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Music’s Best Boxed Sets of 2017, From the Beatles to Bowie, The Smiths to U2, and Weird Al

Physical media has been getting shelved — figuratively speaking — but there are still good reasons to reserve literal shelf space for recorded music. Boxed set offerings are first-rate this holiday season, providing an experience that still can’t be duplicated with a download card or a stream. Whether it’s reading through the accompanying books or fetishizing full-sized archival artwork, lavish love and care has gone into sets celebrating the likes of the Beatles, Dylan, Bowie, R.E.M., Ella, Elvis, U2, Husker Du, Garth, and even spoof-meister general Weird Al.

Here’s our gift guide (or, after all Christmas hints fail, self-gifting guide) to the year’s 20 most essential boxed sets. There’s something for every budget — from $20-40 for concentrated dips into the Smiths, Ramones, and Presley catalogs to 10 times that amount for the very complete works of Johnny Mathis and Mr. Yankovic.

The Beatles: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — 6-Disc Super Deluxe Box Set”; “The Christmas Records” (Capitol)

Can a 50-year-old record actually be “Getting Better” in 2017? “Pepper” was arguably — no, let’s say inarguably! — the single most important album of all time, yet the existing stereo and mono versions both had sonic compromises. Giles Martin’s dazzling remix of his father George’s handiwork from 50 years ago beautifully reconciles the differences. Yes, you can get that on a single disc, but “Pepper” deserves something heftier, and gets it in a box whose lenticular cover is just the tip of the iceberg. The studio outtakes and breakdowns are fun, but the best new element might be the 144-page hardbound book that not only gets into the expected studio minutiae but actually provides a pretty decent shorthand history of the entire counterculture. Beatlemaniacs are also delighting this season over the first-ever wide release of the band’s annual fan-club Christmas records, recreated in every way except for the original flexidisc format. ($115; $73)

Bob Dylan: “Trouble No More — The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: 1979-81” (Columbia)

Often a boxed set is about celebrating an artist’s most revered work. More rare is making a redemptive case for some of their least celebrated work. “Trouble No More” is an invaluable act of reclamation for Dylan’s gospel years, that roughly three-year “Christian period” in which his lyrics so polarized fans that few could hear at the time that his impassioned singing, melody writing, and band arranging neared an all-time peak. In contrast to the flatter studio albums, the live shows were where Bob really got biblical, and the first two discs here form the great live album that should have rightfully — and righteously — been released at the time. Those two CDs make up the cheaper, condensed version of the set, but if you don’t go for the 9-disc deluxe, you’ll miss scores of first-rate studio outtakes, rarities and a concert film.  ($120)

U2: “The Joshua Tree — 30th Anniversary Super-Deluxe” (Island)

Iconic album? Check. Iconic cover art? Check. Lots of outtakes from both? Check. Thirty years ago, even U2’s B-sides were pure silver and gold, and you could argue that the disc of outtakes and vintage remixes included in this deluxe set is actually the best U2 album released this century. There’s also a disc of 2017 remixes, a live show from Madison Square Garden, a slipcase’s worth of color Anton Corbijn prints, a hardback book of desert/band photos by the Edge (who thanks “Anton for allowing me to shoot over his shoulder”). ($91)

“Weird Al” Yankovic: “Squeeze Box: The Complete Works of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic” (Sony Legacy)

Look no further for the year’s most delightful packaging than this objet d’Al. Accordion to who? Accordion to us. Yankovic’s life work has been housed in an replica of the man’s own squeezebox, which fans out to reveal the 15 LPs or CDs therein (all 14 of his studio albums from 1983-2014, plus an additional disc of rarities), along with a 100-page book of photo memorabilia bound to the non-keyboard side by elastic straps. You may need to add an extra wing to the manse to house a nearly full-sized fake accordion, but if you’ve got room for this conversation piece, you’d do well to pounce quickly at his PledgeMusic site; the CD version is sold out and the vinyl edition has, as of this writing, only 96 copies left. ($325 at PledgeMusic; $400 at Amazon)

 

David Bowie: “A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982)” (Parlophone)

This fourth entry in a chronological series of Bowie boxed sets is easily one of the most anticipated, due to the reverence afforded his so-called Berlin trilogy (“Low,” “Heroes,” “Lodger”) and the equally adventurous but more popular album that rounds out the set (“Scary Monsters”). While there are no studio outtakes, you do get a nice mini-hardback book full of annotation, a singles disc that includes non-album takes like “Cat People” and “Under Pressure,” an EP with foreign-language versions of “Heroes,” a remixed version of the very good “Stage” live album… and the satisfaction of having the entirety of one of Bowie’s most definable and fertile periods fully contained in one perfectly compact box. ($110)

Elvis Presley: “A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings” (RCA)

Elvis’ early trips to the Sun Studios with Sam Phillips, in which R&B, pop balladry, and hillbilly music came together in an alchemy previously unknown to man, were by any standard a signal change moment in the origins of youth culture as we know it. But even if this collection had absolutely no historical import, it would still be some of the most beautiful, compelling music you could ever hope to own. Getting way up into his boyish falsetto, even as he discovers his own brand of rocking rhythm, Presley never sang better, never had more wit and verve and nervous energy, or sounded more lovestruck or alive or spooky. On top of all the extant Sun recordings, you also get a disc containing every surviving live radio performance from that period, when the DJs admitted they didn’t know what to call this new kind of folk music. ($30)

R.E.M.: “Automatic for the People — 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” (Concord)

How could an album that sounds this utterly of-the-moment be a quarter-century behind us? In 1992, “Automatic” found R.E.M. at the perfect point of transition between their original hard-jangly-rocking mumblecore and their more settled and mature later years — the ideal nexus, really. There’s a disc of demos that’s mostly great for karaoke, since Michael Stipe hadn’t written most of the lyrics yet and just hums through the tunes. The disc you’ll keep coming back to is “Live At The 40 Watt Club 11/19/92,” a heartbreakingly good concert recording. ($66)

The Smiths: “The Queen is Dead — Deluxe Edition” (Rhino)

If you’re feeling nostalgic for a time when Morrissey’s big mouth hadn’t struck quite so many times, there’s no better place to indulge it than this surprisingly affordable three-CD/one-DVD set commemorating his late band’s most beloved album. The accompanying demos disc is a mixed bag, but highlights include oddities like the trumpets that were considered for “Never Had No One Ever.” The set also includes a Derek Jarman film and B-sides, but the biggest attraction may be the concert disc, “Live In Boston” CD, released here for the first time. Although it’s just a soundboard recording, many fans are preferring it to the more professionally recorded “Rank” concert album that came out back in ’88. ($22)

Paul McCartney: “Flowers in the Dirt — Deluxe Edition” (Capitol)

For some fans, “Flowers” had long been the most anticipated entry in McCartney’s annual series of deluxe reissues, because of all the unreleased work he’d done with Elvis Costello before going his own way with the direction of the album. It was worth the 28-year-wait.  Costello harshens up Macca, McCartney sweetens Elvis, and together they make for one of the greatest male harmonizing duos since the Everly Brothers. The set also includes an electric version of the songs Costello started to produce for McCartney (including cuts EC ultimately saved for himself, like “So Like Candy”). Brilliant, unreleased recordings like “The Lovers That Never Were” are enough to make you mourn for these brothers that never were, but better to hear them harmonizing late than never. ($115)

The Ramones: “Leave Home — 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” and “Rocket to Russia — 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” (Sire)

Two Ramones boxed sets in one year? That may seem like excess, but do the math: Their label is committed to a 40th anniversary series, and the band released their second and third albums in the calendar year 1977, both celebrated with literally thin yet lavish sets five months apart this year. Fresh off the presses this month is a commemoration of “Russia,” which included “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” and “Teenage Lobotomy.” Besides B-sides and outtakes, bonuses include a complete “tracking mix” with a slightly different song list, assembled by original engineer Ed Stasium, that, sans overdubs, finds the songs even rawer and the snare even louder. Also making it worth a grabba-grabba-hey: a full, unreleased live album, comprised of a full 25-song ’77 set. ($33-48)

 

Husker Dü: “Savage Young Du” (Numero Group)

With Grant Hart’s death having shook up much of the rock community this year, it’s more evident than ever that Husker Dü deserves a comprehensive boxed set. And it’s still just as evident that we may not get one in our lifetimes, thanks to their work being spread across three labels, one of which (SST) is notably recalcitrant on rights issues. But this survey of the proto-indie band’s first three years does more than just suffice for now. Its 69 mostly live and mostly unreleased tracks give us a group much more hardcore than anyone who only knows the Warner Bros. stuff could have imagined, though their future songwriting prowess is there beneath the lo-fi roar. Bonus points for the design: This is the first boxed set we know of where every printed element is in black-and-white, perfectly reflecting that early ‘80s Xerox DIY fanzine vibe. ($36)

Garth Brooks: “The Anthology Part 1 Limited Edition” (Pearl)

Equal part CD boxed set and hardbound book, “Anthology” is not a bad deal for Garth fans. The photo-filled book has plenty of background on the songs and sessions that led to Brooks’ breakthrough into superstardom in the early ‘90s. The CDs mix intermittent demos and rough tracks in with finished masters. It might’ve been more rewarding if he’d put the rarities on their own discs, but they’re still interesting clues in backtracking through the origin story of country’s all-time behemoth. ($25)

Midnight Oil: “The Full Tank: The Complete Album Collection” (Sony Legacy)

Midnight Oil’s complete works arrived in what was billed as a replica of the rusty water tank that was a staple of the late and lamented band’s stage set. Popping the lid reveals spines of all 11 of the group’s official 1978-2002 studio albums, plus an EP and a DVD containing 27 music videos. Is it really “complete”? Yes and no: There’s a companion barrel —how often do we get to use that phrase — called “Overflow Tank” that contains four CDs and eight DVDs of B-sides, outtakes, and live shows.  ($171)

Johnny Mathis: “The Voice of Romance — The Columbia Original Album Collection” (Columbia)

Johnny Mathis’ 1956 debut is one of 68 albums — count ‘em! — included in a truly completist box, a la previous collections issued by Sony on Dylan, Presley, and Cash. Of course, the average Mathis fan may be less inclined than the average Dylan fan to own every scrap of music ever recorded by their hero, since “easy listening” and “abject fanaticism” don’t often go together in the same sentence. So this is being manufactured in more limited quantities, with every one of the initial 1500 copies including a numbered certificate autographed by the great man himself. If you’re so inclined, December is not a bad time to pick up a box that includes no fewer than four separate Christmas albums. But the serious point of curiosity here, even (or especially) for non-fans, is “I Love My Lady,” an album he recorded with Chic in 1981, only to have it unceremoniously scrapped by Columbia. He doesn’t exactly get his “Le Freak” on with Rodgers and Edwards, but the semi-funky pairing works much better than you’d expect. ($450-500)

 

Isaac Hayes: “The Spirit of Memphis 1962-76” (Stax)

Hey, kids. Guess what Hayes cooked up before he was Chef? Much more than even most soul music aficionados knew, actually. Before he was a recording artist in his own right, he wrote, produced, and arranged for other acts in the ‘60s, which is the focus of this four-CD set’s first disc, a collection that veers from deeply obscure tracks into Sam & Dave smashes like “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” It’s an excellent primer in ‘60s soul and worth the price of admission all by itself. Then, as if a bonus, you get three more discs full of Hayes’ own recordings, broken down into greatest hits (“Shaft”), R&B covers of pop hits (the man did love his Bacharach and David), and long, slow, bedroom-suited instrumental jams. ($42)

Chuck Berry: “The Great Twenty-Eight — Super Deluxe Vinyl Box Set” (Geffen/uMe)

This vinyl-only retrospective was surely in the works before Berry’s death in March, but his passing put the need for any and all worthy tributes in stark relief. “The Great Twenty Eight” was a double-album best-of that helped resurrect Berry’s profile in 1982, and this box adds several LPs to complement it: a third record with additional hits and B-sides; a concert album recorded in 1963 with Berry backed by Motown’s own Funk Brothers; and an EP of the legend’s four Christmas singles. Rock scribe Alan Light updated the original liner notes for a new paperback enclosure. The initial 500-united pressing is on blue vinyl (except for red for the Christmas disc) and released on Dec. 15 only through Udiscovermusic.com; other retailers will get a standard black vinyl edition in late January. ($125)

Ella Fitzgerald: “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook” (Verve)

Another good reason to own a new turntable: this vinyl-only repackaging of one of the original conceptual boxed sets — Fitzgerald’s 5-LP/1-EP collection of Gershwin classics from 1959. Coming on the occasion of Ella’s centennial, this 58-years-later reissue includes a reproduction of a hardback book about the Gershwins that came with the original set; five lithographs from the original cover artist, French impressionist painter Bernard Buffet; and an expansion of the original all-instrumental EP bonus to a 12-inch disc that includes bonus tracks. ($177)

Various artists: “American Epic: The Collection” (Sony Legacy)

If you saw the PBS series detailing the history of recorded roots music in the early 20th century, chances are you wanted to hear more of that shellac, uninterrupted by Robert Redford’s narration, dulcet as it was. This sleekly packaged box resurrects 100 blues and hillbilly tracks from the ’20s and ’30s across five CDs, along with 100 pages’ worth of annotation. Come for the Robert Johnson, Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Lead Belly, and a handful of other ancient names you might know; stay for the Carolina Tar Heels, Dilly & His Dill Pickles, Hopi Indian Chanters, and Beale Street Sheiks. ($45)

Various artists: “Blue Note Review: Volume One — Peace, Love & Fishing” (Blue Note)

Don Was, the famed producer and president of Blue Note, was inspired by Jack White’s Third Man Vault subscription series to start a series of lavish, subscriber-only boxed sets for aficionados of the nearly 80-year-old jazz label, limited to 1,500 copies each. Two such $200 collections are scheduled annually, but you can opt in or out at any point — and there’s still time to get in on the first installment. “Volume One” has two musical components jazz fans will find deeply desirable — a vinyl reissue of “Step Lightly,” a long out-of-print 1963 LP by trumpeter Blue Mitchell, and a fresh compilation album that features new or unreleased tracks from label staples like Wayne Shorter and Gregory Porter, included as both a CD and double-LP. There’s also a fold-out magazine of interviews and essays; lithograph photos; a turntable mat; and — thanks to Was — a silk scarf, in an effort to make the listener as handsome as the box itself. ($200)

The White Stripes: “Vault Package #33: Icky Thump X” (Third Man Vault)

The Third Man Vault series’ $60 quarterly price tag was never more justified than with this 10th anniversary commemorative edition of White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” in the form of a major boxed retrospective. Colored vinyl LPs of B-sides and previously unreleased demos accompany the beautifully splattered main attraction, along with a book and the usual Vault ephemera and trinkets. The bad news: the window of opportunity to get this through Third Man has long passed. The good news: some subscribers are still selling mint copies of the package. Yes, they go for $90 or more on the secondary market. But for a serious Stripes fan, it’s not that icky a markup. ($90)

Variety’s Best of 2017
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