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This Year's Box Sets Run The Gamut
**** -- Essential for any collection.
*** -- A must-have for true fans, and a recommended introductory package for the curious.
** -- For die-hards only.
* -- Get a fruit cake instead
All good holiday presents come in boxes.
And some of the best contain music.
Even with CD sales shrinking, the boxed set phenomenon that launched with Bob Dylan's "Biograph" in 1985 continues. It's a year-round market, of course, but some of the biggest and best titles are saved for fourth quarter holiday shopping each year. And this year is no exception, bringing forth a broad group of retrospectives filled with both hits and previously unearthed highlights from the vaults.
Here's what's lurking in the bins this year:
Johnny Cash, "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison" (Columbia/Legacy) ***1/2: One of -- and perhaps [i]the[/i] defining moment in Cash's long career is captured on this two-CD/DVD collection, with two complete concerts (the afternoon show is a real trip) and plenty of intriguing documentation. It's a whole lotta Cash, but both money and time will be well-spent.
Cheap Trick, "Budokan!: 30th Anniversary Edition" (Epic/Legacy) ***1/2: The live album that put Cheap Trick on the map in 1978 celebrates three decades with an exemplary overview whose three CDs include full concerts from that Tokyo stand plus a DVD with the first-ever release of a concert filmed for Japanese TV. Any fan of rock and rock history will want to want this.
Genesis, "Genesis: 1970-1975" (Rhino) ***: The final in a trilogy of three box sets covering the British prog rock group's career culls together the Peter Gabriel-fronted years, including landmark albums such as "Foxtrot" and "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway." Plenty of appealing extra tracks, video matter and new interviews make it worth trashing your current collection and replacing it with this.
The Jesus & Mary Chain, "The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides and Rarities" (Blanco y Negro/Rhino) **: This is certainly a positive entry for members of the Chain gang who have stoically collected the British goth-rockers' B-sides, soundtrack contributions and other obscurities over the years. But beyond that part of the following, 81 tracks of non-A material might be a bit much.
Led Zeppelin, "The Led Zeppelin Definitive Collection of Mini-LP Replicas" (Atlantic/Rhino) **1/2: How many times can we re-purchase albums we probably have already owned a few times over? Those who have a whole lotta love for Led Zep may consider this the best way, scaled-down replicas (imported from Japan) of the group's 10 albums, carefully reproduced -- including all six covers used for 1979's "In Through the Out Door" -- and handsomely packaged. Then again, you may want to hold onto the $200 for whatever quasi-reunion tour takes place next year.
"Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia" (Philadelphia International/Legacy) ****: After Motown and Stax, Philadelphia International was the world's pre-eminent soul music label, transitioning the '60s into the '70s with the smooth sounds of the O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, MFSB, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendegrass and Patti LaBelle, as well as the productions of Gamble & Huff and Thom [cq] Bell. Pick it up and follow the immortal words of Leon Huff -- "I Ain't Jivin', I'm Jammin'."
Reba McEntire, "50 Greatest Hits" (MCA/UMe) ***: The title tells you what you get -- nothing more or less. What else could fans of the veteran country singer ask for? Maybe another 50 (or so) a few years down the line.
Motown "Motown: The Complete No. 1's" (Motown/UMe) ****: The mother of 'em all this year, and worth every bit of ink that's being dedicated to it. It's another one whose title tells you what you get, although the definition of No. 1 is loose enough to include several different charts and publications, offering a sweeping look at the Detroit-founded label's monumental achievements. And the packaging, a scale model of the Hitsville USA headquarters on West Grand Blvd., is nearly worth the price of admission on its own.
Willie Nelson, "One Hell of a Ride" (Columbia/Legacy) ***1/2: These four CDs, containing 90 songs, live up to the title, surveying the key years of the music maverick's career and featuring collaborations with Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Julio Iglesias and the Highwaymen.
"100 Greatest" (Shout! Factory) **1/2: Short on tunes, long on talk -- and some might be able to rock to FDR's famed "day that will live in infamy" address. This five-CD set includes historic speeches, news and sports broadcasts, and interviews with personalities ranging from Albert Einstein to the Doors' Jim Morrison. As the Jefferson Airplane once sang, "feed your head..."
Roy Orbison, "The Soul of Rock and Roll" (Orbison/Monument/Legacy) ***: There's much more to the late Orbison than the hits ("Oh, Pretty Woman," "In Dreams," etc.), and this four-disc, 107-track set proves it. The dozen previously unreleased tracks are also worth hearing, including a version of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," a 10-minute "Guitar Pull Medley" that showcases his acoustic chops and a live version of "It's Over" from Orbison's final concert in 1987.
Phish, "At the Roxy" (JEMP) **1/2: Phishheads will want to pick up this eight-disc set of February 1993 shows in Atlanta to prime for the jam band's 2009 reunion. It's a pristine recording featuring a guest appearance by pals Jimmy Herring and Jeff Mosier and covers of the James Gang's "Walk Away" and Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite." It might be a bit much for the non-initiated, however.
Nina Simone, "To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story" (RCA/Legacy) ***: Five years after her death, the North Carolina-born singer is given a sublime overview across these three CDs -- with eight previously unreleased tracks -- and a DVD that includes a long out-of-circulation 1970 TV special. Your mood will hardly be indigo listening to this one.
White Zombie, "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie" (Geffen) **: Rob Zombie himself compiled and produced this four-CD/one DVD completist's retrospective of the high-octane hard rock group's tumultuous 15-year ride, which produced a couple of classics in "More Human Than Human" and "Thunder Kiss '65." Fans will revel in the rarities that are finally back in circulation, but more casual interests will be better off waiting for a more truncated collection.
Hank Williams, "The Unreleased Recordings" (Time Life) ***: Three discs of religious-leaning 1951 radio performances might seem like a challenge to anyone but a die-hard, but the passion and craft in Williams' delivery will turn most anyone into a believer of the music, if not the message.
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