SOME HEAVY hitters in the world of stage and screen are serving up bountiful boxes of entertainment for your gifting and getting pleasure this holiday season. Several have been timed to auspicious anniversaries, others to technological advances (Blu-ray, higher-resolution surround sound) that argue for a remastering and revisit.
Brother Ray, Sister Aretha
To read official histories of Atlantic Records, you'd think two of its biggest stars were "nothing" before and after their stays at the label. The histories were maybe half right on Aretha Franklin, based on "Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia" (Columbia, B). The label foisted lots of gooey Broadway show tunes and standards on her. Still, the woman could sing the phone book with positive results.
First three of the five discs on Ray Charles' (post-Atlantic) "Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles" (Concord, B+) are juicy and joyous, boasting the rock 'em, sock 'em "I Got a Woman" and "Let's Go Get Stoned"; amusing novelties like "Hard Hearted Hannah"; and amazing country-soul ballads "Cryin' Time," "Born to Lose" and "Ruby." Also a "must" for Charles fans, a newly compiled DVD of his shows "Live in France: 1961" (Eagle Rock, B+).
The title is misleading on the Billy Joel box "The Complete Albums Collection" (Columbia, A), because it doesn't include concert sets released since the classically scored "Fantasies and Delusions," which pretty much ended Joel's writing career. But his Tony Bennett-styled wedding present "All My Life" caps the bonus rarities disc.
Think brooding, romantic poet first and songwriter second, and it's a whole lot easier to get into Leonard Cohen, the gravel-voiced cult star who is paid homage to with the eight-CD "The Complete Columbia Albums Collection" (Columbia, A). This labeling holds true until his new album comes out in January.
Legendary lost Brian Wilson/ Van Dyke Parks/Beach Boys masterwork "Smile" has finally surfaced as Wilson intended it, assembled from 1966-67 studio tracks. Wilson devotees will find the weighty "Smile Sessions" box (Capitol, B+) fascinating and harrowing as it eavesdrops on his magnificent obsession.
Definitely an influence on Wilson was "Wall of Sound" architect (and fellow back-to-mono campaigner) Phil Spector, bundled up on "The Phillies Album Collection" (Legacy, B-). Too bad there's none of the super stuff he did for hire. And liner notes lack insight, such as Spector's label roots in Philly.
Call me Pink
Pink Floyd fans can celebrate their obsession with souvenir-strewn "Immersion" box editions of "Dark Side of the Moon" and "Wish You Were Here" (Capitol, A). The treasures are the 5.1 and quad (four-channel) mixes on DVD and Blu-ray discs, plus bonus concert cuts and surrealistic videos. Also out is a newly remastered, 14-disc box, "Pink Floyd Discovery" (Capitol, A-).
New boxes devoted to Elvis Presley and Miles Davis share a "Momentous Year" theme. "Young Man with the Big Beat: The Complete '56 Elvis Presley Masters" (RCA Legacy, B+) holds his first two major-label albums plus three hours and discs of bonus material - concerts, outtakes, interviews.
"Miles Davis Quintet Live in Europe 1967" (Columbia Legacy, B+) marks the man at a creative cusp, pushing into an edge-of-space style that would soon spark the fusion revolution. A bonus DVD captures Davis with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams blowing minds in Germany and Sweden.
Like more mainstream jazz? Keyboardist Brad Mehldau's "The Art of The Trio - Recordings: 1996-2001" (Nonesuch, A-) mellows (mostly) with distinction.
With smart liner notes from Frank Sinatra Jr., "Sinatra: Best of the Best" (EMI, A+) shares Dad's most important signature tunes from the Capitol and Reprise years. And the included concert disc, "Sinatra '57," is to die for.
The Rolling Stone
Lacking "Satisfaction," bassist Bill Wyman left the Rolling Stones to pursue the vintage blues/jump styles he relished, joined by a star-studded crew as Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings and now bundled on a "Collector's Edition Box Set" (Ripple Records, B). Also wrap up the old/new Rolling Stones' (with Wyman) "Some Girls" concert video (Eagle Vision, B), shot in 1978 at a 3,000-seat Texas arena.
Orson Welles' legendary "Citizen Kane" (Warner Bros., A) carries extra resolve in its 70th anniversary Blu-ray box edition. A bonus documentary and docudrama delve into the vengeance of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Backstory featurettes packaged with the new 50th anniversary Blu-ray box edition of "West Side Story" MGM, B+) helped me over some of the humps of the musical. Like its oddly colorful art direction, the shortage of ethnic actors and rampant use of substitute singers overdubbing for stars. (Still won 10 Oscars!)
You'll swear you can see Katharine Hepburn really falling for Spencer Tracy in "Woman of the Year," first of nine films (plus tribute) packed in "Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection" (Warner Bros., A-).
Sci-fi adventures don't come any bigger than "Star Wars: The Complete Series" (20th Century Fox, A), tweaked by director George Lucas and now with high-def Blu-ray video and THX surround sound. Also scaring silly on a good home-theater rig: "Jurassic Park: Ultimate Trilogy" (Universal Blu-ray, A).
Dig the roots of today's most irreverent and anarchist humor in two terrific boxes. The six-DVD "The Ernie Kovacs Collection" (Shout Factory, A) celebrates a most daring, surreal tweaker of TV (and all popular culture). Spawned in Trenton and Philly, the madcap Kovacs took on the nation with TV shows that left many in Middle America scratching their heads.
Been wondering "What's Up, Doc?" That would be "Loony Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume One" (Warner Bros., A-), the first LT set on Blu-ray.