Rolling Stones box sets: triumph and disappointment

Rolling Stones box sets provide handy, collectable versions of most of the albums and nearly all the singles. Some of the box sets are beautifully packaged – models of rock art. Some aren’t.

Rolling Stones aficionados disagree about the music of the different releases, as well as their sonic quality. But this post – the first of a trio – isn’t about music or sound quality. It focuses on the packaging, the commercial rock art.

Rolling Stones releases have been generally housed in outstanding album and singles covers, with designs by top artists, notably Andy Warhol, David Bailey and Gered Mankowitz. Judged as rock art, however, Rolling Stones box sets vary.

The post-1971 singles are housed in one of the best packages, while the box set of contemporaneous albums is the most disappointing in the Rolling Stones catalogue.

Rolling Stones Singles 1971-2006 box set

Singles 1971-2006

Rolling Stones Singles 1971-2006 box set, 2011

Rolling Stones Singles 1971-2006 box set is a triumph. Two well-fitting, secure, colourful boxes, individual card sleeves for all 45 CDs – most are replicas of the originals – a helpful booklet, all make for a desirable artefact. It’s appropriate housing for the memorable music it safeguards. The strong, unified design of the box set reinforces the Rolling Stones brand – creativity, fun, vivacity. The shocking pink was a surprise, but it works. The package is visually interesting: you can spend time enjoying and decoding it. True believers buy the Rolling Stones Singles 1971-2006 box set for the packaging alone. (They already own most of the music several times over.)

Rolling Stones Box Set (albums)

Rolling Stones albums, 1970-2005, box set

The Rolling Stones Box Set, 2010

By comparison, The Rolling Stones Box Set, the package of fourteen post-1970 studio albums recorded for Rolling Stones Records/Virgin Records and released in 2010 by Polydor, is unimpressive – judged purely as packaging, of course; it houses some of the high peaks of Rolling Stones music.

The fourteen albums come in plastic jewel cases, housed in a simple, flimsy cardboard slip case. Nothing else. And even the box has minimal design. Dismal. Perfunctory. Niggardly. If someone mistakenly bought me The Rolling Stones Box Set for Christmas, I’d quietly sell it or give it away.

The other Rolling Stones compilation box sets, of the ABKCO/Decca LPs and singles, are also a mixed bag. The de luxe re-releases of individual LPs – Exile on Main St., ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!’, Some Girls, and GRRR! – have the same commercial aim (enrich the musicians) but a different creative purpose. I’ll be reviewing them all in due course.

The bottom line, of course, is that, in addition to housing some of the best rock music ever released, some of the Rolling Stones box sets showcase the finest rock art. As always with the Rolling Stones, art meets commerce. They get on very well, thank you very much.

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