Pink Floyd Tops Nirvana, Grateful Dead, U2 for Christmas Boxes

Aretha Franklin Box Set
"Take A Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia" is a 11-CD, 1-DVD set priced at about $130. The collection covers soul, gospel and blues songS. Source: Legacy via Bloomberg.

Pink Floyd, U2, Nirvana, the Rolling Stones and Tony Bennett have the ideal Christmas box for fans.

Each offers hours of music -- at a heavy holiday price.

Some artists are releasing their entire oeuvre in one box.

Leonard Cohen anthologizes excellently on “The Complete Columbia Albums Collection” (18 discs, $140, Sony), a nostalgic treat for those who haven’t heard those LPs in years. Check the nicely downbeat titles: “Songs From a Room,” “Recent Songs.”

Boxes of Robert Johnson (17 discs, $350, Columbia) and Aretha Franklin (12 discs, $130, Legacy) capture some of the most emotional blues, gospel and soul of all time.

“The Complete Smiths” (eight discs, about $200, Rhino) is remastered from original tapes of the U.K. band. While this set misses some single medleys and mixes, it’s still exceptional.

Billy Joel’s “Complete Albums Collection” (15 discs for $199, Columbia) is spotty. He’s better served by the Legacy reissue of the classic “Piano Man.”

Only a Tony Bennett maniac would want him warbling 1,000 songs for a solid three days, including some dreadful Las Vegas casino numbers. “The Complete Collection” ($400, or $500 signed, RPM Legacy) is at least good value for each of its 76 discs.

Bennett’s life-work set comes at age 85; Wynton Marsalis’s likeable “Swinging Into the 21st” (11 discs, $80, Columbia) comes at 50; Sting’s excellent “25 Years” (four discs, $120, A&M) was released at age 60.

Rufus Wainwright, at 38, couldn’t wait that long for his “House of Rufus” (19 discs, $360, 101 Distribution), which shows he’s talented, prolific and needs a good editor.

The Grateful Dead’s “Europe ‘72: The Complete Recordings” (73 discs, about $800, Rhino) will leave rich Deadheads in seventh heaven. Me, I’d prefer “Live Dead” or “Grayfolded,” which restrict the band’s best concert showing to two discs.

Some of Phil Spector’s finest “little symphonies for kids” are on “The Philles Album Collection” (seven discs, $70, Legacy). The originals by the Crystals, Ronettes and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans are 1960s pop gold, though overshadowed by the “Back to Mono” set and Spector’s 2009 murder conviction. “The Essential Phil Spector” is a snappy, cheaper alternative.

Pink Floyd’s heavyweight contender is “The Discovery Box Set” (16 CDs, $180, EMI). Those wanting more can spend another $120 apiece on the “Immersion” editions of “Wish You Were Here” and “The Dark Side of the Moon,” which come with pointless Floyd marbles and scarves. Much neater are the two-CD “Experience” versions for $20 each.

The biggest version of U2’s “Achtung Baby” has a copy of Bono’s Fly sunglasses and spreads the 20-year-old LP over 14 discs, with outtakes, rehearsals, videos and the follow-up “Zooropa” for $440. The slimmed-down 10-disc set is $130 and highly recommended. There’s a two-CD version too.

Nirvana’s 20th-anniversary edition of “Nevermind” (five discs, $120, Geffen) and “Some Girls” by the Rolling Stones (three discs, $143, Hip-O) will be too much for the average listener. Nirvana’s CD changed the course of rock, though the rehearsals and outtakes are ragged; the Stones LP, which includes “Miss You,” works fine as a slim, two-CD version.

Studio geeks will love the Beach Boys’ “Smile” (nine discs, $140, Capitol); their families will be driven crazy over Christmas with more than 30 takes of “Good Vibrations.” Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica” 20th-anniversary set (seven discs, $190, Sony U.K.) has more variety. Buy it for the 14 remixes, not the limited edition T-shirt. Two-CD versions are available.

Elvis Costello’s “The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook” (three discs and book, $250, Hip-O) commemorates his lively Los Angeles concerts this year. The contrarian star has been telling fans not to buy it and instead try Louis Armstrong’s “Ambassador of Jazz” (10 discs, $150, Universal). He might add “Live in Europe 1967” by Miles Davis (four discs, $35, Legacy) or Jimi Hendrix’s “Winterland” (four discs, $50, Experience Hendrix), which both feature instrumental virtuosity.

This year had a bumper crop of deluxe versions of many rock classics -- all about $20, a fraction of the price of their weighty box-set brothers.

The best include “Songs in A Minor: 10th Anniversary” by Alicia Keys, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” by Derek and the Dominos, George Michael’s “Faith,” the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Psychocandy,” Pearl Jam’s “vs. and Vitalogy,” and Suede’s albums. Reissues of Queen’s output and the Who’s “Quadrophenia” were triumphs of packaging over inconsistent music varying from the peerless to pretentious.

Many box sets are manufactured in limited quantities, so prices are approximate and vary among retailers and online sellers. Download prices also differ across services.

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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