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‘Tis the season for glorious excess, and nothing says “disposable income” better than the mighty CD box set. You may not ever listen to all of it, but it does look nice on the shelf between that Complete Shakespeare and every volume of the Bill James Baseball Abstract series. Which type of box set owner are you: the devout completist who will go that extra mile for demos and outtakes, or the wealthy dilettante who’s just got to have the latest and greatest in case it comes up? Part of the box set’s infinite allure is its ability to identify you as a devout fan and cover up the holes in your knowledge at the same time. It’s the miracle you’re paying for, really.
But not everyone has the patience or the cash for many of these slices of heaven, so difficult choices must be made. It’s been a banner year for single-artist box sets, especially of the multipound doorstop variety. The Complete Hank Williams (Mercury Nashville) blows the juke-joint doors off of any previous Williams collection with its cradle-to-grave thoroughness and bleakness of vision spread over 10 CDs. John Lennon’s four-disc collection of demos, outtakes, and live wankery called, oddly enough, The John Lennon Anthology (Capitol), has relit “Paul or John” debates around the world. And yeah, there’s the new Bruce Springsteen Tracks (Sony Music) box as well; but his fans not only know about it, they will pick it up regardless.
For those on a tighter budget, there are two dual-disc sets that bear cautious praise. 100 Flowers Bloom, from punk icons Gang of Four, is both an excellent overview of the band and a prime example of what not to do with one of these sets if a band had a Really Bad Period sometime in its career. Make no mistake about it, much of this collection is flat-out amazing; the Gang’s rigid funk ‘n’ feedback is largely responsible for much of American underground guitar rock as we know it. (For a guy who spent an awful lot of time carping about how lame British people were, Steve Albini and his band Big Black copped an entire songwriting aesthetic from these guys and Wire.) Nowhere is this lineage more evident than on the stunning live tracks from 1980: “Anthrax” and “Contract” sound like propulsion but stay stock-still; singer Jon King sounds trapped and furious by the twin realizations that capitalism couldn’t be killed with brutal guitar noise and that he wasn’t a very good dancer. Unfortunately, the collection is not in chronological ordera tragic mistake for a band that made one godawful record at the end of its original run (1983’s Hard), tried to make a ’90s comeback, and failed spectacularly. Placing crap such as 1991’s “F.M.U.S.A.” next to 1979’s stunner “Ether” removes the emperor’s clothes very fast. Gang of Four was often a brilliant band, and this is a solid introduction to give your favorite Marxist, but that person may wonder occasionally what was the big deal. Proceed with caution.
Live 1966 by Bob Dylan (Columbia), however, is indeed a big deal. This legendary set has been circulating as a bootleg for years (its most recent and best-sounding iteration was 1995’s Guitars Kissing & the Contemporary Fix, taken from a slightly different mix of the tape used for Live 1966), but this two-disk set is the first time it’s been presented by an actual record company. Recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in May of 1966, the set showcases a slurry Dylan and the Band pounding through an amazingly dramatic set in front of an audience really hacked off that they’re playing rock ‘n’ roll rather than protest folk. Dense, cryptic versions of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” boil off the stage, until some yutz writes himself into history by screaming “Judas!” at the performers. After Dylan yells back, he mumbles the most famous stage direction in all of rock mythology, “Play fucking loud,” before launching into an apocalyptic “Like a Rolling Stone.” Believe the hype, and that’s just Disc 2. Disc 1 is a solo folk set, and it’s been getting something of a bum rap in the press. No, it’s not all that articulate: Dylan’s delivery has a zoned-out, falling-out-of-the-chair air about it, but “Desolation Row” lends itself to just such a reading, and what more do you need? An essential purchase.
Yet more compelling is the genre box setthe survey not of one person, but of a moment in history, a way of life. The stakes are far higher for such a collection: The set has to cohere around a theme, and it helps if the songs are good.
The Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era: 1965-1968 collection from the public servants at Rhino scores an absolute bull’s-eye in both regards. An expansion of the original 1972 LP compiled by Patti Smith guitar wizard Lenny Kaye, Nuggets showcases the incompetent brilliance of garage bands over just a few years, well into the Johnson administration but before Woodstock. This is the original Seattle sound, the perfect product of (mostly) white garage boredom. Most of these bands blew up without going pop; there are hits here, but you certainly aren’t buying the set for those. For every standard like “Louie, Louie” or the much better “Hey Joe” (by the Leaves, not Jimi), the collection delivers three or four shockers that any average citizen might love, such as Syndicate of Sound’s menacing “Little Girl” or the Nightcrawlers’ “The Little Black Egg.” And for every Arthur Lee and Roky Erickson, there are 15 Joe Nobodys who made their bid for immortality, got it on tape, then moved on with their lives, leaving a pure American ur-punk in the process. This is their moment in the sun.
The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip-Hop + Underground Dance Classics 1980-1985 (four CDs sold separately from Timber!/Tommy Boy) is not technically a box set, but it’s the aesthetic flip side of Nuggets and in many ways makes a stellar companion. The one-shot-to-the-top vision of the ’60s garage kids was alive and well in the New York dance clubs of the early ’80s. Like Nuggets, Perfect Beats peers into a narrow window of time, between disco and techno, just about the time song structure in dance pop completely gave out to the formless, all-night beat assault. If you want to find the roots of Madonna’s blond ambition, this is the place to go, an aural nirvana where Afrika Bambaataa, Level 42, and ESG shared the dance floor with New Order and the many moods of Jellybean. It’s glorious to hear how some different strains of songs got absorbed into the music at large and therefore became immortal (take the staggering “Let the Music Play” by Shannon, for one very obvious example) and how others seemed to occupy no-less-haunting cul-de-sacs (Heaven 17’s “Let Me Go” is great, but dated). Volumes 1 and 2 assemble the Latin dance tracks, all dramatic preludes to the freestyle of the late ’80s. Volume 3 is a perfect collection for that breakdance holiday party you’ve been thinking about having, and Volume 4 breaks out the music’s components with songs by the Jimmy Castor Bunch, James Brown, and Newcleus. Like the very best box sets and reissues, it’s a very generous, joyous collection, and after all, what else are the holidays about? CP