It's Christmas, Get Out Yr Wallets

So holidays and music gifts. Clapton’s Crossroads and Dylan’s Biograph get most of the credit for creating an entirely new mechanism—the box set—for separating us from our discretionary income, and it’s bewildering to see how many different ways record labels have come up with to get us to purchase the same music over and over again. The unreleased tracks! The mono tracks! The UK releases! The 180-gram vinyl! The bling!

Box sets are coming from all different directions these days; fortunately, blogs like Super Deluxe Edition and The Second Disc do the yeoman’s work of keeping track of what’s being released and when. Although there’s nothing new to the trend of the career-spanning box set of straight album reissues (I loves me my Onobox), that ‘s where the high-visibility action has largely been this year. Putting all the original LPs into one big box would seem to be the most idiot-proof route to a reissue, but even this form can be ruined—recall the Steely Dan box that separated their albums at random points whenever the CDs that contained them ran out of room as a case in point.

The heavy hitters got the most attention this year, and went in different directions with their releases. Who doesn’t already have all the albums by the Clash? And yet they’ve found a way to get you to buy their stuff all over again. Their box comes in two versions: A Plain Jane reissue of the original albums (not including the now-disowned Cut the Crap), and the deluxe Sound System. The selling points here are improved audio due to careful remastering by Mick Jones (which is a laudable improvement, though only on Give Em Enough Rope and Sandanista!  are the sonics truly relevatory); non-LP tracks and various odds and sods on separate discs (about half of which are essential); and more bling than you can imagine—stickers, multiple booklets, badges, dog tags (???). Looks great, sounds great, but really do you need all this? 

The Dylan box set goes in the opposite direction, compiling ALL 35 of his studio albums plus 6 live albums and the obligatory non-LP extras (spread over two CDs) as the minimalist Complete Album Collection Vol. 1 (Vol. 2 will give a similar treatment to the Bootleg Series). Unadorned, no liner notes, no booklet, no nothing. At about $5/disc, this is cash-efficient if you don’t already own many Dylan recordings on CD (you know who you are, both of you). With this amount of material, there really is little choice but to binge on the stuff, which efficiently and unfortunately rips the music from any social context that (rightly so) still clings to it. The best parts of my binge were finding some shit among the shinola of Dylan’s lesser albums—Shot of Love (with the rollicking “Groom’s Still Waiting At the Alter” rightly appended) and especially Slow Train Coming stood out—and hearing Dylan’s early ‘90s albums as a thoughtful run-up to Time Out of Mind and beyond, rather than the continuation of his ‘80s doldrums (best understood on Columbia/Legacy’s Playlist: The Very Best of Bob Dylan ‘80s) that they are typically included with.

I spent more time on two other box sets this year though. One wasn’t even from this year: I finally got a copy of Kraftwerk’s The Catalogue, from 2009, which collects their mature works in a fittingly suave package. Neither trance-y nor jam-oriented, Kraftwerk have never been my favorite Krautrock choice, but gathered together their music gains surprising heft in spite of its plinkiness. Autobahn, the first record in this collection, merely gets by on account of the title cut, but each of their next three albums improves by paring down melodies to their barest elements while finding grooves in the lumpen slow-motion seizure activity that masquerades for their beats. The Man-Machine is some musical equivalent of recombinant DNA technology. By the eighth and last album, 2003’s Tour de France soundtrack, they have run out of ideas, so better to think of 1991’s The Mix as the band’s swan song: If ever there was an act that was made for remixing, it’s Kraftwerk.

Best of all though is ZZ Top’s The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990, ten albums in minimalist format that currently sells for $34.00 brand new. The packaging is threadbare but there is a key upgrade to the music—when the older albums were first issued on CD, they were remixed to approximate ‘80s drum sounds, and this abomination has been reversed for the first time on CD with this release. Unfortunately typecast as a boogie or Southern rock band early on, the Top were in many ways closer to proto-Motorhead. They had a big sound for a three-piece, they were fine students of their blues and country roots, and best of all they had a sense of humor and refined cowboy style—they could be red-hot and cool at the same time.  ZZ Top collected the elements of their sound on their first two albums and put them all in play on their first masterpiece, Tres Hombres. The second side of their next, Fandango, clears the same high bar, and they culminated their first era with Tejas, which unfortunately suffered in the songwriting compartment.

They band came off the road and recorded the laid-back apotheosis Deguello as the ’70s wound down. They then improbably reappeared as funky old new wave party crashers with Eliminator, which is far more than the some of its MTV hits. The box set closes out with two more albums that mine this formula with neither harm nor fresh inspiration. However, over the course of these ten albums, ZZ Top reveal themselves as the only blues-based band other than Fleetwood Mac to survive with inspiration intact into the ‘80s. And on a CD-by-CD basis, this box set is a dead bargain.