Last week, Amazon offered a pretty damn good deal on the Led Zeppelin 10CD Complete Studio Recordings box from 1993. Ordinarily it's $115, but they were selling it for $70, so I decided to grab it, since I've only ever owned Physical Graffiti on CD. Also, I wanted to get this version, rather than the 2009 Definitive Collection, because, frankly, the newer remasters were likely to be compressed and limited all to hell. (I visited a couple of audio-nerd burrows to figure out whether this is in fact the case; opinions varied.) Also, the fetishistic quality of that set actually turned me off - the idea of miniature reproductions of all six In Through the Out Door sleeves and a version of the Led Zeppelin III sleeve with a working pinwheel just felt obsessive and pathetic. Music is sound. I care about sound quality, not playing with (or just sitting and reverently staring at) packaging.
I think I made the right choice. The discs sound fantastic. (Assuming you like Led Zeppelin, of course.)
I have this weird ambivalence about packaging. On the one hand, as a reader and writer, I love a really well-written essay, and some boxes/deluxe reissues have terrific liner notes. The Robert Palmer essay in the Ornette Coleman box Beauty is a Rare Thing is a good example of this, and I'm sure I could dig through my collection and come up with a bunch of others, but you get my point. The trouble is, boxes are also frequently (especially now when they emerge as labors of love from indie labels desperate to dissuade folks from just downloading the audio content) loaded down with extraneous crap. The Albert Ayler box Holy Ghost had a pressed flower, postcards, reproductions of zines, and on and on, when all I wanted was the music and the book. And the new 3CD/1DVD/7"/book/photos edition of Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power just seems absurd to me. (The essays and "testimonials" are pretty much guaranteed to be a total waste of everyone's time, and I like Henry Rollins.)
So I like that the 1993 Led Zeppelin box pairs up the discs into little books, in the process juggling them out of release order so Physical Graffiti can get its own book. I like it because the perversity, the non-deluxeness of it, is so thoroughly in keeping with the spirit of Led Zeppelin, as I understand it: "Here's the album. No, there's no single. No, we don't have a publicist. See you on the road."
I also like it because it's that much easier to reconcile spending $70 on CDs that I'll immediately import into my MacBook and thence to my iPod. Maura Johnston, a writer who's too smart to waste her time talking about American Idol as much as she does, had a pretty good essay about ridding oneself of physical music and going digital-only on pastemagazine.com the other day. She's still got a romantic attachment to the idea of physical music-objects qua objects; "There was value in music having a physical presence—even those records that you’d only pull out for very specific reasons reminded you of their existence during a routine house-cleaning," she writes. "As music becomes less physical, its whole essence becomes more disposable."
I like having some stuff around in physical form, for the simple reason that my iPod and headphones are a unit, in my head. I have a cable that allows me to plug my iPod into my stereo, but I never do it. So there are certain CDs I keep around just because when I want to listen to them, I want to use speakers to do so. These range from Miles Davis's Agharta, which takes over my living room like a rabid animal when I let it loose in the apartment, to Ryoji Ikeda's Matrix, which uses ultra-high frequencies and panning to create effects that headphones simply can't duplicate - it's as much about audiology as aesthetics. And I have the feeling that although these Led Zeppelin albums are, indeed, gonna be permanent fixtures in my iPod, there are going to be plenty of times when I'm gonna want to hear "No Quarter" or "Achilles Last Stand" through speakers, at room-filling volume.