They’re expensive, exhaustive, and exhausting, but all those boxed sets taking up space in record stores are, in a sense, critic-proof. You probably know at least one person who would love to wake up Christmas morning and find dozens upon dozens of tracks by the Clash or Yes or Ray Charles under the tree, all of them preserved forever on gleaming CDs nestled in a lavish cardboard box with a photo-jammed booklet.
But when it comes to the boxed-set glut — over two dozen have been released this year alone — even major fans have to weigh some serious questions. Are the rarities contained in each box worth shelling out $50 or more? Are some artists better served by an earlier greatest-hits album that’s more cost- effective and contains only the essential cuts? And (beyond financial gain for record companies) is there an artistic agenda behind each box?
With such questions in mind, we slogged through the season’s notable pop, blues, and rock boxed sets, considering what might appeal to each artist’s fans, what might irritate listeners new to each artist, the quality of packaging, and, in what we will affectionately call Boxed-Set Hell, moments of excess that make us question the wisdom of making boxed sets at all.
Intention: You think Guns N’ Roses were the first loud, sloppy, excessive hell-raisers? Wait’ll you hear these 1972- 82 recordings by the Beantown bad boys!
Achievement: Although Axl Rose should be forced to study Pandora’s Box to see how rock-star indulgences can screw up even the most successful bands, early ’70s tracks like ”Dream On,” ”Toys in the Attic,” and ”Sweet Emotion” still set blooze-rock standards.
Fans, Behold: A 1966 recording by Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler’s first band, Chain Reaction; unreleased song fragments and live tracks from radio broadcasts and 1978’s Texxas Jam.
Newcomers, Beware: Don’t bother with disc 3 (the band’s post-1977 decline); better still, just stick with previous Aerosmith compilations, Greatest Hits and Gems.
Boxed-Set Hell: Eight unreleased jams that show Aerosmith could never really, uh, jam. Most Unintentionally Amusing Comment in Booklet (tie): Guitarist Brad Whitford on ”Round and Round”: ”I don’t remember a whole lot about this one.” Drummer Joey Kramer on ”Krawhitham”: ”I’m a little confused over exactly when we recorded this.” B
Intention: To make sense of the long and winding career of the 47-year-old guitar god, from his mid-’60s days with the Yardbirds through his hit-or-miss post-’70s solo albums.
Achievement: Makes a solid case for Beck as an unsurpassed technician but not necessarily as a great record maker, particularly over the last decade.
Packaging Minus: Booklet has 63 photos chronicling Beck’s grimaces during solos.
Fans, Behold: Recordings by Beck’s first professional band, the Tridents, plus rare B sides and live tracks with the Yardbirds and Beck, Bogert, Appice.
Newcomers, Beware: Since this is the first-ever Beck overview, it’s Beckology or nothing.
Boxed-Set Hell: Third disc features his contributions to the soundtracks of Twins and Porky’s Revenge. B-
From the Top
Intention: To prove that the late Karen Carpenter shouldn’t be remembered just for her bad eating habits — that she and her brother, Richard, were, in fact, underrated talents.
Achievement: The Carpenters’ music can still seem painfully banal, but at its best it defined middle-of-the-road pop in the ’70s, with the sad, dark hues of Karen’s voice suggesting underlying currents of angst. The point is diluted, though, by soda commercials, forgettable ’80s recordings, and other padding.
Fans, Behold: Early recordings by the Richard Carpenter Trio featuring teenage Karen’s nascent jazz drumming; unreleased songs from Karen’s canned solo album, including the ominously titled “My Body Keeps Changing My Mind.”
Newcomers, Beware: Stick with the second half of disc 1 and all of disc 2. Or buy The Singles 1969-1973, the Carpenters’ greatest-hits package. Also: Richard rerecorded some of his keyboard parts to improve their CD sound quality.
Unintentional Morbid Touch: Tracing Karen’s weight loss through chronological photos in booklet.
Boxed-Set Hell: A version of the insipid ”Sing” partially sung in Spanish. B-
The Birth of Soul/The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings 1952-1959
Intention: To remind us that the old pitchman in the Pepsi commercials has given more to civilization than ”You got the right one, baby, uh-huh.”
Achievement: Vital early music — Charles’ big-band mesh of blues, soul, and gospel still jumps out of the speakers. But given the wide scope of Charles’ work (the tracks here include none of his later experiments with pop and country), the cumulative effect is narrow and a bit monotonous.
Packaging Minus: Erudite liner notes occasionally describe Charles with silly highfalutin phrases like ”Promethean musical polymath.”
Newcomers, Beware: Only top 10 hit here is “What’d I Say, Parts 1 & 2.” For ”Hit the Road Jack,” ”I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and his other ’60s hits, you’ll have to turn to earlier compilations on Rhino.
Boxed-Set Hell: With one or two fewer tracks, this 151 minutes of music could have fit onto two CDs, but that would have cut into the record company’s profits, right? B
Clash on Broadway
Intention: To ensure that we remember the Clash for their tear-down-the-walls punk and not because they led to such watered-down offshoots as Big Audio Dynamite.
Achievement: Box seems a tad pretentious for a band that only released five albums and an EP; the last third documents their increasingly bloated sense of self-importance. But the Clash’s most protean tracks still make current alternative rock sound diluted and compromised.
Packaging Plus: Clean, readable layout with terrific selection of period photos.
Packaging Minus: Clean, readable layout seems somewhat at odds with concept of punk.
Fans, Behold: Rare 1976 demos; B sides and studio outtakes.
Newcomers, Beware: Opt for essential albums like London Calling and The Clash or the serviceable anthology Story of the Clash Volume 1. A-