Looking back, we're likely to view 2011 as the year of the box set. Almost weekly over the past 12 months, boxes of CDs were released documenting a year in an artist's life, a classic album with all of the outtakes, or everything the artist ever recorded. This year Sony even unveiled PopMarket.com, which features the complete recordings of artists for specific Sony-owned labels, like Columbia.
Personally, I love box sets. I love the heft, I love loading the albums into my iTunes, and I love listening to an artist's extended work that's concentrated over a specific period of time. I also love the books that come with them and all of the discographical information—from who played on which tracks to when tracks were recorded.
I've written about quite a few excellent sets this year: The Beach Boys' Smile Sessions (Capitol), Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection (Sony) and The Complete Jimmie Lunceford Decca Sessions (Mosaic). Now I want to share with you a bunch of others that came out recently and are worthy of self-gifting:
The Dave Brubeck Quartet: The Columbia Studio Albums (1955-66). In celebration of pianist Dave Brubeck's 91st birthday, Sony just released this 19-CD remastered set. Each album—from Brubeck Time to Anything Goes—appears in a miniaturized version of the original LP cover. Listening to the set from start to finish reminds you how pretty jazz could be with lots of light and air. Sleeper albums include Southern Scene (1960), Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein (1960) and Bossa Nova USA (1963).
Paul Desmond: The Complete RCA Albums Collection. This set is something of a companion box to the Brubeck collection. Issued by Sony, these albums also come in mini LPs and show off the alto saxophonist's tender side, many with introspective guitarist Jim Hall. The six albums recorded between 1962 and 1964 are Desmond Blue, Take Ten, Bossa Antigua, Glad to Be Unhappy, Easy Living and Two of a Mind with Gerry Mulligan. If you missed the Mosaic box or the RCA set, this is your chance.
Ray Charles: Singular Genius, the Complete ABC Singles. This five-disc set from Concord serves up 105 singles recorded by the greatest pianist-singer of the 1960s. What you hear on this set is an artist who between 1960 and 1970 became a forceful link between jazz, soul, blues, rock and country. Few artists could convincingly ace virtually any genre the way Charles could. And even fewer sounded this in charge of their recording destiny. From the earliest tracks in 1960, you sense that Charles knew exactly where he was going and where he wanted to wind up. Among the surprises are the extraordinary string arrangements by Sid Feller on tracks like Cry and I Want to Talk About You. As this box shows, no matter how Charles tossed these musical horseshoes, they always managed to land as ringers.
The Who's Quadrophenia: The Director's Cut. Originally released in October 1973, the sixth, think-big album by the English social-rock group was conceived as an opera. The album's title had nothing to do with audio fidelity but instead was a play on four different personalities of the opera's main character. Almost as forgotten as the AMC Javelin, Bobby Riggs. v. Billy Jean King and Watergate, "Quad," as the album was affectionately known by suburban teens, has been given a good sonic cleaning by Geffen Records. A re-listen makes you realize how good this album was, which for decades crouched in the shadows of the group's Tommy (1969). Sold as a five-disc box with book and demos and surround-sound mixes or as a two-disc, 28-track set.
Bob Seger: Ultimate Hits: Rock and Roll Never Forgets. Speaking of the '70s, singer-guitarist Bob Seger on this remastered, two-CD compilation returns you to beer-soaked barrooms and Shuffle bowling machines with this remastered collection from Capitol. Joined by his Silver Bullet Band, Seger was Bruce Springsteen before the Boss left Asbury Park, N.J.—but singing songs of Rust Belt Detroit rather than New Jersey. Seger's raspy voice and tight Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section made powerful hits out of Old Time Rock and Roll, Hollywood Nights and Roll Me Away. It's rare that two full CDs are packed with this much non-stop hit dynamism.
Earth Wind & Fire: The Columbia Masters. Mention Earth, Wind & Fire to most people and they'll recall That's the Way of the World (1975) and Gratitude (1976) as well as the group's many hit singles. But when you listen to this 16-CD set (Sony Columbia) from start to finish, you realize that the Los Angeles-based group had a good thing going from the start. Earlier albums were powerful jazz-funk works while their '80s albums were explosive, pre-Cirque du Soleil party stompers. Spirit (1976) and I Am (1979) remind you once again why this band was the General Motors of soul.
Woody Herman: Mosaic Select. This three-disc set covers four albums from Woody Herman's early '60s Philips years, and every track swings tightly. By the early '60s, Herman, like many jazz bands and vocalists, was increasingly recording Broadway and film fare as well as retooling earlier hits for the younger Kennedy years. Included here are convertible-roadster arrangements like Gene Roland's Wailin' in the Woodshed, Nat Pierce's Bedroom Eyes, Tunin' In and My Wish, Ralph Burns' Sidewalks of Cuba and Neal Hefti's Good Earth. The Herman band in '62, '63 and '64 sounded sparkling, sleek and modern for the World's Fair age. Two studio dates and two live gigs. Not included is the Philips release Swing Low, Sweet Clarinet from '62.