The Complete U2: The World’s First Digital Box Set

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In October, Apple announced a deal with rock band U2 to provide its entire music catalog on the iTunes Music Store as a “digital box set” called The Complete U2 . For the first time, a significant artist’s entire career would be available — legally — over the Internet. On November 23, Apple released this electronic collection on all of its iTunes Music Stores. Being both a U2 fan and a trustworthy Playlist editor, I took it upon myself to purchase and download this new approach to music packaging and collecting. Here are my experiences and impressions.

Note: This article doesn’t get into the debate over whether or not the iTunes Music Store’s 128 kbps AAC bitrate is good enough to justify buying music in electronic format. The topic has been debated enough and is really a separate issue — if you generally refuse to buy compressed music, you’re unlikely to buy this electronic box set anyway. Similarly, I’m not going to talk about the limitations of DRM-protected music. If you don’t like being restricted to playing your music back on up to five computers and an unlimited number of iPods, iTunes Music Store music isn’t for you, U2 or not.

The Download

When you visit the iTunes Music Store to explore The Complete U2, it appears just like any other album — you can browse to it or search for it, and when you find it, its songs are listed in the main iTunes window. Like many albums, some songs are available for individual purchase (for the usual $.99), whereas others are only available when you purchase the entire album — in this case, the entire box set. Most of these album-only tracks are among the rare and unreleased songs that make the collection special, thus encouraging you to purchase it. (I’ve heard a number of complaints about this, but hasn’t that always been the case with box sets and compilations? I’ve bought quite a few “Best of” CDs over the years just to get a couple hard-to-find tracks.) The main differences between this album and others are, well, the price ($149) and the number of songs (445, which I’ll talk about in a bit).

For many customers, besides the bigger hit on their wallets, the sheer size of The Complete U2 also means a bigger hit on their bandwidth. Even compressed in the iTunes Music Store’s AAC format at 128kbps, 445 songs compose a hefty download. How hefty? Try just under 2GB. That’s almost half a DVD, or three CD-ROMs, of data. In other words, dial-up users should just move along — there’s nothing to see here.

If you’re lucky enough to have a broadband connection — preferably a cable modem with no neighbors in sight, or a hefty T1 (like my lucky editor in chief) — the download is much more pleasant. On my underused cable modem connection, which can usually download a single song from the iTunes Music Store in about 10 to 15 seconds, the entire download took just over 95 minutes. (Granted, this was on my second attempt to download the entire box set; the first took about 40 hours and over 50 tries and got me only 40 of the 445 tracks. I originally had my iTunes Library located on a network volume, and for some reason, iTunes simply would not download more than 30 or 40 songs from the box set — it would quit with an error and then force me to quit iTunes, relaunch it, and start the whole process over again. I’d successfully downloaded over 100 tracks, one at a time, in the past, so I’m not sure why the snafu occurred now. Relocating my iTunes Library to my boot volume solved this problem.)

As a side note, iTunes is not good at letting you know how much of your purchase is left to download. Normally you can figure it out fairly easily, but with 445 songs, it’s a lot harder to keep track. Here’s a tip: If you haven’t deleted iTunes’ Purchased Music playlist, keep an eye on it during the download. When you initiate the download of the box set, all the tracks will appear grayed out in that playlist — songs change to black as they’re successfully downloaded. Or, even better, create a new Smart Playlist with the criterion “Album contains The Complete U2 .” This playlist contains only the songs in the digital box set and lets you quickly see which have been downloaded and which are still in the queue.

The Music

I’m a big U2 fan, and have been for a long time. I bought Boy back in the early 80s, and I still think The Unforgettable Fire is one of the best rock albums of all time. Before purchasing The Complete U2 , I already owned most of their studio albums and a few of their singles and B-sides. So apart from the rare person who has never owned a U2 album and suddenly decides to buy everything they’ve ever done, I’m probably a good example of the target market for The Complete U2 — someone who likes the band enough to be willing to buy all of their stuff at an affordable price. So how happy am I with the collection?

Apple and U2 plug the The Complete U2 as an exhaustive retrospective of the band’s career, and it’s hard to argue with that claim. All of their studio albums are here, from the raw early efforts of Boy , October , and War to the “U.S.” troika of The Unforgettable Fire , The Joshua Tree , and Rattle and Hum to the euro-techno-inspired efforts of Achtung Baby , Zooropa , and Pop . Add in their experimental effort as Passengers, their return-to-rock All That You Can’t Leave Behind , and the surprisingly good new release How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb , and you get a catalog most bands would die for. But studio albums only make up 142 tracks. To get to 445, you’ve got to add in the EPs, singles, B-sides, live performances, and even demo tapes — it’s all here.

Is it truly exhaustive? I have a few U2 tracks—from singles, bonus CDs, or movie soundtracks—that are ever-so-slightly different from the versions in the box set, but only a seriously freakish collector will care about those differences, as we’re talking about things like a fade-in that’s half a second shorter. There are also a few covers, such as “Unchained Melody,” and tracks from movie soundtracks, such as “Dancing Barefoot,” that are conspicuously absent (likely due to licensing issues). But The Complete U2 is still as close to a complete collection as I've ever seen. (It even includes a “Fast Cars” bonus track recorded during the sessions for the latest album that that isn't included on the US version of the CD.)

Here are some numbers to put the breadth of this collection into perspective:

* The 445 tracks add up to 34 hours, 51 minutes, and 5 seconds of music — that’s 35 hours of U2.

* Of the 445 tracks, 202 are unique songs and 79 are album-only tracks that cannot be purchased separately (from the iTunes Music Store, at least).

* If you like remixes, alternate versions, and live takes, you’ll be happy to know that there are 84 songs with multiple versions in the collection (which make up 328 of the 445 tracks). Which songs and how many versions? Here are the top 10:

Discotheque (15 versions)
Lemon (12)
Even Better Than the Real Thing (11)
Mysterious Ways (11)
I Will Follow (9)
Staring At the Sun (8)
Elevation (7)
Mofo (7)
New Year’s Day (7)
Numb (7)

After that, you get:

6 versions of 4 songs
5 versions of 11 songs
4 versions of 10 songs
3 versions of 17 songs
2 versions of 32 songs
1 version of 118 songs

For some of those tracks — especially those from the “euro-tech” period — the multiple versions are often dance mixes (including a few too many techno takes for my taste.) However, even if you’re not a fan of reheated remixes, take heart — 98 of the tracks in the collection are live versions, and U2 has a well-deserved reputation of being one of the best live bands anywhere. You can feel the energy of their live performances even while sitting at your desk at work. Plus you can never have too many copies of “Bad.”

On the other hand, because The Complete U2 contains every album and single, a good number of the “445 tracks” are duplicates. Not just slightly different versions, but identical copies. For example, the single version of “One” appeared on the album Achtung Baby , the single One , and the compilation The Best Of 1990-2000 , so it appears three times in the box set. But it’s not the only one — a quick survey reveals at least 23 songs that have two identical versions in the set, and another 12 that have three identical versions. (There may be others, as well — these numbers come from comparing identical files. Sometimes the same song appears one or two seconds longer or shorter when included on a different album, so these numbers may be higher.) Perhaps the “445 track” tally should more realistically be listed as 398?

Overall, even the most diehard U2 fan will likely find something new and interesting in this collection. For example, how many have a copy of Bono’s version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love?” Or the band’s take on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”? Or the first demo of “Shadows and Tall Trees”? (That I find a bit difficult to listen to.) I own a number of “comprehensive” box sets, and The Complete U2 beats them all for both breadth and depth. And there’s something special about being able to experience the whole of an artist’s career at one sitting: It’s easy to take that artist’s talent for granted when its fruits are spread out over 25 years, but when it’s all in front of you at the same time, you begin to appreciate its impact. This has been my experience with most box sets, but it’s especially true here — U2 has created a lot of great music. Some I’ve liked, some not so much, but there are few bands that over the past 25 years have been both as consistent and as adaptable as U2, and illustrating this is perhaps the greatest strength of The Complete U2 .

The Liner Notes

The U2 box set also attempts to remedy one of the most common criticisms of downloaded music: The lack of liner notes. With most music downloads, you lose not only the CD jewel case, but, more importantly, the front cover booklet and album art, the back cover, and any other special inserts the band has chosen to include. In fact, this has been one of the major complaints about the price of downloaded music — many music buyers feel that since these items are missing, the price of downloaded music should be significantly less than if you are buy the same music on CD. Well, when you purchase The Complete U2 , you have no such reason to complain — you get a 42-page booklet that includes all album art, a complete track listing, photos, liner notes and track listings for each individual album or EP, and discographies for the singles from each album. It’s an impressive document that I enjoyed a heck of a lot more than some of the far-too-wordy-and-effusive booklets that come with most box sets. However, since you buy The Complete U2 online, the booklet must also be electronic, so it’s provided as a PDF file that’s automatically downloaded along with the music. The file shows up in iTunes and double clicking it opens your preferred PDF viewer. You can then choose to print it or keep it on your computer for future reference. (How long before iTunes can render PDF documents? My bet is soon.) Although I missed having a shiny booklet in my hands, I appreciate the trade-off of being able to search the liner notes for every instance of "Brian Eno."

The Price

The $149 price of The Complete U2 has been met with both criticism and praise around the Internet. On the one hand, if you don’t already own much U2, $149 for 445 tracks is a steal. On the other hand, if you’re a big U2 fan who’s already got a bunch of their albums, buying the box set is going to duplicate much of your collection. But the truth is that this is the case for most box sets — the people most likely to buy the sets are also those most likely already have the the band’s albums. (My Led Zeppelin box set, for example, is basically just a box of their studio CDs.)

However, even if you’re already a big fan of the band, The Complete U2 offers a lot for the money. You get dozens of unreleased and rare tracks, almost 100 live performances, and scores of new versions of your favorite songs. If you consider the standard price of $.99 for individual tracks from the iTunes Music Store — and most other online music stores, for that matter — the live tracks and unreleased songs alone take you over the $149 price. (And if you purchase the U2 iPod, you get a $50 coupon for the box set, bringing the price down to $99.)

The Lowdown

Assuming you’re willing to purchase music online, is The Complete U2 worth buying? If you’re an uber-collector who already has twenty copies of Sunday Bloody Sunday and Beautiful Day, you’ve likely already spent a small fortune accumulating your U2 stash and won’t find much new here. However, if you’ve been in a hole for the past 25 years and have just recently discovered U2, there’s no question — it’ll be $149 (or $99 if you’ve already bought the eponymous iPod) well spent. Similarly, if you’re a fan of the band who only owns their albums, there’s a lot to like. I’m certainly enjoying my “box set.”

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