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In the Valley of the Shadow of Box Sets

Recently, I acquired what, to my ears and eyes, is a very beautiful thing—the Australian Split Enz box set, Enz to Enz. Including remastered versions of all nine studio albums, plus two compilations, The Beginning of the Enz and The Rootin Tootin Luton Tapes, the set is gorgeously packaged and all I could really hope for in the world of Split Enz.

Now, before you stop reading because you could care less about Split Enz, let me say now that the point of this blog is not to celebrate or defend Split Enz. Oh, I would be more than happy to do so, but perhaps in a later posting. What the point of this actually is, is the mysterious fate of box sets.

When I was proudly unveiling the set to the rest of the Into the Music staff, our intrepid owner Greg made the point that box sets are the place where good CDs go to die. OK, I don’t remember his exact words, but the point is the same. This got me to thinking – is he right? Will Enz to Enz become just another pretty trinket on my already overstuffed shelves of pretty trinkets? Something to gather dust and be forgotten, just like my juicer and inspirational meditation guides?

I was determined this would not be the case. Over the course of the weekend after I purchased the set, my boyfriend and I worked our way through most of it. I felt vindicated. I would not fall prey to apathy and be too lazy to open the set when I wanted to hear Mental Notes! The box would not merely become a part of the landscape of our living room, seen but not truly appreciated!

That was about a month ago. This afternoon, I took the set down from the top of the TV stand, wiped the dust from its formerly pristine, shining cover and realized we didn’t make it through the whole set. There are still three discs to listen to, one of which I’ve never even heard before. Having it in my hands made me excited again, this thing of beauty that promises so many musical delights. But then I think about my Velvet Underground set and how I walk by it multiple times every single day, but when was the last time I actually listened to White Light/White Heat? Or even registered the set’s presence in my collection? Or my Cheap Trick set? Will my recently acquired Nick Drake Fruit Tree box suffer the same sad fate?! Will I never listen to Bryter Later again?!

What mysterious alchemic reaction takes place when CDs are bundled together in a lovely package that renders them seemingly invisible? And how can I break the cycle of the box set graveyard?


Posted by Barb Stewart on September 21st 2008 in Music Industry, | Next: For The Love Of God Turn Down The Drums , I’m Thinking Here! | Previous: Welcome to the site


  1. Was it a lazer-etched box set?

    Fanny in Wienerpeg on September 22nd 2008 at 1:56am #

  2. I think that Greg is right… probably why Radiohead were furious about the set that was released last year, amongst other reasons.  I think that maybe you should buy the set if you really like a band but never have had the chance to pick up most of their records.

    Damien in WPG on October 29th 2008 at 3:59pm #

  3. First of all, Barb, I’m jealous on the Enz set. I have Mental Notes and Second Thoughts on Australian vinyl. Does the Mental Notes CD have the inner groove at the end?
    As to Greg’s comments. Well he’s smarter than me, so I can’t argue with him, but I will say this…it doesn’t have to be so. Solution 1: use a multidisc changer (like a Sony 400 disc carousel) Only load your box sets into it and hit random. Solution 2: gasp…rip them to digital (whatever medium you use) and use the same random trick.
    I think the inherent problem with box sets is reissues. Fruit Tree is a prime example. I yearned for that set, until I realized that I could get all the original albums plus some new comps, remastered and they sound better. I’ve played my Zep remasters a lot. Now, however, I’m wanting the complete box of the remastered studio albums, cause dammit, Led Zeppelin II needs to be played in order. Which brings us round to Greg’s point. Anyway…I’m still jealous about the Split Enz box. Good grab. Now is there a Mental As Anything box????

    Dave Ferguson in Winnipeg on November 25th 2008 at 4:38pm #

  4. For me, box sets have the same aesthetic thrill as new vinyl… must be the size thing (I think I’m going blind, trying to read CD liner notes).  When people ask me for my Top Ten albums or Desert Island disks, I always cheat and list 10 box sets.  If a song is a chapter and an album a short story collection, the box set is the big, fat Proustian novel.  In a box set, you have time for the little details (a b-side or demo) while running with the large canvas narrative.  There can be a satisfying arc to a well-conceived box set; most careers work like bell curves… slow tentative beginnings, the sharp (thrilling) rise to a breathless peak then the dramatic loss of energy, focus and success.  Each band has an individual pattern and it’s the variations that can be the most interesting.  Compare the graceful rise and fall of THE BAND A MUSICAL HISTORY with the explosion of THE MOVE ANTHOLOGY or the bumpy, surprises of THE BYRDS.  Bands like the Velvet Underground and Led Zeppelin maintained a rarely matched consistency.  Is there any weirder ride than The Beach Boys?  People write books about the careers of James Brown, Brian Eno or Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, trying to make sense of the various lifts, dips and spins they produce(d).  Did Tom Petty put out his box too soon?  Did the Kinks wait too long?  Are the recent Beatles boxes the last word?  Will Dylan’s boxes one day outnumber his original album releases?  Will every Miles Davies album HAVE it’s own box?  What contemporary artists need and deserve their own box(es)? 
    Then there’s the packaging, the booklets (ah, Nuggets; ah, Fairport Convention, etc.).  The story within the story… sometimes linear, sometimes at cross-purpose, sometimes an apology and often utter bullshit.  Old scores finally settled or new alliances formed.  The story inadequately told because music is not literature (I lied).  Pictures and a 1000 words can never replace 65 songs strung together in a meaningful way.  But they can help occupy eye and hand while the music plays.
    Working through a box (forwards, backwards or even, as Dave ingeniously suggests, at random) has the same effect as watching a movie… a good one that invites rewatching, to pick up missed details or finally get a sense of a greater purpose.  I will watch CASSABLANCA 30 times before I’m done on this planet and the same goes for PEEL SLOWLY AND SEE.
    Do I otherwise open my box sets as much as I should?  Probably not… there are so many distractions (what with eating, working, sleeping, shopping at Into the Music, etc.)!  And yet, I am satisfied, knowing that they’re there, collecting dust, holding their little mysteries, waiting patiently until something random, like an inviting blog, sends me back to the shelf and into a new adventure.

    Dean in Winnipeg on August 5th 2010 at 12:00pm #

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