Pop: New box-sets: the gospel truth

Two shopping days to go. Your only hope is a box-set. Let Andy Gill be your guide
The Velvet Underground

Peel Slowly and See

Polydor 31452 7887-2

This is just about all you could wish for in a box-set: genuinely innovative music from a band of legendary status, beautifully packaged, with an informative, well-designed booklet, and a box featuring a peelable banana-skin. All this, and the whitest noise in rock. Four of the five discs - each in a different hue of leopardskin, with cases replicating the original scribbled-on tape boxes of the LP masters - correspond to the group's four great albums, setting the album tracks en bloc within the various out-takes and unreleased tracks of the same period.

The remaining CD is the most interesting, however, presenting highlights from their 1965 demos which show the enormous influence of Dylan on "Lewis" Reed's muse, with stately folk-music versions of "Venus in Furs", "Heroin", "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "I'm Waiting for the Man". Each of these songs is observed at length, as it progresses through various takes, gradually becoming closer to the later album versions: the early "I'm Waiting for the Man", for instance, hasn't yet found its chugging engine, starting out as a whiney-voiced, clean-shaven country-blues number which, by the final take, has developed the whiskery viola scrapings of the kind for which John Cale would become justly renowned.

The Velvets' reputation, established initially by the Warhol connection, was built musically on the disparity between the aggressive, urban blitzkrieg snarl of their second LP White Light / White Heat and the more intimate style of their eponymous third album, with its recovery-ward air of acquiescence. Between these two poles can be strung an endless line of disciples, from the Jesus & Mary Chain and REM to Nirvana, though none attacked the format with quite the venom and tenderness of the Velvets.

White Light / White Heat, in particular, is one of rock's great warts 'n' all masterpieces - a barrage of heavily distorted, churning riff-noise in which the usual rock influences are given a jolt of speed and a crash course, courtesy of Cale's organ and viola, in the minimalist experiments of LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. The enforced departure of Cale after that album removed the sense of pitched battle from their sound, throwing the spotlight more on Reed's tales of emotional erosion among losers and lovers on the fringes of society; as a result, the Velvets subsequently became a dinky little rock 'n' roll group, but little more than that, ultimately.

The final disc, covering the group's last LP Loaded (we'll ignore the travesty of Squeeze, as does this box), concludes with early versions of songs which would later surface in Reed's solo career, such as "Satellite of Love" and "Sad Song", of which the most revealing is a version of "Ocean" featuring the great churchy presence of Cale, back for one track on organ and showing just what the group had been missing for a brace of albums. It brings things full circle in a way that last year's reunion album couldn't quite equal.

Roxy Music

The Thrill of it All

Virgin EG CD BOX5

Of all the Velvet Underground's disciples, none adapted their innovations with quite such elan and imagination as Roxy Music. Poised perfectly on the cusp of high art and low trash, the group brought a desperately needed irony to art-rock, and a desperately needed intelligence to pop.

Their first album was unlike anything else available in 1972: bizarre and beautiful, swathed in an orchidaceous sophistication of style and music, it featured the earliest roots of the post-modernism that now dominates pop music, in tracks like "2HB" and the Satie-meets-Can flavour of "Chance Meeting". Displaying a huge leap in production techniques, the follow- up For Your Pleasure achieved Roxy's best balance between innovation and appeal. Accordingly, this four-CD set includes all but one track from that album, swaggering in with "Do the Strand" and continuing the band's audacious recombinations of styles in tracks like "Beauty Queen", a strangely elegant marriage of Elvoid croon, Fender Rhodes piano and Allman-esque slide guitar.

Sadly, this would be Eno's last album with Roxy, and as with Cale's departure from the Velvets, the group chemistry was unbalanced by his absence, becoming all the more just the vehicle for Ferry's songs. As a songwriter, he crystallised the notion of jaded existential ennui that has underlain every strain of glam-oriented music ever since, but with considerably more intelligence. As his solo career developed in parallel with the band's, however, Ferry played out his affectations of jet-set lush-life with increasing conviction, and as this set shows, the history of Roxy Music became one of alternative alleys becoming blocked off, with the other musicians fighting ever rarer rearguard actions against the creeping blandness of the band's sound. Certainly, they would never again attempt anything quite as warped and sinister as the sex-doll paean "In Every Dream Home a Heartache", and pop generally is the poorer for it. The Small Faces

The Immediate Years

Charly CD IMM BOX 1

Now cited as precursors of cockney Britpop, the Small Faces epitomised mod style in the late Sixties, with their flimsy little slipper-shoes, desert boots, bum-freezer jackets and moptop haircuts. Ace faces with more imagination than most, their spunky pop-soul beginnings (abbreviated here to their greatest hits) were soon supplanted in the mods' drift towards psychedelia, which this four-disc box focuses upon, from the early speed anthem "Here Comes the Nice" to the cosmic fairy-tale of the Ogden's Nut Gone Flake album.

That landmark is included here in its entirety, complete with Stanley Unwin's silly narration, and while tracks like "Rene" and "Happiness Stan" undoubtedly prefigure the more cliched and whimsical of Blur's songs, there's nothing like the depth and quality of, say, Ray Davies's work with the Kinks. Unnecessarily expanded by the inclusion of both mono and stereo mixes of a dozen songs, this set ekes out their short career a little over-generously; more welcome are the unreleased out-takes of tracks like "Picaninny", which illustrate the 12-bar boogie orientation which would split the band into the Faces and Humble Pie. Plus ca change, and all that.

Various Artists

Def Jam Music Group Ten Year Anniversary

Def Jam 314 423 848-2

Echoing Tamla Motown's Sixties slogan, this four-disc package proclaims Def Jam's rap output, with some justification, as "the Sound of Young America" in the Eighties and Nineties.

A multi-racial enterprise from the off, the label scored early hits with the likes of LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, though since producer Rick Rubin's departure, the big drum and heavy-metal power-chord samples that were synonymous with the label have all but disappeared (along with the white acts), replaced with more funk-oriented grooves. The most impressive pieces here, however, are still the Bomb Squad productions of Public Enemy, perhaps the single greatest development in sonic diversity in the past decade.

Eschewing strict chronology, the set doesn't follow the usual trainspotter imperatives of retrospective boxes, with none of the label's earliest tracks, such as LL Cool J's "I Need a Beat" and the Beasties' "Rock Hard", included. Instead, it presents a kind of extended greatest hits package, taking the listener from the early street tales of Slick Rick - now in jail for manslaughter, but then more of a rascal than a gangsta - to the full range of options offered by modern rap: the hedonist G-Funk of Warren G and Montell Jordan, the bad-boy rap of Onyx, and the East Coast kung- fu horrorcore of the Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man. It's an impressive compilation, showing that although founder Russell Simmons has been lured into other media, the label can still keep its eye on the ball.



Geffen GED 24901

Pere Ubu

The Hearpen Singles

Cooking Vinyl TK957107

If you can't afford a boxful of albums, these singles boxes are worth investigation: the six Nirvana CD singles offer a condensed, user-friendly account of their career, with the added bonus of the entire lyrics to the Nevermind album, enabling us to discern the full extremity of Kurt Cobain's self-loathing. The first line to the chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", incidentally, is "With the lights out, it's less dangerous." Alas, all too untrue.

The four vinyl singles in Pere Ubu's Hearpen Singles box offer a different kind of extremity: recorded on the band's own label in the years leading up to punk, they cast long, dark shadows over the smooth pop surfaces of the time, with spiky guitar lines, piercing electronic noise, and the pantomime-villain vocal antics of David Thomas combining in the most oddly beautiful of avant-rock structures. Certainly, 1975's "30 Seconds Over Tokyo", a six-minute impression of a bombing raid, remains the most extraordinary, uncompromising debut single ever recorded.