The traditional music business is hemorrhaging cash, so record labels are increasingly finding themselves turning to an old money-making stalwart: the box set. The latter half of 2011 saw a seemingly never-ending parade of “Special,” “Deluxe,” “Super Deluxe,” and other superlative-laden collections from a variety of artists, often including re-recordings, never-before-heard songs, behind-the-scenes supplements, and of course, vinyl. You know, the kind of features that leave diehard fans salivating as they gaze longingly through the window of a record store (remember those?!?). Here, we break down some of the best offerings for the music fan on your Christmas list*.
AC/DC — Backtracks Collectors Box Set ($189)
This updated version of the band’s 2009 box set wins the award for coolest design, hands down. Why? Its contents (including three CDs, two DVDs, one LP and a hardcover photo book) are housed in A WORKING GUITAR AMPLIFIER. No joke. The recordings capture live and/or rare versions of AC/DC’s signature hits, and the DVDs include music videos and live performances up through 2009. But let’s face it — nothing can top flipping through concert photos from the band’s earliest tour dates while you plug in and jam out to “Highway to Hell,” no assembly required.
Beach Boys — The Smile Sessions Box Set ($140)
This treasure chest of the Beach Boys’ Album That Never Was contains five CDs, two LPs, two 7″ singles, dozens of unreleased photos, a 60-page book with input from the original band members as well as members of their entourage, and more. The CDs document the recording sessions in 1966 and 1967 for Smile, the follow-up album to Pet Sounds which was never released. (Vocalist Brian Wilson put out solo versions of the songs on his 2004 record of the same name.) Though it’s available in a significantly cheaper two-disc format, the “Good Vibrations” disc alone makes the expansive box set worth the extra dough: nearly 90 minutes documenting the piece-by-piece assemblage of the band’s classic single, with Wilson’s perfectionist genius on full display.
Also Available: 2-CD Deluxe Edition ($24); 2-LP Vinyl Edition ($26)
Elvis Presley — Young Man with the Big Beat ($104)
The five discs in this collector’s must-have are loaded with live versions and alternate takes of classics like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog,” plus interviews with Presley and two discs of digitally remastered original recordings. An 80-page book highlights rare photos and documents, and the set even includes replicas of ’50s and ’60s memorabilia such as ticket stubs and promotional posters. It’s a box set fit for a King.
Nirvana — Nevermind Super Deluxe Edition (Price varies)
Good luck with this one. In their infinite wisdom, the marketing team at Geffen Records decided to release only 10,000 copies of the “Super Deluxe Edition” (containing four CDs, a DVD and a 90-page book) in the U.S. in October, and 30,000 for the rest of the world. So, fans who didn’t jump on it right away are out of luck (although, private sellers are currently advertising the set through Amazon for as little as $115). Those who opt for the cheaper 2-CD “Deluxe Edition” of Nevermind ($18) will get the original album, enhanced by B-sides, live versions and rehearsal takes. Vinyl enthusiasts who are willing to shell out $71 for the 4-LP “Deluxe Edition (Vinyl)” will be treated to the original album, plus alternate recordings. A word to the wise though: so far, buyer consensus on the vinyl version is that the remastered versions are less than stellar.
Not a box set per se, but grunge fans can put together their own Pearl Jam bundle in celebration of the band’s 20th anniversary. In 2011 alone, the Seattle rockers put out a coffee table book ($40), a DVD ($18) and a soundtrack ($19) to accompany the illuminating Cameron Crowe-directed documentary Pearl Jam: Twenty. In addition, completists will want to pick up the new live album Live on Ten Legs ($15), as well as a three-CD package containing deluxe editions of the band’s second and third albums, vs. and Vitalogy, as well as a live recording at Boston’s Orpheum Theater ($29).
Pink Floyd — Discovery Box Set: The Complete Studio Recordings ($180); Dark Side of the Moon: Immersion Box Set ($120); Wish You Were Here: Immersion Box Set ($120)
Zone out in your bedroom and fire up a … ahem, blacklight, as these sweet psychedelic sounds take you back to the 1960s and ’70s. The comprehensive Discovery collection includes a whopping 16 discs of remastered versions of the group’s 14 albums, complete with new packaging and lyric booklets for each. The set also includes a 60-page book of artwork. Floyd is also rolling out “Immersion Box Sets” of its most beloved albums (probably a better bet for more casual fans), which feature the original recordings, plus remixed and remastered versions, demos and live recordings. Both the Dark Side and Wish You Were Here special editions also include memorabilia such as coasters, a scarf and ticket/backstage pass replicas from the original tours. But be sure to save some money as you shop — the Immersion Box Set of The Wall is due out in February.
The Smiths – The Smiths Complete ($64); The Smiths Complete (vinyl) ($245)
The limited-edition (only 3,000 copies!) Super Deluxe box set is more or less off the market (selling for upwards of $650 by private sellers), and there’s no wonder it got snapped up so quickly. A wet dream for any diehard Morrissey/Marr fan, the set included CD and vinyl versions of all eight Smiths albums, plus 25 7″ singles, a poster, prints of the original album sleeves, and a DVD of the band’s music videos. Procrastinators will have to settle for one of two still-available but less cool versions. The $64 CD set (a steal) includes digitally remastered versions of all eight albums, while the pricier vinyl set contains the digital remasters in CD and vinyl form, as well as a booklet and poster.
U2 — Achtung Baby: Super Deluxe Edition ($140); Achtung Baby: Uber Deluxe Edition ($439)
This 10-disc (six CDs, four DVDs) set is essentially two box sets for the price of one — fans get remastered versions of the Irish quartet’s 1991 album Achtung Baby, as well as the follow-up, 1993’s Zooropa, plus B-sides and remixes. But the best inclusion is the “Kindergarten” disc, which features “baby” versions (aw) of the tracks on Achtung Baby. (“One” is a standout). The DVDs include music videos, live performances and bonus footage. The set also comes with a hardback book and 16 art prints. Uber fans may opt for the … well, “Uber Deluxe” limited edition (whose job is it to name these things?), which includes all of the above, plus five 7″ singles, badges, stickers and — wait for it — a pair of Bono’s “The Fly” sunglasses. Housed in a magnetic tile box, it’ll set you back a mere $440.
Also available: 2-CD “Deluxe Edition” ($30); Achtung Baby Vinyl Box ($132)