Good box sets should be more than a collection of “the hits” appended with unreleasable odds and ends. The best are madcap and eclectic, reflecting the passions of the compiler—think of Lenny Kaye putting together the seminal garage-rock compilation Nuggets in 1972, coining the term punk rock in the process. Also, they are the perfect way for libraries to venture into pop music’s wilder regions, allowing the enterprising collection development librarian to represent obscure subgenres without shelling out cash for limited-press releases. This column excludes boxes that focus on a single artist or concert and zero in on collections that are somewhat broader in focus and a little more outré.
Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways. 1997.
This is a testament to the wonders of early American popular songcraft and the strange vision of its compiler, Harry Smith, who gathered this sprawling collection of folk songs from his own massive record collection. Bob Dylan, in particular, took careful note.
Broken Flag: A Retrospective 1982–1985. VOD. 2012.
Broken Flag was one of the first and best of the “bedroom labels” that sprang from the early 1980s noise underground. Run by Ramleh’s Gary Mundy, the label was an early home to the likes of Controlled Bleeding, Ramleh, Maurizio Bianchi, and the New Blockaders and set an aesthetic/sonic tone for noise music that persists to this day.
Def Jam Recordings 25th Anniversary Box Set. 2009. Def Jam.
The hip-hop label Def Jam was started by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin in a New York City dorm around 1984 and is a tribute to the power of stubborn artistic vision. Performers include Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Rihanna, Ghostface Killah, and Jay Z.
Factory Records: Communications 1978–1992. WEA/Rhino. 2009.
Pioneering UK postpunk label Factory prided itself on creativity over commerce, which explains both its eventual bankruptcy and how it was able to attract so much incredible talent (New Order to Durutti Column to Happy Mondays and A Certain Ratio).
Grind Madness at the BBC. Earache. 2010.
In his legendary “Peel Sessions,” British DJ John Peel let bands of all stripes run roughshod over the BBC studios. This amazing collection of full radio sessions features seminal metal/grindcore acts Napalm Death, Godflesh, Carcass, and Extreme Noise Terror, among others.
The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. Impulse. 2006.
As the artistic home of John Coltrane for the last six years of his life, Impulse was the natural spot for the more adventurous jazz players to let their imaginations run free. Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Saunders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett, and Count Basie are all here.
I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950–1990.
Light in the Attic. 2013.
Don’t miss out on this collection of self-released sonic tapestries. Laraaji and JD Emmanuel are already undergoing critical reappraisals. Hints of psychedelia, drone, and ambient abound. Who knew the tapes in the incense store were this good?
Los Nuggetz: 60’s Garage and Psych from Latin America. Rockbeat. 2013.
This new compilation draws copious inspiration from the “Nuggets” series of garage rock archaeology and cheekily swipes the name (sort of) for its multidisc survey of forgotten Latin American/Hispanic garage rock, freakbeat, and psychedelia.
One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found. Rhino. 2005.
The likes of the Ronettes, Dusty Springfield, the Shangri-Las, Carol King, Irma Thomas, and Leslie Gore are represented on this wondrous collection, all giving voice to the eternal ache that underlies young love with the sweetest, most heavenly voices and arrangements. But there are razor blades in this candy.
Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound. Numero. 2013.
A laserlike focus on microgenres and small regional scenes is deployed to utterly fantastic effect in this sonic trawl through the futuristic Minneapolis electro-funk-soul scene where a young Prince Rogers Nelson learned his chops in the late 1970s.
Rockin’ Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly. Rhino. 2006.
If you think the 1950s lacked a certain edge, assault your ears with this mammoth collection of snotty, disrespectful-teenage-delinquent tuneage from the time that old folks mistakenly call the “good ol’ days.” Ain’t nothing wholesome about Kip Tyler or the Phantom.
Twenty Years of Dischord. Dischord. 2002.
Washington, DC-based Dischord Records has long been the confrontational conscience of American punk rock. Communally run, idealistic, ethical, and DIY til death, this label has birthed some of the best and loudest alternative music of the last several decades: Minor Threat, Fugazi, the Make-Up, Lungfish, Rites of Spring.