During gift-giving season in the digital age, boxed sets are absurdly anachronistic - and more essential than ever. Sure, it's ridiculous to lust after doorstop-sized consumer goods when the sounds therein could easily fit on a flash drive the size of your fingernail. But then what are you going to give the music lovers in your life who need to hold a tangible treasure come the holidays?
Boxes cater to obsessives, and there's always more in the vaults. This year, there are a number of sets in which a single classic album has been padded with extras to fill a box, including the Michael Jackson "Bad" set reviewed here, as well as sets dedicated to "The Velvet Underground & Nico" and The Beach Boys' "Smile."
The concomitant trend is to compile absolutely everything an artist recorded for a label in one foreboding package.
The 63-CD Johnny Cash set and 22-pound Beatles vinyl box lead that list, but there are also exhaustive new reissues dedicated to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian, not to mention a career-spanning 10-CD set dedicated to the King of the Blues called "Ladies and Gentlemen ... B.B. King."
But enough with the intro, bring on the boxes!
THE BEATLES "Stereo Vinyl Box Set" (Capitol, 4 stars)
Returning to the Beatles catalog is one of the great pop music pleasures. This release of all the remastered albums on 180-gram LPs - the original 12 British albums, the U.S.-only "Magical Mystery Tour," and two "Past Masters" rarities sets - is the latest excuse for EMI to take the Fab Four back to the bank, and for aficionados to reconsider what their favorite Beatles album is. (This week, I'm leaning toward "Help!") The remastered pressings sound great and a 300-page color book is included. The mixes are in stereo. If you demand mono, you'll have to wait: That box comes next year. (14 LPs, $399)
ELVIS PRESLEY "Prince From Another Planet" (RCA Legacy, 3 1/2 stars)
This three-disc set documents what were - hard to believe - the King's only concert performances in New York City. And Elvis, who had yet to begin his sad fade, was really on for these crisp 1972 shows at Madison Square Garden: He rocks with conviction and soars majestically on the ballads. The DVD includes grainy, 8mm fan-shot footage that shows the superstar in all his blue-jumpsuited glory. (2 CDs, 1 DVD, $26.15)
MICHAEL JACKSON "Bad 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition" (Epic/ Legacy, 3 stars)
Revisionist critics argue that the 1987 album "Bad" - not the 1979 breakthrough "Off the Wall" or 1982 juggernaut "Thriller" - is the best of Michael Jackson's Quincy Jones-produced solo masterworks. I'm not buying it, but from the wickedly swinging "The Way You Make Me Feel" to the time-tested "Man in the Mirror," "Bad" is very good. This package grows into a box with an outtakes disc noteworthy for the funk workout "Song Groove (A/K/A Abortion Papers)" and the combative "The Price Of Fame," plus a concert disc and DVD. (3 CDs, 1 DVD, $34.99)
"Cooler Than Ice: Arctic Records & The Rise of Philly Soul" (Jamie, 3 stars)
The Sound of Philadelphia story is usually told through Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International soul label. Another chapter is added on "Cooler Than Ice" (to be released Dec. 11), which gathers every single from 1964 to 1967 on the Arctic label founded by WDAS program director Jimmy Bishop. Arctic's biggest hit was with teenage phenom Barbara Mason's "Yes, I'm Ready" in 1965. The label was a proving ground for a number of artists, including Daryl Hall (known as Daryl Hohl when he was with the Temptones, who have four charming faux-Motown tunes here). Gamble struts his stuff in style as a singer with his bands the Romeos and Floaters. Essential for Philly Soul completists. (6 CDs, 6 vinyl 45s, $149.98)
"Reggae Golden Jubilee: Origins of Jamaican Music" (VP Records, 3 1/2 stars)
Before Edward Seaga was prime minister of Jamaica in the 1980s, he owned a record company. Seaga, now 82, spent his retirement compiling this 100-song set, timed to the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Burning Spear show up, but the set's real value is in how Seaga pieces together a cultural history as styles changed from ska to rock steady to dancehall. Included are crucial tracks like Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" alongside obscurities like Pluto Shervington's "Ram Goat Liver." (4 CDs, $59.98)
THE ROLLING STONES "Charlie is my Darling" (ABKCO, 3 1/2 stars)
Never mind "Crossfire Hurricane," the career-spanning HBO documentary. "Charlie is my Darling" is the archival Stones find of the season. Unavailable for decades, Peter Whitehead's film captures Mick and the boys on a two-date tour of Ireland in 1965. The box includes a live CD and LP from the band at its primal best. (2 CDs, 1 DVD, 1 Blu-ray, and 1 LP, $71.99; or one DVD, $22.99)
"Surf-Age Nuggets: Trash & Twang Instrumentals, 1959-1966" (Rock Beat, 3 1/2 stars)
This is a delightful box of instrumentals by mostly obscure - though Dick Dale does turn up - crazy-about-reverb surf-rock bands of the '60s, with names like the Fugitives, Countdowns, and Newport Nomads. Chris Isaak and Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell pen the liner notes. "This music is thrilling to play," the latter writes. To listen to, too. (4 CDs, $58.99)
HEART "Strange Euphoria" (Epic Legacy, 3 1/2 stars)
Seattle's Wilson sisters started their alluringly melodic metal act with the notion of creating a female Led Zeppelin, with Ann's glass-shattering howls replacing Zep's chest-thumping machismo. From their 1976 debut to this box's finale (Zep covers, an Amazon exclusive) they've stayed that course, electrically and acoustically (save for their hair rawk/ power ballad '80s) with guts and grace. (3 CDs/1 DVD, $49.98; exclusive Amazon.com edition has 4 CDs/1 DVD, $34.99)
BILL WITHERS "The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums" (Columbia/ Legacy, 3 stars)
It's a Bill Withers world: The folk-soul singer was the subject of the 2009 documentary "Still Bill" and his influence is apparent on rising genre-blenders like Michael Kiwanuka and Lianne La Havas. This set, with liner notes by Michael Eric Dyson, gathers the "Lean On Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine" singer's best work from the '70s. (9 CDs, $74.98)
JOHNNY CASH "The Complete Columbia Album Collection" (Columbia/ Legacy, 4 stars)
This mammoth 63-CD set presents the music that defines Johnny Cash's monumental legacy, and you can't help but be awed by the breadth and power of his work. A hitmaker not afraid to go against the grain, lover of the old (the Carter Family) and champion of the new (Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson), electric live performer, songwriter, gospel singer, folklorist - Cash is always true to himself. The albums are packaged in reproductions of their original covers, so you see liner notes such as these (from Cash's superb 1971 "Man in Black"): "I'm always changing, always will be changing. ... I'm still being born. You haven't seen the complete me yet." (63 CDs, $255.99)
"Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music, 1923-1936" (Tompkins Square, 3 1/2 stars)
The majority of this breathtaking old-time country music is all the more precious because folklorist Nathan Salsburg literally rescued it from the trash heap after the death of Louisville, Ky., 78 collector Don Wahle. The compilation gathers rural string band and sacred music makers in songs like Alfred G. Karnes' dream of heavenly escape "Where We'll Never Grow Old." (3 CDs, $32.98, 3 LPs, $45.98)
THE BRECKER BROTHERS "The Complete Arista Albums Collection" (Sony, 3 1/2 stars)
Trumpeter Randy and tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker were elite New York session players who formed their own band of like-minded compadres, mixing jazz and funk. This set represents their complete works from 1975 to 1982, including six CDs under their own names and two live nights at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The collection starts off high with 1975's "The Brecker Bros." and drifts downward, with disco elements and collaborators who don't quite fit. Yet the daring remained, with amazing solos, experiments with electronically altered horns, and a keenness for funk. By the final CDs, they've come full circle, back to being sidemen, albeit leading ones. (8 CDs, $69.98)
PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND "50th Anniversary Collection" (Columbia/ Legacy, 4 stars)
Preservation Hall - New Orleans' traditional jazz venue - was started by the late Allan Jaffe, a Pottsville, Pa., native who leveraged a Wharton degree to create a permanent home for classic Crescent City music. Now run by his son Ben, Preservation Hall sits atop arguably the most important vein of popular American music extant. There is no way not to be charmed by these cuts, recorded between 1962 and 2010, and plucked from the vaults of Atlantic Records, CBS Records, Sony, and the hall's label. There's humor and pathos and enough energy to blow back a hurricane. (4 CDs, $59.98)
CHARLES MINGUS "The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65" (Mosaic Records, 4 stars)
Long before the current DIY craze in music, bassist and composer Charles Mingus was recording his own music, intending to put it out himself. Now, to honor what would have been his 90th year, his wife Sue has done just that, releasing seven discs from 1964-65, covering 13 months of live concerts at New York's Town Hall along with venues in Minneapolis, Amsterdam, and Monterey, Calif. The recordings catch Mingus just after Eric Dolphy died and as great works like "Fables of Faubus" were coming into focus. The ambition is outsized, the energy undeniable. (7 CDs, $119, mosaicrecords.com)
BESSIE SMITH "The Complete Columbia Recordings" (Columbia/ Legacy, 4 stars)
The five vinyl volumes of 1920s blues empress Bessie Smith's "Complete Recordings" that Columbia issued in the '70s are not to be improved upon. Wisely, this set, which captures the fierce and formidable Empress of the Blues in her swaggering glory, and with sidemen including Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, doesn't mess with a winning formula, turning the 5 double-LP sets into 10 CDs. The packaging is minimal, the music masterful. (10 CDs, $79.99)
SZYMON GOLDBERG "Vol. 2 Commercial Recordings 1932-1951" (Music & Arts, 3 1/2 stars)
Violinist Goldberg, who was the Berlin Philharmonic's concertmaster before the Nazi era and later on the Curtis Institute faculty, is said to have found the quiet center of everything he played. Such wisdom, especially when collaborating with pianist Lili Kraus, glimmers through the decades in some of the greatest-ever recordings of Haydn piano trios and violin sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven. Though the sound quality initially seems dated, these audio restorations by Mark Obert-Thorn are far superior to any previous issues, and reveal even greater artistic riches. A true connoisseur item. (8 CDs, $96)
-David Patrick Stearns
WAGNER "Der Ring des Nibelungen" Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Wolfgang Windgassen et al. Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti conducting. (Decca, 4 stars)
This first studio-recorded "Ring" cycle has a special mystique: It caught old-guard singers while they were still good, captured the new generation, and had cameo appearances from superstars such as Kirsten Flagstad and Joan Sutherland - all under Solti's excitingly nervous baton. The recordings still sound great, and in this incarnation arrive in a huge package with extensive documentation (including a book about the recording) plus a documentary DVD. Don't be frightened off by the list price. It's available in many places at one-third the price. (17 CDs, one DVD, $299.95)