Box Sets Gift Guide

Stocking stuffers

Dylan, Haggard, Coltrane and Davis among box sets to surely delight music fans

Here’s a look at some box sets music fans will happily want to pay for this season:

Dylan, Bob Dylan (Columbia, three CDs, $49.98) — It might be hard to overstate the importance of Bob Dylan on popular music, but it might be even harder to crystallize it. This box set does its best to capture only Dylan’s greatest moments, and it does pretty well, starting with Song to Woody and Blowin’ in the Wind, winding through his middle years with Gotta Serve Somebody and ending with his current resurgence in When the Deal Goes Down. It’s only a primer, but it’s also an amazing collection of songs that shaped the country and its culture.

Mothership, Led Zeppelin
(Atlantic, two CDs/one DVD, $24.98) — Like the Dylan box set, Mothership collects Led Zeppelin’s greatest moments in one place. Unlike the Dylan box set, this one is filled with guitar heroes, sexy swaggers and enough raging testosterone to make everyone feel like teenage schoolboys rocking out to Whole Lotta Love and Stairway to Heaven.

Atlantic Soul (1959-1975), various artists (Rhino Handmade, four CDs, $79.98) — The usual suspects are included on this set — Ray Charles does Come Rain or Come Shine, Aretha Franklin does A Change Is Gonna Come, Hall and Oates do She’s Gone — but they are surrounded by sweet, and sometimes just as glorious, surprises, such as nuggets from Don Covay or Esther Phillips or Baby Washington. Even the most avid soul collector will find something new among the set’s 82 tracks.

City of Dreams: A Collection of New Orleans Music, various artists
(Rounder, four CDs, $32.98) — This celebration of the unique, important contribution New Orleans musicians have made to popular music, filled with uptempo numbers about downtrodden people making the most of what they have. With greats such as Ruth Brown, Irma Thomas, Solomon Burke and countless others keeping things lively, they make the case for why New Orleans must be restored to its previous grandeur without ever saying one word about it.

The Brit Box: U.K. Indie, Shoegaze and Brit-pop Gems of the Last Millennium, various artists
(Rhino, four CDs, $64.98) and Heavy Metal Box, various artists (Rhino, four CDs, $64.98) — Rhino has these kind of capturing-a-genre sets down to a science and The Brit Box, in its stylish red telephone-booth package, and Heavy Metal Box, in its amplifier that goes to 11, are fine examples of their mastery. The Brit Box opens with The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now? and touches on Brit popsters big (Oasis, Pulp, Blur) and small (The Family Cat, Birdland, These Animal Men). Heavy Metal Box is also chronological, starting with Iron Butterfly and ending with Sepultura in 1991.

Interplay, John Coltrane
(Prestige, five CDs, $59.98) — These 1956-58 recordings are from Coltrane’s years with Prestige Records, when his discography becomes a spaghetti junction of sideman jobs, cooperative bands, jam sessions and the occasional session as leader. The Coltrane-as-leader sessions came out last year in their own boxed set; this set presents Coltrane with others, taken from records like Cattin’ With Coltrane and Quinichette (with the saxophonist Paul Quinichette) and Tenor Conclave (with Hank Mobley, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims). There’s a lot of round-robin soloing, and the sense of purpose is diluted, of course: Even in Coltrane’s own playing, we don’t hear the focus of later years and better albums. But these are still beautiful examples of the casual late-’50s jazz recording session, with pockets of exceptional post-bop playing that has usually gone underrecognized.

The Complete ”On the Corner” Sessions, Miles Davis
(Sony Legacy, six CDs, $139.98) — This music — recorded a few years after Bitches Brew and a few more long steps away from traditional jazz — is very heady and doesn’t reduce very easily. Here’s a warning: Do not give it to a person who only knows that he or she likes the Miles Davis of Kind of Blue. But if that person likes funk, and has a fairly deep attention span, then this might be a Xanadu. These jam sessions and collages were made with a changing cast that usually included electric bassist Michael Henderson and drummer Al Foster; they build on African and Indian music and some of the compositional ideas of Karlheinz Stockhausen. They’re dense and tense, gnashing and clashing, and utterly great.

1976-1982, Genesis (Rhino, six CDs, six DVDs. $129.98) and 1983-1998, Genesis (Rhino, five CDs, five DVDs, $99.98) — Starting with A Trick of the Tail, from 1976, these sturdy boxes include jewel-case versions of all nine of Genesis’ post-Peter-Gabriel albums, each paired with a DVD of interviews and videos. Each box also includes a hardcover book, with a CD and a DVD of extras and stray tracks. When you listen to it all, it’s hard not to be struck anew by the long evolution from precious prog-rock to playful new wave, and by the band’s commercial success in the 1980s. Back then it seemed reasonable (though now it seems unimaginable) that a band formed in 1967 might be reborn as a Top 40 juggernaut.

Legends of American Music: The Original Outlaw, Merle Haggard
(Time Life, three CDs, $39.98) — Merle Haggard knew early on the kind of characters he wanted to sing about: convicts, salt-of-the-earth workingmen and hard-drinking fools for love. He also forged country music that could swing, twang and stay heartfelt. This straightforward, unflashy compilation covers his whole career, from attempts at country-crooner singles through swinging honky-tonk to his craggy latter-day reflections about his beloved America going wrong.

Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, Emmylou Harris
(Rhino, four CDs, one DVD. $74.98) — Emmylou Harris has already compiled her hits for another box. This miscellany, spanning the years from 1970 to 2006, pulls together collaborations (from singing backup with Gram Parsons to joining Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Beck and the Pretenders), outtakes (including some from her trio with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt) and live tracks. In her long career, Harris has played both to and against the purity of her reedy soprano. The songs she chose for this set move from devout sincerity, mountain fingerpicking and gospel conviction to loneliness and mourning, with electric guitar underlining the end of innocence.

I Wanna Go Backwards, Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc, five CDs. $39.99 download, $49.99 CD, $99.99 vinyl) — With lyrics hovering between revelation and doggerel, and tunes that prize both the concision of mid-1960s rock and the playfulness of psychedelia, Robyn Hitchcock’s songs mingle strangeness and clarity. This set reissues, and adds outtakes to, solo albums from the early 1980s — Black Snake Diamond Role, I Often Dream of Trains and the stripped-down Eye — that seesaw between flippancy and ache. Two discs of demos, including some songs he never revisited, are even more exposed. Wry as the songs might be, no one could mistake them for mere whimsy.

The Ike and Tina Turner Story: 1960-1975, Ike and Tina Turner (Time Life, three CDs, $39.98.) — Song after song on The Ike and Tina Turner Story sketches the same predicament: a powerhouse of a woman in thrall to a man she shouldn’t trust. Tina Turner worked her great raspy voice to the edge of hysteria; the music, shaped by Ike, swaggered with ideas from New Orleans R&B, Memphis soul, rock and, eventually, funk. Only later would Turner’s autobiography reveal how realistic the songs were. Two CDs collect the hits (with a supercharged live substitute for Phil Spector’s production of River Deep, Mountain High). The third reissues a 1969 live album that, unfortunately, concentrates on cover versions.

Love, Luther, Luther Vandross
(Epic/J Records/Legacy, four CDs, $49.98) — Luther Vandross, who died in 2005, sang the most polished, luxurious soul: grown-folks’ music, as the liner notes to this set put it. And while glossy sentiment made a lot of his music sound dated — the dewdrop synthesizer tones, the metallic drum sounds — his singing is so refined, his songs so single-mindedly devoted to the idea of perseverance and redemption, that the trappings don’t matter. This box tracks his movements from disco’s waning years, as the singer in the bands Luther and Charme, through his own albums, his duets with Mariah Carey and Beyonce, and finally his last record, Dance With My Father, which climbed the charts as he lay incapacitated by a stroke.


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