Box Set Key: Part One: Ray Charles, Pure Genius - The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959)
Listeners approaching an artist's discography may revel in the complexity disclosed: a rare track only available on a long-forgotten compilation; the one B side not included on a singles collection; albums that changed names or with unclear titles caused, for example, by the inclusion of a track's name on the front cover (hello, D Train—or is that, You're the One for Me?); artist names or titles differing (however slightly) in their inscription between the spine of the L P and the label (or the cover, or the liner...)... the possibilities go on.
Or they may recoil at the complexity. Demand satisfaction in the form of compilations that gather together all the dismissed versions and neglected curios. Until those compilations arrive, and only add to the complexity.
The only kind of compilation that could solve all such pesky discographical problems, for those of us who do so recoil, would look something like this: every track not already included on the artist's official albums of original material (even versions that differ minutely from the album track) presented chronologically by release date. Do not introduce any new ordering (tracking) and put aside, at first, previously-unreleased material, such as demos, out-takes, and unreleased live versions. The Rock Annual, among other goals, aims to show how rarely compilations come close to this ideal. Of course, at least in the case of digital files, albums can be interfiled with singles and other releases, to create a complete chronological catalog-compilation of an artist's work. Such a method is all well and good for the limitless virtual space available via the computer screen. In my personal experience, and—I immodestly suggest—in the listening habits of society generally in the age of constant television, the possibilities suggested by that limitless space obliterate the integral nature of an album in the same way that a compilation scatters far and wide the tracks constituting an album of original material. And I would add to that argument that the plentitude available online does not encourage close and repeated listening of any given piece of music.
What then to do with compilations, for those of us who want to listen to music in the order it was originally released and also worry about the negative effects of listening via a computer screen that encourages viewing (not listening)? First, we venture a distinction between a box set and a boxed set; the notion that they are competing terms for the same kind of item does not carry water (or disks). The grammar traditionalism insisting that several records/ disks placed into a box have been boxed is still helpful, however. But I prefer "boxed" to apply only to sets that feature full albums, in their original form, placed together in a box, such as the Original Album Series budget sets that have, despite their tackiness, in recent years made many albums available digitally for the first time. A box set, on the other hand, is more like a standard compilation, but much longer, spread out over several discs.
The Ray Charles Atlantic Records box set at first seems closer to the compilation-box sets common in the early years of the Compact Disc, for example Jefferson Airplane Loves You or the self-titled 1990 Led Zeppelin box. These were the industry standard then, replaced in recent years by expanded ("super deluxe") multi-disk versions of albums, such as those for selected albums by the Who, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, and Paul McCartney. The latter require less disocgraphical sleuthing than compilations: the entire original albums is featured, supplemented with a bounty of additional material. Compilations, whether they be multi-disk stes or not, do require more work. The listener, if he chooses to do so, identifies which album each track comes from, or if it came from an album of original material at all, and, if it did not, whether the track has been included on a previous compilation. Then there are the messier issues noted above: is a song that has been included in some form on a past album actually a different version? And so on. Of course, this kind of research has been made easier by online, computer resources.
The Charles set is neither such a compilation nor a "super deluxe" version of a particular album. It could be considered to be deluxe editions of each of the artist's Altantic albums all bundled together. Even so, it is structured similarly to the box sets Atlantic put together for three of its star Jazz artists: Ornette Coleman (Beauty Is a Rare Thing), John Coltrane (Heavyweight Chamption), and Charles Mingus (Passions of a Man). All four of these arrange tracks by session, as preferred by Jazz researchers (and perhaps listeners as well). Indeed, a Jazz box set is likely to feature an accurate, if not always thorough, sessionography that allows the listener to piece together the form in which the music contained therein first appeared. While such a sessionographical approach to organizing compilations (as compared to a discographical approach) is not as common in Rock/ Rhythm and Blues as in Jazz, when a listner does confront it, and wants to know the discographical history of the artist, the task ahead is not an easy one. Artists with a singles-centric approach, as Charles was in the Fifties, had compilations of tracks originally released on singles, in some cases several years before the compilation (for example, Charles's first L P, Ray Charles, released in 1957, included singles released as far back as 1954). Even Jazz artists, who were album-centric almost as soon as the L P appeared, have compilations consisting of out-takes released years after the fact (in the case of Coleman's Atlantic work, The Art of the Improvisers, Twins, and To Whom Who Keeps a Record). In either case, sessiongraphic compilations present difficulties for the discograpy-minded because those out-takes, when arranged chronologically by session, are mixed in with tracks from the influential, highly-recorded albums that a novice listener probably wants to start with (in Coleman's case, The Shape of Jazz to Come and so on). With Charles, early in his Atlantic career, all the releases were singles, but of course they were not released in the same order that they were recorded. Once albums began to be crafted as albums, perhaps recorded in a single session, again within the box set they may be mixed in with out-takes, alternate takes, and false starts and other fragments. In short, arranging tracks sessionographically—that word alone lets you know trouble is ahead—creates quite a mess for those of us who to listen discographically. Maybe you are already familiar with artist's work as it was originally released and want to re-experience the music in a different order, creating new contexts. In that case, a sessiongraphic approach could appeal. Maybe you like delving into the minutiae of the past. In that case, you may eventually get around to listen to the music by session, instead of by release. Maybe.
Meanwhile, when we do the piecing-together of the original albums, we clarify historical matters for ourselves, but we also indirectly create additional discographical complexity. Here, for example, is what I do in the case of these sessiongraphic box sets: create a key to the box set. A basic discography for the period covered by the set is written out, but not with track names. Instead, each track name is indicated by its place in the box set: the C D number is first, follwed after a dash by the track number. Therefore, each track has a new discographic identity; future compilations in turn can be compared to this box set using the same approach. More complexity, always growing more complex. Two examples from the Charles set:
The Genius of Ray Charles:
The Genius After Hours:
With these listings of the tracks, when I want to listen to the two albums in their original form, I can quickly pick the needed C Ds, in this case numbers 2, 3, and 6. We can easily see how far we have come from the original releases, especially in the case of an album like The Genius After Hours, the contents of which were drawn from multiple recording sessions across a relatively-wide span of time, meaning that we need a multi-tray C D player (or two stereo systems!) to listen to the album (somewhat) seamlessly. Albums recorded as cohesive, singular projects, such as The Great Ray Charles, one of Charles's straight-up Jazz albums, with some arrangements by Quincy Jones, or The Genius of Ray Charles (as hinted by the tracks' placement above, split between two sessions, one featuring Charles singing ballads, the other again full-on Jazz music), though they can be heard in their original order somewhat easily, nonetheless have been deprived of the special status that an album achieves by standing on its own, demanding the listener's undivided attention.
For the sake of completion, here is the remainder of my box-set key. Note that not all of the set's tracks are listed here, as some tracks (actually, most of the seventh C D) were previously unreleased. A few others were originally randomly released on compilations over the years.
The Great Ray Charles:
Ray Charles/ Milt Jackson - Soul Brothers
Ray Charles/ Milt Jackson - Soul Meeting
David Newman - Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman
The following albums consisted entirely of tracks that had originally been released as singles:
What'd I Say
The Genius Sings the Blues included four previously-unreleased tracks with eight tracks originally released as singles:
–J U, June 2020