Box Sets

Box Sets
Illustration By Nathan Jensen

ZZ Top

Chrome, Smoke & BBQ (Warner Bros.) Thirteen years after ZZ Top's last proper album for Warner Bros., the label has at long last issued this 4-CD mother of a box set. Far from leaving them marooned in the past with only their furry guitars and Eliminator hot rod, the delay only highlights the timelessness of the trio's slow-smoked boogie. It helps that their collected works share a certain, shall we say, thematic similarity: "Seems like all our songs are about dicks and pussies," observes drummer Frank Beard in the accompanying 86-page "menu." Indeed, they've mined a wealth of material from between the legs -- "Tube Snake Boogie," "Pearl Necklace," "Woke Up With Wood" -- but they're also fond of writing about cars ("Chevrolet") and eats ("TV Dinners"). After three far-out tracks from Billy F. Gibbons' previous band the Moving Sidewalks, disc one kicks into high gear with "Brown Sugar," a low-down romp that primes the pump for firecracker "Francine" and "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers." With original album mixes restored, the second CD floors it with Seventies party anthems "Heard It on the X" and "Thunderbird" before proceeding to the countrified shuffles of Tejas ("She's a Heartbreaker") and Degüello's pristine "Cheap Sunglasses." By disc three, which catalogs their Eliminator/Afterburner commercial peak, the Top's sound is hard as a diamond. The final disc includes most of 1990's Recycler, plus a vicious cover of Roky Erickson's "Reverberation (Doubt)," and some extended remixes. It ain't brain surgery, but this 80-song collection -- in both a standard book configuration and a special edition barbecue shack -- has all the guts and muscle that took this li'l ole band from the ice houses of Houston to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. -- Christopher Gray

****

Box Sets

Bob Dylan

The Remasters (Columbia/Legacy) This collection of Bob Dylan albums is the mother of this year's box sets. It's the first time these 15 albums have been remastered, and it's true -- they have never sounded this good. Each is a hybrid SACD, which plays on most CD players but has a separate track that is recognized by relatively new Super Audio CD players as well. Six titles also have a 5.1 surround mix that makes for a truly unique listening experience. The box spans every period of Dylan's fickle and incredibly broad career, from 1963's folk manifesto The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to 2001's globally lauded Love and Theft. Presented in digipaks re-creating the original album work, and in some cases with bonus photos, this is state-of-the-art Dylan, and it bears repeating -- he never sounded so good. You may think you know "Like a Rolling Stone," but the remastered version on Highway 61 Revisited crackles with nuances that had only been previously hinted at. Blood on the Tracks, one of Dylan's finest sonically and arguably his most complete suite of songs, is a revelation -- breathing fire with "Idiot Wind," remarkably intimate on "Simple Twist of Fate." Each title is available separately, so if a favorite isn't included (like New Morning and Time Out of Mind instead of Street Legal and Oh Mercy) you might want to opt out of the box and sample one or two. The only thing you'd be missing is a box decorated with photographs of the original master tapes, including one from Dylan's Columbia Records audition. Even if you're just a casual Dylan fan, you have to hear at least one. It's like rediscovering his genius all over again. -- Jim Caligiuri

****

Box Sets

Talking Heads

Once in a Lifetime (Sire/Warner Bros.) "Lost my shape trying to act casual." The opening salvo of Talking Heads' "Crosseyed and Painless" neatly sums up the awkward packaging and overall excellent 4-disc Once in a Lifetime. The art-rock quartet sprang out of New York City's New Wave scene in the mid-Seventies and petered out in the late Eighties after living up to its potential. Though Lifetime appears to be a fluffed-up Sand in the Vaseline, their 2-CD 1992 hits collection, its nonchronological sequencing enhances the band's remarkable musical development. That plus alternates and outtakes ("New Feeling," "In Asking Land") and live and full-length versions ("A Clean Break," "Girlfriend Is Better") prevent aural complacency, especially when new lyrics pop up in "Cities" (name-checking more Texas towns, no less). The unfamiliar flow of songs offers a new view of the band, like how Jerry Harrison's keyboard burps and tweaks defined the band as much as the suburban-funk husband-and-wife team of drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth. Yet it was David Byrne's face that dominated the band, front and center; his herky-jerky persona made them visually compelling. That face is a recurring motif on Lifetime's last disc, a DVD of their 1988 collection Storytelling Giant, which proved the band equally prescient about the camera lens. The first two discs rock with transcendent grace, but stumble on disc three, in part because their last studio albums were uneven. That's the point where this set's Gauguin-in-a-nudist-camp artwork and the child's storybook shape go from edgy and essential to shapeless and casual, just as Talking Heads did. -- Margaret Moser

***

Box Sets

Guided by Voices

Hardcore UFOs (Matador) No strangers to a keg of domestic draft, Guided by Voices takes one down and passes it around for its 5-disc Hardcore UFOs. Compelling, clever, and clearly drunk off of the band's prolific studio habits, this latest box set coincides with the Ohio group's 20th anniversary, adventurously tapping the band's most memorable recent output. The first disc, "Human Amusements at Hourly Rates," is stuffed with 32 tracks of GBV's short and sweet pop gems from the flatter "Cut-Out Witch" to the frothy "Twilight Campfighter." Disc two, "Demons and Painkillers," collects B-sides and compilation contributions, the stunning "Choking Tara (Creamy)" and "The Singing Razorblade" shining platinum. "Delicious Pie and Thank You for Calling" and "Live at the Wheelchair Races" are an outtakes collection and a live disc, respectively, the latter winning by a nose simply because the group included great songs that didn't make "Human Amusements." Meanwhile, GBV archivists will be drunk with joy at the inclusion of the band's 1986 debut EP, Forever Since Breakfast, which sounds even more dynamic than some of the band's more mature output. Finally there's the recently released DVD Watch Me Jumpstart, videos and concert footage looking for someone with jumper cables. And the beer? After so many rare recordings, Hardcore UFOs begins to take on a noisy drone with a stale aftertaste. Overlong, but well worth the indie rock hangover. -- Matt Dentler

***

Box Sets

No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion

(Rhino) Despite the fact that the Sex Pistols are conspicuous in their absence, this 4-CD motherfuckerload of pre-hardcore punk is downright spastic with both obvious and tarnished gems. Lifers like the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello show up, but it's less successful outfits like the Weirdos ("We Got the Neutron Bomb"), Eddie & the Hot Rods ("Teenage Depression"), and the Avengers ("We Are the One") that stand out like razors in the candy bowl. Any punk purist worth their saltpeter will have most of these tracks on warped vinyl already, although some versions offered here, like the 7-inch version of Fear's "I Love Livin in the City," tend to be unavailable outside record conventions or Hilly Kristal's basement. The 100-plus page insert book nattily fires off a pair of essays on the era from punk historian/writer types Gary Stewart and Chris Morris, as well as an exhaustive track-by-track commentary and gobs of smartly stupid photos. From Sham 69's birth of Oi! single "Borstal Breakout" to the Damned's searing love bomb "New Rose" and -- for our filthy lucre the single best track here -- all-but-forgotten pub rockers the Motors' "Dancing the Night Away," which fuses boisterously lagered guitars to a chugging Kinks-y chassis, No Thanks! hits all the bases with spikes up, bloodied but unbowed, and punk as fuck. -- Marc Savlov

***.5

Box Sets

Buzzcocks

Inventory (Capitol/EMI) The Buzzcocks' singles output from 1977 to 1981 remains one of rock's all-time finest runs of two-sided singles. The 1979 vinyl compilation of the first eight singles, Singles Going Steady, was rightly regarded as one of the half-dozen best albums from the original British punk era. Inventory compiles the group's debut EP Spiral Scratch (the first ever indie British single), everything on SGS, and the seven singles released after it. Each is packaged in a miniature reproduction of the original picture sleeve, one of the most eye-catching and graphically influential strings of singles ever. If you don't own all of these songs, the best place to get most of them is the 2003 reissue of Singles Going Steady (the version with 24 tracks). You really can't live without songs like "What Do I Get?," "Ever Fallen in Love," "Something's Going Wrong Again," and "Orgasm Addict." Inventory, 14 CDs each limited to two-four songs, is clearly aimed at collectors; it includes the two singles from A Different Kind of Tension (including the rare edit of "I Believe") that don't appear on the new SGS. The perfect boutique item for that serious Buzzcockian in your tribe. -- Kent H. Benjamin

****

Box Sets

Duran Duran

The Singles 81-85 (Capitol/EMI) Forty songs on 13 discs? Duran Duran's The Singles 81-85 box set makes it more obvious than ever that the consumer pays for packaging these days. It could've fit on two discs, but something outlandish just had to be done to celebrate this year's reunion of the original DD lineup for the first time since 1985. Singles issues the band's prime-era 45s, two to four tracks on each CD, for the first time. In true Duran fashion, appearances -- reproductions of the original covers on cardboard sleeves -- are as important as the long-neglected B-sides themselves. The immortal "Late Bar," like A-side "Planet Earth," is simultaneously cartoonish and shrouded in a nuclear winter. "Girls on Film" flip side "Faster Than Light" is dark and ultra-catchy, following in the footsteps of the overlooked "Careless Memories." It's accompanied by "Khanada," sporting eerie harmonies and an oddly foreign feel, plus a tastefully decadent cover of Bowie's "Fame." "Secret Oktober" and "Faith in This Colour" are Nick Rhodes' synthesized playgrounds, where he displays at least as much talent as his make-up artist. The remixes are a mixed bag. Sometimes they're just the originals elongated with fewer vocals, but "Planet Earth" and "Girls on Film" thrive, much as the powerful "The Wild Boys" extended version does. There are no new liner notes, but there's a nice foldout poster from 1981 and, most importantly, a good reason to finally extend that ridiculous 100-disc changer. -- Michael Chamy

***.5

Box Sets

David Bowie

Sound & Vision (EMI/Virgin) What Sound & Vision needed was a face lift, not a nose job. Rykodisc's stylish, 3-CD original from 1989 was a striking document of uncommon creative longevity. The first two discs were like Silly Putty, little Davy Jones from Brixton, England, continually reshaping himself musically. From prescient bedroom demo "Space Oddity," through searing brands like "The Man Who Sold the World" and "Panic in Detroit" down to the game Springsteen cover/outtake, "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," discs one and two made over one of rock & roll's visionary catalogs with wily sequencing and tony rarities. Disc three? Robotic. EMI/Virgin, to whom the catalog reverted, has added a fourth disc to the long-out-of-print set, revamping the third disc as well, and has updated the box through 1993, after which Bowie signed to Sony. Kurt Loder has even added a chapter to his original liner notes. It didn't help. Until last year's Heathen, Bowie hadn't cut a classic since '83's Let's Dance. That the new S&V only includes "China Girl" and a live version of "Modern Love" from that album -- no title track, no outtakes -- and only "Time Will Crawl" from the underrated Never Let Me Down ("Bang Bang," somebody) in favor of rusted Tin Machine is malpractice. Bonus DVD anyone? And please, someone show '93's Black Tie White Noise to the door. True, Sound & Vision never aspired to be Changesbowie, but it sure could've used a few. -- Raoul Hernandez

**.5

Box Sets

Neil Diamond

Stages: Performances 1970-2002 (Columbia) "The stage," Neil Diamond once said, "she's the goddamnedest woman you ever saw." I haven't the goddamnedest idea what he meant by that, but Diamond is an undeniably electric performer who's given live audiences their money's worth his entire career. Unfortunately, this 5-CD/1-DVD set is more of a vault-cleaning exercise than heir to Hot August Night. The first two discs capture Diamond in the present tense at a 2002 Las Vegas show. Songwise, it's a standard Diamond performance -- entering to the patriotic fanfare of "America," closing the first half of the show with "Forever in Blue Jeans" and sending 'em home with "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show." Discs three and four consist mostly of deep cuts recorded in various locales over 32 years. They also contain some stunningly inappropriate covers like Elton John's "Rocket Man" and an abominable Beatles medley. It's the kind of thing die-hard fans might appreciate, but why leave off "Thank the Lord for the Night Time," "Song Sung Blue," and "Desiree" when the Christmas-themed disc five clocks out at a mere 39 minutes? Diamond brings little to this milquetoast selection of yuletide standards. The DVD redeems Stages somewhat with a 12-song live set and a documentary about Diamond's 17-piece band and tour staff that fans will appreciate. Ultimately, the set has too many holes and too little focus to serve as a definitive item. Save your money for a concert ticket instead. -- Greg Beets

**

Box Sets

Glen Campbell

The Legacy: 1961-2003 (Capitol) Last month, the Rhinestone Cowboy found himself back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons: a blood-alcohol level that would sober Nick Nolte and the ill-informed decision to plant a knee into one of his arresting officers' thighs. This 4-CD, 80-song box casts the Arkansas native in a much better light, namely as one of American pop's most skilled musicians and leading vocal interpreters. Glen Campbell was something of a Zelig in the early rock & roll years, backing Ricky Nelson on "Travelin' Man," Elvis on "Viva Las Vegas," and the Beach Boys on Pet Sounds, but rights fees being what they are, The Legacy confines itself to his solo output, of which there's plenty. Too much, in fact: Campbell tackles everything from Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" and Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to "The William Tell Overture" and Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle." The crown jewels in Campbell's catalog remain, of course, his piercingly poignant voicings of Jimmy Webb's songs: the wistful "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," languid "MacArthur Park," operatic "Galveston," and overcast "Highwayman." Conveniently, all these, plus "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Where's the Playground Susie?," are available on Capitol's single-disc All the Best, released earlier this year. Unless you're the type who trolls eBay for the original manuscript of "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife," All the Best is probably the safer bet. But buy something, because those legal bills are bound to be steep. -- Christopher Gray

***

Box Sets
Illustration By Nathan Jensen

Johnny Cash

Unearthed (American/Lost Highway) Unearthed looks like a rush job, following Johnny Cash's death Sept. 12, but the country music immortal and producer Rick Rubin had been working on this supreme 5-CD set as a way to celebrate 10 fruitful years of working together. Over the course of four albums, the duo won Grammys, produced award-winning videos, and, most importantly, revitalized Cash's career. As the Man in Black noted in many interviews, he and Rubin always recorded much more than they could use on any given project, so there was no shortage of material available for Unearthed. The first three discs collect 64 previously unreleased tracks, some with Cash solo, others backed by Marty Stuart, Glen Campbell, and/or members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Duets with the likes of Nick Cave, Willie Nelson, Joe Strummer, and even Fiona Apple are every bit as eye-opening as covers of Bob Marley, Cat Stevens, Chuck Berry, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. None are out of place. The fourth disc, "My Mother's Hymn Book," weighs heavy with 15 solo acoustic performances of spirituals Cash learned as a boy, while disc five is a compilation of his best American Recordings. Included is a 104-page clothbound book featuring one of Cash's final interviews, an informative discussion with Rubin, and annotated comments by both on each song. This is, of course, just the beginning of posthumous Cash releases (more unheard Cash/Rubin material exists), but few, if any, will match Unearthed. -- Jim Caligiuri

****

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