux.
The tour was first immortalized on the band’s famous three-record live set “Europe ‘72,” released at the end of 1972. But until now, only one complete show from the tour had ever seen the light of day.
Now it’s all there for whoever is willing to take it on.
— Scott Bauer, AP
U2, “Achtung Baby,” Super Deluxe Edition Box Set (Island/Interscope/UMe)
Longevity in the music business can be traced to a pivotal moment in an artist’s career, and for U2, that milestone was “Achtung Baby.” The seminal 1991 album represented U2 2.0, the point where the band reinvented itself. Now fans can experience the making of the classic recording with a box set that includes nearly as many discs as album releases.
The album that spawned such classics as “One” and “Mysterious Ways” was recorded in Berlin during a tumultuous period for the band.
After experiencing the mega-success of “The Joshua Tree” and the concert film “Rattle and Hum,” the band was at a crossroads. So they broke away from their families to find their sound in a distant land.
But things didn’t go as planned. Disagreements over musical direction weighed heavy on the band and divisions formed. Bono and the Edge wanted to move toward an electronic sound, while Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton yeaned for a classic rock sound. And producer Daniel Lanois wanted to recapture the tone of past recordings.
After a great deal of tension, they found what they were looking for with “One,” and the rest fell into place. Not only were they able to churn out the remainder of the album, but they also recorded the follow- up, “Zooropa.”
The trajectory of “Achtung Baby” shares similarities to Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and the ensuing documentary, “The Promise,” as being pivotal by showing growth in the music. Like the “Darkness” album, U2 gets a feature- length documentary chronicling the pain-staking process in Davis Guggenheim’s “From the Sky Down.”
The entire history of “Achtung Baby” is chronicled in the super deluxe edition. It consists of six compact discs and four DVDs, including the documentary, and a Zoo TV special. Other goodies in the box include a hardcover book and 16 art prints.
Fans of the band are treated to the original album, and a variety of extra material that ranges from informative to overkill, depending on your level of fandom. Still, there’s a little too much raw material here for most listeners to process. And besides, who really needs to see four different versions of the video for “One”?
There’s a scaled-down two disc set that includes 14 additional tracks.
— John Carucci, AP
Nirvana, “Nevermind Super Deluxe Edition” (Geffen)
Working through the hours of material on this 20th anniversary celebration of Nirvana’s atom bomb of an album, “Nevermind,” is an unexpectedly melancholy experience.
The music here is just as vital as it was the day it knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the charts — perhaps even more so, given that time as failed to produce a worthy successor.
When “Nevermind” hit the street in 1991, destroying hair metal in just a few bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it reshaped not just rock music but pop and punk and America. It captured a moment, the aimless uneasiness of a large part of a generation, and heralded the promise of something better.
Listening to the various versions of “Nevermind” in this edition, one of two commemorative releases, reminds us that no one’s really come close to carrying the standard in the years after Nirvana’s fiery flare across the night sky. And that’s pretty disheartening.
The super deluxe version is both fascinatingly deep and needlessly so at the same time. There are four discs with 69 cuts that include a remastered version of the original album, various B-sides, live cuts and unreleased versions and even a few early boom box proto-recordings that provide a glimpse at the evolution of Nirvana’s biggest hits. There’s also a book that includes photos and other artifacts from the period (For those curious but looking for something a little more economical, there’s also a 39-song, two-disc version that’s a fraction of the cost).
The highlight of the super deluxe edition is the “Nirvana: Live at the Paramount” DVD of the band’s Oct. 31, 1991, concert in Seattle. Things were just starting to blow up and the band is lean and powerful and young and beautiful, and there’s no hint of things to come.
It’s a moment in time that’s nearly perfect.
— Chris Talbott, AP