Good things come in small packages, as the saying goes, but at Christmastime, big packages look a whole lot better under a tree than little ones do. Back in the old days, when Santa left a 12x12 LP, it was a mouth-watering sight the next morning. Sure, CDs may sound better, but even swathed in the gaudiest wrapping paper, they still look more like something to place a drink on than the appropriately bodacious offering an American Christmas demands.
The answer? We have two words for you: boxed sets. And there are plenty to choose from; more than 150 of the things have been released this year by more than 30 labels. All contain multiple discs, good-to-excellent liner notes (well, books, in some cases) and eye-catching graphics that make for an impressive gift that'll keep on giving.
Looking for the recorded oeuvre of Annette Funicello? Maybe Ted Nugent or Wes Montgomery? Personal taste is no shopping hindrance; this season, you can find collections of artists of virtually all styles. The boxes don't come cheap, however, but just remember--the amount you spend on a gift is always indicative of the amount of love you have for the person you're giving it to. Especially if it's yourself.
There is a simple rule of thumb attached to these reviews: They're all favorable. Though anal collectors may quibble about a track or two, the material in each box is excellent, and representative of the artist. In other words, if you don't like Mexican food, don't eat at a Mexican-food restaurant. So, if you don't like Tammy Wynette . . .
@body:"What he is doing in music is of the same caliber as what any of the great composers has ever done," writes Ornette Coleman sideman Don Cherry in the liner notes of the mind-blowing package Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino). Cherry also states that on the day he and Coleman met, "it was about 90 degrees, and he had on an overcoat. I was scared of him."
Cherry's statements could be a metaphor for the way many people have perceived Coleman's avant-garde jazz; when new ground is broken, lesser souls run for the hills. If you're among that crowd, start running. All others are in for a rare treat. Spread over six CDs is everything Coleman recorded for Atlantic from 1959 to 1975, a chunk of music that did and does inspire many players, and can rightfully be termed "important."
The package itself is also a thing of beauty--simply an aesthetically pleasurable thing to own. Beyond the 68-page booklet, the jewel boxes feature a portrait of the saxophonist on a blood-red background, and fit so snuggly into the box that a strip of black ribbon is attached to pull them free. The design team at Rhino has created a vessel worthy of Coleman's music.
You might hear a grunt now and then, maybe a scream or two. What you will definitely hear are 36 of the greatest lyric-free tunes ever on James Brown's Soul Pride--The Instrumentals 1960-1969 (Polydor/Chronicles). Make no mistake, the Godfather is in there plenty on organ and drums (his first instrument), but this is a chance for the band to step out. And I'm just a simple white boy, but I can tell you that this is some bad shit. The song names say it all: "The Scratch," "Limbo Jimbo," "Soul Food, Pts. 1 & 2," "Lowdown Popcorn (Buttered Version)," "Devil's Den." The sax playing of Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis, Jimmy Nolen's guitar, Bobby Byrd's organ--uh, playing; these were the unsung men behind J.B. who gave the Man something to move to.
The Columbia Legacy series brings us Janis Joplin's Janis. Forty-nine tracks on three CDs that travel from a tape made in Jorma Kaukonen's living room (with someone typing in the background) through the albums Cheap Thrills, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and the posthumous Pearl, to name a few. Plus, there's plenty of previously unreleased stuff, live cuts from the Avalon Ballroom, the 67 Monterey Pop Festival, TV appearances and studio outtakes. The box showcases Joplin in every setting you'd want, and though the groovy, San Francisco blues-rock sounds can seem sadly dated, Janis' voice never fails to impress--if not downright boggle. It's easy to forget just how good she was when the only song that's ever played on the radio is "Piece of My Heart." Her trademark wall-of-rawness vocals are all here, along with a swank triptych package and a poignant photo of a topless, bead-wearing Janis, eyes fixed on the camera, wary and scared.
The Weavers' Wasn't That a Time (Vanguard) is a must for the fledgling rabble-rouser or the up-and-coming folkie. The history of Pete Seeger's old group is well-represented in this 87-song, four-CD set, and it's one hell of a history. The quartet of singers befriended Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly in the 40s and early 50s, and then, in 52, the Weavers' career took a big, left turn. Commies! Reds! Unionizers! Un-Americans!, they were branded; the group even raised the ire of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and suffered blacklisting for years. All that for singing songs like "The Midnight Special," "This Land Is Your Land," "Rock Island Line" and "Tenza Tenza." There is an undeniable power and spirituality in these recordings, and the chorus alone on "Goodnight Irene" is enough to make you want to get off your complacent butt and go demonstrate against something rich and evil.
Though it was released last year, Tammy Wynette's Tears of Fire (Epic) is too good not to mention. On three perfect CDs filled with songs of an honest, steadfast heart that is perpetually being broken and mended again, the former beautician proves herself as passionate as any singer who ever waited til dawn for her man to come home. If you've got the time, you can listen to the whole set at one sitting and never get bored; the songs here are real songs, not just three-chord, Nashville format-spewings. And Tammy's got white soul to spare, folks. All the classics are included--Apartment #9," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," "Stand By Your Man"--plus duets with people like ex-hubby George Jones, Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris. Otis!: The Definitive Otis Redding (Rhino) is, well, the definitive Otis Redding. Period. Even the damned book is definitive, with tons of photos and "testimonials" from the likes of Al Green, Steve Cropper, Peter Gabriel and Redding's widow, Zelma. But the music, of course, is the real star--four discs of premium, 60s Stax/Volt soul that'll make you move whether you want to or not. And you will want to. The songs that weren't singles sound like they should have been; there is no way this collection can let you down. It's amazing to think that Redding did so much so well by the age of 26; he died in 1967 in an airplane crash.
From the man who was laid-back before the term was invented, we have Perry Como's Yesterday & Today--A Celebration in Song (RCA). This year marks Como's 60th year in show biz (and his 50th year with RCA), and the singer recorded more than 147 singles and 22 albums that made the Billboard charts. This set culls together 71 standards--and songs he made standards--on three CDs, all of them guaranteed to waft you into a string-drenched serenity, guided by Como's mellifluous tenor. Perry sings from a time long passed in a carefree style that evokes cardigan sweaters and comfort; yeah, he's laid-back. So what? Also worth giving: The Essential Johnny Cash (Columbia), a 92 release, but still a magnificent visit with strange men in prison cells, outlaws, war heroes, drunks, Indians and boxcarloads of working men. Your tour guide is the Man in Black, and nobody else could do it better. . . . Led Zeppelin made a deal with the devil, and it sure paid off. Its Boxed Set 2 (Atlantic) is all the studio stuff that wasn't on the 1990 box. Digitally remixed by Pagey himself. That's all you need to know. . . . Ease into the slow, sex groove of soul--Bobby Womack-style. There's 44 songs' worth on Midnight Mover: The Bobby Womack Collection (EMI). He's a midnight creeper. He's an all-day sleeper. And it's fun to say his last name over and over, real fast. Merry Christmas.--Peter Gilstrap
@body:If you're not into dropping a paycheck for a boxed set, fret not. There's still plenty of stocking-stuffer-priced music to be had. To wit:
Bless his heart, old George still resists settling in the rocking chair that that hardhearted cabal of current country stars has provided for him and other Nashville pioneers. Unfortunately, the Possum's latest hasn't much helped his antiretirement cause.
Though Jones' celebrated, range-roving voice still delivers on occasion--especially on ballads such as "I've Still Got Some Hurtin' Left to Do" and the steel-guitar-rich "The Visit"--the High-Tech Redneck never manages to find that emotional edge that has rendered him one of the greatest jukebox heroes of all time.
While the title cut--about a cowboy whose truck is decked out, hillybilly-hip-hop-style, with a plethora of electronic gismotry--and his fiddles-and-fun "Never Bit a Bullet Like This" (with Sammy Kershaw assisting) are clever enough foot stompers, they prove most disconcerting as balladus interruptus.
Still, the work is worth the price of admission alone for Jones' most-faithful rendition of the late Conway Twitty's "Hello Darlin'"--which George sang in tribute to his good pal and tour partner to nary a dry eye (except cold-as-steel Reba McEntire) at the recent Country Music Association awards show. It may have been Conway's classic, but Jones' treatment ensures us he's still got it when he wants to deliver it.
And we want mo', George.--Larry Crowley
De La Soul
Buhloone Mind State
All the groups that popped up to form a mini-industry of hippie-hop after De La Soul pried rap's hands off its dick in 89 still can't match the original for sheer freethinking. Where P.M. Dawn, Arrested Development and Digable Planets took the liberating De La sound and slicked it up into neat little packages, the Soul remains one step ahead by struggling relentlessly against any format whatsoever.
There's no way to see what's gonna jump out at you from around the corner. A couple of Japanese rappers come from nowhere on "Long Island Wildin'." There's a straight jazz instrumental featuring Maceo Parker (I Be Blowin'"), a phat, old-school R&B sound on "3 Days Later" and quirky rapping throughout that hits on rhymes and grooves where you least expect it.
With Buhloone Mind State, De La Soul has daringly moved farther out on the fringes of hip-hop. So far, at least, no one's been quite brave enough to follow.--David Koen
Guns N' Roses
"The Spaghetti Incident?"
If this is supposed to be an album of punk classics, what are songs by the Skyliners and Nazareth doing here? How come Duff is singing lead on four numbers--does Axl show up late for recording sessions, too? And are those Franco-American spaghetti noodles on the cover?
This album raises more questions than it answers, but it's far from being the water-treading exercise the band's detractors will have you believe. "The Spaghetti Incident?" goes a long way toward demystifying and even humanizing this band. Axl and the boys are so reverent with these rough n' ready favorites, the album will remind you of when Elvis put on his Sunday best and tackled gospel--this is G N' R's His Hand in Mine, but, in this case, the sacred hand is attached to Johnny Thunders' spaghetti-strainer arm. No matter how many times Guns N' Roses cusses on this CD (two "shit"s, 45 "fuck"s, 28 "SOB"s), the band still seems to be showing proper respect for its rock n' roll elders. (Hell, Axl even says, "Thanks, Chas" at the end of the Charles Manson chanson "Look at Your Game, Girl.") The best moments are Guns' Queenlike stab at "Since I Don't Have You" and Axl's commiserating with Michael Monroe on the Dead Boys' "Ain't It Fun." Enjoy this 12-course spaghetti meal, with one cheap dessert thrown in for bad taste, and look for Guns N' Roses to mount a serious offensive against Pearl Jam next time around. Unless G N' R wants to end up like Warrant or Poison.--Serene Dominic
Broken Toy Shop
Passing grades are again in order for the man called E. The ridiculously monikered singer-songwriter graduates from his boffo, self-titled debut with more songs that hinge on naivet, geeky sentiment and Brian Wilson.
Indeed, last year's A Man Called E sounded at times like a postgraduate project in Pet Sounds schematics. Mr. E would bend and shape lilting melodies with surprising confidence. He'd sing of the loneliness of leaving home and other growing pains with an almost embarrassing intimacy.
Broken Toy Shop shows E with eyes still wide. But he's grown a bit bushy-tailed, with a new sense of confidence. As such, the new CD isn't quite as charming as its predecessor.
But we're still talking about a guy who writes of childhood (Tomorrow I'll Be Nine") and budding adulthood (A Most Unpleasant Man") with considerable honesty and wonderfully tuneful arrangements.
He may not be Brian Wilson Jr. anymore, but E seems to be on his way to making a name for himself.--Ted Simons
The Bunk Project
Woody Allen, as a filmmaker, may turn out a movie every six months, but The Bunk Project is the first time that Woody Allen, as longtime jazz clarinetist, has allowed himself to be recorded.
Naming their session after Bunk Johnson, a cornet player/trumpeter who had a hand in the birth of jazz a century ago, Allen and his dozen cohorts play the rawest New Orleans jazz. This isn't the gutless, retro-Dixieland nonsense of a Pete Fountain or an Al Hirt, but an intentionally gritty recording true to the primitive rhythms and style of Louis Armstrong's mentors. The Bunk Project may grab you in spite of the old-timey banjos and trombones. The music certainly gets under Allen's skin, as can be heard in the fervent soloing that Woody, the committed agnostic, belts out on "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."--Dave McElfresh
French Quarter Moon
This sophomore offering by the four harmonizers from Crescent City and nearby locales looks a tad more to the country side of their eclectic musical vision, but those who loved Evangeline's self-titled, fil-gumbo inaugural will still find plenty to up and two-step about.
Beginning with washboard-playing, sweet-piped Sharon Leger's Cajun-colored "She's a Wild One" through tasty tidbits like Leger's zydeco-rich "Let's Go Spend Your Money Honey," the pure, church-choir gospel of "Don't Cross That Bridge" and the tender, four-part, a cappella beauty of "Let's Begin With Goodbye," the band Jimmy Buffett discovered and made the first signee to his Margaritaville label has produced another generous (more than 40 minutes' worth) sampling of the Louisiana sound. Still, traditional-country lovers will especially enjoy cuddlin' on the couch to Rhonda Lohmeyer's "On the Levee" and Beth McKee's ethereal vignette "Elvis of the Night." It's a wide and wild musical range these women continue to explore. But instead of sounding disjointed or directionless, French Quarter Moon is a harmonious success story. We look forward to the next installment, y'all.--Larry Crowley
Steve Coleman and Five Elements
The Tao of Mad Phat
Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman and a group of his New York jazz peers, calling their musical movement "M-Base," define themselves by their search for a radically new jazz sound. No doubt The Tao of Mad Phat pisses off a lot of the M-Basers who haven't pushed beyond their jazz/hip-hop experiments.
Mad Phat is very likely a glimpse of what--if we're lucky--will constitute swing music in the 21st century: four-bar melodies circling repeatedly over a funky bass and chop-chop guitar, with breakneck solos so uniquely angular, they sound like passionate speeches in an extraterrestrial language. Until Ornette Coleman does a soundtrack for The Jetsons, you're not likely to find a jazz recording as groundbreaking as this one.--Dave McElfresh Snoop Doggy Dogg
A few months back, Dr. Dre bragged to Rolling Stone that "I can take a fuckin' 3-year-old and make a hit record on him." Indeed, appearing on Dre's The Chronic turned Snoop Doggy Dogg into black Jesus overnight, whether he's headed for lockdown or not.
Snoop, though, does something on his solo debut that only Ice Cube has really ever done before--he steals the thunder from Dre's silky gangsta shit. More in control here than on The Chronic, with its ensemble cast, Snoop is able to stretch out and set his own intoxicating mood, rolling in his Lexus, blunt in one hand, gin and juice in the other. The rapper's deceptively acrobatic delivery, couched in lazy vocal hooks, almost makes up for the fact that he has little to say on any subject if he can't smoke it, drink it, fuck it or shoot it.
In fact, based on style alone, Snoop could probably take a 3-year-old producer and make a hit record with him at this point.--David Koen
David "Fathead" Newman
House of David
(Rhino Atlantic Jazz Gallery)
Like fellow alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, David Newman has always appealed to R&B fans as well as to jazz fans. Rhino's two-disc anthology definitely favors the rhythm and blues side of Newman, with more than a third of the selections featuring former boss Ray Charles. Aretha Franklin, Dr. John and Aaron Neville add to the soulful, all-star cast--unfortunately, the cuts are from those artists' albums, with Newman left squeezing in his fine, bluesy solos between their dominating vocals.
The compilation presents an appealing history of Newman's sideline credentials, but any single disc recorded under his own name will give you more tracks of his sax for your money. House of David sounds like a teaser for a real boxed set of the altoist's wicked wailing.--Dave McElfresh
The Loneliness Birds
Whenever a singer-songwriter of merit comes along, you invariably compare him to every folk star who's ever strapped a capo across a guitar neck. Especially Bob You-Know-Who. But Pat Maloney, a Phoenician by way of New York, will stand up favorably to even Zimmy. His release contains killer material like "Highway Don't Make a Good Woman" and the title cut, which deftly essays the loss of faith, youth and self in four poignant verses. Maloney's an Everyman who won't scare Everyman listeners off with esoterica or bore them with obvious sermonettes. Go see him live first if you're the "I-gotta-see-'em-live first" type; odds are you'll wind up owning this CD before you get home.--Serene Dominic
Sun City Girls
What do you expect when you combine Middle Eastern sensibilities, Siamese chanting, self-consciousness, humor, hip-hop, punk rock, minimalism, primitivism and rants with references to "the friends of Channel 8"?
These former Valley denizens--who are neither female nor retirement-aged--have come up with their first recording since moving to Seattle last year. However eclectic they may sound at first (one track, recorded in Bangkok, uses the voices of the Surawong Pop Minstrels), these musical vampires should have you tapping your foot, and maybe your head, too. And what a wacky bunch; they didn't even print a label on the CD! Which side do ya play? Ha! The grooves grow on you like a virus from a distant land. Move over, grunge.--Michele Tardif Various Artists
Blue Saguaro--A Collection of Arizona Blues
If the term "local compilation" has you conjuring up images of half-baked talent and shoddy recording qualities, fear not when you reach for Blue Saguaro. Produced by local blues pusher Bob Corritore (he even blows harp on a couple of songs), the 13-cut sampler contains nary a bum track, and features a variety of blues styles--swamp, Chicago, Delta, jump. You name it, they do it. Damned well, too. Standout tracks are Chief Gillame's Slim Harpo-tinged "Don't Leave Me No More," Sam Taylor's wicked-smooth "Damn Your Eyes" and Rocket 88s' harp-driven "Tribute to Tangle Eye." But, like I said, you can't go too wrong with any of it.--Peter Gilstrap
John Renbourn & Robin Williamson
Wheel of Fortune
Gorgeous in spots, a bit tedious in others, Wheel of Fortune is a nice patch of green for budding Celtophiles.
Renbourn's fluid guitar work is every bit as moving as it was with his old band, Pentangle, and Williamson's legendary vocal quirks as half of the Incredible String Band are still intact--for better and, in more overbearing moments, for worse.
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The two veteran U.K. folkies, who jokingly refer to themselves as "The Incredible Stringtangle," mostly resurrect traditional ditties about death and dying. But the performances are very much alive, and the mood comes off as slightly less than morbid. It's hard to get too worked up when Williamson, describing his hometown in Scotland, sings with a snicker that "the smoke from the crematorium is the only sign of life."--Ted Simons
Yep, the guy who wrote "Wichita Lineman," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Up, Up and Away" and "MacArthur Park" is not only still around, but is considerably younger than both McCartney and Dylan. Songwriter Jimmy Webb surfaces less frequently than his more-famous peers, and he isn't turning out any future elevator classics these days, but he's still cutting albums.
Unfortunately, this one isn't going to sell any better than the half-dozen other fine solo discs he's turned out since his 60s heyday. When not composing for a Glen Campbell or an Art Garfunkel, Webb writes tunes so idiosyncratic that only his diehard fans will appreciate them. No one else could do the engaging story song "Elvis and Me," regarding Webb meeting the Man Himself, and "What Does a Woman See in a Man" is so uncomfortably self-hating that only a masochist would do a cover version. "It Won't Bring Her Back" is as good a booze-and-lost-love song as was ever written, but, sadly, it's probably just as true of Webb's once-grand career. Webb's royalty checks for all of those past hits mean he no longer has to write lighter fare for anyone else's voice. You may have to search out this disc, but you should.