Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Boxing Day

You needn't request a title. Just say, "I'll have the James Brown/Ray Charles/Howlin' Wolf/Lynyrd Skynyrd/Clash/Fats Domino/Aerosmith/Patsy Cline/Jeff Beck/Phil Spector box, please," and the beaming clerk will know exactly what you mean. Though it might appear that the landslide will never cease (and though forthcoming excavations on Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, Steely Dan, B.B. King, Peter Frampton, Yoko Ono and God knows who else are in the works), our biz sources think too many three- and four-CD boxed sets are barely breaking even to warrant extensive additional catalogue-mining in a time when the boom in old music, second only to raw price-gouging in sparking the biz's CD-linked gold rush of recent years, is beginning to play out. Nevertheless, all the above have surfaced in the past year, as have others we only see in stores or couldn't bear to put on--Crosby, Stills, & Nash, the Carpenters, T. Rex, Les Paul, Yes, Chicago, the Monkees, the goddamn 13th Floor Elevators, even Depeche Mode, who hope to dump a hideously overpriced CD-single collection on the affluent teens who'll follow them anywhere. And since we've listened to (or at least played) all of the top-named, usually more than once (though occasionally not to the very last drop), we feel justified in listing them in approximate order of . . . call it virtue.

This doesn't mean we've read every word of the accompanying documentation--we want to finish War and Peace first. So maybe we're missing something. But a few general comments seem in order. Though on a minutes-per-dollar basis boxes often aren't as pricey as they look, they are canonization moves, and as such inevitably sever individual works from history--obscure the way albums as much as singles respond to cultural moments as well as imperatives of formal evolution and personal expression. Rarely are the alternate mixes, B sides, and previously unreleaseds--P-U, as they say around the schoolyard--more enlightening, not to mention entertaining, than the album tracks they supplant. Audaciously redefining as it compiles, the Brown is the only undeniable boxed-set-qua-boxed set, although the Charles, an unabridged and unflagging collection of his preternaturally sophisticated '50s singles, many of them long unavailable, shows conceptual smarts. But though the Cline tends to swamp a great singer in countrypolitan schmaltz, only the Spector, much of which is a camp junkie's dream, lessens the artist. We've never understood Jeff Beck better.

Nuff said. You know what you like, you know what you want, and you know what you want to know. So here is an alphabetical table of all the truly relevant critical insights, conveniently abbreviated and arranged as follows: artist, discs-minutes, list price (L), and price at HMV (H), J&R (J), Tower (T), and the Wiz (W), all revised upwards by a cent or two, to the nearest pretax buck. Cassette boxes are always cheaper, but put you at the mercy of the programmer, which is rarely a good idea.

ArtistD-MLHJTW
Aerosmith3-226 $51$40$39$40$40
Beck3-226 $51$40$39$40$40
Brown4-295 $63$50$50$58$50
Charles3-151 $43$36$33$31 NA
Clash3-217 $51$40$39$40$40
Cline4-270 $61$57$49$57$50
Domino4-225 $57$53$40$45$40
Skynyrd3-216 $46$42$42$40$36
Spector4-208 $78$60$55$60$50
Wolf3-214 $45$43$37$42$40

Village Voice, 1991