The driving force behind almost every box set is the bottom line.
Unearthing outtakes, alternate versions, live performances or remastered tracks, serving them up with considered context and packaging them lavishly is one of the music industry’s last gasps, speaking in terms of physical product.
However robust a digital experience may be offered, it’s tough to compete with cracking open a booklet while new-to-you songs by one of your favorite artists fill the air.
Three new box sets, arriving as summer begins to wind down, have very different goals but similar approaches. Whether it’s a long overdue reclamation project for a musician’s maligned middle period, a celebration of a half century of groundbreaking pop or a reminder that sometimes, it’s easy to take genius for granted, these new collections are well worth your time and money.
Bob Dylan’s late ’60s and early ’70s output (beginning with 1969’s Nashville Skyline) followed his recuperation from a motorcycle accident and served as something of a personal corrective to the adulation piled atop the man and his music — a rebuke to the notion he was the “voice of a generation.”
Understandably, this abrupt shift away from what first brought him fame was met with critical derision, but time has been kind to Skyline, as well as 1970’s Self Portrait and New Morning. ( Rolling Stone famously opened its review of Portrait with the immortal phrase, “What is this s—?”)
The country-rock triptych, which coincided with his collaboration with the Band, has become something of a fountainhead for modern enthusiasts. It’s stunning how much of the new, two-disc Another Self Portrait: 1969-1971 (The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10) sounds like it could have been released last year.
The highlights are numerous: Pretty Saro, an unreleased track from the Self Portrait sessions, is gorgeous, low-key folk and several more like it ( Railroad Bill, Thirsty Boots and I Threw It All Away) grace the 35-song collection. Dylan sounds loose and relaxed, eager to try on new personas and vocal styles; there are a few instances of other singers taking the lead here, but throughout, Dylan displays a chameleonic virtuosity breathtaking in its ambition.
The Beach Boys are no less ambitious, although their brand of boundary-breaking pop tends to go down a little smoother than Dylan’s willfully obstinate reworking of the folk idiom.
Brian Wilson and his dysfunctional family band have also kept up a steady stream of archival releases in the last few years, all of which seem to culminate with Made in California, a sprawling, six-disc set spanning the band’s 50-year history. With 60 previously unreleased tracks and a roughly chronological approach, listeners are able to witness how the seminal pop group shifted from sun and surf to the darker interiors of the human heart and mind.
One benefit of the box set experience is the ability to comprehend the full scope of a band’s artistic evolution in one fell swoop. The leap from Help Me, Rhonda to Heroes and Villains becomes all the more impressive when the songs are separated by a matter of minutes, instead of years.
That said, Made in California (packaged to resemble a high school yearbook) suffers a bit from over-familiarity.
Because the Beach Boys so aggressively repackage and re-offer classic albums, it’s tough to feel as though discoveries are being made, although a few of the early demos and in-studio banter proves illuminating. Fans of the band may feel as though they’re buying the same batch of songs for the umpteenth time, but those who don’t have much of the legendary act’s SoCal pop brilliance in their collections would do well to use this overview as a jumping off point.
Likewise for Higher!, the fantastic new four-disc set surveying Sly & the Family Stone’s funky career — anyone curious about why the Denton-born singer-songwriter is an essential talent should dig into these 77 songs (17 of which are previously unreleased).
All the classics are here — Everyday People; Thank You (Falettin Be Mice Elf Agin); Dance to the Music; Hot Fun in the Summertime — and the collection, released on the occasion of Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart)’s 70th birthday illustrates how durable these sublimely energetic compositions really are. The big draw for fans will be the ability to hear the mono single masters of the aforementioned hits, which have not been available in recent years.
Admittedly, Higher! is more of a draw to completists than fans, but even those only slightly familiar with Sly & the Family Stone will find much to love here, including a 104-page book featuring a wealth of incisive writing, including annotated liner notes, rare photos and essays.
While Stone and his bandmates were aspiring to shake hips rather than inspire scholarly studies, it’s not hard to think they’d appreciate the close reading and respect given to songs that are all too easy to take for granted.