The box set lives!

After 44 years in limbo, the Beach Boys' "Smile" sees the light of day.

Story highlights

  • Several notable box sets available this year
  • One of the biggest: "The Smile Sessions," Beach Boys classic finally released
  • Other sets devoted to blues legend Howlin' Wolf, long-lost gospel singles
There once was a time -- like, oh, the late 1990s -- when the box set loomed over the music world like a just reward. With dazzling presentations -- 3-D brains! Lucite cubes! portable faux-phonographs! -- and equally unrestrained liner notes, these CD collections were the ultimate capstone to an artist's career or the last word in genre compilations.
And then, they faded away.
Not entirely, of course. But in an iTunes-dominated MP3 world faced with declining CD sales -- and fewer artists and genres left to mine -- the box set (or boxed set, if you prefer) now takes a back seat to iPods and singles. Who has time to get immersed in a 6-CD collection of greatest hits, choice cuts and outtakes? It's almost as quaint as reading a book, for Pete's sake.
But the box set isn't dead yet, and each year brings a number that are as lovingly prepared and painstakingly presented as the classics of yore. Here are seven that are worth your while this season.
"The Smile Sessions," The Beach Boys (Capitol, 5 CDs, 2 LPs, 2 45s)
It was 1966 and Brian Wilson was going to outdo "Pet Sounds," the Beach Boys classic released in May of that year. He had a vision of an album that would summarize the American journey. With lyrics provided by Van Dyke Parks, Wilson worked over his songs endlessly, trying to harness the sounds running through his head. He almost went mad. In the end, it was too much; around May 1967, he pulled the plug. The end of "Smile" was the end of a chapter for Wilson and the Beach Boys: They would never attempt to scale such musical heights again. But the album refused to go away. Bootleggers put out versions, and Capitol released about 30 minutes on the Beach Boys' 1993 box set. Wilson himself revisited it for a 2004 solo album. Now comes the original recordings, showcasing song progressions, studio chatter and those gorgeous Beach Boys harmonies on such songs as "Heroes and Villains," "Cabinessence" and "Surf's Up." The deluxe box includes vinyl, archival photographs and other "Smile"-related material. The greatest unreleased album of all time? You be the judge.
"Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection," Various Artists (Sony/Legacy, 7 CDs)
What sound was Brian Wilson pursuing? It was Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, that echo-y, mighty mass of music that spilled through AM radios like the voice of heaven itself. Undergirding it all was the Wrecking Crew, the band of L.A. session kings (including drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Glen Campbell and saxophonist Steve Douglas) who never let up on the beat. This set presents the original albums from the Crystals, the Ronettes and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, with an extra disc of label sides for good measure.
"Nevermind" Super Deluxe edition, Nirvana (Geffen, 4 CDs, 1 DVD)
Sometimes the changing of the guard is as obvious as the progressions of No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts. In early 1964, Bobby Vinton's "There! I Said It Again" gave way to the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on the singles chart and, just like that, the British Invasion dawned. Similarly, on January 11, 1992, Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" was knocked out of the top spot on the album chart by three scruffy lads from Washington state, and the indie-grunge gold rush was on. The Super Deluxe edition of Nirvana's 1991 classic includes the original album as well as studio outtakes, live cuts and -- most interesting of all -- Butch Vig's original mix.
"Smiths Complete," The Smiths (Rhino, 8 CDs)
Stop me if you think you've heard this one before: An amusingly morose lyricist/singer joins forces with a jangly, riff-minded guitarist and a crack rhythm section. The four produce several singles with titles such as "Girlfriend in a Coma," "William, It Was Really Nothing," and "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," top the British charts for a few years, and then go their separate ways. That was the story of the Smiths, and their four studio albums -- along with three compilations and a live album -- have been remastered by the guitarist, Johnny Marr, for this box set. For the true diehards, Rhino Records also has a limited-edition version with CDs, LPs, singles, posters and wallpaper, yours for $499.98.
"The Armstrong Box," Louis Armstrong (Storyville, 7 CDs, 1 DVD)
The man who helped create jazz with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups has been the subject of several box sets, but considering his career spanned five decades, there's always more to uncover. Storyville Records has compiled live performances from 1947 to 1967, including " 'S Wonderful," "Basin Street Blues" and several versions of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." (For those who want an Armstrong primer, Elvis Costello recommends the import "Ambassador of Jazz," a 10-disc collection packaged in a miniature suitcase.)
"Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960," Howlin' Wolf (Hip-O, 4 CDs)
If you want to know where rock 'n' roll starts, you could easily find yourself at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the longtime home of Chess Records. (It's now the site of Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation.) Among Chess' stars was bluesman Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf, who set the place afire with the songs "Back Door Man," "Spoonful" and, of course, "Smokestack Lightning," many written and/or produced by Dixon -- and cornerstones for any self-respecting blues or rock band. He was 41 when he first started recording for Chess, and he helped make the label the legend it is.
"This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45 RPM 1957-1982," Various Artists (Tompkins Square, 3 CDs)
So much of the most interesting American music was done for small labels on the fly; after all, it's not as though every artist could afford endless hours of studio time, paid for with big major-label advances. Some of this material has come in for a ribbing in the CD/Internet age -- think about those sites devoted to ugly album covers, never mind the music within -- but several labels have devoted themselves to searching out and mastering these long-lost recordings. "This May Be My Last Time Singing" is a follow-up to "Fire in My Bones," a 2009 collection also put together by Mike McGonigal, featuring music straight from the soul.