While box set collections are commonplace, box set collections of complete discographies are reserved for a very few -- but then again, not everybody is Caetano Veloso. The venerated Brazilian composer is among those extraordinary artists who have amassed a body of work of both the highest cultural and historical importance as well as artistic merit. Furthermore, Veloso's work is distinguished by its restlessness and its trailblazing quality; he has been ridiculously prolific as well as tirelessly innovative, never staying in one place or repeating himself. Indeed, Veloso has always been pushing the envelope, and not necessarily forward but forward, backward, and sideways, and frequently in all of those directions at once: a true postmodernist avant la lettre in his tropicalist contamination of genres and cultural paradigms, he has been both a man of the future and a keeper and scholar of all Brazilian musical traditions. He has written every type of song conceivable, from standard love songs to historical epics, character studies, philosophical musings, carnival marches, protest songs, art manifestos, loving tributes to his favorite artists, autobiographical accounts, and tailor-made hits for other singers, and his dazzling poetry has run the whole gamut from haiku-like pieces to seven-minute odes. No two Caetano Veloso albums are alike and each often introduces a musical universe of its own. He is an album artist par excellence, which is why, in order to understand Veloso's music and its groundbreaking importance not only in Brazilian but world music at large, a box set of his complete discography makes a lot more sense than a regular box set (similarly, virtually any of his studio albums should be preferred to a standard compilation).
Fortunately, Veloso and his record company seem to think along these lines, as in 2002 they celebrated the 35th anniversary of Veloso's career with the release of a special box set containing his entire oeuvre plus several rarities. This was, however, a hardly affordable, extremely limited edition, so five years later for the 40th anniversary a more democratic option was devised. Veloso's discography, now extended until 2007, was repackaged into four different sets, each of ten albums plus a rarities disc -- billed as 10 (+1) in order to reach the magical number 40 -- to be released over the next four years, with the rarities discs also being made available separately. Considering the outrageous amount of material Veloso has recorded, either as a single artist or in collaboration, these boxes are amazingly comprehensive. Included are all of Veloso's official releases between 1965 and 2007, be they studio, live, or collaboration albums, augmented by priceless rarities discs that gather obscure singles, songs featured in tribute albums, or soundtracks of films and TV shows, as well as his own versions of hits he originally composed for the likes of Maria Bethânia and Gal Costa -- it is important to remember that for many years in Brazil he was more famous as a composer than as a solo artist, as his albums were deemed too unusual for mainstream audiences. Rather than listing these boxes' contents, it is in fact much easier to mention what is not here: his work as a film composer (although, as indicated above, vocal tracks from his soundtracks are included among the rarities); Brasil, the legendary 1981 collaboration with João Gilberto, Gilberto Gil, and Maria Bethãnia (understandably, as it is usually thought of as a João Gilberto solo album); three covers of other artists that have appeared on the 1993 compilation Caetano Canta, Vol. 1 (regrettably, among these is a masterful reading of Raul Seixas' "Ouro de Tolo"); the official 1978 live bootleg Bicho Baile Show (released for the first time with the 35th anniversary box); and of course, all of his post-2007 releases.
This first box goes from Domingo, his 1967 debut with Gal Costa, up to the 1974 live album Temporada de Verão, also with Costa, as well as Gilberto Gil. Both artists figure prominently in Veloso's early years, which are marked by his involvement with the radical tropicalismo movement best captured in the seminal Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circensis (1968), his subsequent incarceration at the hands of Brazil's military regime and forced exile in London, and his return to the country in 1972. This is by far the most experimental of Veloso's periods, the one with the most profound cultural significance and probably the one most widely admired internationally, all on account of the fabled tropicalismo. A veritable revolution in the arts, tropicalismo exploded like a bomb in the face of 1968 Brazilian society and became in time the darling of cultural and social historians, art critics, and hip rock stars like David Byrne and Beck. This does not mean, however, that Veloso made his best music during this phase of his career. Veloso at the time was a work in progress, a young songwriter unsure about his singing who saw himself more as a cultural agitator, in the manner of a Jean-Luc Godard or a Pier Paolo Pasolini, than as a musician. His albums were a hodgepodge of provocative ideas rather than finely tuned songs, and could appear alternatively brilliant or exasperating. An excellent case in point is 1969's Caetano Veloso (the one with the white cover), which includes two of his greatest songs, "Irene" and "Os Argonautas," but is marred by shoddy production and the overpowering desire to gleefully destroy every track with a burst of Hendrix-like electric guitar pyrotechnics in the middle, an idea that may have seemed avant-garde back in the day but that pretty soon sounded dated or poorly realized.
It is surely not by coincidence that Veloso's polished latter-day live versions of his early material are typically stronger than the originals. Veloso learned focus the hard way, when he suddenly had to flee Brazil for England. Homesick to the bone, he decided to write a full album in English about his traumatic exile, once more titled Caetano Veloso (1971). Restrained by an elementary knowledge of the language and a thematic, autobiographical center, Veloso wrote a collection of simple yet profoundly moving songs, among these flat-out classics such as "London, London" (perhaps the finest, most tender song ever written about exile) and "Maria Bethânia," and rounded up the proceedings with a heartbreaking rendering of Luiz Gonzaga's "Asa Branca." As if to amend for such a lapse into traditional songwriting, Veloso's next two albums were among his most contentious: the reggae-flavored Transa, which has become a cult favorite, and Araçá Azul, a dabbling in musique concrète practices that probably few people have dared to play twice. At any rate, the crowning jewel of this first box, as well as a great encapsulation of Veloso's frantic early years, is perhaps the rarities disc Cinema Olympia, which features no less than 19 hard-to-find singles and B-sides, including a 1968 EP with Os Mutantes and other key tropicalismo-related tracks. Essential albums from this essential set: Domingo (1967), Caetano Veloso (1967), Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circensis (1968), Caetano Veloso (1971).