In an ever more digital world, there's a yearning to hold something tactile in your hands as you relive the careers of favorite artists. That's the idea, anyway, behind the annual gift-giving explosion of music boxed sets, which shows no signs of abating. This year, in addition to sets devoted to John Lennon, Selena, Michael Jackson, Hank Williams, Dinah Washington, and obscure soul man Syl Johnson, there are collections dedicated to Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, the pioneering indie Matador label, and the songs of the Vietnam War. Few are cheap, most are worthy to be craved.
West Coast Seattle Boy
nolead ends Is there any meat left on Jimi Hendrix's bones that hasn't already been picked away by vultures? Amazingly, there is. Discs 2 through 4 of West Coast Seattle Boy are made up of demos, outtakes, and live performances. Not too interesting on yet another studio version of "Fire," but fascinating when it reveals a 1968 hotel-room cover of Bob Dylan's "Tears of Rage." Disc 1, focusing on Hendrix's incendiary work as a sideman with Little Richard and others, is thrilling. "Have Mercy," indeed. 4 CDs, 1 DVD, $69.98.
nolead begins Bob Dylan
nolead ends nolead begins The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9,
The Witmark Demos, 1962-64 nolead ends nolead begins (Columbia ****) nolead ends
nolead begins The Original Mono Recordings
nolead ends nolead begins (Columbia ***1/2)
nolead ends The Dylan Mono Recordings are for completists, his first eight CDs heard as intended, but containing few revelations. The Witmark Demos, by contrast, are keepers. Revelations, even. Cut to show off Dylan's songs to more dulcet-voiced singers, they charm with unplanned stops and starts. A prolific Dylan works within the strictures of the hidebound industry, demonstrating the dazzling talent that would change music business-as-usual for good. Witmark Demos, $18.98; Mono box, 8 CDs, $129.98.
nolead begins John Lennon
nolead ends nolead begins Signature Box nolead ends
nolead begins (Capitol ***)
nolead ends nolead begins George Harrison
nolead ends nolead begins All Things Must Pass
nolead ends nolead begins (Capitol ***1/2)
nolead ends The Beatles aren't only on iTunes. They're there, and everywhere. The Lennon box contains his solo studio albums, plus two discs of singles and outtakes. Double Fantasy Stripped, a bare-bones version of the 1980 album with Yoko Ono, is not included. Lennon's great first two solo albums, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, are by far his best. Get those. Or for the Beatle-loving turntablist in your life, pick up the vinyl reissue of Harrison's triple debut, All Things Must Pass. It's available exclusively at independent record stores. Lennon, 8 CDs, $189.99; Harrison, 3 LPs, $59.98.
nolead begins Apple Records Box Set
nolead ends nolead begins (Capitol ***1/2)
nolead ends Between 1968 and 1973, the Beatles operated Apple Corps, a multifaceted money-losing operation that nonetheless managed to put out a wide range of excellent music and serve as a model for artist-owned label ventures to come. The Apple box is a pricey 17-disc extravaganza, with original albums by, among others, James Taylor, Badfinger, Doris Troy, Billy Preston, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, plus two discs of outtakes and a Best of Apple Records set that's also available separately, which you might want to invest in as a starter kit. 17 CDs, $336.98.
nolead begins Selena
nolead ends nolead begins La Leyenda
nolead ends nolead begins (Capitol Latin/EMI/Q Productions ***1/2)
nolead ends This four-CD retrospective arrives 15 years after the Mexican American superstar's murder at age 23. Grouping 82 songs by genre, the set proves the bilingual singer's broad stylistic command.
The "Cumbias and Pop" disc focuses on tropical and Latin-romantic mastery. The "Tejano and Rancheras" collection showcases her Tex-Mex roots. The "English" volume displays her effortless crossover capabilities (Spanish was actually the Texas-born Selena's second tongue). And the "Live" disc's charismatic energy prompts thoughts of how much higher she might have soared. 4 CDs. $90.98.
- David R. Stampone
nolead begins Frank Sinatra
nolead ends nolead begins Concert Collection
nolead ends nolead begins (Shout Factory ***1/2)
nolead ends nolead begins Michael Jackson
nolead ends nolead begins Michael Jackson's Vision
nolead ends nolead begins (Legacy ***1/2)
nolead ends Two boxes of DVDs, two of the most charismatic performers of the 20th century. The Sinatra box is packed with 14 hours of concert and TV performances from the '50s though the '80s, with Ol' Blue Eyes singing live at Madison Square Garden, Royal Festival Hall, and, yes, Budokan. The Jackson box collects all of the video ever released by the most visually electrifying and, yes, visionary pop artist of his generation. Sinatra, 7 DVDs, $79.98; Jackson, 3 DVDs, $39.98.
nolead begins Dinah Washington
nolead ends nolead begins The Fabulous Miss D:
The Keynote, Decca & Mercury Singles, 1943-1953
nolead ends nolead begins (Verve ***1/2)
nolead ends This four-CD box does a great service by including the salacious early singles Washington cut with Lionel Hampton ("Evil Gal Blues," "I Know How to Do It") on the Keynote label, and leaving out the later pop efforts she recorded in the years before her death in 1959 at age 39. It reveals a powerful yet precise vocalist adept at singing jazz, blues, string-laden pop, and even Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart." 4 CDs, $79.98.
Africa: 50 Years of Music,
50 Years of Independence, 1960-2010
nolead ends This staggering, spectacular collection takes 1960 as its starting point because 17 African nations gained independence that year. It marks the anniversary by mixing soukous superstars like Papa Wemba and mbaqanga masters such as Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens, as well as luminaries such as Tabu Ley and Miriam Makeba, with dozens of lesser-known worthies. The Ibrahim Sylla-conceived box devotes multiple discs to five geographical areas, plus Lusophone - that is, Portuguese-speaking - Africa. At just over eight bucks a disc, it's a bargain. 18 CDs, $139.98.
nolead begins Tom Zé
nolead ends nolead begins Studies of Tom Zé: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You
nolead ends nolead begins (Luaka Bop ****)
nolead ends Zé has long been one unsettling Tropicalista, a Brazilian Captain Beefheart with a lovely voice (when necessary) and a self-coined brand of "spoken and sung journalism," touched by both the absurd and the sociopolitical. The "studies" that fill this box, Estudando o Samba (1975), Estudando o Pagode (2005), and Estudando a Bossa (2010), focus on definitive brands of indigenous music. Yet these lessons in satiny samba, cheesy pop opera, and lilting bossa nova - all on 180-gram vinyl! - are a master class with the weirdly professorial Zé. His Technicolor arrangements, clucking guitars, and merry melodies leap from sonorous to skronky. The set includes a live 45 of Zé's 2001 tour with Chicago instrumentalists Tortoise, plus a CD featuring a conversation with Zé and exotic-music enthusiasts David Byrne and Arto Lindsay. Ole. 3 LPs, 1 45, 1 CD, $69.99.
- A.D. Amorosi
The Complete Mother's Best Recordings . . . Plus!
nolead ends This massive 16-disc set contains 1951 performances by Williams and his band for his Nashville radio show. The remarkably clean recordings provide a revelatory look at the country music immortal as he plays his own songs and numbers he never recorded. There's a loose, lively vibe, a fascinating time-capsule quality to it all, but also a bracing timelessness to the music. The only drawback, aside from the constraints of the daily 15-minute format, is occasionally having to listen to the warbling of Hank's far less talented wife, Audrey. 16 CDs, $199.99.
- Nick Cristiano
nolead begins The Rounder Records Story
nolead ends nolead begins (Rounder ***1/2)
nolead ends Founded in 1970 in Cambridge, Mass., by three Tufts University students, Rounder Records started as a bluegrass label before expanding into blues, zydeco, country, folk, and all manner of Americana. Now owned by the Concord Music Group, this 87-song set shows Rounder's range as it moves from Professor Longhair to Robert Plant, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown to Willie Nelson. 4 CDs, $49.98.
nolead begins Syl Johnson
nolead ends nolead begins Complete Mythology
nolead ends nolead begins (Numero ***1/2)
nolead ends Chicago soul and blues man Johnson has toiled in obscurity for decades despite abundant talents as songwriter, singer, and funkamatician. Complete Mythology, issued by the expert musical archaeologists at the Numero label, means to right that wrong, by letting the world in on Syl both when he's serious ("Is It Because I'm Black") and when he's not ("Hot Pants Annie, Pt. 2"). A bit more Syl than the world needs, perhaps, but isn't that what boxed sets are for? 6 LPs and 4 CDs, $79.99.
Riffin': The Decca, JATP, Keynote and Mercury Recordings
nolead ends Go elsewhere for Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song." This engaging grab bag collects sides the marvelous pianist recorded while on the rise, or later, as a pseudonymous sideman. The first disc displays the swinging King Cole Trio's talents with peppy instrumentals and knockout novelties such as "Stop! The Red Light's On." There's a complete 1944 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert with Les Paul on guitar on Disc 2, while Disc 3 has Cole backing sax men Dexter Gordon and Lester Young. 3 CDs, $59.98.
nolead begins Dave Brubeck
nolead ends nolead begins Legacy of a Legend
nolead ends nolead begins (Columbia ****)
nolead ends This double-CD collection, released to celebrate Brubeck's 90th birthday on Dec. 6, spans the 17 years he spent on Columbia, ending in 1970. Brubeck chose all the tunes, including a never-released version of "Three to Get Ready" from the classic Brubeck quartet's final concert, manned by Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright, and drummer Joe Morello. Reasonably priced for what you get. 2 CDs. $15.89.
- Karl Stark
nolead begins CTI Records
nolead ends nolead begins The Cool Revolution
nolead ends nolead begins (Masterworks Jazz ***1/2)
nolead ends In the looking-glass world of modern jazz, hot can be cool and success can be a sign of selling out. Producer Creed Taylor did as much as anyone to dispute those sentiments. In the early 1970s, his CTI label put top-flight jazz artists like Philly's Grover Washington Jr. into commercial grooves and rocketed them to wider fame. Washington's "Mister Magic" is one blissful moment on this four-disc set. Another is Esther Phillips' take of Gil Scott-Heron's "Home is Where the Hatred Is." All are best heard on a big car's sound system. 4 CDs. $49.98.
nolead begins Henry Threadgill
nolead ends nolead begins The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air
nolead ends nolead begins (Mosaic ***)
nolead ends Avant-garde saxophonist/composer Threadgill is not to every jazz listener's taste, even those steeped in fellow free-jazz masters Braxton, Coleman, and Dolphy. Over the 18 years covered in this 8-CD set, Threadgill's brand of un-easy listening lurches from military marches and ragtime to gospel and bop, with improvisations notable for dramatic mannerisms. Threadgill and his remarkable trio Air could be colorful, noisy, and cluttered - but recordings such as 1979's "Celebration" highlight his composing skills and oddball instrumentation. 8 CDs, $136.
Borgia Dynasty: Church and Power in the Renaissance
nolead ends Hesperion XXI's series of lavishly packaged CD/book combinations - the ultimate argument against downloads - are ideal gifts for music and history buffs. Borgia Dynasty investigates the Borgia family with paintings and music from the 11th through the 17th centuries. Several chapters of commentary outline the family's importance and take a revisionist historic viewpoint: The Borgias, even those decidedly noncelibate popes, were victims of smear campaigns and weren't nearly as bad as thought, particularly compared to whatever else was going on around them. The music-making by Jordi Savall & Co. (including his entrancing mezzo-soprano wife, Montserrat Figueras, and heard in Super Audio sound) oozes atmosphere and passion, whether instrumental, solo vocal, or choral polyphony. $83.98.
- David Patrick Stearns
nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins Grosses Festspielhaus Salzburg: 50 Years
nolead ends nolead begins (Deutsche Grammophon ***1/2)
nolead ends While the DG label has been celebrating its 111th anniversary with boxed sets collecting its classic studio discs, this present set is of live operas, symphonic concerts, and small-scale recitals from the Salzburg Festival. Some of these performances have circulated only in Europe, or only on DVD, or never before. Naturally, there are solid traditionalists such as Karl Bohm. But others take chances on a grand scale, such as Claudio Abbado's search for a warmer humanity in Janácek's From the House of the Dead. Or the dramatic gravity Daniel Barenboim brings to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Or Ferenc Fricsay's search for a solid through-line in Mozart's oft-revised Idomeneo. The results may be far from definitive but are unforgettable. 25 discs. $99.98.