The epic scale and contrived angles of many archival box sets threaten to distort the narrative of the music itself
The vinyl box set section of an otherwise well stocked Oakland record shop recently contained the following: titanic editions of Led Zeppelin’s first three LPs; a Record Store Day exclusive monument, several months hence, to The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka; one of Numero Group’s tombstone-like archival tributes to Unwound; The Magnetic Fields’ leaden 50 Song Memoir; and, like a discrete package of smut in its plain cardboard outer casing, Radiohead’s undercover coronation of their own album A Moon Shaped Pool.
This selection of boomer bombast and indie hagiography, writerly self-seriousness and punk rock completism seems pretty typical of box sets in 2017, which embody the cost, hubris and hyperbole of the reissue industry at its worst. In fairness, box sets also reflect and appeal to the best of music fandom in the age of availability: a desire for context and to redress historical injustices, and for record labels, like music critics, to not just disseminate and rate releases, but to plot them within a map of their respective subcultures. Still, shaped by market forces as much as fannish altruism, box sets also threaten to steer listeners awry by betraying the material they purport to elevate.
The predecessors to today’s vinyl box sets are the retrospective CD collections that proliferated in the twilight of that format’s popularity, which boasted with suspicious frequency of remastering, and added bonus tracks of inconsistent merit. Adapting albums originally released on LPs to meet the expanded capacity of CDs moved from liberatory to gimmicky; it contributed, along with the cynically inflated price of single discs, to repelling consumers at the dawn of file-sharing. But while the overreach of yesteryear’s CD box sets can be credited largely to majors, today’s vinyl box sets are as common from seemingly discerning labels as from the music industry’s usual villains.
The operators of archival record labels (including the one I’ve contracted for on and off, Superior Viaduct) know that the most attention-grabbing reissue campaigns involve shedding new light on their subject, or at least telegramming it to a new audience; that helps explain some labels’ apparent preference for collections which entail original branding instead of facsimile reissues. The trouble arises when box sets, like many of those collections, imply that an artist’s catalogue isn’t good enough, that it’s spotty, disordered, has the wrong artwork – or needs to be redefined instead of just revived.
First wave UK punk group The Lurkers this year received a five disc box treatment from Beggars Banquet that contains their first two albums, all of their singles, and assorted demos and radio recordings – all of this for a group that was very much of a golden era for singles. A reproduction of their debut 7" appeared in tandem with the set like a promotional gambit, a loss leader, when it’s actually the more representative and enjoyable object. Why do these punk collections have the proportions of progressive rock opuses? There is, of course, an ever older, more moneyed punk demographic, but it’s sad and arguably economically nearsighted as well to see labels cater to them exclusively.
Fire Records’ recent period-spanning box sets for long running groups Pere Ubu and Half Japanese, along with Numero Group’s campaign around posthardcore outfit Unwound, point to another trend: intervening so brazenly in groups’ catalogues that they’re rendered unrecognisable. Who’d gather from a box set the profound stylistic shifts Pere Ubu underwent in their first three years when even their pre-album EPs sound like different bands? Like other groups ill-suited to this treatment, Pere Ubu’s early singles and albums are best encountered as the discrete statements they are.
None of this is to deny the growing irrelevance of physical formats to many contemporary genres (even hiphop’s tenuous grasp of a distinction between online albums and mixtapes has capitulated to the catch-all project); it’s wrong to cling too dearly to a narrow idea of an album, which, after all, emerged in pop and rock music for technological and commercial rather than creative reasons. Streaming services such as Spotify, which lists artists’ songs in order of popularity by default, are eroding listeners’ sense of the sequence and contour of older artists’ catalogues, and box sets threaten to similarly project today’s genre-fluidity onto the past, all to muddling effect.
Though these collections are meant to retrospectively celebrate groups, they actually endanger longterm appreciation by virtue of their prohibitive retail prices, thus alienating potential fans in their eagerness to sell to super fans. They’re also just goliath, with some price marks seeming to reflect packaging more than content. A better model is, say, Secretly Canadian’s career-spanning Nikki Sudden reissues, each of which couple two sequential LPs without undermining the integrity of his solo catalogue. But tellingly, Sudden hasn’t received the feverish critical reappraisal visited on lesser artists with flashier collections.
Of course, even some prominent artists are well suited to exhaustive excavation of unreleased or under-distributed work – perhaps because the stylistic prejudices or commercial incentives of their era privileged bland output and stifled the singular stuff. For instance, the alternative Jesus & Mary Chain discography, for years reserved for committed collectors of their spare demos and non-album whimsies, deserved recognition on the four disc 2008 set The Power Of Negative Thinking. Yet it’s still like some sort of giant, abstract sculpture; I don’t know how to approach it and I wouldn’t take it home even if I could.
Box sets are the museum retrospectives of music, defanging art while deeming it significant. Demystification. Textbook recuperation. They usually coincide with the retirement of underground music from the shadowy marketplace of underground influence. I’ve only owned a handful (Neu!, Robyn Hitchcock, Numero’s It’s All Pop), and they’ve been the first things I offload to pay rent.
In another essay about box sets (“Tombstone Raiders”, The Wire 359, available to subscribers online), Simon Reynolds wrote that they tend to signal the end of an artist’s culturally productive phase. Worse, though, is when they encourage and hasten that very terminus.
This article originally appeared in The Wire 407.