Albums of the Year: Andy Gill's top pop boxed sets of 1997

The best of this year's boxed-set CD compilations were both released a couple of months ago, when they were reviewed in fulsome fashion in these pages, so I'll be brief about The Beach Boys The Pet Sounds Sessions and The Doors eponymous retrospective Box Set, two slabs of West Coast pop genius perched precariously on the fault-line separating rock's light and dark sides.

1 The Doors

Box Set

(Elektra 7559-62123-2)

This starts with Jim Morrison abusing the audience at the legendary Miami concert, and ends rather more meekly with a CD of the three remaining members' favourite Doors tracks. But in between is a wealth of demos, out-takes and live material which goes a long way towards rescuing the band's musicians from Morrison's long, dark shadow.

For a trio, they had an extraordinarily diverse musical palette - a febrile blend of jazz drumming, flamenco- and blues-inflected guitar, and classical/ R&B keyboard shadings. Twenty years before the sampler had even been invented, The Doors were playing mix 'n' match musical eclecticism with a casual abandon, and getting hit records with it. But even allowing for the boozed- up blues, the jug-band sea-shanties and the bogus cocktail-jazz outings, the most striking pieces here are the band's original 1965 demos of tracks like "Moonlight Drive" and "Hello I Love You", garage-punk rave-ups bursting with panther grace.

2 The Beach Boys

Pet Sounds Session

(Capitol)

Pet Sounds is probably the only album that could withstand the mi-

croscopic attentions of a four-CD set and still retain its power to captivate: here, besides two complete versions of the album - one of the original mono mix, plus the first true stereo mix - there's effectively a superb instrumental album and a breathtaking a cappella vocal album, along with a wealth of alternative mixes and out-takes.

Brian Wilson's instrumental mixes are like wandering through some strange and wonderful garden full of exotic hybrids: guitars tiptoing with delicate grace between timpani and harpsichord, tenor saxes jousting with bass harmonica, accordions jostling against sweeping French horn glissandi, and the electronic wheedling of the theremin making its first pop appearance. Though it may seem like simply an excuse for nostalgic anoraks to indulge an obsession, The Pet Sounds Sessions serves a more serious purpose in clarifying the process of creation.

3 The Zombies

Zombie Heaven

(Big Beat ZOMBIE 7)

Perhaps the closest any British group of the time came to the tone and texture of Pet Sounds was The Zombies, whose Odessey & Oracle still stands as one of the great lost classics of pop. The new four-CD set unpicks their career from its auspicious opening with "She's Not There", through the baroque beauty of Odessey & Oracle, to the brink of the group's transformation into Argent, with an extra couple of discs - one studio out-takes, the other live BBC sessions - filling in the cracks between the tracks.

Like most British bands of the Sixties, The Zombies cut their teeth on American R&B, but never ceased striving for something more sophisticated. Unfortunately, their instant success brought pressures which quickly crushed the band. By the time their masterwork was released in 1968, they had split up.

4 Joy Division

Heart and Soul

(London 828 968-2)

Joy Division found themselves in a similar situation when, following the suicide of singer Ian Curtis, the haunting "Love Will Tear Us Apart" became their only Top 20 hit. They were, however, vastly more influential than such meagre commercial returns indicate, inspiring the entire Goth/ Indie scene which supplanted New Wave in the early 1980s. The four-CD compilation follows the same format as the Zombies set - two discs roughly corresponding to their two album releases, plus a third live CD and a fourth of out-takes and rarities. This tends to spread their output rather thin, and the singularity of mood becomes wearing for the unbesotted.

5 Squeeze

Six of One

(A&M 540801-2)

Though from the same era, Squeeze were a far chirpier proposition, an ordinary 1970s pop group who used the momentum of the passing new-wave bandwagon to carve a respectable post-punk career out of the songs of Difford & Tilbrook. The set collects together the band's first six LPs, a parade of salty vignettes from albums like Cool For Cats and their masterwork, East Side Story. Ultimately, the sheer weight of downbeat detail is overpowering.

6 Simon and Garfunkel

Old Friends

(Columbia Legacy C3K 64780)

By comparison, Old Friends is a model of restraint, managing to cram their entire career on to just three CDs. Sounding like preppy choristers on the cusp of college and bohemia, the overweening preciousness of their earlier acoustic stuff is unbearable in places but once producer Tom Wilson had added electric muscles to "The Sound of Silence", they quickly developed a more complex approach.

As they progressed, their recordings became increasingly sophisticated, with the baroque complexity of the vocal arrangement to "Scarborough Fair/ Canticle", the piercing string coda to "Fakin' It" and the pre-sampler montage of "Save the Life Of My Child" leading to the cathedral grandeur of "Bridge Over Troubled Water". It's a more than adequate set, though the inclusion of some routine live performances and a couple of twee carols at the expense of 1960s period pieces like "A Simple Desultory Philippic" rather short-changes one's memories.

There are a few other boxes around - a five-CD helping of (mostly live) AC/DC material, Bonfire (eastwest 62119-2), and a Michael Jackson package, Ghosts (Epic EPC 489155 2), comprised of the video and CD single of that name, along with a copy of the Blood on the Dancefloor LP - but the best of the rest has to be The Blue Horizon Story 1965 -1970 Vol 1 (Columbia 488992 2), a three-disc set covering the history of the most successful British blues label ever, from its humble origins releasing limited-edition singles by the likes of Hubert Sumlin and JB Lenore, through to the globe- straddling success of the early Fleetwood Mac.

It's basically the story of one man's obsession - blues fanatic Mike Vernon founding and guiding the label through good times and bad - and the selections are chosen more with rarity than popularity in mind. The result is a fascinating portrait of the 1960s British blues boom, which mingles contributions from American legends such as Otis Spann, Otis Rush, Furry Lewis and Bukka White with cuts by homegrown blueshounds like Chicken Shack and Duster Bennett.

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