What do Daft Punk, Bob Dylan, the Clash, Herbie Hancock and the Beach Boys have in common?
They are all contenders in the annual battle to see whose box set can outweigh the other.
As holiday shoppers increasingly focus on individual song downloads, and obituaries are written for the album and CD formats, these sets -- with luxury packaging and prices to match -- may be the real saviors of the record industry, as well as offering great gift ideas.
Some of these boxes need extra shelf support or careful budgeting. The good news is that the best aren’t always the most expensive, and they all still offer enough listening for well into the New Year. Because many of these sets are limited editions, prices are moving and it pays to shop around.
Sometime close to Christmas there will be vinyl box sets of the complete oeuvre for the German band Can and Scotland’s the Jesus and Mary Chain. There will be some rare tracks on both, though price tags, yet to be confirmed, may surpass $500.
“The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records” is a six-LP box set put together by musician Jack White. The collection covers the 1920s black-music label whose roster featured Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey and Louis Armstrong.
The 800-track digital set was first issued through White’s Third Man Records at $400 -- though prices are now soaring to $480 on other sites. That’s a lot, though the document often rises above the historical to be really entertaining. This music was feared lost. Now we are hearing it again after decades.
The New York Art Quartet was a free jazz group, endlessly praised though not much heard. It only released a couple of LPs. Now “Call It Art 1964-65” radically expands the output over five discs in a handsome birchwood case with a clothbound book. This has a serious price, $340 or more, and best left for true avant-garde fans.
Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” set is $275. For this you get one of the best albums of 2013, otherwise available for about $9, in a beautifully presented box with a lot of hardly essential extras. Perhaps the best item is a record presenting the highlights from a three-hour monologue by producer Giorgio Moroder, later spliced down to form the nine-minute “Giorgio by Moroder.” Apart from that, the souvenir has vinyl albums, a hardcover photo book, art prints, USB drives and celluloid film strips.
For slightly less outrageous prices, there are many box sets that collect the majority of an artist’s work. At about $180, the Clash’s “Sound System” is in a class of its own.
The 12 discs cover the band’s studio LPs (with the exception of the dispensable breakup disc) all remastered with demos, non-album singles, rarities, B-sides and a DVD. The music shows why the Clash was Britain’s best punk band above, say, the Sex Pistols. The exceptional packaging, looking like an old boombox, is also stuffed with amusing if unnecessary extras such as fanzines, dog tags, badges, stickers and a poster.
“The Sun Rock Box 1954-59” is $165 and gives an excellent overview of rock recorded at the Memphis record label best known for Elvis Presley. (There are other sets covering Sun’s blues and country work.) This eight-CD, 10-hour set makes a convincing case for Sun’s backup bands and many of the label’s less successful acts such as Patsy Halcomb, who cut “I Wanta Rock.”
There’s more from musicians who have produced excellent music, while not being in the very first rank of stars.
British singer-songwriter John Martyn’s “The Island Years” is $250. Martyn died in 2009: it appears de rigueur to couple his name with the adjective “underrated.” “Solid Air” from 1973 is by no means the only gem, though 18 discs will be too much for many.
For about $212, “There’s a Dream I’ve Been Saving” covers part of the long career of Lee Hazlewood -- though it doesn’t cover his best work with Duane Eddy and Nancy Sinatra.
Also for $212, Herbie Hancock’s keyboard work is showcased on “Columbia Album Collection,” 34 CDs spanning 1972-1988 and featuring a range of styles from Miles Davis jazz to funk and electronic disco.
For about $180, there’s “The Bob Dylan Complete Album Collection Vol. One.” The 47-disc collection covers 41 official albums, including 14 newly remastered titles. Dylan is one of the greatest singer-songwriters, so this is a fine set. Enthusiasts will buy it if only for a two-CD compilation of songs not included on the original albums and the first North American CD issue of the 1973 album “Dylan.”
John Mellencamp's “1978-2012” also does what it says on the box. The 19-CD, $130 collection covers more than 200 tracks such as “Paper in Fire” and “Hurts So Good.”
The soul box set of the year, at about $125, is “Cooler Than Ice: Arctic Records and the Rise of Philly Soul.” The 121 cuts include many not heard in decades, with material by Barbara Mason and Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes.
The Beach Boys’ six-CD set “Made in California” mixes greatest hits, often in unusual forms, with outtakes -- much the same formula as on “Good Vibrations” from 1993.
See it as the band’s tithe on fans: pay about $100 and get a load more rarities that shed further light on the convoluted studio process that led to “Surf’s Up” and more.
This is the first part of a two-part guide to CD box sets. Titles priced at less than $100 will be included in the next part.
(Mark Beech writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)