Physical media, we keep being told, is dead, but please don’t tell that to the companies still issuing comprehensive music boxed sets every year or the diehard fans still filling up their gift wish lists with the sometimes bulky items. The format seems to be alive and somewhat well if, in 2019, the Beatles and Bob Dylan each put out two boxed sets, and the Rolling Stones had three (spread across two labels, which helps explain the abundance of spoils).
Some of this year’s sets came in smallish boxes, easy to slip into a decent-sized glove compartment, like Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” live retrospective, or the Jimi Hendrix Fillmore East collection. Others pushed the envelope on packaging ingenuity, like a comprehensive Motown set that is housed — literally — in a cardboard replica of the Detroit residence that once served as the label’s headquarters. Some all but demand that you build an additional wing onto your manse, like a brand new Michael Jackson “This Is It” box that sports a flashing LED cover (and comes with a USB cable to keep it charged), or a Pink Floyd “Later Years” compendium that’s practically a wall unto itself.
But it’s history, not just dork appeal, that benefits from the medium’s survival. Would you ever be likely to stream all 307 tracks of “The Bakersfield Sound” without a boxful of CDs and a 224-page book to train your full attention on it? Even with something that makes more sense as a download, like this year’s “Abbey Road” super-deluxe set, half the experience is lost if you’re not idling away hours reading everything you never knew about the Beatles’ masterpiece in the accompanying hardback. So, yes, keeping physical boxed sets around is a tub we’ll keep thumping (until tubs, too, go purely digital).
Here’s the pulp and plastic that most tickled our fancy in 2019 (with comparative costs pulled off Amazon as of Dec. 23):
The Beatles, “Abbey Road — Anniversary Edition (Super Deluxe)”
(3 CDs + 1 audio Blu-Ray + hardcover book; $87 at Amazon)
The Fab Four stuck the landing in their final recording sessions as a group, with a swan song that’s still the favorite all-time album of maybe more boomers than not. The outtakes are not as voluminous as they were in the White Album box, because the Beatles had their s— together, to a greater extent, going into the studio in 1969. But the extras here, though slimmer, are just as indispensible, from a Paul McCartney demo for Badfinger’s “Come and Get It” to an alternate “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” that has a discarded, climactic Billy Preston organ freak-out. And the book provides a wealth of information about how they actually did it in the “Road.”
The Replacements, “Dead Man’s Pop”
(4 CDs + 1 LP + inset booklet; $56)
The centerpiece of this salute to the ‘Mats’ 1989 “Don’t Tell a Soul” is an entire alternate version of the record, as originally conceived and just now completed by producer Matt Wallace. His “director’s cut,” if you will, strips away the mountains of ‘80s reverb and reveals a leaner, scrappier and mostly better edition of an album that’s actually kind of been underrated despite being their most commercially successful. A two-disc live album from the period is also included and well worth the price of admission. Biographer Bob Mehr’s extensive text explains how, in typical Replacements fashion, everything about the experience came to be magical and f—ed up pretty much at the same time.
“Woodstock: Back To The Garden — 50th Anniversary Experience”
(10 CDs + softcover book; $112)
The “Woodstock” editions in 2019 came in papa bear, mama bear and baby bear sizes. The big kahuna, which you definitely never saw on any store shelf, was a 38-CD, 432-track “definitive archive” version that included nearly every lick of music played in 1969. That was priced at more than $800 and sold out almost immediately: It seemed like a clever idea at the time to press 1,969 units (get it?), but was regrettable when it turned out they could have sold a lot more. Don’t cry: The unlimited 10-CD distillation, which includes a healthy sampling of every performance from the festival, is just about exactly the amount of “Woodstock” anyone needs. (There’s also a far more condensed 3-CD edition, but being that much of a miser doesn’t give you nearly enough sense of being amid the mud.) The best news is that, after 50 years of official withholding, Creedence’s performance is finally available, reasonably excerpted in this box or in full as a separate item. Anyway, if anyone has been hoarding a copy of that rare 38-disc version they’d like to unload now… regrets, we’ve had a few.
Prince, “1999 (Super Deluxe)”
(5 CDs + 1 DVD + softcover book; $70)
The answer to how prodigious a single one-man-band can get is answered in the kind of vault-emptying exercise Prince fans have dreamed of before and since his passing. The two discs’ worth of songs that didn’t make the cut for “1999” won’t convince you he was making the wrong choices at the time, but most of the discarded cuts come awfully close to being top-flight, and in a few cases — like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” duh — achieve it. And it’s fun to hear him messing with ideas that emerged more fully formed later, like a rough draft of “New Power Generation.” A live album and concert DVD further establish that, however much we loved the Revolution joining in for “Purple Rain,” the “1999” era was a peak for Princedom in its purest form.
“The Bakersfield Sound”
(10 CDs + hardcover book, $188)
Wait, you’re saying… 10 CDs’ worth of Buck and Merle? You kid, of course, but those two titans of the 20th century are more than well represented in this set, along with dozens of other performers who provide a 21st century education in how they did not arise in a California vacuum. Others represented who either aren’t as commonly associated with Kern County country or have fallen off the household-name map include Ferlin Husky, Billy Mize, Tommy Collins, Leon Payne, Red Simpson, Jean Shepherd and (yes, they were Bakersfieldians) Bob Wills and Barbara Mandrell. The selections here date from 1940 to 1974, about the time it became clear that this town wasn’t big enough for the both of them — Nashville and Bakersfield, that is — and the genre’s west coast scene would effectively become the Betamax of country music: arguably superior, to some, and obsolescent. Scott B. Bomar’s 224-page book, though, will take you right back to the thriving scene that time forgot underneath all that Tulare dust.
“Motown: The Complete No. 1s”
(11 CDs; $116)
Sometimes you need rarities, and sometimes you just need a collection of one of the greatest catalogs in the history of music housed under one roof. And “housed” is not a figure of speech for a set that comes cleverly packaged inside a replica of the two-story Detroit abode from which a musical revolution sprang in the 1960s and beyond. Even in the off chance you’re collector enough to already own the 200-plus tracks collected here by everyone from Little Stevie Wonder to Erykah Badu, can you resist having them all renting out their own dollhouse-sized brownstone? It’s especially convenient in the holiday season — why not kick some Dickensian ceramics out of your display to put a little Motown in your Christmas Village?
Nat King Cole, “Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943)”
(10 LPs + booklet; $189) or (7 CDs + booklet; $116)
Resonance Records has undertaken heroic efforts in recent years to find and restore recordings by jazz giants like Bill Evans and Wes Montgomery, but they’ve usually held the line at 2-LP and 3-LP sets. A 10-record set is an altogether more ambitious animal, and one that’s well justified when it involves rounding up just about every extant recording of Cole in the ‘30s and ‘40s.” You’ll hear his familiar voice here, heating up the jazz world long before he became famous for Xmas fireplace-lighting, but mostly you’ll hear someone who was such an accomplished and swinging pianist that it didn’t much strike anyone at the time that they ought to be buying stock in his pipes instead of his keys. The CD version may be more manageable, but the LP set thoughtfully encases the vinyl in five gatefold jackets and offers a more readably large-size booklet of Will Friedwald’s and Zev Feldman’s interviews with Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and other admirerers. Cole found real stardom later with Capitol, a period memorialized already capitalized on in a highly regarded Mosaic boxed set, but here’s a case where the prequel might arguably be even better.
Bob Dylan (featuring Johnny Cash), “Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15”
(3 CDs + softcover book, $21) or (6 LPs + softcover book, $40)
It might seem curious that Johnny Cash gets featured billing on one of Dylan’s “Bootleg Series” releases — and maybe that wouldn’t have happened if the two legends weren’t also labelmates — but it makes sense when you realize that nearly two out of three discs here are Cash-related: their oft-bootlegged 1969 jam sessions, plus Dylan’s appearance on TV’s “Johnny Cash Show” and unreleased studio covers of “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom County Blues.” That dominance is compounded by the fact that the cupboards were somewhat barred for standard studio outtakes from the same period: Apparently, nothing survives from the “New Morning” cutting room floor, and top-quality alternate versions of tracks from the other two albums in his late ‘60s Americana trilogy, “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline,” only fill one disc. Cash is a good enough reason to hop this train, even if they left little in the can that would have been of release quality. Dylan, who probably hasn’t deferred to a lot of people since then, is very much deferential to Cash, who brought in his own band (including Carl Perkins) and is the alpha male in the sessions as Dylan uses his then-nasal affection to take the high harmonies. The keeper is when they do a medley of their sound-alike songs, Cash’s “Understand Your Man” and Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” with JC laughing that they “both stole it from the same guy.” The studio jam comes off as Cash being the one in charge and Dylan more along for the ride — and he was right not to think twice about it.
The Kinks, “Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire”
(4 CDs + 4 vinyl singles + softcover book and memorabilia inserts; $120)
It’s hard to top last year’s Kinks collection, the one dedicated to “Village Green Preservation Society,” which might stand as one of the best commemorative rock boxes ever. Yet, as they proceed through 50th anniversary editions, the follow-up concept album, “Arthur,” is hardly a slouch, especially for a record that sort of lost its raison d’etre when the TV musical play it was supposed to serve as a song score for got nixed. The most celebrated bonus in this set is utterly unrelated to “Arthur” — it’s an entire unreleased Dave Davies solo album that Ray produced for his brother, in days when the sibling rivalry was under control. There’s just as much reason to cherish some of the other extras, including not just period outtakes but recent re-recordings Ray Davies made of several of the songs in a surprisingly suitable doo-wop style. Some musical theater-style renditions of a few songs, reflecting their original intent, survive and are a treat to listen to, too. Dare we call it the stuff of Arthurian legend?
The Band, “The Band — 50th Anniversary (Super Deluxe)”
(2 CDs + 1 Blu-Ray + 2 LPs + 1 vinyl single + booklet and photo inserts; $99)
How is it possible that songs as essential and eternal as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” were actually created and did not always exist, handed down full-bodied from some rootsy firmament? We don’t necessarily get clues to that here, since the outtakes included as bonuses here find the classic songs pretty much in their finished form, not just underway. As with last year’s multi-format release of 50th anniversary editions of their debut album, “Music from Big Pink,” this boxing of their eponymously titled sophomore album arrives with a spit-polish of a remix from Bob Clearmountain — and however you feel about the spit-shine, it certainly feels like a brand new release from a bunch of master hillbillies who just skipped the 1960s on their way from some ancient period to the present day. Also included is a disc of their Woodstock live set, albeit in an older mix, not the new one used for this year’s Woodstock boxed sets. A personal favorite here is the instrumental versions, because who doesn’t want to do “Up on Cripple Creek” karaoke?
Bob Dylan, “The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings”
(14 CDs + softcover book; $74)
Somehow this Dylan release escaped getting the “Bootleg Series” tag, maybe because it served as an unofficial soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder” documentary at the midyear point, or because it’s less curated than some of the other “Bootleg” releases. This one devotes 10 discs to Dylan’s part of the five shows on the ’75 ensemble tour that were professionally recorded — similar enough in content that they aren’t all essential — with still more CDs dedicated to motel-room tour rehearsals or live one-offs that got sprinkled into the shows. You could argue that the Dylan camp should have given us a “Thunder” box that includes some of the other performances from famous and infamous members of the troupe … because if not now, when? But with Dylan himself as on fire as a vocalist as he ever was, it’s hard to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records Complete Singles Collection”
(4 CDs + inset booklet; $36)
When Los Lobos called themselves “just another band from East L.A.,” it might have sounded tongue in cheek at the time — and maybe it was — but the larger point was how they fit into a tradition of rocking bands from that area that was on the wane by the time they arrived on the scene in the late ‘70s. The recorded nexus for the East L.A. scene was the Rampart label, formed in 1961, which started off issuing doo-wop and R&B recordings and graduated to garage-rock before ending up with the disco and funk sounds the Latino music community favored over rock after a certain point. The adapting label’s assortment of sounds gets eclectic over time. But the first couple of discs in particular (where, yes, you’ll heard Cannibal & the Headhunters’ version of the title song) just make for great vintage party compilation records, as if you’re listening in to some rougher phantom version of KHJ, in a universe as alternate as Quentin Tarantino’s. In fact, one of the tracks here, the Village Callers’ “Hector Pt. 1,” did make it onto the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” soundtrack.
Jimi Hendrix, “Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts”
(5 CDs + booklet; $44) or (8 LPs + booklet; $97)
Can you devote an entire boxed set to a band that was together for less than three months? You can when that group was the Band of Gypsies, the trio that Hendrix very briefly assembled after the Jimi Hendrix Experience split up, with Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. The sole album they generated, “Band of Gypsies,” from their New Year’s 1969-70 Fillmore engagement, is variously referred to as one of the best live records ever, problematic, or both. Many fans of the guitar hero still have issues with the group’s chemistry generally or how Miles’ drumming fits in specifically. But if you’re not quite that inclined to pick nits, this long-awaited collection is just spectacular — five discs of pure fire you’ll want to stand next to well into the winter.
The Rolling Stones, “Let It Bleed — 50thAnniversary Edition”
(2 CDs + 2 LPs + 1 vinyl single + hardcover book; $92)
The Rolling Stones, “Rock and Roll Circus (Limited Deluxe Edition)”
(1 Blu-Ray + 1 DVD + 2 CDs + softcover book; $64)
As previously mentioned, the Stones have three boxed sets this year. One is “Honk,” a greatest-hits-plus-live-tracks collection that in its LP form, at least, comes in a box format, and thus counts. That’s from the group’s current label. From its former one, ABKCO, come these two commemorations of their late ‘60s glory… gathered without any outtakes from the band’s own archives, as they seem to have chosen not to participate in anything of which they don’t have ownership. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have ownership of this handsome packaging of “Let It Bleed,” one of their peak-era albums, with or without bonus tracks. There’s plenty to love about the tactile pleasures of the packaging, which includes David Fricke’s essaying, Ethan Russell’s photography and — why not — non-album single “Honky Tonk Women” as a bonus mono 45. Meanwhile, the band’s “Rock and Roll Circus” TV special has outlived the myths about it, like the one that guest stars the Who blew the Stones off the soundstage. A bonus CD doesn’t include any previously unearthed Stones but does allow a glimpse of what it sounded like when Eric Clapton played guitar on John Lennon’s impromptu jam of “Revolution.”
The Beatles, “The Singles Collection”
(23 vinyl singles; $202)
How many copies of this latest vinyl-only Beatles box will be sold to fans who don’t even own turntables, just so they can fondle the picture sleeves? A lot. But there’s good stuff to fondle here, as the problem of how so few original Beatles singles were delivered with artwork in America or the UK is handily solved by having each one come in a reproduction of a jacket from a different country where picture sleeves were in use. There’s no shame in having a set this novel on your coffee table as a conversation piece, as so many will. As it happens, actually playing the things is also great fun, to remember a time when most people really experienced music in the form of one-offs, not albums… a time suspiciously like today.
Garth Brooks, “The Legacy Collection”
(six different editions, five of which are comprised of 7 LPs + 7 CDs; $30-37)
He’s got friends in low pressing plants. Seriously, Garth must have tied up the entire vinyl manufacturing industry for a spell, pressing up so many iterations of this summation of his initial ’90s heyday. Now that he’s gone back to put all the early stuff on LP, Brooks is nothing if not a master of freedom of choice. Would you like those LPs cleaned up for the digital era? There’s one edition of the set that does that. Or are you an AAA freak — not that we think of the typical Brooks fan as hardcore analog freaks, but these cults probably do intersect? He’s got a version of the vinyl that has been untouched by 1’s and 0’s. Maybe you want a numbered set? There’s a whole separate edition for that. It may seem like overkill, especially when Garth has reissued his catalog on CD so many times — and these vinyl editions include a CD component of everything, too. Yet to have the most essential part of his catalog packaged in multiple formats at once so ridiculously inexpensively, you almost feel like you’re stealing it. Anything that feels this much like legal larceny has to be a good thing… doesn’t it?
The Pretenders, “UK Singles 1979-1981”
(8 vinyl singles; $69)
The punk/post-punk/new-wave era was a golden age for B-side collectors. This package of the first eight Pretenders singles has a wealth of them, including one non-album flip side, “Cuban Slide,” that eventually came to get almost as much FM airplay as anything in their catalog. Seven of the eight 45s, in fact, have exclusive (or at least then-exclusive) B-sides that had American fans running to the import sections in the early ‘80s. (Happily, the one inclusion that originally came on a flexidisc is now on proper vinyl.) The diagonal/two-tone design of the box makes this one particularly attractive on the shelf. Although issued as an exclusive limited edition for Record Store Day Black Friday, the Pretenders’ box can still be found in stores, with a little hunting.
Elvis Presley, “Live 1969”
(11 CDs + softcover book; $107)
If you thought having four Hendrix sets in his Fillmore box or five separate Dylan performances in the “Rolling Thunder Revue” collection was a lot, gird your loins for what a hunka hunka burning Las Vegas awaits within Sony’s Presley box of the year: no fewer than 11 consecutive shows from his run at the long-gone International Hotel. Like the Dylan set, and unlike the Hendrix one, the gigs captured here are similar enough in tone and setlist that one or two would do just fine for fans made of less stern stuff. (There was a fine single performance issued on vinyl for Record Store Day in April that perfectly fit the bill — limited, though, and now commanding crazy prices.) Even if there’s some overkill here, though, it’s worth it to get any, let alone all, of Presley at his late-period peak, coming off his reinvigorating 1968 comeback special with a band that really does take care of business.
“Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns — The Soundtrack (Deluxe)”
(5 CDs + softcover book; $55)
With 84 tracks from the ‘20s through ‘90s spread across five discs, country music starter kits don’t really come any more complete. Since this may also be a country music finisher kit for a lot of urban Ken Burns fans who may not have designs on really dipping into the genre a lot more, much respect is due for making sure that a broad swatch of Americans now have Roy Acuff in their libraries along with Rosanne Cash, Faron Young along with Willie Nelson, Charlie Poole along with Dolly Parton. The thin packaging itself feels a little on the cost-cutting side — country music is sturdy enough to demand sturdier cardboard, damn it! — but the digital goods are hard to assail. Unless you were thinking an 84-song set would include somewhere within it a Glen Campbell track, in which case…
Glen Campbell, “The Legacy (1961-2017)”
(4 discs; $32)
Here’s another instance where you might wish for larger or more elaborate packaging for what is likely to be the most expansive retrospective Campbell is ever get, but if the tradeoff is affordability, the price is very much right for this much sleek and sophisticated countrypolitan greatness — 78 songs’ worth. The classics are here (“Wichita Lineman”), along with the ones that never quite got their due (“Dreams of the Everyday Housewife”). The fourth and final disc covers the wonderful period when some thoughtful enablers helped Campbell receive a career and cred renaissance with tracks that turned songs by Paul Westerberg, Green Day and the Foo Fighters into a Webb of delight, and even a dip back into Jimmy’s own catalog for “Adios” as a swan song.
Having just looked at a few boxed sets with minimalist packaging elements, let’s make a separate list of the three most elaborately packaged (and accordingly priced) items of the year:
Pink Floyd, “The Later Years”
(5 CDs + 6 Blu-Rays + 5 DVDs + 2 vinyl singles + book and memorabilia inserts; $342)
The Floyd might have given us 2019’s heftiest set, in both weight and price — the equal, in both ways, to the monumental “Early Years” set of a few years ago. While that one covered every piece of ephemeral audio and visual material you never still existed from the band’s pre-“Dark Side of the Moon” days, this sequel covers the time frame after “The Final Cut,” when Roger Waters was seething that the other guys had decided to shine on without him. Some fans don’t consider the post-Rog era canonical, but if you do, there could be no handsomer (and, arguably, bloat-ier) tribute to their final, final stretch… which ended about 20 years ago, if you really want to feel old. The much talked about centerpiece is a new version of the “Momentary Lapse of Reason” album that has Nick Mason adding new drumming to replace the original’s session-man parts, along with keyboards from the late Rick Wright that didn’t make the cut. Is it an improvement on or derogation of the ’87 original? Fans don’t agree, and some find their feelings changing even from track to track. It’s still the closest thing anyone’s going to get to “new” Floyd. The handful of previously unreleased tracks here — not to be confused with previously unreleased drum tracks — aren’t much: a few instrumental jams that weren’t good enough to include on the “Endless River” album, along with a very good “early version” of “High Hopes” (eventually to appear on the “Division Bell” album, which, curiously, is only found on Blu-Ray here, not on CD). And yet… and yet… the fresh Hipgnosis design and indisputable luxury feel of the packaging keeps making me wish there were the kind of fresh discoveries here that made “Early Years” a godsend.
Michael Jackson, “This Is It — 10thAnniversary Boxed Set”
(4 LPs + 1 Blu-Ray + hardcover book; originally on Jackson’s website for $480)
Speaking of Pink Floyd, remember those original editions of “Pulse” that came with a pulsating red blinker… setting up fans for the inevitable dying of the light? Jackson’s “This Is It” commemorative set, issued in a limited edition of only 1000, has dozens of lights embedded in the cover of the box, and would be obviously be destined for an even shorter shelf life among gimmick-craving collectors if it weren’t for the modern innovation of the USB cord — which is it to say, it’s the very rare album cover you can and will plug in. Let hardcore Jackson fans discuss the merits of the anniversary vinyl and the memorabilia documenting the tour that never happened. We were happy to try out a sampler copy just to enjoy the innovation of the light show, which sometimes seems to be taking a breather for a while, only to come back on in a variety of flashing patterns. It may be the only boxed set cover that will ever wake you up in the middle of the night and scare the hell out of you. Yes, we want one.
Paul McCartney, “Egypt Station — Traveler’s Edition (Luxury Box Set)”
(3 LPs + 1 CD + 1 cassette + extensive memorabilia; on McCartney’s website for $360)
Other boxed sets may grow to feel suitcase-sized. Only McCartney thought to release a boxed set that actually is in the form of a suitcase, barely compact enough to fit into the overhead bin. Issued in a limited, numbered edition of 3000 (and still available here and there, if not everywhere), the ultimate version of his well-regarded 2018 album really wasn’t that ultimate after all; he keeps putting out more unreleased tracks from the sessions that didn’t even make it into the vinyl, CD, USB drive or cassette in this luggage. It’s the kind of item you have to hide from your family, probably, to avoid having to explain why you spent hundreds of dollars on a McCartney jigsaw puzzle, stickers, fake maps, fake passport with handwritten lyrics, etc. But you’ll surely bringing your other Beatle-geek friends down to your crawlspace to check it out. (Meanwhile, veteran Pink Floyd boxed set fans are thinking: No marbles?)
Finally, a special sublist of the year’s two most impossible to find boxed sets:
Muse, “Origin of Muse”
(9 CDs + 4 LPs; back-ordered at $150 but currently available jacked up to $300)
We weren’t able to preview this retrospective of the era leading up through Muse’s second album, because of a limited initial press run that maybe should make the set more of a candidate for a best of 2020 list. The whole thing sounds promising enough — nine CDs that include previously unreleased demos and live shows as well as the expected remastered albums and B-sides, plus two double-album vinyl sets, along with posters, contact sheets and a book-length interview. Honestly, though, they had us at “anti-scratch slipcase.”
Gene Clark, “No Other (Limited Deluxe Set)”
(3 LPs + SACD/CD hybrid + Blu-Ray + vinyl single + hardcover book; $225)
For many fans of the most authentic rock ‘n’ roll of the late ’60s and early ’70s, this refreshed look at an ex-Byrd’s greatest and almost wholly overlooked solo album counts as the discovery, or rediscovery, of the year. Not in the form indicated here, because the deluxe set was limited enough that sightings in stores almost took on a Bigfoot-like mythos. But, as with so many of these boxed sets, there’s also a two-CD distillation that’s more readily available and, in this case, more affordable at less than a tenth the going rate for the whole collection. The original album and its essential outtakes fly just as high without a Blu-Ray documentary or 80-page book, but the quick disappearance of the deluxe set does represent a little bit of money — and a lot of cultist craving — left on the table.