Over the years, record labels have gotten wiser about repackaging old catalogs in box sets. With improvements in remastering technology, hits of yesterday sound as if they were recorded today. The advent of the DualDisc has also made the box-set experience more thrilling. Not only can you enjoy the hits, B-sides and alternate takes on one side, you can flip the disc and watch vintage performances and classic music videos on the other. Then, of course, there's the glossy booklet of rare photos and informative liner notes that generally accompany well-done sets. The packaging itself (Rhino Records has done some of the most inventive, if sometimes impractical, designs) can be fun.
Just in time for the holiday shopping season, labels have released a flurry of box sets. Here are some of the more notable ones - from rare funk to classic punk, from Vegas-style swing to artsy pop.
Funk fans' grail
What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves (1967-1977), Various Artists (Rhino Records. 4 CDs. $64.98). This is the Holy Grail for funk lovers. Unlike other sets focused on the style, this one eschews obvious hits that have been anthologized over and over again. (You won't find Parliament's "Flash Light" or the Ohio Players' "Fire" here.) The folks at Rhino dug much deeper into the Warner Bros. archive, plucking hard-to-find recordings from its subsidiaries: Reprise, Atlantic, Atco and smaller divisions such as Cotillion, Curtom, Alston and Jonie. In all, you get 80 songs - many making their debut on CD. Arranged more or less in chronological order, the tracks on What It Is! trace the development of funk in different regions - from the Caribbean-flavored style that came out of Miami ("Funky Nassau Part 2" by The Beginning of the End) to the harder, psychedelic approach that emanated from Chicago ("Hard Times" by Baby Huey & the Baby Sitters). Over the course of the set, the music evolves: Pumping organs, punchy horns and chicken-scratch guitars give way to layered synthesizers, electric pianos and echoey studio effects. With their driving backbeats and heavy basslines, these cuts helped lay the foundation for early hip-hop. One classic example is Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady." (The box set's title comes from a line in the song's chorus.) Previously unreleased, the raw 1971 alternate take heard here funks harder than the version that scaled the charts that year. But many of the songs are, to paraphrase Soul Train creator Don Cornelius, "a stone gas, honey."
Vegas, Frank Sinatra (Reprise. 4 discs and one DVD. $79.98). If you never had a chance to see Ol' Blue Eyes swingin' in Las Vegas' glitzy showrooms, the experience has been captured for you on this handsome black box set. It contains four CDs of shows recorded at the Sands Hotel (1961 and 1966), Caesar's Palace (1982) and the Golden Nugget (1987). On the DVD, you get a 1978 performance at Caesar's Palace. The backstage portion at the beginning offers a revealing snapshot of Sinatra as an aging tough guy you don't wanna mess with. He may have been hard-as-nails offstage, but when he wanted to, the legend could render a lyric ever-so tenderly. Check the slowed-down take of "Just One of Those Things" from the 1961 show and the dreamy version of "The Shadow of Your Smile" from the 1966 concert.
A Piano: The Collection, Tori Amos (Rhino. 5 discs. $74.98). Leave it to Rhino to come up with weird packaging: Under a large plastic keyboard (an obvious and really cheap-looking idea), you get five discs of daring music by one of the most uncompromising singer-songwriters of the '90s. Each contains various takes, B-sides and album cuts tracing the vivid musical evolution of the Maryland-raised artist. Little Earthquakes, Amos' haunting 1992 debut, is explored on Disc A, "Little Earthquakes Extended." An alternate mix of "Flying Dutchman" and an unedited version of "Crucify" are included. A previously unreleased rendition of "Take Me With You" from the Little Earthquakes sessions is heard on Disc B, "Pink and Pele." Amos cherry-picked the 86 tracks and included several alternate takes, which sometimes are better than the official versions. The sleek, hardcover booklet features lovely photos, a thoughtful essay by Lorraine Ali and revelatory album and track commentary by Amos.
Punk treasure trove
The Singles, The Clash (Sony/BMG. 19 discs. $79.98). This is something of a treasure trove for punk fans, but it's an unwieldy one. Housed in a yellow, red and black box, the 19 discs are CD reproductions of all the 7-inch and 12-inch singles the Clash released between 1977 and 1985. You get "White Riot," "This is England," "London's Burning (Live)" and on and on. Even the original record sleeves and labels are replicated. Unlike similar box sets that re-create singles on CDs (see Michael Jackson's Visionary), this one is historically accurate and includes the B-sides. The informative booklet, splashed with rare photos, includes testimonials from such famous names as Pete Townshend and Nick Hornby. This isn't ideal for the casual Clash fan: Changing 19 CDs to hear just two songs on each one will grate the nerves. But enthusiasts of the celebrated British band will surely dig this lavishly done collectors' item.
Surrounded, Bjork (Rhino/Elektra. 7 discs. $129.98). Hands down, Bjork was one of the most engagingly adventurous artists to break in the 1990s. Since launching her solo career in 1993, the former Sugarcubes focal point has shaped elements of electronica, dance, hip-hop and pop into artful, mesmerizing soundscapes. Surrounded collects seven of Bjork's albums, from Debut to Drawing Restraint 9, and converts them to DualDiscs. One side presents the album in its regular CD format, the other side offers the music in Dolby 5.1 and DTS Surround Sound. Excluding Selmasongs and Drawing Restraint 9, each disc also features all of the music videos associated with the album. Housed in an attractive glossy red box, Surrounded is a treat for even the casual Bjork fan.
Visionary, Michael Jackson (Sony/BMG. 20 discs. $149.98). Like the Clash box set, this one featuring music by the (former) King of Pop is presented as CD replicas of 20 smash 7-inch singles, all contained in a neat black box. Whereas on the Clash set you get just music, Visionary offers DualDiscs - the video on one side and the single (excluding the original B-side) on the flip.
Much like the artist, this collection is odd. Visionary is in no way a complete representation of Michael Jackson, the artist and superstar. Many monster Epic/CBS singles from the '80s - "Human Nature," "Off the Wall," "PYT (Pretty Young Thing)" and others - are glaringly absent. And, of course, you get nothing from his underrated solo years at Motown. It seems the point of this set is to collect the singles that had videos. Which is cool. But the videos here, most from the 1990s, have long been available in various incarnations. The replicated artwork of the old record sleeves is a real treat, but for some strange reason, you don't get the original song on the single's flip side. And, like the Clash set, you spend a lot of time changing discs. The box set is an ambitious one, but ultimately it's for Michael Jackson fanatics who must have everything released on the man.