The Promise of Music Box Sets

Last-minute holiday present needs? You can't go wrong with these music collections

This wasn’t a plentiful year for CD and DVD box sets, the kind of releases that make special holiday gifts for music fans. But there weren’t many misses in this year’s crop of releases, either. Here are the best of the bunch to my ears and eyes.

Bruce Springsteen: The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story (Columbia Records)

Even if you aren’t already a Springsteen fan, you’ll find a lot to love about this three CD/three DVD set. For starters, there’s the remastered version of the 1978 CD Darkness on the Edge of Town, perhaps his most important album, a gritty and personal portrait of determination and struggle in a challenging world. Two more discs include nearly two dozen outtakes from the Darkness sessions (including “Fire,” “Because The Night” and “Talk to Me”) that show the breadth and variety of music he wrote from 1975 through 1978.

The real highlight, though, is the DVD of a complete three-hour 1978 concert from Houston. For all of the virtues of the Darkness album, it didn’t come close to capturing how explosive anthems like “Badlands,” “Streets Of Fire” and the extended version of “Prove It All Night” became in concert. To fully understand Springsteen, seeing him live was essential, and this was the tour that established Springsteen and the E Street Band as Rock’s best live act. Rounded out by a great documentary about the struggles to create the Darkness album and another DVD of rehearsals and live performances, there’s never been a better deluxe reissue of a single album than this.

Jimi Hendrix: West Coast Seattle Boy (Experience Hendrix/Legacy Records)

Considering the wealth of unreleased material that has been issued since Hendrix’s death in 1970, perhaps the biggest surprise is that enough was left fill this box set. That said, the compilers of this set were beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel with some of these tracks. Still, it’s fun to study the differences in these versions of familiar songs and to try to divine what shape unfinished songs in this set might have taken had Hendrix lived beyond 1970. The included DVD of Hendrix’s story in his own words is a real bonus.

John Mellencamp: On the Rural Route 7609 (Mercury/Island/UME Records)

Mellencamp has always been one of Rock’s true rebels, so it makes sense that he didn’t make the typical career retrospective box set with On the Rural Route 7609. Instead, he chose songs he felt best told his musical life story, mixing in a good number of alternate versions of familiar songs and lesser-known but illuminating album tracks. What emerges is a portrait of an artist who grew from being a brash and generic young rocker into one of Rock’s most compelling songwriters, and an artist with plenty of insights into the human condition and life in America over the past 30 years.

Wilson Pickett: Funky Midnight Mover: The Atlantic Studio Recordings 1962-1978 (Rhino Handmade/Atlantic Records)

It’s about time Picket got a box set, and this one does it right. In addition to essential hits like “In the Midnight Hour,” “Mustang Sally” and “Land of 1,000 Dances,” the set has lots of overlooked album tracks and a full disc of alternate takes and unreleased songs, some of which (the surprisingly tender “I Hope She’ll Be Happier With Him” and the funky, soulful “Many Roads to Travel”) shouldn’t have been shelved in the first place.

Oasis: Time Flies ... 1994-2009 (Big Brother/Sony Records)

Now that Oasis has apparently called it quits, Time Flies puts a suitable cap on the British band’s career. Two discs include all of the group’s hit singles, while a third captures the band’s last concert, a show last summer in London that was energetic enough, if a bit too polished. A DVD of Oasis’ videos rounds out this solid set.

Other notable box sets

Bee Gees: Mythology (Rhino Records) One disc each is devoted to songs sung by the brothers Gibb — Barry, Robin and Maurice — plus one from younger brother Andy.

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Whitmark Demos (Columbia Records) Two discs feature some of Dylan’s earliest songs written for song publisher M. Witmark & Sons.

Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings (Columbia Records) For the purist, Dylan’s first eight albums are presented with their original mono mixes.

Iggy and the Stooges: Raw Power (Columbia/Legacy Records) A deluxe edition features the David Bowie mix of Raw Power, a full Stooges concert and a disc of outtakes.

Otis Redding: Live on the Sunset Strip (Stax Records) This two-CD set expands and improves on a pair of previously released live albums, 1968’s In Person at the Whisky A Go Go and 1993’s Good to Me: Recorded Live at the Whisky, Vol. 2. Sweet Soul music, for sure.

Notable DVDs

Various Artists: The Best of Soul Train (Time/Life Records) Three DVDs from this enduring show (taken mostly from 1972-1979) present a who’s who of Soul and R&B. Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Barry White, The O’Jays, The Commodores, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, The Isley Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone are all here and in prime form.

Various Artists: The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts (Time/Life Records) History and some amazing performances came together during these two anniversary concerts celebrating the Rock Hall’s inception. The 51 performances produce plenty of highlights, including a fiery version of “Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills & Nash; Jeff Beck unleashing a wicked guitar solo while sitting in with Stevie Wonder on “Superstition”; Metallica adding crunch to Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane”; U2 backing Springsteen and Patti Smith on a fevered version of “Because the Night.” The list goes on. The performances were not all perfect (such events never are), but they were inspired, and it’s clear the 25th anniversary concerts will be a tough act to follow when year 50 rolls around.

Michael Jackson: Michael Jackson’s Vision (Epic/Legacy Records) For as much history as Jackson made with his music in bridging the boundaries between R&B and Pop, perhaps his most lasting impact will be in taking the music video to a whole new level of creativity and technical sophistication. Vision collects all 33 of his videos, including such groundbreakers as “Billie Jean” and of course the “Thriller” mini-movie. It makes for a set that will stand as a lasting document of Jackson’s ambition and creativity. It’s also a highly entertaining viewing experience.

Various Artists: Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010 (Rhino/Reprise Records) The event, held this past summer, marked the third time Clapton had hosted his all-day all-star gathering of guitar greats. This two-DVD set captures more than four hours from the event, including plenty of the on-stage collaborations that could only happen at Crossroads. It’s a kick to see Vince Gill rolling through “Mystery Train” with guitarists James Burton and Albert Lee, Clapton boogying with Jeff Beck on Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker” and Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan joining B.B. King on “The Thrill Is Gone.” Actually, the thrills happen over and over with this terrific DVD.

Various Artists: T.A.M.I. Show (Shout Factory Records) Never before available on DVD, this famed film of a 1964 concert featured many of the era’s most popular Rock and Soul acts. From Chuck Berry to The Supremes to The Beach Boys, it all builds up to the famous knockout performance from James Brown that overshadowed the closing act, a young and rocking scrappy young bunch from England named The Rolling Stones.

Need more LAST-MINUTE HOLIDAY GIFT IDEAS? Check out our Holiday Issue online section for a rundown of gift offerings from local merchants and holiday-related events.

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