Best CD box sets

Music Home / Entertainment Channel / Bullz-Eye Home

Rod Stewart philosophized that “every picture tells a story,” and the same could be said of the best various-artists box sets. Sometimes it’s the tale of a musical genre, sometimes it’s an epic journey through the life and times of a particular record label, but when they’re done right, the experience is like an episode of “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”: if you're not careful, you might learn something before it's done.

Various Artists, American Folk Blues Festival, Vol 1, 1962-66

(Evidence) When blues dinosaurs roamed the earth, the world stood up and took notice late in their careers…well, at least for some of these guys…and slugged it folk music as a way of honoring it as more than mere R&B, blues, or rock. These discs capture amazing acoustic and electric performances by guys and gals like Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Eddie Boyd, Big Walter Horton, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Mississippi Fred McDowell, J.B. Lenoir, and more. The live recordings were of "for posterity" quality, and the re-mastering for the digital age makes these concert performances come alive even more. The best moments of the four and a half hour set come when several artists share the stage at once and perform together, such as John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, and Fred Below's three-song set on Disc 5. Equally compelling are solo performances from Big Joe Williams, Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and Dixon. - Mojo Flucke, PhD

Various Artists, Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-74

(Atlantic) This is all previously-released material from the house that the Erteguns built, but one would be hard-pressed to assemble the collection without laying out some serious cash. More importantly, listening from start to finish gives an amazing history lesson of how raw R&B from the likes of Professor Longhair, Stick McGhee and Ray Charles morphed into pop, harmonious soul and, finally cheesy '70s stuff like the Spinners' "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love." There's Otis, Aretha, the Drifters (all the lineups, from Clyde McPhatter to Ben E. King), Joe Tex, The Bobettes, and, of course, hits like Clarence Carter's "Slip Away" and "Just One Look," by Doris Troy. More than just a greatest-hits compendium, the sum of this 7-disc box's parts settles the argument once and for all of who exactly was the greatest A&R guy and producer in rock history. It’s Ahmet, baby! – Mojo Flucke, PhD

Various Artists, The Buddah Box

(Essex) The Buddah label produced a slew of pop and R&B hits in the 1960s and ‘70s, a sampling of which are on display in The Buddah Box. This is the label that launched the Lovin’ Spoonful, inspired R.E.M. with a string of bubblegum hits by the likes of the Lemon Pipers and 1910 Fruitgum Company, provided a greater platform for success for Gladys Knight, and gave the Fat Boys (originally known as the Disco 3) its start via the Sutra subsidiary. The set is littered with all sorts of guilty pleasures. Stories’ “Brother Louie,” anyone? “More More More,” by Andrea True Connection? Come on, you know you love ‘em! There are a fair amount of classics here as well, however. From R&B hits like Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” and Michael Henderson’s supremely funky “Wide Receiver,” on over to “Do You Believe In Magic” and “Daydream” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, there’s a pop history here that fascinates every bit as much as it entertains. The set could stand to be reissued and updated with some of the other hits and misses that were left off, but if you do get your hands on it, there are plenty of smiles to be had with this music. Don’t be afraid to invite your friends over to share! – Michael Fortes

Various Artists, Burt Bacharach: The Look of Love

(Rhino) The most amazing thing about this set may be that Hal David was willing to sit down and do an interview for inclusion within the booklet. Surely it must rankle David to see a box set that’s entitled Burt Bacharach: The Look of Love when, in fact, 63 of the 75 songs could just as easily appear on a release entitled Hal David: Hey, I’m A Good Songwriter, Too, You Know. Setting that aside, however, the works of Bacharach / David were among the most successful songs of the ‘60s, and ‘70s, providing artists like Jackie DeShannon (“What The World Needs Now Is Love”), Gene Pitney (“Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa,” “Only Love Can Break A Heart”), Dusty Springfield (“The Look of Love”), B.J. Thomas (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”), The Carpenters (“Close To You”), and The 5th Dimension (“One Less Bell to Answer”) with some of the biggest hits of their careers. Heck, if it wasn’t for them, it’s arguable as to whether Dionne Warwick would’ve ever had a career. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but they did write almost all of her biggest hits.) Things begin to get desperately schmaltzy come the ‘80s, with “Arthur’s Theme” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” but the set ends on a spectacular note with Burt’s collaboration with Elvis Costello, “God Give Me Strength.” – Will Harris

Various Artists, Can You Dig It? The '70s Soul Experience

(Rhino) If you don’t have a classic ‘70s R&B radio station within your reach, Rhino’s Can You Dig It is the best substitute you’re likely to find. At six jam-packed CDs in length and containing 136 songs, this set should easily take care of your soul cravings at any given moment. There’s a heavy emphasis on the earlier part of the decade -- we don’t hear mid-decade hits like Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” or the Blackbyrds’ “Walking In Rhythm” till disc 5 -- and for good reason. Even though disco began co-opting many R&B artists in the ‘70s, this set wisely sticks only to soul and funk, reminding us that there was plenty of great soul music to be heard after the ‘60s. And while some major hitmakers are only represented by one or two songs (Marvin Gaye and Earth, Wind & Fire, for instance) and others are strangely absent (no Stevie Wonder here), this makes more room for artists and songs that time might have otherwise forgotten. To have songs like Timmy Thomas’ mesmerizing early synth hit, “Why Can’t We Live Together,” Bloodstone’s sweet and uplifting “Natural High,” and the Persuaders’ cautionary “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” all in one place is a need you may not realize has to be fulfilled until you start groovin’ and swayin’ to these jams. – Michael Fortes

Various Artists, The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968

(Atlantic / WEA) The Stax label and its historic catalog are enjoying a long-overdue resurgence in 2007, but in the early ‘90s, when this nine-disc set was released, the cradle of Memphis soul had long since been reduced to a sad shadow of its former glory. Atlantic’s overview of Stax’s classic era is decidedly not for casual fans – especially now, when used copies can fetch upwards of $100 – but if you count yourself among the true soul believers, then The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968 is absolutely essential. In lesser hands, a 244-song collection would feel bloated, but this one hums with that sweet Stax energy from start to finish. – Jeff Giles

Various ArtistsFrat Rock!

(Rhino) Back in the ‘80s, the good folks at Rhino Records created a series called Frat Rock that collected such tracks as The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie,” the Standells’ “Dirty Water,” The Swingin’ Medallions’ “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,” and all the rest of those garage rock faves from the ‘60s you’re quite familiar with. As a kid, I recall the same stuff being packaged as a two-album set sold on TV and called Wild Thing, but, at any rate, this box set distills and collects the best of the Frat Rock series onto four discs. If you wanted all those kooky toga party favorites in one space, then this is the place to have them. Sure, you could buy numerous compilations featuring a couple of the tracks here, and three or more there, but, as the TV ads correctly claim, that would cost a small fortune. One caveat: the box set as of this writing seems to be out of print, but shouldn’t be too terribly difficult to track down. – Jason Thompson

Various ArtistsNuggets

(Rhino) Back in the early ‘70s, future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye compiled a two-album set of some of the best and trippiest garage rock from the mid to late ‘60s and dubbed it Nuggets. The collection was a big success, as most of the tracks were only available as long out of print singles or were regional tracks that were pretty obscure everywhere else. A couple decades later, Rhino Records took it upon themselves to create the first in a series of Nuggets box sets. This one houses the original Nuggets two-LP set on its first disc, then adds three more CDs full of even more obscure and well-loved garage rock ditties. If you’re more than a casual fan of tunes like “Dirty Water” and “Louie, Louie,” then you owe it to yourself to pick up this set. Everyone should hear Elastik Band’s “Spazz” at least once, and other tracks like The Sonics’ “The Witch” and Fenwyck’s “Mindrocker” are both frightening and trippy. And how can you go wrong with Max Frost and the Trooper’s “Shape of Things to Come” or Love’s “7 and 7 Is?” You can’t. So get it. A second Nuggets set took the concept and went in a more international direction with its inclusions, a third tackled more recent artists who’d been inspired by the original garage rock movement (its title: Children of Nuggets), and we’ve just been gifted with a fourth, which encompasses as much of the San Francisco sound of the ‘60s as licensing would allow. It’s still the original Nuggets, though, that’s the best out of the four. – Jason Thompson

Various Artists, The Rubble Collection I & II

(Past & Present) Garage-rock and psychedelia freaks cannot ignore this 20-CD assemblage of, for lack of a better pigeonhole, "British Nuggets." Up until this two-box set came out, these tracks were vinyl-only, and the discs mirror the vinyl sequences. That means, kids, that it’s only about 40 minutes per disc. There is more obscure stuff here than is in most libraries, so if you're into the Nuggets and Pebbles franchises, there won't be much overlap, but there will be much joyous listening. If you have no idea what we're talking about, these massive collections of freakbeat and psychedelic obscurities will be a complete waste of time and your hard-earned dough…but if you do, then they’ll blow your mind. - Mojo Flucke, PhD

Various Artists, What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves

(Rhino / WEA) For inveterate vinyl crate-diggers, the release of What It Is! must have been something of an annoyance, but for the rest of us, this collection of dusty 45s was a wonderful surprise. Many of the box’s tracks – culled from the WEA archives, representing Warner Bros., Atlantic, Atco, and an array of smaller, long-forgotten labels – make their first CD appearances here, liberating their grooves from the collector’s market (not to mention hip-hop sample exile). Funk lovers, this is the tonic for what ails you: fire up the barbecue, invite some friends over, and bliss out to all 91 tracks. – Jeff Giles

You can follow us on Twitter and Facebook for content updates. Also, sign up for our email list for weekly updates and check us out on Google+ as well.

Around the Web