Eighty-five percent of music buyers are still acquiring song content the old-fashioned way - on compact disc. Music labels hope to keep that percentage high this holiday gifting season with a new batch of multi-disc box sets that scream "collect me, treasure me, share me!"
These artist- or theme-driven packages - often stocked with rare or previously unheard tracks - look great and serve well as sonic history lessons.
_ "Miles Davis: The Complete On the Corner Sessions" (Columbia/Legacy, B+)
I had to tug hard to extract the metal-spined book and six CDs out of their embossed metal case. But Miles Davis was often about struggle, especially with the funk-driven, cut-and-paste, improvisational jamming music he got into in the early 1970s with fusion-conscious musicians such as Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Dave Liebman, Bennie Maupin and Philly guy Mtume.
As essayists repeatedly point out in the set's lavish, 120-page color booklet, Davis' last creative spurt (which continued until his 1991 death) left old-line jazz critics and other purists scratching their heads or howling in dismay. But the brew, inspired by James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone as well as serious minimalists and manipulators such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, lured in a new generation.
The rhythm-centric music also shaped future movements, including hip-hop and electronica. And - surprise, surprise - it holds up exceedingly well. Especially rich and revealing are the unedited 30-minute jams that exceeded the storage capacity of vinyl album sides but can be fully celebrated here.
_ Donald Fagen, "Nightfly Trilogy" (Reprise, A-)
With both CD and DVD versions of the Steely Dan man's three, ice-cool, jazz-pop solo albums included here, you can spin these discs on any kind of player. Previously unheard treats (including instrumentals and concert cuts) and bonus music videos are tacked on.
With the right home-theater gear, you can enjoy a multi-channel (Dolby Digital or DTS) mix of "The Nightfly," or high-resolution, PCM stereo versions of the futuristic "Kamakiriad" and "Morph the Cat" sets.
The new-gen, "MVI"-formatted DVD discs have added appeal for computer-centric listeners, offering special online content and MP3 encoded versions. A bonus CD, "Trilogy: 10 Extras," duplicates that rare content from the DVDs.
_ The Brit Box (Rhino, B)
Clearly, the packagers of this four-CD set knew they had a hard sell, so they've bundled it up in one of the more enticing (and thus collectible) of long-form (6-by-12-inch) boxes. On the front cover is a traditional English phone booth illuminated with a battery-powered light bulb.
The collection is music you may never have heard before, but that's the point. It spans 1985-2000, when many English rock bands beloved at home could hardly get arrested on this side of the big pond. We're talking esoteric brands like Trash Can Sinatras, the Primitives, the Dylans, Mega City Four, Dodgy and Gay Dad, mixed in with mopey shoegazers, acid house and Brit pop bands that achieved a modest blip on our radar screen, like Happy Mondays, Super Furry Animals and the Verve.
_ "Heavy Metal Box" (Rhino, B)
Another contender for best "art direction" of the year, this metal music collection comes in a wide box resembling the amplifier of a Marshall speaker stack, with a rotatable Marshall knob so you can crank it up to 11. That's an inside homage to heavy metal parodists Spinal Tap, also represented with "Big Bottom."
Sharing the stage are thudmeisters ranging from Iron Butterfly and Iron Maiden to Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Stryper, our very own Cinderella, plus conscious artists like Metallica and Living Colour. But wait, you also get dozens of lesser lights such as Helloween, Angel Witch and Venom. The only headbangers conspicuous by their absence are Led Zeppelin, who've never liked to be boxed in to any stylistic corner.
_ "Dick Clark's American Bandstand - 50th Anniversary" (Time Life, A)
If you've ever had any doubts about the clout this man and his Philadelphia-spawned (later, L.A.-based) TV dance party had on the music biz, this 12-disc set will erase them. Clark found room for all kinds of hook-happy music on his show and rarely played a tune that didn't catch fire.
He mashes them together here under catch-all themes such as "Best of the Spotlight Dances," "Good Vibrations" and "Rock Around the Clock." And to dispel fears this oldies set might have been constructed in absentia, Clark opens his vaults to share a "Bandstand Moments" DVD of favorite interview clips, including little Michael Jackson talking about his boa constrictor, Bobby Darin singing the praises of a new English group called the Beatles, and a cocksure Madonna wishing out loud to "conquer the world."
_ "Love, Luther," Luther Vandross (Epic/Legacy, A-)
This man probably has been responsible for more wedding proposals (and more pregnancies) than any other soulpop singer in America. Love was the only thing he ever sang about, and did he ever do it well, with such dramatic flair and sweet reverence!
His four-CD collection has all the hits, from "A House Is Not A Home" to "So Amazing" (so nice they've gotta play it twice) to "Dance With My Father." There's a bunch of rarities - including an early Epic Records pitch that underscored how "commercial" Vandross' voice was by playing his advertising jingles - plus assorted group and duet ventures. The live performances on the final disc will tear your heart out over a voice now stilled.
_ "Sound of the City - New York Area Doo Wop (1956-1966)" (Time Life, B)
This is a classic American yarn of white guys co-opting a black American art form. Specifically, Italian-American singing groups in New York and New Jersey taking street-corner "doo-wop" harmony music, adding a big heaping of attytood and calling it their own.
Sparked by the popular Four Seasons stage show ("Jersey Boys"), this box set also offers the Elegants ("Little Star"), the Tokens ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), Vito & the Salutations ("Unchained Melody"), the Crests ("16 Candles") and my personal kings of the hood, Dion and the Belmonts, who justly warrant four tracks.
_ "Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970" (Rhino, B)
San Fran was a mecca for young, creative types in the late 1960s. Encapsulated in a large-size, profusely illustrated hardback book, this four-CD set shares formative first editions of tunes that later became famous, like Dino Valenti's rendering of "Let's Get Together" (later popularized by the Youngbloods as "Get Together," also included here); plus early hits by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Steve Miller Band, Sly & the Family Stone and Santana, among others. Disc two, "Suburbia," fills in gaps in the popular history by dealing with Bay Area bands that never even got to the Haight, let alone to the heights of success.
_ "Four Decades of Folk Rock" (Time Life, A-)
This set, organized by decade from the '60s to the '90s and beyond, does an excellent job connecting the dots among generations of rootsy-oriented, jingle-jangle rockers, singer/songwriters, pop pretenders, folk punks, punk folks and the flavors in-between.
_ "Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems," Emmylou Harris (Rhino, B+)
Devotees will delight in the oh-so-tasteful packaging, a library-grade-cloth-clad box with a pair of books inside - one holding four CDs and one DVD, the other devoted to track-by-track liner notes. And the first lady of alt country does her subtle, restrained thing artfully. But I do find her melancholy tone depressing in large doses. Don't play this set on Christmas morning!
_ "David Bowie Box" (Sony/BMG, A-)
This limited edition imported set gathers Bowie's last five albums ("Outside," "Earthling," "Hours," "Heathen" and "Reality") in cardboard-sleeved editions, each bundled with a second disc of outtakes and remixes previously available only as CD singles. While this music did not score on the charts, it represents a fruitful period for the cabaret-attuned rocker. The remixes, especially on "Excerpts from Outside," are equally ambitious and vital.
_ "Interplay - John Coltrane" (Prestige, A-)
If you appreciate late-1950s, early-'60s Coltrane, when he worked in Miles Davis' cool-school group and practiced "a fierce but reflective lyricism" (to quote liner note writer Nat Hentoff), you'll want this five-CD set of Trane's leader dates. *