Christmas is upon us, but thankfully, a few precious shopping days remain. If you still need to snag a last-minute gift for the music lover on your list, you can’t go wrong with a box set. 2013 was an especially bountiful year for the box set; we polled our writers and editors and whittled it down this list of our 10 favorites.
There aren’t really any frills on The Sire Years...but would you really expect any from a band that waited until its fourth album to record a song that surpassed three minutes? What we have here are the first six Ramones records—Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin, End of the Century and Pleasant Dreams—all with their original artwork and tracklists.
Marc Bolan at the BBC is perfect for the T. Rex completist on your holiday list, as it spans glam legend Marc Bolan’s career through sessions and interviews recorded at the BBC. The six-disc set starts in Bolan’s early days, back when his band was still Tyrannosaurus Rex, and it includes 16 previously unreleased tracks recorded under the longer moniker. But Marc Bolan at the BBC continues all the way into the heart of your favorite T. Rex material and concludes with a recording from Aug. 19, 1977—less than a month before Bolan’s untimely death.
“I will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band.” Any self-respecting music snob can recall the scene in High Fidelity when our hero Rob Gordon—just a year after its 1999 American release—pressed play and made an entire record store full of people bob their heads to “Dry The Rain.” But it doesn’t matter if you have John Cusack to thank for this one or if you were hip enough to pick it up on your own accord—it’s essential listening. But what fewer people realize is that so is the rest of the band’s catalog, and thankfully, it’s all here to delve into on The Regal Years. The six-disc set includes 25 previously unreleased live tracks and demos, and perhaps there’s no better way to sum it up than to quote our favorite record-store flick: “It’s The Beta Band.” “It’s good.” “I know.”
When The Band released their Rock of Ages album in 1972, it quickly cemented its position as one of the best live records of all time. Robbie Robertson wasn’t crazy about it, though. When we spoke to him this year about Live at the Academy of Music 1971—which features recordings from those same Rock of Ages shows, he had this to say: “I immediately went to the place of—do you know, when this record came out it got incredible reviews, and it was considered one of the great live recordings, and everybody was happy about this except me. Because I mixed this record. I mixed almost all of The Band’s records. It was just part of my job. And this one I went off and mixed with Phil Ramone. We came back, and I told Phil, ‘We missed this. This isn’t good.’ And I said ‘We have to mix this over again,’ and he was like, ‘Oh man, I’m just off, I’m on a record’ and buh buh buh, ‘I have deadlines,’ and so I had to mix this record, and there was no studio at the time—they were building it, it wasn’t really set up—and we had already used our budget for mixing, so I had to mix this record with the recording engineer who worked at the studio, not Phil Ramone…I did really the best I could under the circumstances. And the other guys in the band were coming by listening to the mixes, and they were like, ‘Oh, yep, that sounds good’ and everything, and when I was done and I went to listen to the whole thing down, I thought, ‘Eh, that track sounds muddy, this one I don’t have the vocals balanced right, on this one I can’t hear what the horns are doing compared to what Garth is doing.’ It was all kinds of things. I knew deep down inside that I could have done better if I had been in another studio working with somebody who could really help me get what I needed. So when that came back, I was like, ‘All these years, I’ve been living with this! I’m gonna be able to sleep at night! I’m gonna remedy this.’” And he did; if you thought Rock of Ages was great, wait’ll you hear the Robertson-approved version.
The Original Mono Recordings features remastered mono mixes of this jazz legend’s first nine records for Columbia, including classics like Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain as well as rarer works like 1958’s Jazz Track, recorded to soundtrack a French film, and 1964’s Miles & Monk at Newport, which includes live recordings from Davis and Thelonious Monk at the Newport Jazz Festival.
When Sly formed the Family Stone (guitarist Freddie and singer Rose were actual siblings; saxophonist Jerry Martini, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham were Bay Area musicians), it mixed races and genders. That mix was reflected not only in the faces and fashions on stage but also in the sound that blended Graham’s pioneering slap bass, jazzy horn and keyboard parts, gospel-soul harmonies, rock guitar and Sly’s social-commentary lyrics. The box set’s first disc is devoted to the experiments that Sly, alone and then with the newly assembled band, made in search of a sound. The two middle discs are devoted to the glory years, from 1968’s “Dance to the Music” to 1969’s “Stand!” and “I Want To Take You Higher.” The singles are just about perfect, and the album tracks are mind-tickling forays to the edge. The fourth disc is the sound of a great band falling apart in the early ’70s as Sly sank into a cocaine habit, missed gigs and increasingly excluded his bandmates from the recording process. And yet the crumbling of bohemian idealism has never been more thrillingly documented than on There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It was a short run, but it had a profound impact.—Geoffrey Himes
In July and December of 1973, Elvis Presley—on the heels of his big ‘68 “comeback” and inching perilously closer to his inevitable decline—recorded at the legendary Stax studio in his home turf in Memphis. The sessions would wind up being The King’s last major recordings, resulting in six Top 40 singles. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the project, all the tracks Elvis laid down at Stax are now together in one place; Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition’s three discs feature 28 masters and 27 outtakes.
The 150 or so songs that are collected in American Radical Patriot are every bit as evocative of the time and culture they grew out of as the stories of Isaiah and Jacob were for the people of the desert thousands of years ago. Like those Biblical parables, Woody’s songs have taken on the quality of myth and Guthrie himself has become elevated in the public imagination to a figure far larger than life. As the great American novelist John Steinbeck wrote of Guthrie, “Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression.”—Douglas Heselgrave
When presented with 52 years of living packed into 35 studio and six live albums, it’s almost impossible to know where to start when whole books have been written about a single Bob Dylan song. There’s been so much water under the bridge, so many cultural movements, wars, presidents, assassinations, disasters—man-made and natural—that have spanned the years of Dylan’s creative career that it’s dizzying to even consider putting his work into context. How do you reconcile an artist whose song “Blowin’ in the Wind” was sung at The March On Washington before Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963 with the man who gave his blessing for “Love Sick” to be used in a Victoria’s Secret television commercial? Does it even matter? Obviously, Dylan’s is a music that has permeated every level and machination of society from the sacred to the political to the outrageously commercial. It is likely that no other living artist’s work and life has been so thoroughly examined and distorted with so many cloaks thrown over his body of work in an attempt to encapsulate and make sense of it…The Complete Albums Collection by Bob Dylan is something everyone should hear. Start at the beginning and listen all the way through. There’s no other musical trip like it.—Douglas Heselgrave
Nostalgia is a tricky thing, and when it comes to commemorating a band like The Clash, it’s trickier still. One can’t help but wonder what a collective that bucked so harshly against greed, profit and capitalism would have thought of a retrospective like Sound System that carries a $200 price tag. But, I’ve decided not to let that kind of speculation get in the way of enjoying some of the best music ever recorded all over again. My old Clash vinyl is scratched, and the first CD versions of their music that I purchased were poorly digitized, so having the chance to hear these cleaned up, beautifully remastered versions of their five crucial albums is itself worth the cost of the box set. The good news is that the extras that come along with the albums are fantastic. There’s not much that the completest won’t have heard, but most people will be really happy to have the best of the band’s B -sides, extended 12-inch versions and EP extras collected on three CDs. There’s not a dud in the bunch, and when you add to it the DVD extra featuring interviews, early live performances, footage from Don Letts’ Clash On Broadway as well as most of their promo videos from over the years, Sound System starts looking like a real bargain.—Douglas Heselgrave