When Bob Dylan's "Biograph" came out in 1985, it opened up a pandora's box for box sets -- multi-disc retrospective packages that combined familiar and unreleased material to appeal to both modest fans and hard-core devotees.
In short order, each year, particularly leading into the holidays, brought greater numbers of boxed sets boasting lavish packaging and extensive annotation. Success led to excess, however, and more than a few boxes were compiled for acts whose creative achievements didn't merit such attention.
But the tide has stemmed in recent years, accompanied by an general increase in quality -- something that's reflected in this year's box set releases:
Prince, "One Nite Alone...Live!" (New Power Generation): Prince fans have been waiting his entire career for a legitimate concert souvenir from the idiosyncratic Minneapolis artist, and he's delivered in a big way -- literally. Recorded during the early 2002 jaunt that was one of Prince's finest tours in years -- deftly straddling the line between bold and crowd-pleasing -- "One Nite Alone" houses two discs from the concerts, an "Aftershow" disc with guest appearances by George Clinton and Musiq, and a set of solo performances by Prince, accompanying himself on piano. It would still be nice to get some of those vintage '80s shows from his vaults, but this is a fine holiday present to the long-suffering faithful.
Various Artists, "Capitol Records Sixtieth Anniversary 1942-2002" (Capitol): With the exception perhaps of Motown, listeners usually don't affiliate with labels nearly as much as they do with performers. But this six-disc, 96-song overview could turn most anybody into a Capitol convert -- especially with hits from a range of artists that includes the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, The Band, Dean Martin, Garth Brooks, Bob Seger, Duran Duran, the Beastie Boys, Radiohead...and the list goes on. Each decade-themed disc represents a cultural touchstone; the whole set is nothing short of epic.
Enya, "Only Time*The Collection" (Reprise): A little bit of Irish songstress Enya's laconic, ethereal creations usually goes a long way -- which makes this four-disc, 51-song collection an ambitious enterprise for all but true devotees. Then again, with more than 60 million albums sold worldwide, there are plenty of those, and they're well served by the hits ("Orinoco Flow," "Only Time"), the contributions to the soundtracks of "Far and Away" and "Lord of the Rings," and a smattering of rare tracks.
Dwight Yoakam, "Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years" (Reprise/Rhino): Country music has been comparatively slow to enter the boxed set market, but Yoakam is one of the few in the Stetsoned crowd who can credibly pull it off. Besides mining his own catalog of Nashville-defying Bakersfield twang, "Reprise Please Baby" includes Yoakam collaborations with Buck Owens, Sheryl Crow, Flaco Jimenez, Patty Loveless and Asleep at the Wheel, acoustic and concert renditions of his songs and even a full disc of unreleased material that sports another eight live tracks and two duets with Kelly Willis. A worthy retrospective for this self-styled "Honky Tonk Man."
Herbie Hancock, "The Herbie Hancock Box" (Columbia/Legacy): The jazz-funk-techno keyboard pioneer's potent 16 years (1972-88) on Columbia is nicely anthologized across these four-discs and 34-track -- 13 of which have never been released in the U.S. Hancock's landmark recordings with the Headhunters, Mwandishi and the all-star VSOP are here, along with "Rockit" and his other electronic experiments. Be forewarned, though; the plexi-box packaging is much easier to look at than it is to open.
Jeff Buckley, "The Grace Eps" (Columbia): Like many performers, the late singer-songwriter Buckley placed a substantial amount of high-quality live and otherwise unreleased material on EPs released in other markets around the world. The 19 tracks spread across these five discs over cover songs, special edits and other rarities -- plus new liner notes by Buckley's mother and bandmates -- only make his 1997 death seem more poignant.
Roxy Music, "The Thrill of It All" (Capitol/EMD): Seven years after its release overseas, this four-CD retrospective makes its way onto U.S. shores. It holds up well throughout its 67 not chronologically sequenced tracks, and it's nice to have collection that gives its full attention to the band without feeling obligated to also highlight frontman Bryan Ferry's solo work.
Iron Maiden, "Eddie's Archive" (Portrait/Columbia/Legacy): This limited edition set is boffo or beastly, depending on your orientation toward heavy metal in general and Iron Maiden's thundering brand of it in particular. A trio of two-disc sets feature mostly unreleased British Broadcasting Corp. recordings, a vintage 1982 show from England and B-sides; it all comes packaged in a tin "casket" with a crystal shot glass bearing a likeness of the group's mummy-like mascot, Eddie. Cheers!
Sam Cooke, "With the Soul Stirrers: The Complete Speciality Recordings:" The late Cooke went on to greater notoriety after his days with the Soul Stirrers, but this was still, well, soul-stirring stuff, truly great performances of gospel and early experiments with R&B. Having all 84 tracks Cooke and the group made for Speciality Records is a bit excessive, however, and there are certainly more succinct collections to be had. But rest assured that the whole story still has merit.
Charlie Christian, "The Genius of the Electric Guitar" (Columbia/Legacy): Six-string pioneer Christian was only 25 when he passed away from tuberculosis, and he'd only been recording for two years. But "The Genius" recorded enough material for these handsomely packaged four-CDs, and digital remastering has made these lo-fi recordings even easier to listen to, which in turn makes his short but sweet career that much more special.