Reading the pop music box scores


November 25, 2001



For those of us who are music obsessives, the official post-Thanksgiving start of the Christmas shopping season generally means one thing: compiling the list of CD box sets that we're most excited about this season.

Whenever you think that the archive must have been completely plundered by now, the major labels come up with another batch of worthy artists who have not yet received the box-set treatment (Cat Stevens, the Four Tops) or an interesting concept around which to hang a new anthology ("The '70s Soul Experience"). And we still haven't seen the long-awaited Neil Young box!

Rivaling last year's spectacular Jimi Hendrix set, the most talked-about collection this year comes from that ever-successful musical monolith, the Grateful Dead, Inc. But there are plenty of other contenders to make a music lover's morning on Christmas Day.

The Grateful Dead, "The Golden Road (1965-1973)" (Warner Bros./Rhino)--While Deadheads are famously obsessive collectors of tapes and bootlegs, valuing the live performance above all else, the group was capable of magic in the recording studio as well, either focusing on more concise and tuneful songcraft ("American Beauty," "Workingman's Dead") or indulging in psychedelic experimentation to rival similar efforts by contemporaries such as Pink Floyd ("Anthem of the Sun"). This 151/2-hour, 12-disc collection includes all of the original albums, stopping just short of 1973's "Wake of the Flood," plus a whole lot of bonus material.

Who's It For? Diehard Deadheads as well as new initiates looking for the next step after the "Skeletons in the Closet" best-of.

Will They Be Happy? Cool, man!

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: Each disc is extended to maximum running time with various alternate takes, live tracks, and rarities from the same period; I think this dilutes the strength of the original albums, but Deadheads live for this sort of thing. There are also two discs of early rarities such as recordings by the Warlocks, the hard-rocking psychedelic garage band that preceded the birth of the Dead.

Star rating: ***1/2

Cat Stevens, "Box Set" (A&M/Universal)--With four discs and 79 tracks stretching from 1965 through 1997, this is a whole lot of Cat Stevens--maybe more than the casual fan of the tuneful English singer-songwriter wants. But you'll certainly get the classics ("Morning Has Broken," "Wild World," "Peace Train"), and then some. The artist, a famous Muslim convert, is donating all royalties from this box to charity, with 50 percent going to the September 11th Fund.

Who's It For? Cat Stevens completists.

Will They Be Happy? Praise Allah!

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: The first demo by the former Steven Georgiou; a 1979 UNICEF performance of "Father and Son" by the current Yusuf Islam; a 1970 version of "Honey Man" with Elton John on piano.

Star rating: ***

"Dead Can Dance 1981-1989" (4AD/Rhino)--Over the course of an 18-year career, the Australian duo of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard mixed modern ambient/electronic music with ancient sounds such as Middle Eastern drones and Gregorian chants. It's much more challenging and creative than your average background Muzak, but it would be better served by a good single-disc best-of. Forty-seven songs on three CDs is a New Age overdose.

Who's It For? Hardcore Dead Can Dance fans.

Will They Be Happy? Yes (if such people actually exist, and they have a pulse).

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: Assorted live tracks; a previously unreleased song called "The Lotus Eaters," and a fourth disc that features the 1994 concert film "Toward the Within" on DVD.

Star rating: **

The Four Tops, "Fourever" (Hip-O)--One of Motown's best male vocal groups finally gets the box-set treatment, with four discs (of course) rounding up some 85 tracks covering their recordings for Detroit's most famous record label as well as their work for Dunhill/ABC, Casablanca, and Arista. The set spans the years 1953 to 1992, but most of the best stuff dates from the early '60s.

Who's It For? The Four Tops faithful (general fans will be better served by the classic Motown box).

Will They Be Happy? Yes, yes, yes, yes.

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: A previously unreleased recording of the Temptations' "Just Another Lonely Night," with that band on backing harmonies; a live rendition of "Tonight I'm Gonna Love You All Over"; two previously unreleased songs written by Smokey Robinson.

Star rating: ***

Echo & the Bunnymen, "Crystal Days 1979-1999" (Warner Archives/Rhino)--The box set I'd most like to hear from England's post-punk psychedelic revival would be The Teardrop Explodes, but Echo & the Bunnymen deserve their collection, and the signature tracks are all here. Despite a fourth disc that collects some great live covers and assorted other rarities sprinkled throughout, some hardcore fans have complained of disappointing omissions (the Peel Sessions, the "Shine So Hard" E.P.). But it's basically all the Echo I'd ever want to own.

Who's It For? New fans looking for one-stop shopping.

Will They Be Happy? Probably.

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: Live covers of "Heroin" and "Run Run Run" by the Velvet Underground, "Soul Kitchen" by the Doors, and "She Cracked" by the Modern Lovers.

Star rating: ***

Buffalo Springfield, "Box Set" (Atco/Elektra/Rhino)--This chronological four-disc collection charts the history of one of the most star-crossed bands of the '60s, the original collaboration between Neil Young and Stephen Stills. Eagerly awaited by fans, serious collectors have had some gripes with the set, mainly focusing on needless duplication of tracks and a couple of annoying omissions. For new initiates, there have been several single-disc best-of's over the years that represent a cheaper and more focused introduction.

Who's It For? Springfield collectors.

Will They Be Happy? Not entirely.

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: Early demos for Young classics such as "Broken Arrow" (originally called "Down Down Down") and "The Old Laughing Lady," and a handful of tracks recorded for the infamous, unreleased "Stampede" album.

Star rating: **1/2

Various artists, "The Reggae Box: The Routes of Jamaican Music" (Hip-O)--Billed as "the most comprehensive survey of reggae ever issued," this four-disc set spans 40 years, from Jamaican independence in 1962 through the summer of 2001. Most of the major names are represented with familiar tracks: Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, etc. Serious reggae fans will be all too familiar with this material, marking this as the next step up for the younger listener recently won over by a Marley best-of.

Who's It For? Reggae novices.

Will They Be Happy? Yeah, mon!

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: N/A.

Star rating: ***

Various artists, "Can You Dig It? The '70s Soul Experience" (Rhino)--Six CDs, 136 songs, all at a suggested retail price of under $100. Isaac Hayes' theme for "Shaft," Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," the Staples Singers' "I'll Take You There," "Love Rollercoaster" by the Ohio Players, the original "Lady Marmalade," the O'Jays' "Love Train"... talk about a party in a box!

Who's It For? '70s nostalgia buffs; rappers in search of cool samples; anybody who's looking for ideal dance music or the soundtrack to a fine night of getting to know someone much, much better.

Will They Be Happy? Hell, yeah!

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: Nothing musical, but this is the best packaging of the year--a box designed to look like an eight-track tape holder.

Star rating: ***1/2

Various artists, "Say It Loud! A Celebration of Black Music in America" (Rhino)--In contrast to "Can You Dig It?," which defines an era and a sound then offers a comprehensive overview, this six-disc, 108-track box attempts to chart a ridiculously broad swath of musical history: the contributions of African-Americans from 1916 to the present, in every genre of any significance, from jazz to hip-hop. A marketing tie-in to the Quincy Jones-produced documentary on VH1, there's no way such a set could please any knowledgeable music lover. It's clearly intended for dabblers, and perhaps the elementary school teacher in search of a project for Black History Month (snippets of famous speeches by the likes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. are woven throughout).

Who's It For? Extreme generalists.

Will They Be Happy? Perhaps.

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: N/A.

Star rating: **

Various artists, "Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond" (Rhino)--The British companion to the "Nuggets" box of American psychedelic garage-rock has been out for a couple of months now, but it's a great set that shouldn't be overlooked. Much more whimsical than their U.S. counterparts, English bands circa the Summer of Love were often more gleefully inventive, and their studio experimentation was noteworthy even when the songs were a bit twee (tracks by bands like Wimple Winch and John's Children just don't sound the same without the hookahs and black lights). This set rightly posits the mighty Creation as one of the most important if least heralded bands of the era, and the only complaint is that there was no need to move beyond the British Isles with token tracks from Japan, Brazil, and Iceland when those could have been left for a third "Nuggets" installment down the road.

Who's It For? Fans of psychedelic rock.

Will They Be Happy? Groovy, man!

The Real Finds/Buried Treasures: Dozens of bands like the Syn and Tomorrow (the first groups featuring Chris Squire and Steve Howe, later of Yes) that were truly inspired but are generally unfamiliar to all but dedicated '60s record collectors.

Star rating: ***1/2

Also arriving in stores this season but unavailable for review by deadline were the Kiss box set, with 64 favorites and 30 previously unreleased tracks; the six-disc Creedence Clearwater Revival box, featuring remastered versions of the studio albums; "In My Lifetime," the Neil Diamond box; live recordings by the post-John Cale Velvet Underground collected as "Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes" (they're reportedly very heavy on the tape hiss); "The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970" by Simon & Garfunkel ; various artists, the "I Want My 80's" box set; "American Roots Music" , the box-set companion to the four-part PBS documentary; and the four-disc Joy Division box, "Heart & Soul."