The rock box

Four of the biggest names in popular music top the list of new box set releases

While the four biggest box set releases converging for the 2004 holidays don’t have a lot in common musically, they are all remembered similarly. Each group has the legacy of being the most influential example in its respective genre, whether it be grunge, pop, psychedelic jam rock or just being considered the best rock band ever.

So, there’s something for every musical taste on your Christmas list, or everything for the most obsessive collectors.

Nirvana, With the Lights Out
Here’s the big dog. Set to be released in the United States on Nov. 23, with 81 songs, 68 previously unreleased, the three-CD set with a bonus DVD includes a 60-page color booklet featuring a timeline, rare photos, extended liner notes by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and a box made of heat-sensitive material that changes colors when you touch it.

The surviving Nirvana dudes, drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Kris Novoselic, originally wanted to do a big fat compilation of all unreleased Nirvana songs in honor of the 10-year anniversary of the 1991 release of Nevermind, but due to legal nastiness brought on by Kurt Cobain’s widow Courtney Love, the box set is only now seeing the light of day (with the blessings of all parties), making it just in time for the 10-year anniversary of Cobain’s death.

With the Lights Out culls material from live shows, studio sessions, rehearsals and home recordings, chronicling the band’s career from the first disc’s opener, a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” recorded at a house party in 1987, to the band’s last studio recording, “You Know You’re Right,” which was released as a single a couple years ago. The DVD includes nine songs from early band rehearsals in Novoselic’s mom’s house, a fairly rare video for “In Bloom” and various previously unreleased live performances.

For under $60, not a bad gift for just about anyone who digs the rock.

The Beatles, The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1
This is the way to start a Beatles collection: Meet the Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album, Something New and Beatles ‘65. Nothing fancy, no outtakes, no alternate versions, simply the first four Beatles albums released in the States. Plus, a 60-page booklet written by Beatles historian Mark Lewison.

Each CD includes both the original mono and stereo versions of each album, 90 songs total, from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to “I’ll Follow the Sun.” List price: $49.99.

Michael Jackson, The Ultimate Collection
What is there to say about a box set that brings together the most amazing, infectious songs from the King of Pop’s entire career and puts them alongside a few bizarre extraneous cuts and one CD of latter-day M.J. that just doesn’t hold up? You wouldn’t really say “ultimate.” Starting where it does, with a string of Jackson 5 tunes, including “I Want You Back” and “ABC,” and quitting once it gets to “Black or White” on disc three, would’ve made a lot more sense.

Includes a DVD with a best-of collection of music videos. List price: $59.99.

Grateful Dead, Beyond Description: 1973-1989
Add this 12-CD release to 2001’s prequel, The Golden Road: 1965-1973, and you get 24 CDs’ worth of extended jamming—16 years of live performances that continue the story of a band and culture that evolved on an endless road trip. List price: $149.99.