Looking to box up a box for your manically rock-loving loved ones? Or just hoping to wrap up your year by wrapping up a big-ticket item for yourself? For a diehard music fan, nothing says "merry" quite like getting your hands on a retrospective boxed set, whether it includes six discs or 63. (No lie: This year's Johnny Cash set really does get up to that number.)
We scoured the best that veteran artists had to dig up for us and came up with a dozen of 2012's best, most covetable box-a-ramas to recommend to you. Forgive us for allowing the Beatles and Rolling Stones to each be represented twice on this list, but for some artists, when it archivally rains, it archivally pours.
THE BEATLES, The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set (Capitol)
December 2012 has got to be a banner month for turntable sales, at least as far as the 21st century goes. Because how many Beatlemaniacs will be investing in this all-inclusive vinyl collection first, then remembering they have to have something to play LPs on? The 180-gram versions of these albums are all available individually, but if you haven't bought top-quality vinyl recently, don't expect to see 1980s prices on the separate records. Better to bite the bullet and get everything at once—not just for the expedience of it, but because the box set is the only way to get the 252-page book created to go with the set. This is no flimsy pamphlet; each lovingly rendered, rare photograph is printed on paper stock so slick you'd swear it was dipped in lotion. If this were available in bookstores, hardcore fans wouldn't balk at paying $50 just for the hardbound book. Of course, the main draw is still the albums themselves, which combine the latest masters with the original packaging (including foldouts, posters, and inserts, where applicable). Best update: there's finally a U.S. LP of Sgt. Pepper that has the endlessly repeating groove at the end of Side 2.
JOHNNY CASH, The Complete Columbia Album Recordings (Sony Legacy)
Sure, the $250-plus price tag represents an outlay of a lot of cash… but for a lot of Cash. For the vast majority of the recorded Johnny Cash output that ever existed, in fact. If you've never before owned a 63-disc boxed set, your jaw will drop with delight as you pop open the lid on this baby and gape at how many miniaturized LP reproduction jackets can be squeezed into a reasonably compact space. Mind you, Cash completists have had a hard time of it, since most of the Man in Black's LPs never came out on CD before now. Of the 59 Columbia albums represented, 35 never made the transition from vinyl until this moment. The live albums, concept albums, and June Carter Cash duet projects of the '60s are most recognizable here. But what the Complete set is really good for is finally getting non-bootlegged digital copy of rarities ranging from his comedy album Everybody Loves a Nut to his soundtracks for The Gospel Road and Little Fauss and Big Halsey to all three of his vintage Christmas albums. Although his later Mercury and American Recordings label stints are not represented, the box does include a 28-tune bonus disc of his earlier Sun material… as well as an extra two-disc set of non-LP singles and collaborations that appeared on albums by the likes of Bob Dylan and Earl Scruggs. Unlike the narrator of "One Piece at a Time," you can't collect all these albums one piece at a time; you've got to invest in the box to get 'em all.
PAUL and LINDA McCARTNEY, Ram—Deluxe Edition (Hear Music)
This box just picked up two Grammy nominations, for best historical album and best album packaging. It's the most lovingly designed set you'll see, and it's not hard to understand why McCartney opted to make it even bigger and better than his three previous deluxe editions (for McCartney, McCartney II, and Band on the Run). For Ram was the first album he recorded after he was officially free from the Beatle machinery, not to mention his only official collaboration with the great love of his life. If it holds a place in his heart like no other album, that's reflected in the ridiculously elaborate yet still homey package, from the lovely clothbound box material inward. The numerous non-musical contents range from a dossier of Linda's 8x10 photographs, another large-size photo booklet to a terrific oral history of the 1971 album in book form. An outtakes CD collects non-LP singles ("Another Day") and unreleased material (highlight: the unusually hard-rocking "Rode All Night"); a DVD digs up home-movie-like music videos; and a mono mix and the Thrillington album of orchestral reinterpretations make their American debuts on CD. The album was widely panned in '71, and Jon Landau's scathing Rolling Stone review is recalled for bad measure. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, most fans now see it as one of Macca's most delightfully organic efforts, representing the best of all worlds as it combines the personal, pastoral origins of songs written on a Scottish farm with a pop-savvy team of crack session musicians back in New York. And now you can read through the bonus material and find out what "Uncle Albert" actually means.
THE ROLLING STONES, Grrr!—Super Deluxe Edition (Universal)
It's easy to get confused by how many different editions there are of some of these boxed sets. The Stones' 50th-anniversary set comes in no fewer than three. There are two versions of the basic three-disc package, each containing 50 tracks; the "deluxe" version includes a 36-page hardback book but no bonus tracks. These are certainly good introductions for the relative Stones novice, but if you're much of a Stones fan, you already own most or all of these hits. A real devotee will lust after the "super-deluxe" edition, which bumps the basic track list up from 50 to 80, spread across four discs and offering a far fuller portrait of the band's chronological development. For that price tag, fans are going to want rarities, and Grrr!—Super Deluxe has some fun ones, all from the band's earliest days, on a fifth CD and a seven-inch vinyl single. The 45 has four terrific covers broadcast over the BBC when the Stones weren't yet headliners, including a version of "Route 66" that has Mick putting a particularly British spin on a list of American locations he hadn't yet visited. The extra CD has five previously unreleased tracks from the group's first visit to the studio, including a very early "Road Runner." You may or may not need to re-add "Start Me Up" to your collection, or hear the two newly minted tracks; the best reason to invest in this box is the chance to revisit the Stones as blues-fetishizing rock primitivists.
THE ROLLING STONES, Charlie is My Darling (Abkco)
If you really want to blow the family nest egg on Stones boxed sets, you could… and perhaps should, because this much more specific collection is irresistible for anyone who wants to revel in the years before dimples gave way to crevices. The central part of this package is an hour-long black-and-white documentary that was shot in 1965 but never released until now. We'll get more into the film itself when we do a round-up of the year's best music DVDs, since this one is available separately. But the boxed-set edition is absolutely worth it, since you not only get a CD containing the soundtrack from the film, but another CD and vinyl LP featuring a full live show from '65. The nifty packaging includes a hardback book and vintage-reproduction poster. It's darling, indeed, to see and hear them as naughty naifs, here. Who could have guessed that time really was on their side?
PAUL SIMON, Graceland—25th Anniversary Edition (Sony Legacy)
In the documentary film included in this set, Under African Skies: Paul Simon's Graceland Journey, New York Times critic Jon Pareles admits he was wrong when he initially panned Graceland as being an example of the Western white man coattailing on the work of exotic world-music artists. He wasn't the only one who didn't get it at the time: The documentary also has scenes where Simon meets up with a DNC leader in South Africa who thought (and still thinks) that the singer/songwriter broke the cultural boycott that was meant to break the back of apartheid by plucking collaborators from the strife-riddled country. But few would now argue that Simon hasn't been vindicated both politically and artistically. A bonus CD includes demos of five songs (including the one he did with Los Lobos, now—as then—getting mysteriously short shrift), plus a fascinating 10-minute track that consists solely of Simon speaking over rough elements of the title song and explaining how "Graceland" developed as a tune. Besides the documentary, you get an additional CD containing a 1987 concert film with generous turns by Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Moreover, if McCartney's Ram had the nicest packaging of the year, this would be a very close runner-up, from the nicely textured cloth box itself to a reproduction of a notebook containing Simon's handwritten rough lyrics.
PETER GABRIEL, So—25th Anniversary Immersion Box (Real World/EMI)
It's actually been 26 years since So came out, not 25, but who's counting if we had to wait an extra year to get the full goods on the album that turned Gabriel from a prog-rock star to a pop superstar. You could be forgiven for thinking this came out in the same calendar year as Graceland, since they both marked the rise of cerebral-emotive brainiacs to the top of the pops. If only that trend had lasted, right? The basic two-disc reissue of So will probably suffice for casual fans, but the Immersion box is a treasure trove that's worth the significant amount of shelf space it'll take up in your floor plan. There are eight discs in all: four CDs, two DVDs, and two vinyl 12-inch pieces. The contents include a 1987 concert film and a Classic Albums documentary. But the highlight for buffs may be a disc titled DNA, which takes a unique approach to the question of how to handle demos. In some other boxed sets, hearing a rough version of a track is interesting—for about two minutes. Gabriel solves that problem by making each track on DNA a sort of medley that subtly progresses from his solo demo to a fully arranged band demo, letting you hear each step in a song's evolution for a verse or a chorus at a time.
ELVIS PRESLEY, Prince From Another Planet (Sony Legacy)
Last year, Elvis' label put out an excellent boxed set devoted just to the Elvis-ian year of 1956. But you know what? Nineteen-seventy-two was also a very good year to be the king. The popular mythology among non-fans is that Presley wasn't good for much after the late '50s except for his comeback special and "Suspicious Minds." So it may come as a shock to put on this document of two live shows at Madison Square Garden in 1972 and find that the boy still had it. He wasn't yet Fat Elvis—this is mid-bulk Elvis, still in something resembling fighting trim—and he brings all kinds of showmanship and insinuation to his vocals, on some songs that aren't usually associated with him, like a down-and-dirty blues cover of the forgotten Three Dog Night hit "Never Been to Spain." Moreover, the TCB band really does live up to its name, if you've never heard the combo in action before. The accompanying DVD includes everything from a new documentary to 20 minutes of crude footage from one of the shows—shot by a fan who snuck an 8mm camera into one of the front rows. One of the nicest things about this set is a lengthy essay written by Patti Smith collaborator Lenny Kaye, who waxes poetic about the MSG show he saw and really gets at how beautiful late-period Elvis could be.
MICHAEL JACKSON, Bad—25th Anniversary Edition, Deluxe Edition (Sony Legacy)
He was good, he was good, he was really, really… well, you get the picture. For many of us, Bad really did mark the last time Jackson was not just "not bad" but at the top of his game. This deluxe set is superior to the expanded edition of Thriller that was put out years ago, because it includes a never-before-released complete tour video. Although the Wembley concert disc's visuals had to be mastered off a super-VHS tape copy that would not normally have sufficed for commercial release, it's still your best bet at figuring out or remembering what the fuss was about. You haven't lived till you've seen then-backup singer Sheryl Crow come out in two different terrible '80s dresses and even worse '80s hair to duet with Jackson on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." They have no chemistry, of course, and she probably would have given a year's "All I Wanna Do" royalties to have the footage burned, but the gawk factor of the pairing is worth the price of admission. A bonus disc of outtakes and remixes is most notable for "Song Groove (A/K/A Abortion Papers)," a seemingly anti-abortion narrative that would have caused quite a fuss had it been released in his lifetime—but which, all politics and polemics aside, is a fairly solid track.
PINK FLOYD, The Wall—Immersion Box Set (Capitol)
This hefty seven-disc set will constitute at least a brick's worth in the wall of your CD collection. But you can hardly say it's not justified for a brilliant landmark album that was the Catcher in the Rye of its era and continues to captivate boomers and kids alike today—as seen by the very solid receipts for Roger Waters' Wall revival tour last summer. It includes some trinkets you won't give a second thought to… like the marbles, scarf, and coaster set that have come with every recent Floyd box… and a few you will, like reproductions of Gerald Scarfe's memorably grotesque concept art. But the bonus discs are truly comfortably fun. Besides a previously released live album and "Behind the Music" documentary, you get 130 minutes of never-before-heard demos from the full band or Waters in his home studio, including many tunes that were substantially reworked not only for The Wall but even later projects. What Floyd fan wouldn't want a massive overdose of alienation—and, sure, some commemorative marbles—for Christmas?
HEART, Strange Euphoria (Sony Legacy)
Most of the packages we're covering this year are devoted to single albums or periods in an artist's life, since they've generally all had their overall careers previously anthologized. So it's hard to believe Heart never had a proper boxed set before, although having one that coincides with a Wilson sisters autobiography and a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination can't be considered bad timing. Strange Euphoria takes a slightly unusual but not unprecedented tack by charting the band's history chronologically through a mixed bag of 31 familiar studio tracks and 20 previously unreleased demos or live versions. It's a pretty good way to go that should satisfy both hardcore and casual fans. The early take on "Crazy on You" is no substitute for the released version, but the drumless version of "Magic Man" is a transfixing alternate. In the accompanying paperback book. Ann and Nancy get apologetic about their sometimes regrettable '80s period, when they handed over their songwriting duties for the sake of joining the hit parade— but there's no need to apologize for "These Dreams," is there? The gem of the four-disc set is an hour-long DVD concert shot on a TV soundstage in early '76, when the Wilson sisters were just about to reach the tipping point between being nobodies and history-changers. (Note: An Amazon-exclusive edition includes an extra disc with five live Led Zeppelin covers.)
THE BEATLES, Magical Mystery Tour—Deluxe Box Set (Capitol)
We started this boxed set roundup with the Fabs, so why not end it with them, too? Because if you can't afford that massive vinyl boxed set, there's no shame in gifting a Beatlemaniac with this highly desirable, expansive tribute to Paul McCartney's 1968 film folly. It was his idea to break from the scripted and directed form of A Hard Day's Night and Help! and simply improvise an hour-long British TV movie over the course of a week-long bus trip. Should they have invited Richard Lester back? Yes. Is it a gas on its own terms anyway? Of course, and the Beatles' walk down a Busby Berkeley-esque staircase in white tuxes in choreographed unison during "Your Mother Should Know" pretty much justifies any bit of zany comedy that doesn't quite work elsewhere. Happily, the powers-that-be decided to include both a DVD and Blu-Ray of the movie in the set, so you don't have to study the fine print or logos to get the format you need. Bonuses include a nifty historical book, a McCartney audio commentary, a documentary with plenty of outtake footage, and a segment on all the minor British comedy figures who populated the supporting cast. But the coolest component is an exact reproduction of the vinyl two-EP soundtrack, as it was initially issued in England. Your mother should know to give you this.
The choices don't stop with those dozen top picks, of course. A few others:
Roxy Music: The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982 (Virgin). This 10-disc import set includes all of the band's eight studio albums plus two bonus discs of non-LP tracks. If you're looking for historical liner notes, you're out of luck, though. There's been some controversy over the supposed "low volume" of the tracks, but most audiophiles are actually delighted that the lack of audio compression renders the material with the dynamics that were originally intended.
The Velvet Undergroud & Nico: 45th Anniversary—Super-Deluxe Edition (Universal). Six CDs, all in the service of commemorating one album. There are three just devoted to different versions of the original LP (stereo and original mono mixes, and a "Scepter sessions" assemblage taken off an acetate), plus an addition of Nico's first solo album, and a 1966 concert spread across two discs. Make sure you don't accidentally wind up with a previous box set of this album, issued in 2002, now filling used record stores everywhere as fans upgrade.
And you can be on the lookout for boxes that came out in the last 12 months commemorating Eric Clapton (a Slowhand special), Bill Withers, Kiss, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Dean Martin, the Who (a complete vinyl box, a la the Beatles), Lalo Schifrin, Duke Ellington, the Kinks (an import box of BBC sessions), Louis Armstrong, Blue Oyster Cult, Judas Priest, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Alice Cooper, Incubus, and Mel Brooks. Wrap 'em up, we'll take 'em…