Dreaming of a Boxed Christmas
By Michael Henningsen
DECEMBER 20, 1999: There's nothing wrong with giving CDs as gifts ... as long as you're not a music critic who gets most CDs for free, causing friends, relatives and loved ones to speculate as to just how much thought you put into wrapping up a promo and sloughing it off as a present. But that's not to say that music isn't one of the most perfect gifts your money can buy. If you know a person well enough, and have at least some knowledge of what's available in the way of recorded music, CDs can make you the star gift-giver of the season.
But even better yet are boxed sets. If giving a CD says "I care," then giving a boxed set of a favorite artist or genre says "I care so much I hope you'll strip me naked and show your thanks until the early morning hours." Since 1986, when Bruce Springsteen released the first notable career retrospective, boxed sets have become a dime a dozen. Everyone from Randy Newman to Alice Cooper has one these days, and they keep getting more detailed and elaborate. Rhino Records is the undisputed king of the boxed set, having released more of the brilliantly packaged retrospectives in the past couple of years than you can count on 500 hands. Most of the major labels, too, have released boxed sets commemorating their most popular artists.
If you're in the market for a meaningful last-minute gift, then boxed sets are where it's at. For your pleasure, I've compiled a list of the cream of the crop for three basic genres in an effort to take some of the stress out of your being the world's worst procrastinator. As usual, I suggest you shop the mom 'n' pops first, and that you go with your gut feelings. There are far too many boxed sets out there to compile an all-inclusive list, so just think of the following as goodwill suggestions for your last-minute holiday shopping needs.
AC/DC Bonfire (Eastwest)
Not so much a complete retrospective as it is a tribute to late AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, Bonfire collects plenty of rare live and studio tracks cut before Scott's legendary drinking caught up with him, along with the somewhat curious inclusion of the Back in Black album in its entirety. With spirited live versions of "Rocker," "Problem Child," "The Jack" and "Whole Lotta Rosie," Bonfire makes it resoundingly clear that AC/DC were (and in many ways still are) the preeminent blues rock band. Other tracks -- "Let There Be Rock," "T.N.T.," "Highway to Hell" and "Touch Too Much" among them -- make a strong case for AC/DC as one of the best hard rock bands of the '70s and '80s. Bonfire is an uncommon delight as far as boxed sets go, featuring four CDs of mostly previously unreleased material, plus Back in Black, which is perhaps the ultimate tribute to adolescence in all its hard-drinking, promiscuous glory. Wanna see a metalhead smile this holiday season? This is the recipe.
Beach Boys The Pet Sounds Sessions (Capitol)
Arguably the most perfect pop album ever created, Pet Sounds is an infectious, bittersweet and highly ambitious foray into post-teen angst. The album is Brian Wilson at the top of his game, offering more than just a glimpse into his genius as a songwriter and producer. "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Sloop John B," "Caroline, No" and the achingly beautiful "God Only Knows" represent some of the best pop songs ever written. The Sessions box is made up of four discs: the original mono mix of the Pet Sounds album, a stereo remix of the same, and two full discs worth of alternate takes, rehearsals and, perhaps best of all, a Stack O Vocals segment (near a capella versions of all Pet Sounds vocal tracks). Sessions is a must not only for Beach Boys fanatics, but also for pop aficionados of all stripes. Pet Sounds is truly whence modern pop came, and this box expertly documents the long, promised road.
Various Artists Divine Divas (Rounder)
Divine Divas brings together more than 40 outstanding women singers from around the world on two expertly produced CDs. The diversity of this set is remarkable, including contributions by everyone from Ani DiFranco, Cassandra Wilson and Tish Hinojosa to Najma, Susana Baca and Alison Krauss. Fans of women's voices will surely find Divine Divas to be nothing short of a divine treasure.
Gang of Four 100 Flowers Bloom (Rhino)
For nearly two decades, from 1977 to 1995, Gang of Four relentlessly created a body of work that still resonates today. Their brand of funk-charged punk was incendiary, fueled by heated social commentary that gave capitalism a new, startling perspective. Acknowledged by everyone from INXS to the Massive Attack, Gang of Four's influence on rock music, although largely unsung, was profound. 100 Flowers Bloom brings together essential tracks in all their lyrical and musical profundity on two carefully fleshed-out CDs. A more concise punk rock document you will not find.
Galaxie 500 1987-1991 (Rykodisc)
On the eighth day, God (and Kramer) created Galaxie 500: three college friends who couldn't play a lick at first, yet somehow managed to define and redefine slo-core in the space of just under four years. Their three studio albums still stand as some of the most beautiful indie rock ever made, and all of them -- This Is Our Music, On Fire and Today -- are included in this set, replete with several bonus and CD-ROM video tracks. But wait, there's more! The Galaxie box also includes a fourth disc titled Uncollected Galaxie 500 that, for the first time ever, throws fans a new bone or two ... or 14, in the way of unreleased songs, alternate versions and some rare live stuff. All the Luna albums in the world couldn't come close to eclipsing this set.
Ray Charles Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino)
If I were to spend the rest of my life on a desert island with no hope of rescue, I'd want three things: a Discman, a set of headphones and Rhino's exquisite Ray Charles box. The five discs here span Charles' unequaled career in startling detail -- from his early country days to the soul music that made him a legend. Ray Charles is an American icon, with enough class to imbue several generations with a good idea of what it means to be a gift to society. Nobody sings like Ray Charles. Nobody. This one's a little pricey, but well worth the extra pennies.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles The 35th Anniversary Collection (Motown Master Series)
"When Smokey sings/I hear violins," sang that poofta from ABC back in the '80s, and damned if he wasn't dead on. Nearly 40 years after Smokey hit the scene, his honey-drenched voice still commands respect and outright climactic pleasure. This Motown collection boasts 97 tracks on four CDs that are essential to any well-rounded soul collection. Baby Boomers especially will be beside themselves with joy upon tearing the wrapping paper off this one.
Various Artists The Monterey International Pop Festival (Rhino)
For three days in the summer of 1967, the Monterey International Pop Festival brought the San Francisco and Los Angeles music communities together for an event that multiplied the population of Monterey, Calif., by 10. They were all there: Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Otis Redding, The Who, Booker T. & The MGs, Eric Burdon & The Animals, Hugh Masekela, Canned Heat and more. The Monterey box compiles highlights from every set played between June 16 and 18 that year, stitching it all together with near seamless precision. As with most Rhino sets, the accompanying booklet is colorful and highly informative, but it's the four discs that really grab hold of the psyche and won't let go. Monterey was the first major rock festival in the U.S., and this set documents the event in grand style, without going overboard -- all the best is here, and virtually none of the worst.
Muddy Waters The Chess Box (MCA/Chess)
As breathtaking as it is exhaustive, a fan of Muddy Waters or the Chicago sound in general will appreciate this three-CD collection for time to come. All of Waters' best work is here, interspersed with less familiar tracks, retakes, outtakes and unreleased material.
Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)
Two discs containing everything Robert Johnson ever recorded. While essential for the blues fan, The Complete Recordings may be a little daunting in that it contains a plethora of alternate takes (sequenced directly after each master). Nevertheless, novices will get used to it and old school blues fans will instantly dig the haunting sounds of Johnson rigged up in a hotel room with a single mic and acoustic guitar, making mistakes only the Devil himself could rectify.
Bessie Smith The Essential Bessie Smith (Columbia/Legacy)
There exist several boxed sets of the music of Bessie Smith, but this two-disc collection does an effective job of whittling Smith's formidable catalogue down to the bare essentials. Thirty-six of Smith's most stunning tracks are here, including her collaborations with Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman. There are more extensive collections of Smith's work, but this one is first rate, offering a devastatingly beautiful look into the genius of one of the greatest blues singers of all time.
T-Bone Walker Complete Capitol/Black & White Recordings (Capitol)
T-Bone Walker could easily be called the father of the electric blues. Luminaries such as B.B. King have long cited the Texas-born guitarist as a major influence. Of all the Walker retrospectives, this one most effectively chronicles his most explosive period -- the 1940s -- during which he perfected his guitar and vocal style. For Texas blues fans, this one is indispensable.
B.B. King King of the Blues (MCA)
With countless recordings under his belt since 1956, it would be impossible to release an affordable complete retrospective of the career of B.B. King. But this four-disc set does an admirable job, containing many of the landmarks of King's career, along with some less familiar '60s material and the master guitarist's most notable hits.
Lightnin' Hopkins Mojo Hand: The Anthology (Rhino)
This two-disc anthology is the place to start getting to know Houston's finest bluesman, Lightnin' Hopkins. An accomplished organist, guitarist, pianist and vocalist, Hopkins began his career in the 1920s, and the blues have never been the same since. Nimble, prophetic and highly distinctive, Hopkins was one of the most expressive musicians of the genre. He bridged the gap between rural and urban styles with uncommon fire, grace and eclecticism. Start here, then keep going.
Charles Mingus Passions of a Man: The Charles Mingus Anthology (Rhino)
The six CDs in this collection feature bassist/composer Charles Mingus at his most expressive and, at times, explosive. All of his Atlantic recordings are here (including Pithecanthropous Erectus, The Clown, Blues & Roots, Oh Yeah, etc.), as well as a plethora of alternate takes and a 75-minute interview with the man himself. But it's the music, considered far and wide to be some of the best work of Mingus' career, that's essential.
John Coltrane Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino/Atlantic)
For Coltrane fans and bop-o-philes, Heavyweight Champion is essential listening. The seven disc box chronicles Coltrane's two years on Atlantic and includes every shred of music the saxophonist recorded during that period. Between 1959 and 1961, Coltrane worked through the transition that saw him moving away from the "sheets of sound" aesthetic and into two-chord vamp explorations. Coltrane's Atlantic years were a milestone for the man as well as for the evolution of bop. Heavyweight Champion includes the Bags & Trane, Giant Steps, Coltrane Jazz, My Favorite Things, Coltrane Plays the Blues, Olé Coltrane The Avant-Garde and Coltrane's Sound albums in their entirety, along with plentiful alternate takes and previously unheard versions of several numbers. Talk about a mantelpiece!
Miles Davis Quintet 1965-'68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)
Davis' most exploratory ensemble -- saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams -- recorded five albums together between 1965 and 1968, all of which are represented here. Davis, during this period, was getting ever more serious about pushing the mainstream toward the avant-garde, making his recordings of this particular vintage astoundingly provocative. Owners of Davis' Columbia albums (ESP, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti and Miles in the Sky) may be a little thrown by this collection in that the tracks here are sequenced according to session order rather than according to the original albums. But the inclusion of 13 previously unreleased tracks and a handsome booklet should take the edge off.
Charlie Parker Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection (Rhino)
There are no previously unreleased tracks on this Parker set, but the two-disc collection is perfect for those listeners who are just becoming acquainted with the legendary Bird. Some of the altoist's early work is missing, but included are most of his classic studio sides as a leader, as well as six cuts recorded with Dizzy Gillespie in 1945. For the money, Yardbird Suite can't be beat.
Thelonious Monk The Complete Blue Note Recordings (Mosaic)
The highlight of this four-CD package (reissued by Blue Note) is the inclusion of a recently discovered live recording of Monk and John Coltrane in 1958. Numerous classics also appear, including "Straight, No Chaser," "Ruby My Dear," "Misterioso" and others. A pair of 1957 appearances with Sonny Rollins is also included, conjuring once again that most ubiquitous of all music critic adjectives: essential.
Ella Fitzgerald 75th Birthday Celebration (GRP)
Essentially a greatest hits collection, this two-disc set collects 39 Fitzgerald classics culled from the first half of her career. This one makes the perfect introduction to the wonderful world of Ella as both big band pop singer and the definitive jazz singer.
Billie Holiday The Complete Decca Recordings (Decca)
This collection features Lady Day at her absolute best and is a must for any jazz collection. Fifty cuts on two discs offer a succinct slice of jazz history that's rare, even among larger, more extensive jazz retrospectives. During her Decca period (1944-50), Holiday was accompanied for the first time by a string section, which proved to be the perfect complement to her timeless voice. It would be virtually impossible not to please the jazz fan on your list with this phenomenal set.
Louis Armstrong Complete RCA/Victor Recordings (RCA)
Again, while this set doesn't offer anything in the way of previously unreleased material, it's perhaps the most complete Armstrong set available showcasing Satchmo's career between 1932-33 and 1946-47 -- the only periods during which Armstrong recorded for RCA. There are plenty of highlights here, with Armstrong in top vocal and instrumental form.
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