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Box Sets For All Tastes This Holiday Season
There's no shortage of boxes at this time of the year -- but we happen to like the ones that contain tunes.
Since Bob Dylan released "Biograph" in 1985, large-scale, multi-disc retrospectives known as box sets have been part of the musical landscape as record companies troll their vaults (an inexpensive exercise when compared to financing a brand new album) for new material to offer the faithful. The results are, surprisingly, often good and generate collections that have genuine value to both avid and more casual fans of a particular artist, group or genre.
This year sees the usual onslaught of these compilations, which makes it time to take a trip through the best of the boxes...
David Bowie, "The David Bowie Box" (ISO/Columbia): [2 stars] The British rocker's last five albums -- generally good if not spectacular -- packaged together, each with a second disc of remixes, alternate versions, outtakes and other rarities. For the truest of fans, although some of them might have missed these along the way.
Miles Davis, "The Complete 'On the Corner' Sessions" (Columbia/Legacy): [4 stars] A stellar collection of more than six and a half hours of music -- including plenty of previously unreleased material -- that the late trumpet great recorded between 1972-74. Davis was exploring a funky new direction after the triumph of "Bitches Brew," a course that's as challenging and fascinating now as it was 30-plus years ago.
Bob Dylan, "Dylan" (Columbia/Legacy): [3.5 stars] Of the many Dylan overviews out there, this is the most up-to-date in terms of sonics and selection, which makes it pretty much a must-buy. And Mark Ronsons's remix of "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" is an experiment that works.
Donald Fagen, "Nightfly Trilogy" (Rhino): [3 stars] On his own, Steely Dan co-founder Fagen doesn't stray too far afield from his band's jazz-rock-blues blend. But a helping of extra tracks and video material improves on the already high marks set by each of his three solo albums.
Genesis, "Genesis: 1983-1998" (Rhino): [3 stars] The British group's last five albums found it leaping to mainstream pop success -- particularly with 1986's multi-platinum "Invisible Touch" -- before crumbling in the wake of Phil Collins' departure in 1994. Each title comes accompanied by a DVD containing videos, documentaries and live footage, and an "Extra Tracks" disc scoops up non-album rarities from the period.
Merle Haggard, "The Original Outlaw" (Time Life): [3.5 stars] Thanks to his recent resurgence, this three-disc set provides an outstanding one-stop opportunity to remind ourselves why the California country icon is an essential American treasure.
Emmylou Harris, "Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems" (Rhino): [3 stars] Harris has the kind of voice that can make a parking ticket sound sublime, so nearly anything she puts out is recommended listening. This four-CD, one-DVD set is well worth diving into, but only after touching base with the more well-known part of her 40-year-plus repertoire.
Robyn Hitchcock, "I Wanna Go Backwards" (Yep Roc): [3 stars] A random set of nevertheless excellent and witty pop songs, with a collection of bonuses, "While Thatcher Mauled Britain," that's just as solid as the previously released stuff.
Billie Holiday, "Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles" (Columbia/Legacy): [3.5 stars] A new winner among the many retrospectives of Holiday's work. Covering 1935-1942, this traces her rise and peak years, spreading 80 essentials over four CDs.
Megadeth, "War Chest" (Capitol/EMI): [2.5 stars] Bang your head to four CDs and a DVD of Dave Mustaine and company's molten metal, which contain enough unreleased (and mostly live) material to create a convincing "Symphony of Destruction."
Frank Sinatra, "A Voice in Time (1939-1952)" (Columbia/RCA Victor/Legacy): [3.5 stars] The legend-making portion of the Chairman's career is captured on four thematic discs, including his rise as a "Teen Idol." Two unreleased alternate tracks and 11 unearthed air checks make this a treat for collectors as well as an illuminating introduction for the novice or casual fan.
The Stanley Brothers, "The Definitive Collection (1947-1966)" (Time Life): [3.5 stars] It lives up to its title, encapsulating one of America's finest duos -- country or otherwise -- with 60 tracks spread across three CDs.
Ike & Tina Turner, "The Ike & Tina Turner Story 1960-1975" (Time Life): [3 stars] The most complete look yet at their R&B mastery is bolstered by their entire "In Person" live album from 1969 that was never released on CD.
Luther Vandross, "Love, Luther" (Epic/J/Legacy): [3 stars] The late soul great's 30-year recording career is plumbed for this four-disc set, amplified by unreleased tracks that include early demos and outtakes.
Various Artists, "Atlantic Soul (1959-1975)" (Atlantic/Rhino Handmade): [3 stars] It's a mark of the label's pre-eminence during that period that this four-CD set of mostly B-level tracks (i.e., no "Respect" or "Soul Man") is still uniformly excellent.
Various Artists, "Four Decades of Folk Rock" (Time Life): [2.5 stars] By starting in the '60s, this four-CD set loses key early tracks that would have provided valuable perspective. So while it's not comprehensive, it manages to hit key moments from the likes of Bob Dylan and the Byrds right up to Wilco and Patty Griffin.
Various Artists, "The Brit Box: U.K. Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium" (Rhino): [3 stars] The wordy title gives you a sense of this four-CD set's reach, but from the Smith's to Placebo -- with the Cure, Oasis, Blur and the Stone Roses in between -- don't be surprised if you wind up craving some kippers or bangers and mash.
Various Artists, "City of Dreams: A Collection of New Orleans Music" (Rounder): [3.5 stars] We've heard much about the Crescent City's musical heritage in the wake of Katrina. This four-CD overview offers a fine sampling to get the curious started -- and whet their appetites for more.
Various Artists, "Get Ready, Here Come...the '70s" (Shout! Factory): [2.5 stars] Yes, it was a cheesy decade at times, but save for the occasional "Boogie Oogie Oogie," these three CDs tend to weed out the most pungent pop of the time.
Various Artists, "The Heavy Metal Box" (Rhino): [3 stars] The packaging alone -- in the shape of a Marshall amplifier head -- makes this worth the price of admission. But so do four discs of headbanging fare that, while not comprehensive, cuts a wide swatch around the metal world, from Blue Cheer to Black Sabbath to Slayer. Everybody hold up those devil's horns...
Various Artists, "Love is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970" (Rhino): [2 stars] There are plenty of choice "Nuggets" here, from the famous (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone) and the less-familiar (We Five, the Savage Resurrection, Salvation). But 77 tracks pushes the quality envelope just a little.
Various Artists, "Song of America" (Split Rock/31 Tigers): [3.5 stars] Former attorneys general either write books -- or curate box sets. Janet Reno is a primary force behind this captivating 50-song overview that reaches from 15th Century colonial songs to 21st Century pop hits.
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