Published Feb 13, 2014Every year, record labels scour their vaults looking for new ways to repackage old material. And every year, the record buying public let's them get away with it as we dutifully purchase whatever baby-boomer baiting box they've managed to come up with.
Amongst 2013's new crop of old hits is Bob Dylan's Complete Album Collection Volume 1, a behemoth set that compiles all 35 of Dylan's studio albums, six live albums and a double disc of rarities. Dylan is, without a doubt, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. His contribution to music is unparalleled. Yet for all the accolades that have been heaped on the former Robert Zimmerman, "consistent" has never been one of them.
Since the mid-'70s, various albums in his discography have been described as "his best album since…" Others have been rightly dismissed for what they are: the artistic missteps of a master following his muse without fear of consequence. That is to say, his discography is a dodgy affair for the uninitiated.
So just who is this collection for? For anyone who doesn't already own a Bob Dylan album, the 47-disc collection, currently going for $300 on Insound, is a sizeable investment, not to mention a major slog to get through as a listener. On the flipside are Dylan's acolytes – the Dylanologists. You don't have to go dig on the Internet for long to find a champion for even the most maligned albums like 1973's Dylan, which receives its first-ever North American release on CD in this box. But if you're defending Dylan, you probably already have it, along with everything else in this set.
Box sets and reissues don't have to be cash grabs. The right material from the right artist at the right time can put old music into new contexts, creating a greater appreciation of the work in question. Curiously, Columbia, the label behind Complete Album Collection, did just that earlier this year with Another Self-Portrait, collecting material recorded around the same time as Dylan's infamously bad pair of 1970 albums, Self Portrait and New Morning.
New Beach Boys and Clash collections suffer a similar fate as the sprawling Dylan box. Made in California is a six-disc retrospective of the Beach Boys 50-year career. For anyone invested enough to already be digging through their post-Smile material, there's little here to draw you in and newbs should just stick with a good Greatest Hits set. Sound System collects the Clash's five studio albums — conveniently omitting the much-maligned Cut the Crap, the one album most Clash fans don't already have.
Critics are just as culpable; we inevitably heap praise on whatever collections are unearthed because the music itself is legitimately praise-worthy. Yet sometimes it's about more than just the music. Pretty packages filled with reproduced ephemera are all well and good, but are we learning anything new by rearranging or repackaging all this material? Aren't the Clash "the only band that matters" with or without branded dog tags?
The argument for these sets often hinges on the promise of unreleased material, but in an age of a la carte music consumption, burying them amongst albums worth of material consumers already own renders most collections redundant. Each of these sets come with a various assortment rarities, some never heard before, others available elsewhere. If there's anything fans really need it can probably be found on iTunes without dropping hundreds of dollars on material they already have — the "album" argument doesn't really cut it for odds 'n' ends collections.
Era-specific packages like Eric Clapton' Give Me Strength which gathers material from Slowhand's run of mid-'70s comeback albums, offer far more bang for your buck while deluxe reissues of the Velvet Underground's White Light White Heat and Nirvana's In Utero dive deep into transitional periods of two of alternative music's most influential acts. But even these sets suffer from a dearth of truly exciting, never before heard material that's going to draw in anyone beyond diehards.
The record industry is in trouble and it responds by preying on the loyal few who still play by their preferred rules. Such shortsightedness is hardly unexpected. But it's frustrating to see the same albums repackaged time and again, ignoring large swaths of their catalogue. Meanwhile it's fallen to the likes of reissue label Numero Group to highlight lost '90s acts like Codeine, Medicine and Unwound. And despite being a top seller for over two decades, hip-hop and R&B remain perpetually underserved. Aaliyah's music has never been more prescient than it is today, yet her catalogue remains out of print.
If record labels really want to part music fans from their hard-earned dollars, they've got to offer us something new in return. God knows we're willing to cough up the bucks — just look at the rapid growth in vinyl sales as millenials replace their CDs and mp3s with LPs. All we ask in return is that they make it worth our while.