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Legendary musicians roll out big (and hefty) box sets this holiday season

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:41 AM

What's that smell? Is that what chestnuts roasting on an open fire actually smell like? No, it's something else. Something nuttier. Something we haven't smelled since Y2K.

Ah yes, it's a whiff of hoarder's panic - a mania that seems to have stricken music lovers this holiday season. The proof? The spate of super-duper-oversize box sets crowding retailers' shelves this month. Perhaps anticipating that imminent doomsday when CDs finally vanish from the Earth, leaving music collectors marooned in the infinity of the Internet, legendary artists have rolled out some really big offerings this winter. And some really heavy ones, too.

But not "big" like the Beatles or "heavy" like Jimi Hendrix - although both have new boxes out, naturally. We're talking about actual size - hefty box sets that measure 13 inches square, 3 inches thick, 9 pounds and 6 ounces.

That describes the unnecessary voluminosity of David Bowie's "Station to Station - Deluxe Edition" ($165.98), a collection that explodes the great glam rocker's only-sorta-great 1976 album into five CDs, three LPs, one DVD, gobs of reproduced memorabilia and oodles of pointless knickknackery. But it looks almost cute compared with "The Genius of Miles Davis," a limited edition set that contains all eight of the Davis box sets released between 1996 and 2007 - 43 CDs in all. This one comes in a trumpet case and costs - deep breath - $749.

Feels like a bit much, doesn't it? Year after year, yule after yule, our music has shrunk from vinyl platters to stocking-stuffable cassettes to slender CDs to a myriad of untouchable ones and zeroes that mysteriously dance inside our iPods.

Box sets stubbornly buck that trend. A recent review of new sets in the New Yorker touched on music's decreasing physical presence in our daily lives but cheerfully noted that "boxed sets are still going strong."

John Lennon's new "Signature Box" ($189.99) contains eight CDs from his post-Beatles solo career but for some reason comes packaged in a bulky seven-inch cube big enough to muscle the collected works of John Cheever clear off your bookshelf. On a recent weeknight, the Georgetown Barnes & Noble had sold out and was awaiting a new shipment.

Eternally influential, it's Lennon's Beatles that probably triggered this hoarding spree. Last Christmas, the band's remastered discography sold like hot cakes in box-set form. In November, iTunes began peddling the band's catalogue digitally for the first time. With the great pop holdouts finally joining the digital world, the end feels nigh. Get your Boss, your Stones, your Jimi and your Zimmy in their latest super-deluxe, remixed, remastered physical iterations before they all disappear forever!

"There's still a solid part of the population that enjoys that physical experience," says Tom Cording, vice president of media relations for Legacy Recordings, the folks behind the Miles Davis trumpet case and "The Complete Elvis Presley Masters" ($749), a set that quickly sold out in its initial 1,000-copy run. "It's a great occasion to compile [music] in a creative and compelling way."

Classic rockers haven't cornered this market. A new Hank Williams set, "The Complete Mother's Best" ($199.99), collects 71 wonderful live radio performances sponsored by Mother's Best Flour from 1951. The 15 CDs and one DVD come in an antique radio-shaped box that's 10 inches tall.

Another reason this season's box sets are so much heavier is the recent addition of vinyl to the mix. The Rolling Stones have two new vinyl sets out - one that collects 13 LPS from 1964 to 1969 ($389.99) and another that gathers 14 LPs from 1971 to 2005 ($419.99). Meanwhile, the four CDs that make up the new "Super Deluxe Edition" of the Who's legendary "Live at Leeds" album ($79.98) come with a bonus 12-inch LP and a seven-inch single.

And, yes, Keith Richards is the man. And, yes, Keith Moon was the man. But what man, woman or child really has room for all this stuff in 2010? As popular music continues to billow and bloom in the digital world, it handily continues to shrink in our physical world - a sweet tradeoff and a perpetual reminder that our favorite songs should be swirling around in our brains, not clogging our great-grandchildren's landfills.

Then again, what's more fun to find under your tree? A $100 iTunes gift card? A dozen $100 iTunes gift cards? Or a gift-wrapped box brimming with remastered Hendrix solos?

"West Coast Seattle Boy," the new Hendrix anthology, is a sensibly svelte 10 by 6 inches and retails for $69.98. If anyone in my family is reading this, I love you very much.

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