Outside the Gift Box

Written by Tony Ware on . Posted in Gift Guide, Posts.

Sometimes it’s not the thought that counts; sometimes it’s the size of the package. Let’s admit it, Christmas is for the size queens, recession or no. Especially when it comes to music fans: You now need a present bulging with features to compete with the convenience of an iTunes card. So here’s a round-up of some of the means the recording industry offered in 2009 to say “I love you, and your obsessive-compulsive need to upgrade to the ultra-limited director’s-signed bootleg signed-soiled-then-remastered heightened fidelity edition.”

We’re a culture of convergence, and no one shows this glorious confusion like Neil Young. A purist who used to say nothing could match analog, Young finally launched his Archives, Vol. 1: 1963-1972 on CD, DVD-Audio and the expensive but expressive Blu-ray recommended here. These discs include 24-bit/192-kHz uncompressed PCM master grade audio, film clips, archival photos, lyrics sheets, interviews, a hardbound book, hidden content and much, much more.

It may be a recession, but it’s a boomer’s market for audio. Though known as a videophile label, the Criterion Collection has rereleased two films that show the company’s potential to please classic rock fans, too. As part of its foray into Blu-ray, Criterion struck high-definition masters of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival and Gimme Shelter, two thoroughly supplemented music/counterculture documentaries that bookend the beginning and end of the Summer of Love era. There’s only so much clarity to eek out of 40-plus year-old 16mm film, but the lossless audio options truly shine. Janis Joplin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones—all in their prime. The elation, frustration and devastation is wholly palpable.

Technophiles with a Blu-ray player and HDMI receiver are undoubtedly reaping rewards. Simultaneously, record labels are catering to the opposite end of the spectrum: analog. Extras-saturated packages with painstakingly pressed vinyl were also the rage in the past 12 months.

Whereas The aforementioned Neil Young’s solo albums are gradually being redistributed on foil-stamped, limited 180g platters and 24k gold-plated HDCD through to let the music stand on its own. The Stone Roses 20th anniversary collectors edition is a revelatory remaster of baggy groove with demos, a DVD containing “making of” featurettes and live performances, the heavyweight vinyl and plenty more digital Madchester goodies. The Pixies’ Minotaur, meanwhile, is as intended for the coffee table as the turntable, and frames all its CD, DVD, Blu-ray and vinyl reissues of the loudQUIETloud’s pioneers’ original albums (in stereo and 5.1) in relation to a faux fur-covered photo album/Gi clee print/poster collection featuring the work of graphic designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer Simon Larbalestier. Warp Records’ Warp20 is another lavish visual/aural slipcase chronicling two decades across CD retrospects and unreleased beats on 10” vinyl.

Trans Am’s What Day Is It Tonight merely puts a DVD of live shows prog/synth-funk performances alongside an LP of retro-beat box-electro-boogie tracks pulled from the band’s 15-plus years. Also, Nirvana finally saw the release of the band’s legendary, blistering Live at Reading performance on DVD, CD and LP (not packaged together, but still all worthy of the highest recommendation).

Most, stuff is from the vaults, but not everything; bands such as psychedelic stalwarts the Flaming Lips and prog-metal torchbearers Mastodon recompiled new albums into limited editions (Embryonic and Crack the Skye, respectively) that come with customized boxes (fur-covered for the Lips), exclusive lithographs and exclusive enhanced audio. The award for 2009’s most turned-to-11 packaging goes to AC/DC’s Backtracks, however. This set collects rarities on CD, DVD and LP, but takes it one step further by packaging all that, a hardcover book, memorabilia reproductions and more in a working one-watt amp. It takes playing your favorite album to the next level…until next year.

— Tony Ware