GARTH Brooks' eight-disc "Blame It All On My Roots" debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard album chart last week, underscoring that there's still significant interest in musical box sets, especially around this holiday gift-buying/giving season.
And for sure, plenty more are aiming to lure you in - lavish new packages that preserve a celebrated artist's career (or period thereof) in musical amber - CDs and DVDs enhanced with rare, revamped and previously unheard treasures. Plus, these gift-minded boxes boast fancy packaging and often copious album notes that help tell a story or reveal a history, making the bundle almost as exciting as finding a fossil treasure buried in your back yard. But with far less "digging" required!
1. Van Morrison, "Moondance" (Warner Bros) - The pioneering and still greatest example of Celtic soul/jazz/rock fusion (eat your heart out, Bono), Van the Man's marvelous night for a "Moondance" now leads "Into the Mystic" in new and unexpected ways over five CDs/DVDs. Like those posthumous John Coltrane releases of yore, we get multiple studio takes of his classic tunes, eavesdropping on their development (especially in the horn parts). The set's super-killer is an all-embracing, surround-sound, Blu-ray disc version of the finished album to blast on a home-theater rig, originally created a decade ago by "Moondance" engineer (and surround specialist) Elliot Scheiner for DVD-audio release but stubbornly nixed at the time by Morrison because . . . he's kind of a jerk.
2. Donny Hathaway, "Never My Love: The Anthology" (ATCO) - As shared in a recent Daily News story by Mister Mann Frisby, Hathaway's family has been irked by this box-set tribute. Granted, a disc of previously unreleased studio recordings (like his multipart concerto) is rough around the edges. Yet, other discs devoted to favorites (mostly Hathaway "singles"), his super-popular duets with Roberta Flack and a previously unreleased killer of a club date, "Live at the Bitter End, 1971," offer a fine overview of a soul/pop talent who once rivaled Stevie Wonder but was sadly undone by his own emotional demons.
3. Grateful Dead, "Sunshine Daydream - Veneta, Oregon 8/27/72" (Rhino) - One of the most storied of all Dead road adventures, this "Hey, let's put on a benefit!" for Ken Kesey's family creamery was captured on film (largely) as well as 16-track audio, then long buried for contractual reasons. The Merry Prankster may have laced the ice cream with special stuff, as the musical improvisations ("China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider," "Dark Star," etc.) seem struck by lightning, and the band's fans and road crew (co-stars in the 135 minute DVD-ocumentary) could give you a contact high.
4. Amnesty International presents "Released! The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998" (Shout Factory) - Dozens of inspired performances (alone and in collaboration) are captured in this six-disc DVD set, along with lots of palaver about the cause that sparked guys like Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Sting to repeatedly tour the world's stadiums in a crusade against police-state repression of citizen rights. It's a mind-blower to see how young these talents were back then, and to hear one (Springsteen) say that fighting for the cause hurt his career. A lengthy Jackson Browne set is especially on thematic target, ditto charged cameos by Steve Van Zandt, Bob Geldof and Radiohead. And hey, there's Philly's own Hooters, popping up on an Amnesty stage here at JFK Stadium.
5. Frank Sinatra, "Duets - 20th Anniversary" (Capitol) - The one- (or two-) take wonder only left a couple of tunes, a music video (with Bono) and an electronic press kit on the cutting room floor to pump up this commemorative box. So, why buy if you already have Francis Albert's two "Duets" packages from 1993 and '94? Because the box also packs new, high-grade vinyl album pressings that run circles around the (also included) remastered CDs in terms of sonic warmth, coherence and Sinatra-signature big-band bombast. And all that goodness allows the master singer to finally sound "at one" with his overdubbed duetists, from Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder ("For Once in My Life") to Patti LaBelle (an amazing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"), with Charles Aznavour ("You Make Me Feel So Young") and Chrissie Hynde ("The Lady is a Tramp.")
6. The Band, "Live at the Academy of Music 1971, The 'Rock of Ages' Concerts" (Capitol) - Robbie Robertson allows in liner notes that he never liked the distant sound of the original "ROA" two-album set. But Bob Clearmountain's new remix is a total joy in both CD and (especially) 5.1 channel DVD surround-sound treatments, in pushing forth and celebrating the Band's great trio of vocalists, Robertson's stinging guitar breaks, Garth Hudson's amazing keyboard forays and the splashy brass-band enhancements arranged, last minute, by Allen Toussaint. In addition to the revamped original two-disc album (actually the best of three nights' shows), the box serves a decent soundboard mix of the final New Year's Eve 1971 performance, capped by Bob Dylan's surprise appearance, plus a telling tome with essays/photos.
7. Eric Clapton, "Give Me Strength - The '74/'75 Recordings" (Polydor) - The theme in this boxed-up history lesson is comeback, rebirth. E.C. returns, post-drug-rehab, as a mellow music man (no longer the howling blues-guitar hero) who just wants to sing and groove easy with one old and several newfound bandmates. His light reggae "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Willie and the Hand Jive" sling-shot the "461 Ocean Boulevard" album to the top; the fast follow-up, "There's One In Every Crowd," helped him find religion but sold poorly. Then the "E.C. Was Here" concert set kinda returned the icon to "guitar-god" zone. The new box boasts expanded versions of these albums with lots of outtakes - including concert versions of "Layla" and "Little Wing," originally left off for a good (that is, bad) reason. And - you'll sense the trend here - there's a sixth disc, Blu-ray, with another excellent Elliot Scheiner 5.1 channel mix (of "461 Ocean Boulevard") plus separate quadraphonic (four channel) mixes of the same and "There's One in Every Crowd."
8. Garth Brooks, "Blame It All On My Roots - Five Decades of Influences" (Pearl Records) - What a deal for Brooks' fans - a six-CD plus two-DVD career overview, selling for a bargain $24.99 (at Walmart, only). Start with the two-hour video of the one-man, one-guitar, two-hour stage show that Brooks pulled off (with just a little help from his wife, Trisha Yearwood) for three years at the Wynn, in Las Vegas. It jovially tracks his musical evolution and mash-up from Haggard and Jones to rock and soul of the '60s and '70s. Then dip into four new albums of Brooks' cover versions - themed on Blue-Eyed Soul (like "Heard it Through the Grapevine"), Classic Rock (Queen's "Somebody to Love"!), Melting Pot (like main man James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight") and Country Classics (think Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire"). Still haven't had enough? Sink teeth into two CDs and a long music-video reel of "The Ultimate Hits." Leaves you stuffed!
9. Otis Redding: The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection" (Shout Factory) - The Once and Forever King of Southern Soul could even make "Mary Had a Little Lamb" sound hip. And he gave the world so many instant classics, from "These Arms of Mine" to "Dock of the Bay." Minimalist package has three tightly tucked-in CDs, plus artwork duplicating the labels of every A-side and B-side. Who needs more?
10. Sly and the Family Stone, "Higher" (Epic Legacy) - Here's another sad saga of a genius gone south on us - the virtual inventor of psychedelic soul rock in the late 1960s-early '70s who pleasured the world with "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "Dance to the Music" and "Everyday People." This spiffy, 77-track, four CD overview-and-rarities set boasts early curios by Sylvester Stewart spin-offs the French Fries, banging concert performances from the Isle of Wight Festival, plus a bunch of rare mono mixes - restoring fans' memories of how they first heard this skitterish stuff on AM radio.
And there's more: Miles Davis, "The Original Mono Recordings" (Legacy); ZZ Top, "The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990" (WB); Ramones, The Sire Years 1976-1981" (Sire); Paul Simon, "The Complete Albums Collection" (Legacy); The Beach Boys, "Made in California" (Capitol); The Smashing Pumpkins, "The Aeroplane Flies High" (Virgin); Various Artists, "Verve: The Sound of America, The Singles Collection" (Verve); The Who, " 'Tommy' Limited Edition Super Deluxe Box Set" (Geffen); John Mellencamp, "1978-2012" (Mercury); Nirvana, " 'In Utero' 20th Anniversary" (Geffen); The Velvet Underground, " 'White Light/White Heat' 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition" (Polydor); Bob Dylan, "The Complete Album Collection, Volume One" (Legacy).