If you’re anything like me, chances are that your family doesn’t try to get you any music-related gifts for Christmas out of fear that you’ve either got everything you want already — or they’re so oblivious about music that they don’t know where to begin. If you’re lucky, you might end up with some gift cards for local record stores — or, better yet, wads of cold hard cash. With that dosh in hand, you need to make sure you spend it on the perfect albums that fill in some of the gaps in your collection while also giving you your money’s worth.
What better way to reward yourself for making it through the long, hard slog of 2015 than with a box set? If you’ve always been curious about an artist but have yet to commit to their recordings, there’s no better way to dive into the deep end of their work than with expanded, comprehensive releases from the best moments of their catalogs. If you already love a band or a particular album, a box set allows you to explore those songs that you hold dear in a deeper, more comprehensive way.
With that in mind, here are some of the best vinyl best box sets released over the last few months that are well worth your money and your time.
Johnny Cash: American Recordings I–VI (American)
Producer Rick Rubin has accomplished a great many things in the music industry, but his greatest — and most important — achievement was rescuing Johnny Cash from the dregs of the dinner-theater circuit and helping him end his career with dignity and a renewed sense of creative purpose. The six albums that Cash and Rubin worked on together, here simply titled American Recordings I-VI, have now been collected in one vinyl set for the first time. The 180-gram LPs are packaged in a lovely cloth-bound box, fittingly colored entirely in black, while the albums themselves intimately reveal Cash in his late period exploring songs that touched him in his past as well as those from surprising modern day artists like Soundgarden (“Rusty Cage”), Depeche Mode (“Personal Jesus”), and, of course, Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” which Cash tenderly reworked and made it entirely his own. These records helped introduce Cash’s musical genius to a new generation of fans, while also solidifying his rightful place as one of the greatest artists of his time.
The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (Merge Records)
The Magnetic Fields’ beloved 1999 triple album gets a glorious vinyl box-set treatment from Merge Records. The sprawling, affectionate collection is spread out over three LPs, with the first 1,000 pre-orders issued on gorgeous red, black, and clear vinyl (all other sets will contain standard black LPs). There is something for everyone within these 69 insightful songs, with each Stephin-Merritt-penned number dealing with affairs of the heart in some capacity. For those who haven’t explored this highly imaginative record in a while, this box set presents a perfect opportunity to rediscover these songs anew, while those who have only heard about the album but never listened to it now have their chance to pick it up in this beautiful set. And if you’re on the fence, the 24-page booklet includes liner notes written by author Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), so your literary side will be satiated by the packaging as well as Merritt’s acerbic songwriting.
Mark Lanegan: One Way Street (Sub Pop)
Screaming Trees were one of the most underrated, overlooked bands of the ’90s grunge movement. Sadly, that underappreciation has mostly continued in the solo career of the band’s raspy-voiced frontman, Mark Lanegan — but hopefully this stunning 5-LP box set issued by Sub Pop will help music fans fall in love with Lanegan’s first five solo albums. Many of these records have been out of print on vinyl for years, with I’ll Take Care Of You and Field Songs both being issued on LP for the first time in the U.S. His first two solo efforts, though — The Winding Sheet (featuring guest contributions from Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic) and Whiskey For The Holy Ghost — are where this collection truly shines, and where Lanegan further establishes himself as one of the most singular voices and songwriters of our generation.
Various Artists: Ork Records: New York, New York (Numero Group)
This set collects the trailblazing releases put out by the world’s first punk record label, Ork Records, founded by the visionary Terry Ork. In addition to releasing the debut 45s from Television and Richard Hell, Ork also captured the untamed, unpredictable sound of the city as it came apart at the seams amdist the squalid confines of the Bowery and found life and a home at CBGB’s. In addition to early tracks from the likes of Alex Chilton, Marbles, Feelies, Cheetah Crome, and even the notorious critic and crank Lester Bangs, this splendid box set also includes a 190-page hardback book that documents the nascent days of punk and new wave with photographs and stories from the music fans who were on the front lines as music changed forever.
Garbage: Garbage 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Almo Sounds/Rough Trade)
Few records have achieved the palpable moodiness of Garbage’s self-titled debut. In addition to the swirl of intoxicating sounds that the band (led by sonic mastermind Butch Vig) generated, the sneering, assured vocals of Shirley Manson gave the songs a brooding, saturnine edge that lit the music scenes on both sides of the Atlantic back in 1995. Now, in celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary, it has received a lovely triple-LP box set treatment that not only features the pulsating original album remastered from the original analog tapes, but is rounded out by “g-sides” and various remixes that came with the singles from the era. The limited-edition set also includes a 12-page fan-generated zine and an autographed photo of the band, but it’s the unforgettable tunes themselves (“Queer,” “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Stupid Girl,” and my personal fave, “Milk”) that are the real appeal at the heart of this set, waiting for you to fall under their haunting spell once again.
David Bowie: 5 Years 1969-1973 (Rhino/Parlophone)
This gargantuan 13-LP box set isn’t necessarily designed for the casual David Bowie fan — but if you’ve always been curious about the trendsetting, groundbreaking early work of the Thin White Duke, then this set is the perfect place to start. In addition to the six landmark studio albums that Bowie released during these five fruitful years (starting with Space Oddity straight through to Pin Ups and all of the revolutionary work between) as well as the two live albums from the era, this set also includes a rare mix of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and an exclusive new compilation, Re: Call 1. An accompanying book also features technical notes from each of the recordings by producers Tony Visconti and Ken Scott, as well as original press reviews and additional commentary on the albums. Sit down before you look at the price tag on this towering collection, but rest assured that these peerless albums contain songs from an inimitable artist who not only was continually in the process of reinventing himself, but was also brazenly changing the direction of music as the ’60s ended and the “Me” Decade began.
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters (Verve)
While this box set is only currently available as a 2-CD set at the moment, it’s included here as an advance warning to all of you to save up for the vinyl release due early in 2016. Coltrane’s searching sonic excursions all coalesced spectacularly on A Love Supreme, becoming the defining artistic statement by a singular artist who consistently pushed his music in bold, exciting new directions. Coltrane’s spiritual awakening that preceded these recording illuminates his material with a solemn depth and rich soulfulness, and invigorated the late period of his illustrious career. In addition to the original album, presented in remastered stereo sound, the box set — released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the album’s original release — also includes a few mono recordings, as well as a series of imaginative alternate takes recorded during the two-day session back in December of 1964, and an intense live set recorded in France in 1965 featuring a full run-through of the album’s four glorious songs played by Coltrane’s classic quartet (featuring Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner). This album has always sounded to me like one long, continual prayer, and this comprehensive box set captures all of the emotion and effort that went into this inspired, groundbreaking landmark of modern jazz.
Spoon: Gimme Fiction Deluxe Reissue (Merge Records)
10 years has passed since the release of Spoon’s angular, math- and dragono-bsessed indie classic Gimme Fiction. To celebrate the grand occasion, the fine folks at Merge have issued a lovely double-LP set of the album, featuring a remastering job by Howie Weinberg from the original tapes, as well as 12 unreleased demos from that era. The extensive booklet also features an insightful oral history regarding the making of the record, as well as some behind-the-scenes photos of some of the shenanigans that took place in the studio. The 11 original songs found the band taking bigger, bolder risks with their sound and their songwriting scope, as Britt Daniel allowed both his word play and his influences the proper room to breathe and coalesce; the result was Spoon’s most accomplished, cohesive album to date. The demos give dedicated fans a chance to peek behind the curtain a bit, and see just what went in to bringing these inspired songs to life, and just how much they changed over the course of the recording process. As is always the case with Merge, the packaging is exceptional, with Sean McCabe’s iconic cover art inviting you in to this menacing but welcoming sonic world that Daniel and his cohorts created.
Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (Deluxe) (Rhino Records)
While Rumours gets nearly all of the praise and accolades when it comes to Fleetwood Mac’s back catalog, Tusk is often derided and unfairly overlooked simply because it was not more like its celebrated multi-platinum predecessor. Over time, though, an album that was originally viewed as a colossal disappointment (because it only sold four million copies) has grown to become accepted and beloved by Mac fans everywhere. Now, the already supersized Tusk has received its grandest release yet in this 5-CD, DVD, 2-LP box set that features a remastered version of the original album, a reworking of that same record using alternate versions and mixes, two live shows from that era, and a 5.1 surround mix (on the DVD) — as well as b-sides, outtakes, and other extras that were dug up in the archives. The double LP could get lost amidst all of those extras, but that’s where these songs truly shine. Lindsey Buckingham’s adventurous production techniques and expressive arrangements really come vibrantly to life on wax, and you realize that the group took far more chances on this record than they did on Rumours. Many of them pay off — so much so that you might just change your mind about which Fleetwood Mac album is truly your favorite.
Bob Dylan: The Best of the Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 (Columbia)
Rather than shelling out the $600 for the exhaustive (and entirely enthralling) 18-disc box set, more modest and budget-minded Dylan fans can’t go wrong with the far more manageable triple-LP/2-CD version that culls the best cuts from that massive collection. You still get stellar outtakes from this fruitful, groundbreaking time in Dylan’s career (which produced the landmark albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde), you just don’t have to work your way through an entire disc filled with 20 different takes of “Like A Rolling Stone” to get there. In addition to the stellar songs themselves, you also get a expertly designed set that features an informative booklet with essays on the session and candid photographs from the studio, all packaged inside a slipcase that features the confident, scarf-covered image of Dylan from the Blonde on Blonde era. These songs are so impeccable and iconic that it’s hard not to immediately shell out for the more expensive set, but this box set will surely satisfy you with different arrangements, takes, and tempos on Dylan’s familiar songs that you took to your heart long ago.
Erik Thompson is the clubs editor at City Pages, and a freelance music writer in the Twin Cities.