We may be in the worst recession since the Great Depression, but that hasn't stopped record companies from putting out a bumper crop of box sets. Nor will it stop a whole bunch of people from buying these rectangular treasures for loved ones who still have CD players, a well-honed appreciation of the past, and an abiding desire to complete their collections.
And so, for your heightened shopping pleasure, we've gathered together the best of the bunch, any of which would make great gifts this holiday season. And before you pass out from sticker shock, just remember that the impressive dollar figures included are just the manufacturer's suggested retail prices. In most cases, retailers' actual selling prices tend to be lower.
Of course, if you search diligently enough, you should be able to find someone out there who will sell it to you at full price. Just think what that will do for the economy!
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum Live • Time Life • $39.99
The highlights of annual induction ceremonies for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have generally been all-star band performances with star power you won't find anywhere else. Like Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger trading vocals backed by Ringo Starr, George Harrison and many others on "I Saw Her Standing There." Or how about Eddie Vedder joining R.E.M. for "Man on the Moon"? This three-DVD set assembles 43 such memorable musical moments — plus, as an extra treat, induction speeches and footage from rehearsals. Maybe not the same as being there, but it's not far off.
Keep an Eye on the Sky • Rhino • $69.98
For a band that only released three studio albums, it's pretty amazing to think that Big Star could justify a four-CD box set. Turns out they do. Virtually every studio cut that made Big Star one of the most influential power pop bands in history is included, along with a bevy of demos, improved alternate mixes and even a few unreleased tracks. The fourth disc — an unreleased concert from January 1973 — is a special treat. Despite its size, this set has surprisingly little fat, just one pop thrill after another.
The Beatles Stereo Box Set • Capitol • $259.98
In a busy year for special packages, there was none more celebrated or hyped than the release of the remastered Beatles catalog in its entirety. This 16-disc set — there's also a mono box you can send Phil Spector in prison as well as individually packaged albums — is admittedly pricey. But it's well worth it to finally hear the band's complete studio legacy in such vivid clarity and relive the vital legacy of the rock era's most profoundly influential band.
Hall & Oates
Do What You Want, Be What You Are: The Music of Daryl Hall & John Oates • Sony Legacy • $49.98
Say what you want about the best-selling duo in pop history, but this really is a long-overdue release. There's much to appreciate in this four-box set, from Hall & Oates' earliest tracks through the run of '80s hit singles and then on to a bevy of less frequently heard but no less fine recent songs. You'll also find a decent number of unreleased studio tracks and live performances.
Woodstock – 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm • Rhino Records • $115.98
Of the many Woodstock-related releases commemorating the 40th anniversary of the festival, this six-disc set was the headlining event. It's the most complete audio document yet, boasting more than 30 previously unheard performances. Among them is a spunky version of "Bad Moon Rising" from Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Who storming the gates with "Amazing Journey" and "Pinball Wizard," and Joe Cocker rolling and tumbling through "Feelin' Alright." All in all, it's well worth the hefty price tag for devotees of the summer of love.
Sinatra: New York • Rhino Records • $79.98
Four CDs and one DVD offer a career-spanning survey of Sinatra in concert at several venues in his favorite town, New York City. (You'll find no tributes to that other toddling town here.) Frank's in peak vocal form in the 1955 and 1963 shows. Two 1974 concerts are fine except for ill-advised covers of Bread's "If" and Jim Croce's "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" (yikes), which nearly sound like Sinatra parodies. Three later concerts feature many of his best-known songs. Throughout, Sinatra amply demonstrates his mastery of jazz-inflected phrasing and his command of the live stage.
Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets – 1965-1968 • Rhino • $64.98
This latest addition to the series of Nuggets box sets (devoted mostly to obscure pop gems from the mid-to-late 1960s) centers on Los Angeles. Some acts included here will be familiar, as the set includes early tracks from the likes of Randy Newman, The Doors, The Mamas & the Papas, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, and Warren Zevon. But this set also unearths plenty of entertaining pop obscurities, such as "The People in Me" by the Music Machine, the boisterous and soulful "Jump, Jive & Harmonize" by Thee Midnighters, and the Beatles-esque "Listen, Listen" by The Merry-Go-Round. There are surely a few misses along the way, but there's enough quality here to suggest that Los Angeles had one of the most active and vibrant '60s pop scenes going.
Walking on a Wire, 1968-2009 • Shout Factory • $59.98
For my money, Thompson is one of the finest artists to ever grace the music scene, a terrific songwriter and exceptional guitarist who remains severely overlooked. This four-CD overview traces Thompson's career from its late '60s beginnings in the influential English folk-rock band Fairport Convention, through his fruitful period of recording with ex-wife Linda, and then on to his long (and still vital) solo career. Walking offers a superb look at the work of a musical genius.
Backtracks • Columbia • $39.98
The venerable Australian band takes fans on a trip through its back pages with this three-disc set consisting of studio rarities, live rarities, and a DVD of videos. A dozen studio rarities — such as "R.I.P." (Rock in Peace) and "Down on the Borderline" — and most of the 15 live performances are more than enough to make this essential listening for AC/DC fans. There's also evidence among the studio outtakes that debunks the argument that the band has basically been rewriting the same catchy bare-knuckled rock song its entire 35-year career. A pop ballad called, frighteningly enough, "Love Song," comes complete with jangly guitar parts and a crooning vocal from the late Bon Scott. Now that's a side of AC/DC nobody was expecting to hear.
Live in New York • Rhino • $89.98
Talk about obsessive: This six-disc set captures The Doors live with four complete concerts from their January 1970 Felt Forum run. The band was especially energized on the third and fourth nights, as it ran through songs from its forthcoming Morrison Hotel album, as well as some big hits and quite a few blues and early rock covers. A few of these tracks have already appeared on the band's Absolutely Live CD, but why settle for a less-than-complete documentation?