Think Inside the Box: A look at five of the best vinyl box sets of 2017

Some very last-minute/belated holiday gifts for the vinyl record lover on your list

Over the past few years, with the dominance of digital music (streaming or otherwise), record companies seem to have stepped up their box-set game, giving beefed-up collections some extra beef in the form of more expanded packaging. And though some labels, like Light in the Attic and the Numero Group, appear motivated to release such titles and compilations as a way to document and share lost or under-noticed music, the larger ones are probably also looking to recoup at least some of the financial losses incurred with the rise of streaming. 

The vinyl resurgence continues to grow, giving literal weight to many of the repackaged collections and allowing for even more extra bells and whistles. Vinyl’s appeal now crosses generations, with listeners who can appreciate both the sonic perks of high-quality vinyl pressings and the dopamine boosts that come with every extra “like” a photo of a 12-inch record earns on Instagram.

Depending on when you’re reading this and what holiday you celebrate, time is either running out or has already run out for gift-giving ideas. If you’re getting desperate and wiping brow sweat at the mere thought of tackling the rest of your shopping this late in the game, the following items would make smile-inducing day-of or belated presents for anyone on your list who likes music and can actually play physical formats in their home (though that might not be a deal-breaker for everyone, as the “cassette revival” has proven — some people just appreciate the aesthetic and souvenir/knick-knack quality of hard-copy packaging). While many of the following suggestions are available on vinyl, some come in CD format as well.

All of these box sets can be found online, but a couple won’t ship in time for the holiday, so you’ll have to put the receipt in a card and tell the recipient to be happy they’ll have something cool coming their way soon.

Shipping fees can also add up when buying online, especially expedited shipping. Instead, you’ll be better off visiting one or more of Greater Cincinnati’s superb independent record stores. While you could call ahead to see if a particular store has what you’re looking for, why not do it up old-school style and just pop in to flip through the selections? You may well find even more appropriate gift ideas (including a few for yourself), and supporting our area’s small businesses might be just what’s needed to move your name from the naughty column over to the nice column in Santa’s Excel spreadsheet.


click to enlarge Thelonious Monk - Photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC
Photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC
Thelonious Monk
The Complete Prestige 10-Inch LP Collection - Thelonious Monk

In much the same way as John Coltrane did with the sax, iconic musician Thelonious Monk (who would be 100 years old this year) changed the way musicians and listeners perceived Jazz piano, opening minds to the music’s potential and radically adding previously unimagined shadows and colors to Jazz. The formative period from 1947-1952 was a rough one for Monk. His recordings for Blue Note were met with bewilderment and the pianist was arrested, did two months in prison and lost his “cabaret license,” which decimated his finances. Then Prestige, the small label run by young entrepreneur Bob Weinstock, offered him a contract.

While the Prestige albums didn’t sell much better than his ones for Blue Note, the sessions he did for the label over the next three years were pivotal, gradually helping to raise his profile among his peers and (much more gradually) critics. Craft Recordings (the catalog branch of Concord Music) has compiled those Prestige sessions into a box set that includes five 10-inch vinyl recreations of Monk’s albums, precisely replicating the album artwork and labels (the audio has, of course, been remastered).

The recordings are spectacular, showcasing an important part of Monk’s musical evolution through sessions that capture the unusual playing styles and rhythms he so naturally experimented with, as well as the dissonance, tension, beauty and humor for which his music is celebrated in the Jazz history books. The conditions played a part in making these recordings so compelling — tracks could run longer after Prestige switched its release format from 78s to 10-inch, giving Monk and his impossibly talented session-mates (including Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and Frank Foster, a gifted tenor sax player from Cincinnati) more space. The label also wanted the musicians to be unrehearsed and capture songs in one take, which gave the recordings a palpable immediacy.

Among the Prestige sessions included are the first recordings of live standards like “Sweet and Lovely” and Monk’s own legendary composition “Blue Monk,” as well as his final official album release for Prestige, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, which was initially Rollins’ session, with Monk filling in at the last minute.


click to enlarge Ozma Records' vinyl issue of the Voyager Golden Record - Photo: Ozma Records
Photo: Ozma Records
Ozma Records' vinyl issue of the Voyager Golden Record
The Voyager Golden Record - Various Artists

Do you have an astronomy fan on your gift list? Perhaps someone who idolizes Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson? The Voyager Golden Record project would particularly be great for a younger person who fits those descriptions, because the story behind the original “Golden Record” provides great perspective of not only the work of NASA and Sagan in the ’70s but also of our species’ place in the universe.

Originally, there were only two copies of the Golden Record, which were placed aboard the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts and launched into space in 1977 (they’re now believed to be billions of miles from Earth). The Golden Record was “curated” by a committee led by Sagan that compiled sounds, spoken languages and music they felt best represented what life on our planet is like; the belief behind the project was that one day, extraterrestrials in the distant future would discover the record (and accompanying instructions, background and images) and learn about what Earth was like, or even just what Earth was.

Besides a limited CD release in the early ’90s, the “time capsule” was never made available to the public (even Sagan had trouble getting a copy). So last year a group of people long fascinated by the Golden Record’s mythology — including former Cincinnatian David Pescovitz — launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring the most ambitious compilation album ever to the general public on vinyl. Initially, the goal for the funding was a little less than $200,000; it ended up raising $1.3 million.

The team behind the release formed Ozma Records to distribute the collection (in conjunction with Light in the Attic Records) in the wake of vast public interest in the project. The CD version of the box set comes packaged with a hardcover book that includes all of the images sent on the Voyager crafts, photos transmitted from space from the probes and, of course, all of the audio. The vinyl version includes a few bonus items (like a turntable slipmat) and three luminous translucent gold platters. (The packaging recently scored a Grammy nomination for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package.) The tracks incorporate whale songs, birdcalls and other nature sounds, plus greetings in 55 languages and a message from the United Nations. The music used on the record includes field recordings of indigenous music from all over the world, operatic and classical pieces and more contemporary American songs from Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong and Blind Willie Johnson.

The popularity of this fascinating artifact/release means the hard-copy versions will be difficult to get quickly — the Ozma Records site says both the CD and vinyl editions are currently backordered until February, though you can pre-order now. You can also purchase the digital audio at ozmarecords.bandcamp.com to give to an intended recipient as a sneak peek.


click to enlarge Hüsker Dü - Photo: Steve Hengstler
Photo: Steve Hengstler
Hüsker Dü
Savage Young Dü - Hüsker Dü

The death of Grant Hart in September was heartbreaking for his fans. But the numerous passionate remembrances and reflections on his legacy made it slightly easier and, perhaps best of all, it likely led a few curious music lovers to check out the massively influential music of Hüsker Dü, the landmark band in which he sang, wrote songs and played drums alongside singer/guitarist/songwriter Bob Mould and bassist Greg Norton.

Along with The Replacements, the St. Paul, Minn. band was a leader in the underground Punk and AltRock movement of Minneapolis’ fertile music scene in the ’80s. Though the volatile group broke up well before the ’90s began, the music Hüsker Dü released between 1983-1987 left its mark on what would become “Indie Rock” and “Alternative Rock.”

The band initially made its splash in the burgeoning Hardcore Punk community before a wider audience caught on, as Hart and Mould’s songwriting grew into what would become a trademark melodic, powerful and heart-wrenchingly honest and emotional style. Intensity was the constant in Hüsker Dü’s music, and a box set from the Numero Group label that was released in November proves that it was evident from the very beginning. Savage Young Dü lovingly documents the group’s earliest years. Excavating the band’s first songs and recordings had been long in the works, becoming a labor of love for the group’s longtime friend Terry Katzman — who’d collected around 150 tape recordings of shows from throughout Hüsker’s lifespan — and Numero co-founder Ken Shipley, who slowly broke the ice of the musicians’ notoriously contentious relationship and explored getting rights for some of the band’s SST Records material from notoriously contentious label founder Greg Ginn.

It was worth the wait, patience and hard work. While most archival releases are “remastered,” that’s an understatement when discussing the quality of the recordings used for Savage Young Dü. Featuring material from 1979-1982, the three-CD/three-vinyl-album compilation includes clearer and more muscular versions of various singles and the trio’s second album, 1983’s Everything Falls Apart, but the engineering magic behind the project really comes into focus on the demos and live tracks, which often sound better than some of group’s seminal SST releases, despite their cassette origins.

Speaking of SST, the producers found a workaround solution to Ginn’s stubbornness that enabled them to include Hüsker’s 1981 debut album, the fast and furious Land Speed Record, which was recorded live at a concert the band played earlier that year. Originally released on the New Alliance imprint, SST obtained the rights when it was reissued in 1987. The original tapes from the Land Speed Record performance were stolen and SST’s source recordings were garbage, but Numero discovered higher-quality soundboard tapes of the same set from two weeks later and used that on Savage Young Dü instead.

With the wealth of material in its possession, the Numero Group is reportedly plotting more Hüsker Dü releases, covering other periods of the band’s history. Given the way Savage Young Dü so splendidly, if circuitously, came together, it may take a while, but it will undoubtedly be another thoughtfully constructed tribute and testimonial to the brilliance of one of the more underrated bands of the past 40 years.



Squeeze Box: The Complete Works of “Weird Al” Yankovic - “Weird Al” Yankovic

Though the chances that there’s someone on your shopping list who warrants a $400 gift and is a Weird Al superfan are improbably low, if it’s applicable to your situation, then Squeeze Box: The Complete Works of “Weird Al” Yankovic is perhaps the most perfect present available this holiday season.

As the title suggests, this collection includes every studio album released by the king of parody songs over the past 34 years — that’s 14 individual albums, plus a rarities album titled, of course, Medium Rarities. It also includes a 100-page book featuring photos and memorabilia from throughout Yankovic’s career.

But the coolest part of Squeeze Box, as the name also suggests, is that the albums come packaged in a playable replica of Yankovic’s actual accordion (“squeeze box” is slang for accordion, if you’re unhip… or, in this case, too hip), a Yankovic trademark thanks to its use on his comedic Polka medleys (as well as other songs). Due to the complexity of the packaging, the pre-order for the release began in January through Pledge Music, 10 months before the actual release. Those who pre-ordered got first dibs, with the remaining copies being made available through other online retailers, which makes Squeeze Box even more of a limited edition. Yankovic’s website recently revealed that the CD version of the collection is sold out, while the vinyl version is also almost gone.


7-inches for Planned Parenthood - Various Artists

So this one is probably not the right gift for your MAGA-worshiping, Fox News-loving evangelical Christian uncle, but if you have a more “woke” person on your list who loves music (particularly from the Indie world) and activism, you can’t do much better.

The 7-inches for Planned Parenthood project is a fundraiser for the women’s health organization that Republicans have long dreamed of shutting down (and are closer than ever to doing just that) and features a collection of artwork, songs and spoken-word pieces by some top-notch artists, musicians, comedians and others. Among the musical acts contributing songs are Bon Iver, Foo Fighters, Mary J. Blige, Feist, Laurie Anderson, Elliot Smith, Björk, members of The National, Sharon Van Etten, Sleater-Kinney, Common and St. Vincent, who duets with John Legend on a cover of Minnie Riperton’s 1974 hit “Lovin’ You.” Among the spoken performances are exclusive comedy bits from Jenny Slate, Zack Galifianakis and Tig Notaro, plus pieces by authors Margaret Atwood, Dr. Willie Parker and other activist figureheads.

While the 33-track collection was released digitally this fall, the full packaging is well worth the $100 price tag (all proceeds go to PP). There’s a beautiful book with artwork from various artists and photographs of the participants, as well as PP information and endorsements. The recordings are laid out across several pink-colored 7-inch vinyl records, which are encased in sleeves featuring covers designed by visual artists like Rashid Johnson, Domonique Echeverria and Shepard Fairey. Even someone like Mike Pence would have to appreciate the stunning packaging.

Visit 7inchesforplannedparenthood.com for more info on the box set, the cause, the participating artists and ordering details. You probably won’t be able to get this one mailed to you in time for gift giving, but every physical order includes the digital files, so you can give the giftee MP3s as a heads up. 


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