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Which is the best Bob Dylan box set? And which is the worst?

Which is the best Bob Dylan box set? Which is the worst? And how good are the in-betweens?

There have been eight official Bob Dylan box set releases (on CD in the UK)  – in addition to the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series standard box sets and their Deluxe Editions, both recently reviewed here on ROCK ART EDITIONS.

If you can, for a moment, ignore the music of each Bob Dylan box set and judge it purely as an artefact – that is, the packaging, cover art, books and memorabilia – you’ll find that they range from the excellent, through the good (but not great), to the disappointingly half-hearted.

Most aficionados already owned much of the music in every Bob Dylan box set, long before they were released. So, many bought each box set as an artefact, not a collection of music. (The sonic quality of Bob Dylan albums is expertly documented by Derek Barker of Isis in a lengthy survey, Bob Dylan Remastered, compiled with the help of Alan Fraser of Searching for a Gem.)

The Complete Album Collection Vol. One – the best Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan The Complete Album Collection Vol. One

The Complete Album Collection Vol. One, comprising 47 CDs, is the best Bob Dylan box set. It’s a fitting package for a peerless collection of music.

Joe Marchese was absolutely right in his perceptive review on The Second Disc: “excels in a flawlessly designed presentation worthy of its subject. It’s housed in a box with a lift-off cover, and every album is presented in a faithfully-reproduced LP mini-sleeve… the 268-page hardcover book is also a wonder to behold… track listings… original liner notes for every album… great selection of photographs and memorabilia images… Clinton Heylin has written an album-by-album chronology of over 40 pages’ length. As none of Legacy’s past Dylan reissues has included liner notes from a historical perspective, Heylin’s analyses are a crowning touch here.”

if you want to check out the package before buying, you can see the artwork, including the entire book, on the wonderfully detailed Discogs.

The Original Mono Recordings – another excellent Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan The Original Mono Recordings

The Original Mono Recordings is another superlative artefact. It delivers the first eight albums, from Bob Dylan to John Wesley Harding, in replica LP covers, original inserts and sleeves, housed in a slip holder which slides into a striking monochrome slipcase. The full colour book has new Greil Marcus liner notes.

Many will be hoping that it will eventually be discounted: the almost-identical Miles Davis mono box, which launched at the same high price (about £100), now retails for about £20.

Biograph – a good (but not great) Bob Dylan box set

Biograph (1985) included 21 rare/unreleased songs. A dummy run for The Bootleg Series, Biograph is – musically – a key Bob Dylan box set. The 3CD triple jewel box wouldn’t win any prizes for package design, but its 64pp booklet, with Dylan’s own “Deluxe Notes” (!) on each track, was revelatory. Cameron Crowe’s extensive essay take up the booklet’s first 41 pages. And the photos include work by luminaries like David Gahr, Ken Regan and Daniel Kramer.

The original release also has three picture discs, each with a different Dylan portrait.

Subsequent reissues of Biograph have different formats. The 1991 version is a true box set, with each of the three discs housed in its own card cover, all in a rigid cardboard box. The bookset edition (2011, pictured below) is equally tempting, though the bookset format has its critics.

Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan Biograph

Collectors’ Box – another good (but not great) Bob Dylan box set

Sonically innovative – it tested the viability of the SACD and Surround Sound formats – Collectors’ Box (2003) is another good but not great Bob Dylan box set.

Its 15 albums – selected who knows how? – are packaged in delightful digipak gatefold sleeves, with the original vinyl LP artwork enclosed as individual leaflets.

But the attractive design of the digipak sleeves is compromised by their being packed into an open-ended box, which is both rudimentary and a bit too small. There’s no accompanying book/let, disappointing in what was intended as a high-ticket premium product.

Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan Collectors’ Box

DYLAN Limited Edition Deluxe – yet another good (but not great) Bob Dylan box set

DYLAN, the “Limited Edition Deluxe” 3CD box, packages its discs in fine original card covers, complete with inner sleeves. The set of 10 photo cards is memorabilia worth having.

But the package is a misfire: the box has a bizarre combination of a cloth exterior and a (faux) velvet lining. The 40pp booklet is thin and over-reliant on photos at the expense of text. The CDs are disguised as mini-vinyl discs. Oh dear… .

And the “Limited Edition” has no indication of how many were made: 50,000? 500,000? 5 million?

For me, DYLAN, the package, doesn’t work.

Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan box set: DYLAN

50th Anniversary Collections – the worst Bob Dylan box sets

The three successive 50th Anniversary Collections contain some desirable music, and they are collectable, because of their tiny edition sizes.

As artefacts, though, they hardly warrant discussion. Their packaging is perfunctory. They are lo-cost packages housing music released, we are informed, by Sony, to ensure that their 1962, 1963 and 1964 Dylan recordings didn’t fall into the public domain, following changes in European copyright law.

Sony reportedly manufactured just 100 copies each of the four-CDR “1962” set and the six-LP “1963” set, and 1000 copies of the nine-LP “1964” release and sold them only in Europe. (Buyers and traders should not rely on these second-hand figures: I have no way of checking their accuracy.)

Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan The 50th Anniversary Collection 2012

Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan 50th Anniversary Collection 2013

Super Deluxe Edition has a review of the 1963 release by astute Editor Paul Sinclair which has more information, including a track list.

Bob Dylan box set

Bob Dylan 50th Anniversary Collection 2014

In safeguarding its 1965 recordings, Sony got wise and made money, too. The result: the The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 The Cutting Edge Collector’s Edition, 18 CDs in a sumptuous, ultra high-priced limited edition box.

So, to sum up: the Complete Album Collection Vol. One is the best Bob Dylan box set (as an artefact); the 50th Anniversary Collections are the worst.

Are any of the Bob Dylan box sets a worthwhile investment? Because of their rarity value, the 50th Anniversary Collections could appreciate significantly in value. Ditto The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 Collector’s Edition.

Is any other Bob Dylan box set likely to grow in value? I don’t see much evidence so far.

Copyright: text © Gerald Smith, ROCK ART EDITIONS 2016; pictures © Sony Music Entertainment. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.