This year's selection of CD and DVD music boxes designed for giving and getting feels heavy, in depth as well as physical weight. That's a good thing. Who wants a present you can burn through in an hour or two? Better the bundle should suggest "take it slow and easy" or "I'll be here with more surprises whenever you're ready."
BACK TO MONO: Maybe Phil Spector and Brian Wilson were right. Punchier, monaural sound mixes used to be "where it's at" for many a recording artist, what they heard in their heads well after the arrival of stereo.
Last year, a Beatles CD box set in monaural proved a hotter item with the true believers than did the available stereo version. This year, two definitive CD sets from Bob Dylan have been released in mono-only.
"The Original Mono Recordings" (Columbia, A) gathers Dylan's first eight albums, and collectively functions as the Old Testament of singer/songwriter-dom, tracing his travels out of the wilderness and his growth from scrappy interpreter to singular voice of protest, then acid-tongued surreal rocker and later as a mellow, outlaw-country mythmaker.
OK, but how about something fresh for the diehards who already own the likes of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," "Highway 61 Revisited," "Blonde on Blonde" and "John Wesley Harding"? You guys are gonna adore the other, truly "new" (yet old) Dylan issue of the season - "The Whitmark Demos: 1962-1964" (Columbia, A). This double CD serves up the rough hewn recordings Dylan cut in his youth at a music publisher's office, as a way to get other artists interested in covering his wares.
How rough is it? Dylan coughs in the middle of "Blowin' In the Wind" and quits singing "Let Me Die In My Footsteps" mid-song. Here are discards he never felt the need to record himself (like the one-trick ragtime pony "All Over You"), that his label feared (the perversely funny "Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues") or that Bob let others popularize ("Tomorrow Is a Long Time," a hit for Judy Collins). It's an amazingly intimate "fly on the wall" listening experience.
JIMI JAMS: Nobody (not even Tupac Shakur) has seen more posthumous album releases than Jimi Hendrix. Yet the four-CD plus DVD box "West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology" (Legacy, B) still manages to dredge up stuff only bootleg buyers have heard before. Disc one spotlights Jimi's woodshedding with The Isley Brothers, Don Covay and Little Richard, hinting of that distinctive sonic attack-to-be. Subsequent albums likewise inform with alternate studio takes lacking in overdub polishing, intimate hotel room recordings, and incendiary live performances. A bonus DVD boasts a polished 90-minute documentary that ostensibly tells his tale in Hendrix's own words, as intoned by Bootsy Collins. Avoids all the sordid details of his life, though.
GUITAR HEAVEN, PARTS II-XXV: Master of ceremonies Bill Murray serves up a pretty good Hendrix impression (and also a decent Elvis) as host of "Crossroads: Eric Clapton Guitar Festival 2010" (Rhino/Reprise, A-). This razor-sharp, double DVD concert set is packed with five hours of highlights and a diverse crop of six string slingers, from Sonny Landreth to Sheryl Crow, John Mayer to Vince Gill, Bert Jansch (in town at Johnny Brenda's tomorrow night!) to Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy and B.B. King and of course, "Slowhands" Clapton himself. Favorite segment: Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and friends' telling tribute to the "Tulsa Soul" sound of Delaney & Bonnie and Leon Russell which long ago drew in Clapton, too.
THE VOICE: You could be reading a new, 700-page tome about Frank Sinatra, "The Voice" (Doubleday) this holiday season. Or you could be diving head first into his world with the incredibly rich and deep "Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection" (Shout!Factory, A), a seven-DVD set packing more than 14 hours of television and concert performances. A bunch (like the "A Man and His Music" specials and "Sinatra: The Main Event") have previously been released to home video. But I'm betting you ain't never seen "Sinatra In Japan: Live at the Budokan Hall Tokyo" or brought home a great compilation of his late-1950s TV show performances (with commentary by his kids) or the enthralling "Concert for the Americas." The latter was a 1985 Dominican Republic amphitheater show that captured the almost 70-year-old at his absolute peak, doing up the likes of "My Kind of Town," George Harrison's "Something" and "The Lady is a Tramp." Shout! Factory has also wisely issued that concert gem as a single-disc offering.
MJ IN TECHNICOLOR: Michael Jackson's record label had to fight to get him onto MTV in the channel's early days. The irony, of course, is that MJ quickly became the most vital of all music video artists, a drama king who imbued (as did Sinatra) each song with special passion and dressed each song as a visual extravaganza in the grand tradition of Golden Age Hollywood musicals. Get past the way overplayed "Beat It" and "Thriller" videos early in the triple DVD, 41-selection "Michael Jackson's Vision" (Epic/Legacy, A), and be enthralled by riches you've rarely or never seen before. Many are better characterized as short films, spiffed up with state-of-the-art special effects (like the delirious, Claymation "Speed Demon") as homages to film styles of yore (like the film noir "Smooth Criminal"), with intense choreography, superb lighting and a recurring rush of celebrity guest stars, from Eddie Murphy and John Travolta to Marlon Brando. How could the biggest pop star of all time wind up in hock to his music label for more than a quarter of a billion dollars? Much of that money can be seen right here on the screen, satisfying his wildest fantasies.
APPLES OF THEIR EYES: The Beatles also took knocks for ostensibly "blowing" a fortune on their side projects. But the 16 albums (many now enhanced with "bonus" cuts) and new singles compilation all packed in the Apple Records Box Set (Apple/EMI, B+) argues effectively that a lot of good work, and a fair amount of hits came out of the Beatles' boutique label of the late '60s and early '70s. They were the first to put the spotlight on both James Taylor (with his self-titled debut album) and Mary Hopkin (of "Those Were The Days" fame), endowing both as uber-folkies with chamber orchestra productions in the George Martin vein. The Beatles label also celebrated their mini-me's, Badfinger, rocketed soul talents Billy Preston and Doris Troy to stardom and blissed out the world with the Radha Krsna Temple and the Modern Jazz Quartet (covering a Fab Four tune, of course).
Also newly out, a lavishly packaged double CD plus DVD concert box billed as Ravi Shankar-George Harrison "Collaborations" (Dark Horse Records, B). In truth, Harrison didn't really contribute artistically. He just commissioned the Indian music projects from his sitar playing/composing mentor and put 'em out on his own label.
DINAH, SOMETIMES FINAH: "The Fabulous Miss D: Dinah Washington - The Keynote, Decca and Mercury Singles 1943-1953" (Verve/Hip-o Select, B) celebrates one of those jazz-tinged pop storytellers who could hold attention with vocalizings from the phone book. Unfortunately, some of the material pushed on her, especially in the early years of her first recording decade, wasn't much better than that. Give this three-CD, 80-selection set some time, though, and you'll eventually feel like you know and at least like Washington, as millions did, from her steady string of image-making, jukebox hits. As she sings it, the oft-married, unlucky-in-love artist had her randy and humorous side ("Long John Blues," "TV Is The Thing"), was generous almost to a fault and wicked in retribution ("You Don't Believe I'm Leaving"), liked 'em both "Lean Baby" and "Fat Daddy," suffered indignities from brutish boozers ("Juice Head Man of Mine") and got amply wasted herself ("New Blowtop Blues").
STUCK INSIDE OF HAMPTON: Suffering too much success, the Grateful Dead went into stealth mode when they visited the Hampton (Virginia) Coliseum in October 1989 as "Formerly the Warlocks" (Rhino/dead.net, B+) for two legendary shows now finally available on this six-disc set. Ya gotta love the wooden cigar box packaging, the surprise extras, and especially the first night of performances, which included their first in many years airing of "Help on the Way," "Slipknot" and "Franklin's Tower," inspired jazz noodlings by Jerry Garcia on "Eyes of the World," and a "Morning Dew" to die for.
SHEDDING LIGHT: The spiral notebook packaging is nifty, but it's all those musical extras in "Bruce Springsteen The Promise: The Darkness On the Edge of Town Story" (Columbia, A) that makes this essential for fans. The three-CD and three-DVD bundle shows how this ruthless self-editor left almost as many goodies on the cutting room floor as he put on the pressed edition of "Darkness" - including happier fare like "Fire" and "Someday (We'll Be Together)" that didn't fit his "serious artist" agenda and overtly nodded to influences. And the set's DVDs are the tail wagging this dog, including a three-hour killer of a concert video from 1978.