There was a time not too long ago when the holiday season would bring a Santa's bag worth of bulky, beautiful box sets to my work desk. Oh, it was glorious: Heck, the old-school music heads at Rhino Records would even package their gratuitous multidisc comps in neon brains (The Sci-Fi Collection), bustiers (The Gothic Box) and blinking phone booths (The Brit Box).
Alas, we now live in a digital age; no one save for crusty music critics and dusty vinyl addicts seems to want to touch and feel and see music anymore. Instead, invisibility is de rigueur, songs ghosting about your iPod. Box sets might as well be shelved next to the 8-tracks, right?
That's why I let out a giddy puff of surprise when a gaggle of box sets — in tinier containers now, cute cardboard sets no thicker than a few jewel cases — showed up in my mailbox. Is the box set making a comeback?! Probably not. But it looks as if they're trying to stick around, in the following cases with smaller, less obnoxious versions.
The hottest set of 2011 is the Beach Boys' Smile Sessions, Brian Wilson's sprawling, unfettered idea in '66-'67 to have those otherwise innocent surfers go psychedelic. Out with Little Deuce Coupe; in with Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock). Multiple versions of Smile Sessions are out there — ranging from $24 to $700 — encompassing a range of CDs, vinyl, artwork, extensive liners, photos, buttons. No matter how much you spend, it's a completist's dream, with those lush, confounding Good Vibrations in both finished and demo mode, plus genuine chatter from the studio. Heroes & Villains is on there, too, as is evidence of Wilson's sadly crumbling mind.
The grungy '90s were the last great decade for "physical" music; album artwork had taken a hit, but CDs ruled. So it makes sense that Virgin Records is reaching out to Smashing Pumpkins fans with box sets honoring the screamo-pop band's most influential albums: 1991's Gish and 1993's radio-changing Siamese Dream. Each set comes with the remastered album plus a bonus disc of alternate versions of such songs as Today and Cherub Rock. There's also a DVD of live performances, plus books, postcards and track-by-track "annotations" from frontman Billy Corgan.
You want a swell gift idea for anyone over the age of 18? Sinatra. Ol' Blue Eyes always works, a timeless bastion of style and class. The Chairman has been repackaged in myriad ways, of course, but Sinatra: Best of the Best is both a dynamite starter kit for a new fan and a comprehensive collection of his classics for Capitol (The Lady Is a Tramp, All the Way, Come Fly With Me) and Reprise (Summer Wind, That's Life, My Way). There's also a fun 1957 concert DVD — recorded in Seattle, Nelson Riddle conducting — with Frank in full ring-a-ding swing mood. It doesn't get cooler than that.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@seandalypoplife) and Facebook (facebook.com/seandaly.tampabay).