The recent release of The Smile Sessions by the Beach Boys seems like a good enough reason to have a look at ten music box-sets that my life wouldn’t be complete without, so here they are. If you don’t own them already, get them on your Christmast list…
1 – Phil Spector – Back To Mono (1958–1969)
Released in 1991, long before his murder trial and imprisonment clouded his personal reputation, this box-set has helped his professional reputation stay strong. Simply put, this is the best collection of pop music you’ll ever find, taking in his whole reign of glory with the early days of his productions and into the Wall Of Sound years when he was operating on a level all of his own, helped of course by the amazing session musicians who played on these records. The Ronettes, The Crystals, Ike and Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers, Be My Baby, He’s A Rebel, Unchained Melody, River Deep Mountain High, Then He Kissed Me, Baby I Love You, Chapel Of Love. And that’s just a small selection of the treat offered on this four-disc set, including The Single Greatest Christmas Album Ever Released.
2 – The Beach Boys – The Pet Sounds Sessions
The session musicians who worked with Spector were known as the Wrecking Crew, and Brian Wilson was such a huge fan of the Wall Of Sound songs that he hired them to work on his masterpiece, Pet Sounds. This four-disc box documents the making of my favourite ever album, and it’s both an intriguing and enriching experience to listen to it. Contained within are the original mono mix and a new stereo mix of the album, as well as haunting vocals-only version (omitting the two instrumentals, obviously), but it’s the tracks from the sessions that are most interesting. We’re so used to Brian Wilson being a fragile bundle of nerves and demons that it’s almost odd to hear him in total control of these talented musicians, totally focused on achieving something incredible and pulling it off. Beyond that, the music is so beautiful that even the session tracks are just great to listen to.
3 – The Doo Wop Box
Running Back To Mono close for the best collection of pop music ever, this is another four-disc set that includes pretty much every great doo wop song from the 1950s and early 60s and it’s a great slice of nostalgia even for those of who who weren’t around. The band names are all pretty much identical (named after cars or birds) and the lyrics are nothing to write home about, but the street corner vocal harmonies are immense and there’s so much fun to be had listening to songs like Sh-Boom, Earth Angel, The Great Pretender, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, In The Still Of The Night and Hushabye. So many are familiar from films or covers by the likes of the Beach Boys or even Freddie Mercury and it all sounds like it came from such a sweet and innocent age. Delightful.
4 – Frank Sinatra – The Capitol Years
Enough of such relatively meagre offerings. Here’s a 21-disc box-set featuring all of the greatest Frank Sinatra albums from his legendary Capitol days (well missing out two non-essential ones anyway). Running from 1954’s game-changing Songs For Young Lovers until 1962’s Sinatra Sings of Love And Things, there’s not a single dud album here and the greatest pop singer of all time is in the summer of his years, whether belting them out on Come Fly With Me or singing torch songs on Only The Lonely. Best of all is that this was a UK box-set that was actually better (certainly in terms of the sound quality) than its American counterparts, and that’s such a rarity when we usually get the short end of the stick over here…
5 – Anthology Of American Folk Music
If you have any interest in music or America, this is pretty much essential. Released in 1952 by Folkways and compiled from the collection of recordings assembled by enthnomusicologist Harry Smith, it’s three volumes of folk, blues and country music from 1927-1932, a timeframe chosen as being between the birth of electronic recordings and the Depression. They are split into ‘Ballads’, ‘Social Music’ and ‘Songs’, and as well as being an incredible collection of the music that inspired and influenced almost everything we listen to nowadays, it’s a significant piece of history because so many of the songs document life in America in the late 20s. As well as that, the way Smith compiled and annotated it all was pretty much the birth of the box-set, so without this, nothing else on this list might exist. In many ways.
6 – Sandy Denny – Sandy Denny
When you have an artist whose career was cut as tragically short as Sandy Denny’s was (she died only 31), you want a box-set that compiles everything that it is possible to compile in one collection. This box-set, which came out in 2010, does just that for one of the greatest singers of her time, with 19 discs taking in her work with Fotheringay, Fairport Convention, The Strawbs and her solo work, and it’s jam-packed with live songs, demos and a load of unreleased material. For a lesser artist, this would be overkill, but for someone with such a varied and magical talent, it’s a treasure trove that it will take years to properly appreciate.
7 – Louis Armstrong – The Complete Hot Five And Hot Seven Recordings
As essential in the history of folk, blues and rock music as the Anthology box-set was, this collection of music is for jazz music. Louis Armstrong is mostly remembered now for his delightful voice and personality and sweet songs like What A Wonderful World and We Have All The Time In The World. But decades before that, he recorded with The Hot Five and The Hot Seven a series of songs in the mid-to-late 1920s that made him a superstar and a legend, as well as changing jazz music forever. And, of course, the force of his personality still shines through on the scat singing that he popularised on Heebie Jeebies.
8 – Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings
There’s tons of Miles Davis box-sets out there, some dedicated to specific eras, other to the recordings of single albums, and they’re all fantastic, but as a starting point, you can’t go wrong with this one, which has master takes and alternate recordings from the albums that Davis worked with Evans on in the late 50s and 60s. Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess, Sketches Of Spain and Quiet Nights are all documented here and they’re all classic (and accessible) jazz albums that almost anyone can get pleasure from, while aficionados can delight in hearing the process that these two masters went through to create such works of art.
9 – The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks
Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbooks albums, recorded between 1956 and 1964, hold some of the greatest music ever recorded, a perfect mix of an astounding singer paying tribute to the greatest songwriters of the early 20th Century, Gershwin, Porter, Ellington, Arlen, Mercer, Berlin and Rogers & Hart. With the great Nelson Riddle onboard for some of them, it’s no wonder the albums won they three Grammys between them. And this box-set brings them all together on 16 discs of pure magic.
10 – Buddy Holly – Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings And More
When an artist dies young, quite often their legacy can get tainted and messed around with as record companies cash in and ruin their songs with cheap releases and overdubbed schmaltz. For that reason, box-sets like this one are so important. Released in 2009, it aims to be the definitive collection of Buddy Holly’s songs, both released and unreleased, and it manages to be that and a lot more. We all know Holly from the classic singles, but by putting everything together, including very early demos and alternate takes, we learn that there’s a lot more to him than the public image of Heartbeat and Peggy Sue. Like a lot of box-sets, it falls into the trap at times of favouring completeness over listenability, but it’s still an incredible collection.