As Radiohead's two different releases this month prove, rock boxed sets aren't getting any more sensible. The "discbox" version of their new release In Rainbows is stuffed with extras ranging from the useful (extra music) to the aimless (expanded booklets and artwork) to the mystifyingly redundant (In Rainbows on CD, 12" vinyl and MP3). Meanwhile, Radiohead's old label, EMI, is cashing in on the free-download delirium surrounding their ex-artists by releasing the band's entire back catalog as both traditional boxed-set package and newfangled four-gigabyte USB thingie—look, kids, plug it into your Interweb!
Blame George Harrison. When the ex-Beatle added an extra "jam session" disc to 1970's already double-length All Things Must Pass, thus creating the world's first triple album, record companies were awakened to the profits such "bonus features" could bring. Two further inventions in the 1980s—CDs, nostalgia—allowed the trend to really take off. Suddenly, back catalogs were being repackaged as grand "boxed sets" with all sorts of extra features right and left.
In 2004, when the Beatles finally got around to releasing the U.S. versions of their early LPs on CD—essentially the same as the previously released UK versions, but with the tracks in a slightly different order—they could have just issued each one on a single disc. Instead, they packaged the eight albums into a pair of grand collections portentously titled Capitol Albums Vols. 1 & 2, padded out with separate mono and stereo versions of each disc to justify the bloated price tag. Ka-ching! Of course, it didn't help that the band had already released every Beatles rarity worth listening to, and a lot more besides, over the three double-disc volumes of the Anthology series.
The boxed-set phenomenon isn't restricted to big-name acts, as Japanese experimental musician Merzbow demonstrated in 2000. His Merzbox showed, however, that a little imagination goes a long way. Not only did it contain 50 CDs, 20 of which were previously unreleased in any format, it also included such unusual extras as a medallion and a rather stylish leather fetish box. Listening, Radiohead?
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Most artists construct their box sets from an entire career's worth of releases, but the Beach Boys marked a new high point in musical excess by creating one from a single album in 1998. The Pet Sounds Sessions took the band's seminal 13-track original and turned it into a 90-track, four-CD monster. As well as stereo, mono and a cappella versions of every original song, fans could finally hear such treasures as "Highlights from Tracking Date," "Stereo Backing Track," "Promotional Spot #1," "Promotional Spot #2," "Original Speed, Stereo Mix" and "Original Speed, Mono Mix." All these, mind you, for just one song—appropriately, "Caroline, No."
Then, two years later, the nonsurfing surfers were beaten out for most needlessly overinflated single-album compendium by some rough-and-tumble boys from Detroit. The Stooges' 1970: The Complete Funhouse Sessions takes the concept of "complete" a little too literally, filling seven CDs with every minute of studio time used to record the original 36-minute album. This means you get to hear 31 individual takes of their song "Loose," 30 of which had previously been deemed inferior to the one you know and love. Furthermore, almost a quarter of the 142 total tracks are simply titled "Studio Dialogue." What better way to spend seven hours and 52 minutes of your life?
In the face of such overkill, help is at hand. With the Lights Out, Nirvana's four-disc, 61-track 2004 collection of rarities, etc., is the best-selling box of all time, but it's also notable for being re-released as a shorter, more sensible, 19-track single CD, Sliver: The Best of the Box, for those unwilling to trawl through all of the nuggets the band never intended to release that weigh down the original.
Now there's a good idea.