Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2017’s Box Sets

To listen to every box set released in 2017 would require the ability to stop time, so this list is in no way definitive. However, regarding what was heard, these are the best.

Find them all for purchase from our friends at Discogs at the links below, or at your local mom and pop, indie record shops via The Vinyl District Record Store Locator app—free for your iPhone here, free for your Android here.

10. Bert Jansch, Living in the Shadows + Living in the Shadows Part Two: On the Edge of a Dream (Earth) Over the last few years, most of the recordings from this defining Brit folk guitarist’s first decade have been easy to obtain in reissue form. This circumstance is fully deserved and not a bit surprising, as Jansch’s early albums for Transatlantic, especially his ’65 self-titled debut, are considered the essential stuff, and the subsequent discs for Reprise and Charisma do nothing to besmirch his standing. Additionally, there’s his membership in Pentangle to consider.

That’s all a swell situation, but Earth Recordings’ recent activity is even cooler. Beginning with 2015’s Live at the 12 Bar, the label began making some of Jansch’s harder to find and less celebrated later material widely available. These 4LP/4CD sets, the first covering the ’90s (The Ornament Tree, When the Circus Comes to Town, and Toy Balloon) and the second the ’00s (Crimson Moon, Edge of a Dream, and The Black Swan), and each with a full platter of unreleased cuts, stand as Earth’s strongest Jansch-related achievement thus far. Considering their reissue of Avocet, that’s saying something.

9. Genius/GZA, Liquid Swords Singles Collection (UMG – Urban Legends) Concerning the physical qualities of vinyl, I’ve noticed quite a few enthusiastic testimonials over the years, and a rise of them recently, that flirt with or occasionally plunge head-first into the realms of the mystical. And hey, I can dig it. But really, at its core, the physical appeal of vinyl (and other tangible containers of art, of course, books foremost amongst them) is relatively straightforward; you can hold it in your hands and interact with it.

Box sets can provide years of appreciation, often by offering multiple CDs that are stuffed to the maximum, but Liquid Swords Singles Collection takes the opposite approach, grabbing just a handful of tracks (plus a pair of instrumental versions and a RZA remix featuring D’Angelo), grooving them into 7-inch vinyl, tucking them into attractive picture sleeves, adding art prints by Andrew Hem, and placing it all in an oversized, easel-backed art box. As Liquid Swords is one of the ’90s defining hip-hop albums, the music here is built to last, but the enduring appeal will surely derive from the physicality of it all.

8. Flat Duo Jets, Wild Wild Love (Daniel 13) When it comes to the revitalization of American roots, hardly anybody’s done it better than Dex Romweber and Crow. I first heard ‘em on the soundtrack to Athens GA: Inside/Out, where they nearly stole the whole show, and in the process delivered a big breath of fresh air to a decade beset with tendencies of refinement.

That’s not to say that Flat Duo Jets were only about unchecked mania; as fans of Romweber’s post-Jets work know, he’s got an astute pop sense, though it’s the kind of pop that was once found on the bandstands of joints and dives deep into the night and on the jukeboxes of greasy diners early the following morning. As documented by Wild Wild Love, which corrals the ’85 cassette mini-album (In Stereo) (transferring it to 10-inch wax), ’90s self-titled LP, and a record full of outtakes from the period, it’s a pop side that’s been there since the beginning, and it still sounds utterly fab.

7. Membranes, Everyone’s Going Triple Bad Acid, Yeah! (The Complete Membranes 1980 – 1993) (Cherry Red) If there’s salvation in store for the compact disc, it’ll likely be in expanded box sets; holding more content than LPs, the use of CDs helps keep costs down and the physical dimensions from getting unwieldly. This set is a fine example. It indeed houses everything recorded by this underrated UK band (led by constant member John Robb) betwixt the years of the title (they’ve since reformed) for a grand total of six hours across five discs.

Formed in Blackpool, Lancashire, the Membranes emerged on the aggressive side of the post-punk spectrum, but unlike many of their peers, never softened their attack, working along the way with producers Jon Langford and Steve Albini. By the end of the ’80s, they were one of the handful of UK bands to infiltrate the oft-noisy US underground, which is where I discovered them. But I didn’t get to hear all this stuff back then. Subsequently, I caught up with a big chunk of it, but a fair portion is new to me, and it’s great to have it all in one place.

6. V/A, Bill Brewster Presents Tribal Rites (Eskimo) When it’s done right, an individually curated collection of tunes can stand head and shoulders above standard compilations, in large part through the unified personal approach. However, the undertaking shouldn’t be entrusted to just anybody; doing so would likely result in a steady stream of shoddy mixtapes.

Tribal Rites isn’t a random collection of tunes but an aural autobiography pertaining to a love of music in constant development. While Brewster is a noted DJ and additionally a chronicler of house music and dance culture (co-authoring the book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life), the eclecticism on display across this 3CD and two-volume 4LP set never seems intended to merely impress (even as beautifully leftfield selections do emerge, e.g. a fascinating country-funk-pop cover of Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go for That”). Brewster’s love of records shines through it all and makes this an all-around blast.

5. V/A, Welcome to Zamrock! How Zambia’s Liberation Led to a Rock Revolution Vols. 1 & 2 (Now-Again) + Mulatu Astatke, Mulatu of Ethiopia 3LP (Strut) Like Now-Again’s Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock Vols. 1 & 2 from last year, these two double album comps are sold separately, but it’s difficult for me to consider them singly, so I won’t.

Across eight sides, Welcome to Zamrock! illuminates an explosion of rock-taggable activity and in the process, sews a deep, distinct style-pocket into the fabric of ’70s funky Africa. This is not streamlined, polite stuff; instead, the raw but effective recordings offer copious amounts of guitar fuzz, with the effects pedal outbursts of the Ngozi Family’s “Hi Babe” an opening highlight. Along the way, Jimi and James are recurring inspirations, but there’s plenty of garage action and even motions toward late ’60s San Fran psych. Overall, this is a massive assemblage of highly sought-after records made affordable.

Most of the artists on Welcome to Zamrock! are known primarily to heavy-duty lovers of reissued African sounds, but Mulatu Astatke has achieved no small measure of international acclaim. Credited as the “Father of Ethiopian Jazz,” the high-profile is well-earned, and the music that comprises Mulatu of Ethiopia is considerably more ambitious than what’s found on the Zambian comps (Astatke is distinguished as the first African enrollee at Boston’s Berklee College of Music).

Like a lot of folks, my discovery of Astatke’s music came through the fourth installment of the still astounding 30-volume Éthiopiques series, but I eventually made my way to Mulatu of Ethiopia, and it’s been an unwavering delight ever since. Although a fair amount of reissued African material comes through what can accurately be called excavation (more on that later this week), Astatke’s ’72 album has been an above-ground thing since its conception, and this expanded edition, coupling significantly different stereo and mono masters and a third LP of outtakes, only increases its fully-deserved panache.

4. Pere Ubu, Drive, He Said 1994-2002 (Fire) + The Fall, Singles 1978 – 2016 (Cherry Red) While the historical stature of both outfits is secure, the pairing of these sets, Ubu’s the latest entry in a series that’s more revision than straight reissue, and the Fall’s a hefty 7-disc collection of singles spanning from ’78’s “Bingo-Master” to ’16’s “Wise Ol’ Man,” constitutes a study in contrasting fortunes.

When Ubu recommenced activity in ’94, it was with little fanfare, and after the ensuing albums turned out to be quite more than just okay, the response was still rather tempered, perhaps partially due to a fear of jinx. Well, over 20 years later David Thomas has maintained a solid lineup with no nosedive in quality, so the records collected by Drive, He Said are aptly assessed as the solid first stanza in a long, expectations-defying comeback.

Partly because veteran bands almost always struggle with age, The Fall was frequently championed throughout the ‘90s and ’00s as a constantly worthwhile and sometimes still great deviation of the norm, but somewhere along the way (due to the band’s prolific nature, I’m not exactly sure when) the lineup changes, Smith’s oft-surly attitude, and the arrival of what many assessed as subpar material diminished the track record.

Singles 1978 – 2016 places the A-sides on its first three discs and the flips on the following four, and listening to the chronological progression does a bang-up job of rescuing Smith from the stature of a once-great journeyman. Amongst a batch of classic albums, The Fall was simultaneously a major vessel of individual songs; tracks that were once criticized as beneath them, say “Victoria” (a Kinks cover) or the Madchester-besting “Telephone Thing,” stand up rather tall today, and frankly, the set’s final B-side “All Leave Cancelled” is more potent than some youngsters’ full albums. This is real revision.

3. Jimmy Reed, Mr. Luck (The Complete Vee-Jay Singles) (Craft Recordings) + V/A, Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel (1951-1965) (Craft Recordings) A division of Concord Bicycle Music, Craft Recordings has had a helluva 2017, releasing expanded sets by John Lee Hooker and Isaac Hayes, tighter collections by The Golliwogs and Little Richard, and straight album reissues of Ollie and the Nightingales, The Pharcyde, and a bunch by R.E.M.

The Reed box does just what its title says, collecting all the Vee-Jay 45s from this commercial force in electric blues. He debuted with the label in 1954, so Mr. Luck offers a look at Reed’s artistic development as it plunges into his most commercially productive period (and adds some cool snippets of conversation between the singer-guitarist-harmonicist and Calvin Carter). Considered to be the most successful blues crossover not named B.B. King, Reed is frequently underrated, perhaps because he had such an easygoing style. But it’s a style that sounds tremendous here.

Moving from the secular to the sacred, Craft’s Jesus Rocked the Jukebox dishes an extended helping of hot vocal group gospel. The title highlights the influence of the form on R&B, Soul (naturally) and Rock, and to a lesser extent vice versa, but don’t get the idea that the compilers had to strain to find sturdy examples of this back-and-forth.

No, the contents of this 3LP set highlight some of the most highly esteemed groups in the history of hot gospel. There’s the Soul Stirrers and The Staple Singers obviously, but also The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Swan Silvertones, The Highway QC’s, The Harmonizing Four, and The Pilgrim Travelers, and the cuts by lesser known acts are reliably killer, especially the magnetic “The Sinner’s Crossroads” by The Silver Quintette. As Mingus put it, better git it in your soul…

2. V/A, Highlights of Vortex, Tod Dockstader, Eight Electronic Pieces, Die Tödliche Doris, ” “, Le Forte Four, Bikini Tennis Shoes, Joe Jones, In Performance  (États-Unis)Ariel Kalma, French Archives 1977-80 (Black Sweat) The albums on the left side of the plus sign here weren’t boxed, but were instead offered as a pre-order bundle as the initial five offerings from Superior Viaduct’s sublabel États-Unis, and they deserve to be considered together.

Spanning from the mid-century sound-image experimentation of Highlights of Vortex to the early avant electronics of Dockstader to the Los Angeles Free Music Society related Bikini Tennis Shoes to the German post-punk of Die Tödliche Doris to the post-Fluxus homemade environments of In Performance, the États-Unis bundle provided cravers of “unconventional sounds” (to use the label’s term) an opportunity to grab some near impossible to find stuff, and the first bundle sold out in something like a snap (Psstt. The second bundle is available for pre-order now, so don’t sleep).

Ariel Kalma jumped into my personal radar screen only relatively recently, in large part through a pair of impressive releases from Rvng Intl., specifically the 2015 collaboration with Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe We Know Each Other Somehow, and the previous year’s retrospective compilation An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings: 1972-1979).

French Archives 1977-80 expands upon the goodness contained in An Evolutionary Music by offering a major helping of this electronic pioneer and saxophonist’s spiritually and therapeutically inclined work on four LPs (offered separately in digital form). The results are consistently rewarding. Kalma’s been described as a New age composer, and that’s not a bit wrong. 20 years ago, this would’ve been enough for me to shunt him aside, but thankfully I’ve grown since then. Suffice to say if you dig Terry Riley and the recent surge in collections rehabilitating the New Age genre, you’ll likely dig this, too.

1. Hüsker Dü, Savage Young Dü (Numero Group) + Chris Bell, The Complete Chris Bell (Omnivore) Along with their steady stream of Soul compilations, Numero Group has been branching out over the last few years into the territory of underground rock, assembling splendidly designed and musically rich comps covering The Scientists, Unwound, Codeine, Blonde Redhead, and White Zombie.

The passing on September 13 of Hüsker Dü’s drummer, co-singer and co-songwriter Grant Hart lends Savage Young Dü more than a touch of the bittersweet. Examining the formative period of one of Minneapolis/Saint Paul’s two major u-ground rock breakouts, it strikes me as Numero Group’s biggest rock-related success yet. Compiling In a Free Land, Everything Falls Apart, an alternate Land Speed Record and almost four dozen unreleased cuts, this is clearly a must for anybody who loves the band, but it’s also a crucial hunk of subterranean rock history.

It’s inching toward 40 years since the untimely death of Chris Bell, but the contents of Omnivore’s 6LP set still effectively magnify what could’ve been. Indeed complete, apart from his indispensable contribution to Big Star of course, much of this has been made available elsewhere as recently as this year (by Omnivore themselves), but the contents of four LPs are new to vinyl, and disc six is an interview with Barry Ballard conducted in a London hotel room in 1975 that’s exclusive to this set.

Prior to his death, Bell only released one post-Big Star single. Soaking up this box reinforces his substantial talent, elevating him to much more than a cult figure and without any special pleading. The first three LPs here are all perfectly functional as albums, the alternates and outtakes on four and five are assembled with listening pleasure in mind, and six is a truly enlightening listen. The Complete Chris Bell will sit nicely on the shelf next to or near #1 Record. Which you already own, right?

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