From Elvis ’56 to ‘Dark Side’ to Mega-’Nevermind’: The Year’s 10 Essential Boxed Sets

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses!

For a few years there last decade, it looked like the record companies might have run out of ways to creatively repackage archival material for boxed sets. What music superstar worth his salt hadn't already been the beneficiary of an expensive, career-defining multi-disc set? Would the 2010s leave us with nothing left to box up but Black Oak Arkansas and 98 Degrees?

Fortunately, it hasn't come to that. The labels have gotten particularly crafty with new ideas for framing old material. In particular, we've seen the advent and growth of the boxed set devoted to commemorating a single classic album (or year) in an artist's career. And if you think that sounds like too narrow a concept for a fully developed boxed set, you haven't seen the 10-disc collection centered around U2's Achtung Baby.

Here are 10 superlative boxed sets any music fans on your list would love this Christmas. Just hope they don't curse you when the extra weight of these heffers puts their suitcases over the 50-pound limit on the flight home.

THE BEACH BOYS: Smile Sessions

You hesitate to say that anything that took 44 years to officially come out was "worth the wait." And then you hear the version of Smile that has finally been assembled for the public, and you hesitate no more. Bootleggers have pieced together their own versions of this mythical, shelved masterwork over the years, and Brian Wilson recorded a new version and toured behind it as a solo act in 2004, so the material is hardly unfamiliar to hardcore fans. Yet its symphonic-style medleys and motifs feel new and revelatory in this belated assemblage.

You get not just a smile-inducing hardback book that goes into the history of the project, but three full discs of rehearsal takes and false starts that allow you to be a fly on the wall while "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations" are painstakingly assembled in the studio. You get to hear great instrumental passages that only last a few tantalizing seconds in the finished work played over and over for all they're worth. You get to hear Wilson directing musicians and engineers in the studio like the true savant we know he was, not the idiot savant he came to be portrayed as. You get to hear the Boys working out the uber-complicated harmonies of "Our Prayer," even as they chatter about what drugs they're taking. (Hey, it was 1966.) And guess what? Their spontaneous a cappella harmonies sound positively godlike even when they're screwing up.

ELVIS PRESLEY: Young Man with the Big Beat

Every concept for an Elvis boxed set had surely been exhausted, right: Except for this in-retrospect-obvious one: Devote a four-disc package just to the breakout year when he was at the very peak of his powers. The first two discs collect every officially released studio session from 1956, the year punk—er, rock & roll— broke. A third disc rounds up fun studio outtakes. But it's the fourth disc, bringing together a couple of different live sets, that's really a kick in the pelvis.

On the live disc, you hear Elvis performing for screaming fans on the road, but also playing for squares in a Vegas showroom, his joking around possibly masking how nervous he was about playing for his show-biz elders. It reminds you not just of Elvis' amazingly intuitive vocal prowess, but of what an offense and/or gas Scotty Moore's abrasive guitar sound must have been to a generation primed for more Perry Como.

PINK FLOYD: The Dark Side of the Moon — Immersion Edition and Wish You Were Here — Immersion Edition

Dark Side sold 15 million copies in the U.S. alone, despite dealing heavily in themes of insanity, death, and ringing alarm clocks. And 15 million boomers can't be wrong—or weren't, anyway, in the case of this still frankly amazing rock touchstone. The massive six-disc set that's been constructed around it includes a live performance of the album (audio only), vintage videos created for overhead screens on tour, and the original mid-'70s quadrophonic mix on Blu-Ray, as well as the expected contemporary surround update.

Fans will be most delighted by a CD's worth of outtakes, including a notably different preliminary mix of the album that Alan Parsons put together in 1972. (You know you've been waiting 38 years to hear Dark Side with alternate sound effects.) Richard Wright's solo piano version of "Us and Them" is almost worth the price of admission, and you get to hear Roger Waters messing around with 7/8 time on his own time with a demo of "Money." It's very trinket-heavy, and you have to pull out a scarf, a coaster set, a set of marbles (!), and other collectibles every time you want to get to the discs affixed to the bottom of the box. But it's still worth a trip to the dark side of your wallet.

By the time EMI put out the equally comprehensive Wish You Were Here box this fall, they'd learned from customer complaints about the earlier set's packaging. As a result, the discs all came in individual sleeves, as well as having their slots at the bottom of the box—meaning you don't have to feel compelled to play marbles every time you just want to hear the outtake version of the title track that features Stephane Grappelli on violin. (How did that stay in a vault for 36 years?)

THE WHO: Quadrophenia — The Director's Cut

Pete Townshend considers this 1973 concept album to be the Who's best, so who are we to disagree? (What's that you're saying, Tommy? Your dad got what wrong? Sorry, can't hear, see, or feel you.) The good news is, this boxed set offers two full discs of previously unreleased studio tracks, including 10 compositions intended for but ultimately left out of Quadrophenia. The bad news to a few people is, none of those outtakes are Who recordings. The "director's cut" referred to in the title is the complete run-through of the album that Townshend demoed in his home studio to take to the band.

Average fans don't salivate at the word "demos," but if you know Townshend, you know that his one-man-band home recordings tend to sound more complete than anyone else's final drafts. So this is no small treat, especially when we're talking about near-misses left off one of rock's greatest albums. It bears noting that, if he were in competition with anyone other than Keith Moon, Townshend would come off as a pretty good drummer himself. Pete may still be a little put off that the rest of the band vetoed some of the material that would have fleshed out the concept more. But in the end, the others were right, not just because they chose the best stand-along songs; the album works more because of its alienated Mod theme, not because we got a full explanation of all four of the hero's personalities in song.

Yes, it's understandable that some Who fanatics are a little miffed that the box doesn't include any previously unreleased material played by the entire band, not just Townshend. But, hey, it's not subtitled The Singer's Cut, is it?

NIRVANA: Nevermind — Super Deluxe

If you've been waiting to introduce your kids or nephews to "that band Dave Grohl used to be in before the Foo Fighters" (with apologies to Paul McCartney and Wings), here's a good opportunity. But who are we kidding? If you're spending well over $100 on this extravagant package, you're getting it for yourself. It was 20 years ago today (or so) that Sgt. Cobain taught the punk-rock kids to play, and "Teen Spirit" still smells every bit as fresh as the presumed behind of that baby on the cover.

The hardback book that comes with the set is handsome, though it's heavier on vintage artifacts—stories from the English press in 1991, the original record company bio for the album, etc.—than contemporary re-analysis. But you'll find all you need in the discs, which include the group's Paramount concert on DVD, B-sides, crude early live recordings captured on a cassette, and what amounts to two nearly-complete alternate studio versions of Nevermind. There's a set of garage-y demos for the songs, and then the "Butch Vig version" of the finished album that was mixed differently before the final, polished "Andy Wallace version" that made Kurt pissy and made Nirvana superstars. The differences between the mixes are not so great as we might have imagined after hearing about them all these years, but if you have a fine ear, you'll spend hours doing compare-and-contrasts with the headphones on.

(Now if only this box came with an additional bonus disc of Courtney ranting about how Grohl sucks and how all the profits from the boxed set will be siphoned off to some off-shore fund designed to cheat her.)

U2: Achtung Baby — Super Deluxe Edition

Attention, babies and big spenders! U2 has devoted a 10-disc set to just one album. Well, two, actually; besides 1991's Achtung, their career high water mark, it also commemorates the 1993 curio Zooropa, which was finished up and released while the band was still touring behind the previous album.

Of all the albums getting this kind of deluxe anniversary treatment, Achtung Baby is the only one that precipitated the commissioning of a documentary, directed by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim. B-sides and dance remixes each get their own disc. The odd "Zoo TV" that bombed back in the day shares a DVD with a more straight-forward Sydney concert. But for fans, the most anticipated disc might be the one subtitled "Baby Achtung Baby," which features all the album's songs in supposedly infant form. Truth be told, a lot of these early versions aren't arranged radically different from the finished album; these aren't the really, really rough sessions that got leaked in 1990. But it's still fun to hear a less obviously anthemic "One" or an acoustic hootenanny treatment of "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World."

ROLLING STONES: Some Girls — Super Deluxe

Much as they did with their much-heralded Exile on Main Street deluxe reissue, the Stones dug up a whole CD's worth of outtakes to polish up and do a little additional recording on. It's not hard to see why most of the 12 songs on the second disc got left off the original 1978 album, but it's nothing to do with quality, per se. Rather, most of the outtakes tend toward either the bluesy or country-rock side of the Stones—something that's altogether blatant by the time we get to a cover of Hank Williams' "You Win Again." As much as those traditionalist strains were a big part of the Stones' own tradition, it's sure not what they were emphasizing when they put out Some Girls, which was their attempt to keep up with the Joneses. The Steve Joneses, that is, when they brought a punk energy to "Shattered," and the Grace Joneses, when they very successfully went disco with "Miss You."

The rest of the musical offerings aren't quite as elaborate as you'll find in some of the boxes above: There's a DVD that includes a few music videos and live performances, and a 7-inch single of "Beast of Burden" with a once-banned sleeve. (If you want to see a full performance from the Some Girls tour, such a thing has just come out on DVD, but it's not in this package.) As if to overcompensate for the relatively low number of discs—"only" three!—the box itself is vertically oversized, perhaps to accommodate a previously unseen Helmut Newton photo shoot in all its giant hardback glory.

DEREK AND THE DOMINOS: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs — Super Deluxe

Now, boxed sets are getting into re-runs. Two decades ago, the Layla album precipitated this whole trend of boxes commemorating classic albums with a 2oth  anniversary package. So, yes, this 4oth  anniversary set is a repackage of a repackage, sort of. But time equals further expansiveness in boxed sets and not just the physical unverse. So this new package includes hefty amounts of stuff the old one didn't — including two discs' worth of the supergroup live at the Fillmore East in 1971, on top of the expected outtakes and rarities. Listening to the sessions for their never-released follow-up album, it still seems like a crazy dream that Eric Clapton and Duane Allman ever got together for a few minutes. Four decades later, we're still benefitting from their Domino effect.

ELVIS COSTELLO: The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook

This is the only boxed set on our list that comes autographed by the artist. But they had to do something to justify the $200-plus asking price, along with the fact that it's limited to a numbered run of only 1,500. But if you've got the bucks to buy both this and the Louis Armstrong box that Costello suggested you spend your hard-earned money on instead, go for it. The box commemorates the most delightful tour of 2011, which had Costello revived a concept he previously tried out in 1986, taking to the road with a spinning wheel emblazoned with the titles of his songs and allowing audience members to give it a spin. Where it stops… well, you'll know, once you put on the CD and DVD, which partly overlap. There's also a 12-inch vinyl EP that includes four exclusive-to-the-set numbers, including one of the highlights of the tour, a slowed-down, 6/8 version of "Pump It Up" that had Elvis joining Steve Nieve on New Orleans-style keyboards. Most of the standard CD and DVD really do pump things up, though: It's as fast, furious, and brilliant a live album as has been released since James Brown took a reel-to-reel to the Apollo.

Related links:

Yahoo!'s Year In Review special

Biggest-selling albums of 2011

Biggest-selling singles of 2011