In the official unboxing video that indie/alternative veteran Bob Mould released earlier this year for his Distortion box set series, comedian Fred Armisen explains that, whenever he gets a box set, he likes to save the stickers that invariably come affixed to the shrink wrap. The sticker always helps, Armisen explains (in all seriousness), just to keep a mental inventory of the contents.
In other words, box sets tend to come crammed with so much stuff that it can be hard to wrap your head around it all. While the multiple discs, oodles of unreleased tracks and extra doodads always seem to look appetizing when laid out on paper or in a product shot, our eyes can be bigger than our proverbial stomachs.
In terms of sitting down and actually listening, box sets are a hit-or-miss proposition. So it’s usually tough to decide whether to take the plunge on such a lavish expense that’s going to take up a lot of shelf space.
To help point you in the right direction, here’s a curated list of this year’s most essential box sets and expanded reissues that takes into account a combination of factors: packaging appeal; how readable, informative and elegantly formatted the liner notes are; and—last but not least—listenability and sound quality.
Was the music sequenced in a coherent order? Were new mixes or remasters of the original material even necessary? And ultimately, is the package worth it? How would a given set appeal to the casual fan versus the completist? After all, fans dedicated enough to shell out for these sets are the same people most at-risk for buying something they already own in some form or another.
Lastly, would the title in question make a good stocking stuffer?
Since several of these boxes were slated for release last year, the competition was extra fierce. But we’ve got you covered!
Note: This list isn’t ranked based on the appeal of the artists or the albums themselves. That’s for you to decide—instead, the titles appear on the list in order of how well a particular package honored the original release, or the artist in question’s legacy.
20. J Dilla: Welcome To Detroit—The 20th Anniversary Edition
We can debate whether listening to the late J Dilla’s groundbreaking 2001 solo debut Welcome 2 Detroit is best served by breaking the music up across several 7-inch 45s, but this special 20th-anniversary edition made this list in part for its novel presentation. Including instrumental versions of all the tracks along with outtakes, alternate mixes, a new mastering job and a book that chronicles the making of the album, this isn’t necessarily the most practical box set—how much, for example, do DJs prefer to play 7-inch records?—but it offers a special kind of tactile satisfaction.
The set was also assembled by the original label, BBE, that Dilla lauded for giving him the space to fulfill his vision. A highly influential producer whose influence on hip-hop still reverberates years after his passing, Dilla’s non-quantized approach to programming beats gave his music a uniquely organic human factor, while the album helped put the city of Detroit on the map once again. The handsome book, written by London-based music journalist, director and screenwriter John Vanderpuije, includes commentary from Dilla’s mother along with key participants.
19. KISS: Destroyer 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition
For a band whose name is basically synonymous with merchandising—grossing an estimated $100 million in merch sales between 1977 and 1979 alone—KISS has been fairly quiet when it comes to box sets. And with a fanbase rabid enough to feed an economy of conventions that go on year after year, a box set from KISS is a no-brainer. This new version of the band’s 1976 classic Destroyer not only augments the original album nicely with demos and a live show from the period, but it also comes with two folders loaded with enough nicknacks to make aging members of the KISS Army fan club swoon with nostalgia.
“Super deluxe” sets can be super awkward sitting on the shelf, but the accompanying hardbound book justifies its coffee table size. As expected, the oral history from the band’s oft-bickering original members pulls no punches about how, say, infamously spaced-out lead guitarist Ace Frehley started skipping recording sessions. And despite the somewhat rough sound quality of the live recording, you can clearly hear all four musicians’ parts. Plus, there’s a thrill in hearing KISS on an unpolished recording, a welcome contrast to the pair of highly manicured live offerings that defined the band’s ’70s heyday.
It’s nice to see how much effort went into this package, considering that diehards would seek it out regardless.
18. Motorhead: No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith 40th Anniversary Edition
Motorhead’s epochal live offering provided one of the primary sparks for the thrash movement that was just two years down the road upon its release in 1981, but it also etched the band’s place in the classic rock pantheon alongside classics like The Who’s Live At Leeds, Live Cream, etc. As loud and heavy as Motorhead were—there was no precedent for the band’s proto-speed metal sound when it formed in 1975—the definitive lineup of Lemmy Kilmister, Eddie Clarke and Phil Taylor brought an unmistakable sense of swing to their otherwise blistering attack.
Kilmister, in fact, always saw Motorhead as an extension of Chuck Berry and Little Richard’s rock and roll spirit. No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith shows us why. This time, that special Taylor-Clarke-Kilmister magic is captured in all its high-octane glory via the original album, plus three complete shows (basically the same show four times over, so you really have to be all in). The main disc’s bonus tracks were more thoughtfully integrated in a previous deluxe reissue, but ultra-charming photos and liner notes make this set a must-have.
17. Roberta Flack: First Take: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
“She is music,” says legendary jazz pianist/vocalist Les McCann, interviewed on the second disc of this long-overdue reissue of Roberta Flack’s debut. A monumental talent (and classically trained prodigy) who could ease gracefully between jazz, soul and folk, Flack stirred all three styles into an irresistible brew on First Take. As fresh—even sonically revolutionary—as Flack’s genre fluidity was, she made all the musical traditions she touched seem like they’d all flowed from the same source, a source she channeled directly through her fingertips, voice and heart. Hence McCann’s assertion that Flack was too much of an all-around musical being to be categorized.
Backed by a crack team of jazz veterans, including bassist Ron Carter, Flack’s First Take paints a portrait of an alternate future where jazz never lost its currency as a contemporary art form that could perpetually re-energize pop culture. Flack’s demos, which take up the bulk of the second disc (and could have been pitched as a lost live album), beautifully supplement a work that didn’t require anything extra, but is now all the more dynamic, thanks to the light these demos shed on the main course.
16. The Beatles: Let It Be / George Harrison: All Things Must Pass 50th Anniversary Editions
On first glance, it’s hard to justify recommending a pair of albums that have already been re-worked and re-packaged once apiece prior to this point. That’s right, The Beatles’ swan song Let It Be and George Harrison’s monumental solo debut All Things Must Pass are now on their third incarnations with these new sets. Further, the prospect of going back and tampering with mixes to replace the original ones is always dubious. That said, both of these editions, each expanded to five discs, contain a wealth of essential material that previous versions didn’t.
In a year marked by two Beatles documentaries—author/journalist Ajoy Bose’s The Beatles and India and Peter Jackson’s much-publicized docuseries Get Back—there really isn’t much to be said about either of these releases that hasn’t been said already. Crucially, the new All Things Must Pass features two discs’ worth of previously unreleased demos, while the new Let It Be contains producer/engineer Glyn Johns’ original mix (the one the band rejected back in 1969), along with two discs’ worth of outtakes and rehearsal recordings culled from the same endless hours of audio/video that Jackson sifted through to construct Get Back.
The Fab Four actually ran through Harrison’s tune “All Things Must Pass” during those rehearsals, which is fitting because each album, in a way, represents a bridge to the other. Luckily, as listeners we have the option of traveling across that bridge going both ways in time. And the connections between the albums, both of which bear the mark of producer Phil Spector (to varying degrees), couldn’t be more clear now, thanks to all the new bonus content that illustrates each one in its developmental stages. Yes, you’ve spent money on this stuff multiple times before, but it’s just as essential this time.
15. The Replacements: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash 40th Anniversary Edition
Initially, The Replacements made their legend on quick-and-dirty performances of short, fast songs—an approach that epitomizes their 1981 debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. The storied Minneapolis quartet played with such unbridled ferocity that Sorry Ma has more in common with hardcore groups like The Misfits than latter-day Replacements (or even The Ramones, their primary influence early on).
As this box set shows over the course of 100 tracks, The Replacements might’ve been sloppy, but they weren’t exactly half-assed. Loaded with rough recordings of songs that didn’t make the final cut, the new Sorry Ma charts the band’s formative-stage progression from something akin to a bluesy, traditional rock and roll sound to the rocket-fueled blast that took the alternative underground by storm.
While some of the demos were included on the 2008 Sorry Ma reissue, this is without question the definitive version to own. The holy grail here, of course, is a complete, never-released live show recorded for broadcast on Minneapolis community radio station KFAI. It’s not the best sound quality you’ll ever hear, but the actual performance makes it abundantly clear why The Replacements earned the reputation as one of the greatest live bands ever—when they were clicking, which they were that night.
Rare photos and liners from biographer Bob Mehr and Twin/Tone Records co-founder Peter Jesperson clinch the deal for this package as essential.
14. Various Artists: Shake The Foundations: Militant Funk & The Post-Punk Dancefloor 1978-1984
Box-set aficionados should thank the heavens for Cherry Red Records. Not only does Cherry Red issue dozens of lovingly curated boxes and reissues per year, but the London-based label proves again and again that box sets don’t have to come in bulky, oversized dimensions to be impressive. Like their other titles on this list, Shake The Foundations boasts beautiful, unpretentious packaging that fits in the palm of your hand. The three-disc set covers a pivotal turning point in music history when, in the immediate aftermath of punk, the momentum of the counterculture yielded a startling variety of sounds, the fiercely independent ethos of the day infiltrating the dance floor and vice-versa.
If you think about where New York bands like Liquid Liquid and Tom Tom Club were positioned in relation to the rise of hip-hop, England was teeming around that same time with intrepid artists at the crossroads of punk, experimental rock, dub, disco, krautrock and pop. Among them: Jah Wobble, The Stranglers, Simple Minds, Modern Romance and a host of others are featured here. “Shake the foundations,” indeed—this was a moment in time where an underground movement evolved beyond confronting the establishment to confront its very definitions of itself, often with electrifying results.
13. The Real Thing: The Anthology 1972-1997
From 1976 to 1980, Liverpool, England’s The Real Thing released four full-length albums—The Real Thing, 4 From 8, Step Into Our World and ….Saints or Sinners?—all of which are compiled here in expanded versions, along with three whole discs’ worth of B-sides, 7-inch single edits, 12-inch extended mixes and their EMI-era singles, which pre-date the debut album. The band’s most well-known single, “You To Me Are Everything,” exemplifies that moment where soul, funk and disco all merged into a single, vibrant current.
The Real Thing balanced all three styles with exceptional smoothness, gradually leaning into a slicker dance style as disco rose in popularity. In typical Cherry Red style, you couldn’t ask for a better balance of bang for buck and thoroughness. The first four discs alone are stocked with a combined 27 bonus tracks, and that’s before you even get to the remaining three discs. For anyone looking to explore how the soul movement got off the ground in England, this is a fine place to start.
12. Connie Smith: The Latest Shade Of Blue: The Columbia Recordings 1973-1976
Perhaps Merle Haggard summed it up best when, inducting Connie Smith into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013, he said, “There’s more than one reason for loving Connie, [but] I think mostly it’s because she sings so good.” Then again, this package shows us that there’s a lot to recommend Smith. The third and final installment in a series of box sets covering Smith’s classic back catalog, The Latest Shade Of Blue will leave no doubt as to why some of the greatest voices in country music hold Smith in such high esteem. None other than Dolly Parton once said that “there’s really only three female singers in the world: Barbara Streisand, Linda Ronstadt and Connie Smith.” Indeed, Smith had a way of vocalizing sorrow that gave it an otherworldly sparkle.
With nine of her albums packed onto four CDs, The Latest Shade Of Blue chronicles Smith’s first comeback of sorts following a spell of personal disillusionment in the wake of her initial success. This box enables us to properly appreciate Smith’s re-dedication to music, fueled by a strong sense of parental duty as well as the religious faith that defines and animates her work during this period. Her move from RCA Victor to Columbia Records around that time marked another crucial shift, as Smith began working with Columbia producers Ray Baker and George Richey, resulting in titles like Connie Smith Sings Hank Williams Gospel, one of several long out-of-print titles featured here.
While the ever-charming Smith just released her 54th (!) album (and spoke to Paste about it) this past August, The Latest Shade Of Blue reconstructs a fascinating chapter of a most resilient career.
11. Fela Kuti: Box Set #5
Curated by Femi Kuti, son of the late Afrobeat godfather Fela Kuti, along with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, the fifth installment in the Fela box series provides a textbook example of how box sets can be lovingly, painstakingly put together without overkill. From the remaining albums that weren’t selected by previous curators (Erykah Badu picked the albums the last time around), Martin and Femi Kuti opted for Why Black Man Dey Suffer, Noise for Vendor Mouth, Kalakuta Show, Excuse O, Ikoyi Blindness, Original Sufferhead and Overtake Don Overtake Overtake—a batch of titles spanning 1971 to 1989.
The music starts during the period where Kuti’s Africa 70 incorporated Cream drummer Ginger Baker alongside Kuti’s longtime drummer and Afrobeat pillar Tony Allen. It culminates with Overtake Don Overtake Overtake, the second-to-last album of newly recorded material the indefatigable Nigerian bandleader/activist released in his lifetime. Among other things, Kuti’s music was characterized by its mesmerizing sprawl. It’s not like Femi and Martin intended for listeners to ingest all this music in one gulp (though one can do so on Spotify), but they still deserve credit for sculpting a path through an almost impossibly dense body of work.
The original album artwork is beautifully reproduced in the booklet, which has a clean, elegant layout that covers an enormous amount of background insight into the music via personal anecdotes from Femi, along with a slew of details from Afrobeat historian Chris May and a moving introduction from Martin. May, in particular, puts the music in its proper historical and social context, making sure listeners get a sense of the sheer adversity Fela faced in his home country as successive military regimes actively sought to suppress his message.
10. The Beach Boys: Feel Flows—The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971
We considered slotting 10 different titles into this entry, including Rory Gallagher’s Rory Gallagher 50th Anniversary Edition, Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels 50th Anniversary Edition, Jethro Tull’s Benefit (The 50th Anniversary Enhanced Edition), The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You 40th Anniversary Edition, Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 and Sabotage Super Deluxe Editions, The Who Sell Out Super Deluxe Edition, and The Band’s Stage Fright and Cahoots 50th Anniversary Editions. The edge goes to Feel Flows—it covers the widest period of the artist’s career and arguably sustains the most consistency across its five discs—but the truth is all of these boxes contain a wealth of works in progress and/or live material that will profoundly deepen any fan’s understanding of the original albums in question. (Exactly what a box set is supposed to do.)
9. Tresor 30
One of the linchpins of the Berlin techno scene, the legendary nightclub Tresor formed in 1991, a hugely important transition point when the dismantling of the Berlin Wall gave rise to a movement that brimmed with a newfound feeling of personal and creative freedom. This year, Tresor Records—the label that formed out of the club—commemorated its 30th anniversary with a 12-record box set. The 52 tracks here feature exclusive commissions from scene veterans like Helena Hauff, DJ Stingray and Underground Resistance alongside contemporary artists like TYGAPAW, Nene H, AFRODEUTSCHE, SHE Spells Doom and LSDXOXO. For devotees of dance music and/or DJ culture, Tresor 30 encapsulates an essential slice of history that runs right up to the present-day.
8. Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of The World’s Music (1907-1967)
The incomparable Dust-to-Digital label works its magic once again with this 100-track package that charts a journey through music history as it unfolded in 89 countries on six continents. Curated by 78-rpm collector and music-history buff extraordinaire Jonathan Ward (founder of the Excavated Shellac blog and box set series), this latest installment in the series allows us to zoom-out and form a more accurate perspective on the development of recorded music in the 20th century. All too often, Ward argues, our sense of the timeline locates American musical forms at the epicenter of that story.
Like everything else from Ward and the Dust-to-Digital team, the level of artistry and care that went into this release simply defies words, even as a digital-only release. Every track is painstakingly detailed via a 186-page PDF, which shines long-overdue light on “both the musical origins and beginnings of the recording industry” in each region, provoking thought about “the complexities of colonialism, economic agendas and cultural tourism.” It’s also a wonderfully fulfilling listen.
7. Aztec Camera: Backwards and Forwards – The WEA Recordings 1984-1995
It’s about time we dispensed with the clichés that have stuck to our notions of ’80s music. Of course, the eye-popping fashion excesses and equally garish production trends haven’t aged well, but quite a lot of the music has. For proof, look no further than this set from Cherry Red Records. Aztec Camera played ‘80s pop with a measure of depth and substance that simultaneously defined and transcended their era.
For listeners with an appetite for more exotic sounds, this set will reward your curiosity and then some. Yes, the band’s mastermind Roddy Frame signed to a major label and scored significant hits of his own, but his work bears an eccentric’s touch. Even when produced by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler (as he was for the album Knife, included here), Frame put a twist on those familiar synth tones, reminding us that the pop music of the day could be challenging.
Hardcore fans of the group will be amply rewarded. And the set comes in a smaller package that makes it perfectly easy to handle many CDs at a time. (Box set designers, take note!)
6. Louis Armstrong: The Complete Louis Armstrong: Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-1966
Listeners with a preference for jazz from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s will already be familiar with the incalculable impact that Louis Armstrong made during that period, but even the most dedicated fans will find The Complete Louis Armstrong edifying. This seven-CD set from Mosaic Records, a label that issues its titles in physical form only, aptly embodies the label’s dedication to quality. With over three hours’ worth of bonus material—not to mention complete takes—that were edited down in their original form, The Complete Louis Armstrong also allows listeners a fly-on-the-wall’s perspective on the sessions.
In-studio banter is nothing new for these kinds of archival recordings, but the real selling point here is that Mosaic had complete access to Columbia’s master reels and used RCA Victor’s original metal parts. Rare photos and a 30,000-word essay penned by Louis Armstrong House director of research collections Ricky Riccardi (whose liner notes the label accurately touts as “extremely thorough”) further demonstrate that the Mosaic team means business when it comes to both the labor and the love that go into their releases. If you’re the type of listener who identifies as historian, audiophile, collector and completist, you can happily don all four hats with this set. (Listen to select audio excerpts here.)
5. Bob Mould: Distortion Series
Sometimes, more actually is more. Labels and artists should look to this series for inspiration, because if you’re going to put together a career-spanning set, this is the way to do it. With a 24-CD (!) version that’s broken up into three separate vinyl sets, Distortion compiles all of alternative-rock icon Bob Mould’s work after leaving the legendary Hüsker Dü (excluding 2020’s Blue Hearts), along with four complete live shows and two discs’ worth of rarities. (Technically speaking, the 24-disc version and the first vinyl box were out last year, but the final two vinyl boxes were delivered in 2021. Complete tracklists here.)
4. Laura Nyro: American Dreamer
With her hands in folk, doo-wop, R&B, jazz and pop, the late singer/songwriter Laura Nyro towered in the imaginations of music heavyweights like Elton John, Todd Rundgren, Exene Cervenka, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega and even Alice Cooper. Rundgren—who’s interviewed in the liner notes for this new eight-LP set—went so far as to tell The Guardian in 2005 that Nyro “had such an effect on my songwriting that it killed the band I was in.” In the new liners, he adds that Nyro’s sophomore album, 1968’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, was “legendary in the music business.” Meanwhile, her 1969 follow-up New York Tendaberry was widely compared to Gershwin in the press. Bette Midler, also quoted in the new liners, raves that “everything seemed heightened and exotic in her songs—she could make a trip to the grocery store seem like a night at the opera.”
American Dreamer includes all seven studio albums from the first (and main) phase of Nyro’s career, from her 1967 debut More Than A New Discovery to 1978’s Nested, and an additional record’s worth of rarities and live recordings. All of the material was remastered specifically for this pressing, the LPs sort very neatly into the slipcase, and the liner notes are almost worth the price of admission alone. In short, it’s everything one could ever hope for a box set to be.
3. Pastor T.L. Barrett & the Youth For Christ Choir: I Shall Wear A Crown
It’s quite staggering to think that T.L. Barrett’s music was, according to Numero Group label co-founder Rob Sevier, “just a footnote” in the Chicago pastor’s career. Once you hear the first few notes of I Shall Wear A Crown, you’ll no doubt appreciate how lucky we are that the bulk of his musical work has been dusted off in this handsome box set that captures the irresistible—and, in Barrett’s own words, often “haunting”—glow of the music, which encompasses four of the five music LPs Barrett recorded in the ’70s.
His debut album, 1971’s Like A Ship Without A Sail, caught the eye of musicians like Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft when it was first reissued by Light In The Attic in 2010. Since then, though, Barrett’s music has seemingly popped up everywhere, including Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, an Under Armour commercial and Barry, a film dramatization of Barack Obama’s college days.
Still active as the leader of the Life Center church he founded in Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood under the Church Of God In Christ umbrella in 1976, Barrett’s 45-piece youth choir has included notable figures like Donny Hathaway and Earth, Wind & Fire frontmen Maurice White and Philip Bailey. In many ways, the choir and the backing musicians steal the show, but Barrett—something of a Windy City celebrity with a complex history—brings an energy that can’t be denied.
2. Joni Mitchell: Archives Vol. 2: The Reprise Years 1968-1971
Before Rhino embarked on its box set series of unreleased material from Joni Mitchell’s archive, Mitchell was already an artist whose body of work only seemed to grow more vivid, more profound and more infinite as time went on. Even in her case, though, it came as a bit of a shock that last year’s Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years—on paper, a smattering of live recordings and song sketches—was so listenable. Perhaps it won’t come as quite of a shock this time, but it doesn’t make it any less impressive that Archives Vol. 2 keeps the streak going. Where there’s a warts-and-all charm to most artist’s home recordings, Mitchell’s rough-hewn song ideas evoke the same sense of majesty as her finished works. In a way, these recordings inspire even more goosebumps, because being able to listen in as Mitchell sketches in solitude feels like eavesdropping on greatness. This volume, of course, charts the beginning of Mitchell’s studio-recorded output, covering her first four albums, from Song For A Seagull to Blue—the first of multiple “classic” periods. (Read Paste’s ranking of Joni Mitchell’s albums here.)
1. Lee Morgan: The Complete Live at the Lighthouse
If we’re being sticklers, the physical copies of this eight-disc set sold out long before this list was compiled, so unless you buy it second-hand, you’re not getting a literal box here. Nevertheless, The Complete Live at the Lighthouse takes the top slot for several reasons. Re-released in 1996 as a three-disc box set, fans of the late trumpet giant Lee Morgan should consider this the definitive version, as it captures all of the sets that Morgan and his band played across a three-night stand in July of 1970 at the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach, California. Backed by saxophonist Bernie Maupin, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Jymie Merritt and drummer Mickey Roker, the quintet blazes through a stack of tunes, several of which are lengthy enough to take up a whole vinyl album side.
Tunes like “Yunjana,” “Neophilia” and “Something Like This” pop up repeatedly across the setlists, but let’s not forget that these were top-flight players well-accustomed to keeping the music interesting for themselves. Which means that the shades of difference between the various renditions are enough to keep any aficionado of this style of jazz coming back to this box set for years to come. There’s that much to sink one’s teeth into here, especially since it satisfies both the casual jazz fan’s craving for listenability and the connoisseur’s desire to be challenged. Morgan and company play with an unparalleled mix of grace and fire. They make it sound easy, even though pulling this music off was anything but.
With fusion and free jazz on the ascendance, Lee Morgan struck up a victory for hard bop on the last album he released during his lifetime. This complete edition makes for a most triumphant bow-out.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. He also dreams of being a “setlist doctor” to the bands you read about in these pages, and has started making playlists for imaginary shows that your favorite band never actually played. You can read his work, listen to his interviews and playlists at feedbackdef.com, and find him on Twitter.