15 Essential Box Sets

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 05.21.13 in Lists

Sometimes a simple sampling won’t do — you want to dive in deep and explore every last corner of an artist’s discography, or every forgotten single in a major musical movement. That’s what the box set is made for: It’s a mini-musical history lesson in one compact package. We asked Douglas Wolk to comb through our digital crates, and he emerged with 15 of the best. — eMusic Editorial Staff

The Chess Box

Etta James

When Etta James came to Chess Records in 1960, she'd already had a couple of hit singles, but the music she recorded over the next decade and a half makes up the core of her legacy: torchy, sexy rhythm and blues with elegant arrangements that counterpoint the grit and burn of her voice. James was a fixture on black radio for most of the '60s, although her hits scarcely crossed over to a pop audience until decades later. The '70s material surveyed on the third disc finds her reaching out to a rock and country repertoire — a trio of Randy Newman songs are exactly dark and bitter enough for her — and showing off a vocal mastery that had only deepened with time.

What It Is! Funky Soul And Rare Grooves [1967-1977]

Various Artists

Besides their artist-based compilations, Rhino Records has released a series of boxes that neatly define musical moments, and this is a thrilling one. What It Is! isn't a collection of R&B hits, as such, although it includes a handful of very big hits. It's a collection of grooves that still sound amazing 35-45 years after they were recorded — the sort of thing DJs spend their lives digging through bins to find. Some of them are familiar from hip-hop samples; some are local bands' covers of national hits; some are major artists' minor marvels. And all of them are hard not to dance to.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live 1975-85 (Display Box)

Bruce Springsteen

At a moment when live albums had become the province of bands trying to fill out their contracts in a hurry, Springsteen set a high-water mark for them with this five-LP set. It's an epic retrospective of one of the great American rock bands in its element, scattered with original songs and covers that the Boss had never recorded before. If Springsteen's specialty as a songwriter is turning working-class experience into mythology, his specialty as a performer is projecting intimate storytelling to a stadium, and Live/1975-85 tells a story too: the rise of the E Street Band's presence over the course of a decade, from a 500-seat club to the L.A. Coliseum.


Bob Dylan

As brilliant and perverse as Dylan's best records, Biograph ditches every pre-existing judgment about the first 20 years of his recorded career, reaches into his songbag to grab fistfuls of hits and album tracks and bootleg classics and then-unknown oddities, and re-assembles them according to their lyrical themes. Even the most familiar songs sound fresh again in the context of their neighbors; the slightest throwaways suddenly reveal their aspects of grace. It's an argument for understanding Dylan's whole body of work as a unit, and a riveting assessment of his obsessions and ingenious, mercurial songwriting.

Assembled by gospel expert (and eMusic contributor) Mike McGonigal, Fire In My Bones documents an entire world of music that had become lost to time: the post-war black gospel records that mostly came out on tiny independent labels and were sold strictly to the faithful. The sound of African American sacred music, it turns out, intersects with secular pop of many kinds, from blues to funk to country and beyond; even more than that, though, it's got its own immensely powerful traditions of singing and playing, and a lot of these songs sound like nothing else, even the canonical gospel classics of the '50s and '60s. The box's subtitle is right on about how raw these recordings are, but there's something extraordinary about every one of them.

Star Time

James Brown

The greatest rhythmic innovator of the 20th century had a career that's almost impossible to summarize — there wouldn't be enough room to include all his hits if this box were twice as long — but Star Time is the definitive portrait of his best work, from his scalding 1956 debut "Please, Please, Please" to his 1984 salute to the hip-hop world that idolized him, "Unity." It traces the evolution of Brown's genius, pulling together the strands that went into his invention of funk, displaying the creative process behind a few of his biggest hits, and letting his deepest late '60s and early '70s jams stretch out to their full length.

Jazz as we know it starts here, not with a history lesson but with a celebration. Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven were studio bands with shifting membership; between 1925 and 1928, they recorded a pile of tracks that were built around Armstrong's improvisational genius, refining New Orleans-style jazz into thrilling three-minute inventions. Armstrong plays trumpet and cornet, and occasionally unleashes his candy-gravel voice — "Heebie Jeebies" might be the first recorded example of scat singing. This box is filled out by 1928-30 recordings that built on the success of the Hot Fives and Sevens and are just about as much fun.

With The Lights Out - Box Set


For most bands who only recorded three studio albums, a three-disc retrospective of demos, covers and outtakes would be excessive. For this one, it's revelatory. With the Lights Out traces Nirvana's blazing path from ravenous punks covering Led Zep at their first show to really loud Leadbelly fans boggling at their sudden success to their final months as tense, jittery rock heroes grappling with more raw power than they knew what to do with. All that power, as it turns out, meant that even their throwaways and unfinished sketches pretty much blow the walls down. If this set were the only recorded evidence that Nirvana had existed, they'd still be an important band — although maybe just the cult act they kind of wanted to be.

Honky Tonk Girl: The Loretta Lynn Collection

Loretta Lynn

She's not kidding about the title: The First Lady of Country Music has stuck so closely to the honky-tonk musical template that 62 of these 70 tracks, spanning 1960-88, are under three minutes long. (The first time she crosses the 180-second barrier is halfway through the box: 1970's epochal, autobiographical "Coal Miner's Daughter.") Even so, she's also one of country's great innovators, on the strength of the sharp, funny, overtly feminist lyrics in her own songs and the songs she's covered. Pretty much all of Lynn's substantial solo hits are here, as well as a handful of her duets with Ernest Tubb and Conway Twitty.

To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story

Nina Simone

To Dr. Nina Simone, "freedom" meant — among other things — that she could never be pinned down as a particular kind of musician. Trained in both the gospel and classical traditions, she was capable of performing with extraordinary tenderness (as in her biggest American hit, George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy") or blistering fury (she launched her reputation as a civil-rights activist with 1964's "Mississippi Goddam"). You can't get even a roughly complete handle on her from any three of her individual albums, but this set — covering 1957-93 recordings made for half a dozen labels — is the most thoughtfully selected survey of her work available.

Def Jam Music Group Tenth Year Anniversary Box Set

Various Artists

Def Jam was to the late '80s what Motown was to the mid '60s: the label that turned the cutting edge of black pop into the sound of young America. This box came out when Def Jam was 12 years old or so, its sequencing's not quite chronological, and the Anthrax/Public Enemy remake of "Bring the Noise" is the only sign that Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons's label ever reached out beyond hip-hop and R&B. And so what? For hip-hop heads, this stuff is holy writ, the document of an era when every rapper had a chance to reinvent the music with every single. For everyone else, it's a four-hour party.

The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

John Coltrane

This four-disc monument might be the most narrowly focused of great boxed sets — recorded over the course of four nights in early November, 1961, just as Coltrane entered a period of incredible creative fertility. He was experimenting with the sound of his group (the core quartet is supplemented with appearances by wild-card Eric Dolphy and a handful of other musicians); "Chasin' the Trane" has only the hint of a theme, and the exquisite ballad "Naima" gets its melody turned inside out. Producer Bob Thiele's recordings of these shows were excerpted for an album and a half in the '60s, but every track here displays Coltrane and company pushing at the boundaries of what jazz could be.

Artist Of The Century

Elvis Presley

Of the dozen-plus Elvis box sets out there, this one is the best introduction to the central work of a performer whose legend tends to get in the way of his music. His biggest hits are represented, of course, as he evolves from the feral hillbilly cat of the mid '50s to the easy-listening king of the '70s. The rest of this set, though, is made up of knockout performances that weren't singles — the moments when his gifts slashed through the stifling Elvis Machine around him. Disc 3, in particular, is a first-rate reclamation job on the final decade of his career, unearthing performances in which that smooth, masterful baritone transmutes kitsch into genuine emotional power.

Hitsville USA, The Motown Collection 1972-1992

Various Artists

Motown's '60s hits may be the Boomer classics, but after Berry Gordy relocated the great Detroit pop-soul label to Los Angeles, it stayed as musically adventurous as ever, and rode the next few decades' R&B waves with aplomb. Artists like Stevie Wonder and the Temptations stayed with Motown for decades and got the latitude to branch out and take risks; Marvin Gaye, the Commodores and Diana Ross recast disco in their own personal forms. And the label had a particular gift for identifying gifted artists at a very young age, from Michael Jackson to DeBarge and Teena Marie. The '90s hits by Shanice and Boyz II Men that close this set are just a newer version of Motown doing what it had always done: figuring out how to frame the sound of the urban underground to give it a much wider audience.

The Legend

Johnny Cash

Spanning nearly 50 years, this overview of a singer who was more or less a one-man genre gets the hits out of the way in a hurry: the first disc is a boom-chicka-boom stampede through pretty much all of his best-remembered songs through the '70s. Disc 2 is more of the Cash cognoscenti's favorites, going from his early rockabilly wonders to later songs that were written for him (or might as well have been) by songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, who looked to him as an ancestor. The final two discs are the really clever reframings of Cash's immense canon: a set of the traditional songs and country standards that were the spine of his repertoire, and a collection of the playful duets and collaborations that were this solitary man in black's hidden specialty.