It's stick-a-big-package-under-the-tree season, and for those who would like to give the gift of music with something more tangible than an iTunes gift card or Spotify subscription, boxed sets conveniently proliferate.
The musical bounty includes hefty single-artist sets from a host of big names. Twentieth-century titans Louis Armstrong and Leonard Bernstein have been boxed. David Bowie and Joni Mitchell are releasing self-curated collections. And Bob Dylan's formidable The Basement Tapes, reviewed earlier in my column, have finally seen the light of day in their entirety.
What follows is a selection of the most intriguing boxes of 2014 - including a Paramount Records set that's the fetish object of the season, two worthy gospel boxes, and collections dedicated to musical mavericks such as Captain Beefheart and William Onyeabor.
All boxes are at least three discs in length. Prices may vary depending on where you shop.
Captain Beefheart, Sun Zoom Spark, 1970-1972 (Legacy ***1/2). 4 CDs, $50.98. Following the outré 1968 masterwork Trout Mask Replica, Don Van Vliet released three albums, Lick My Decals Off, Baby; The Spotlight Kid; and Clear Spot, with which he supposedly attempted to tone down his eccentricities and reach a larger audience. Fat chance. The barking-mad, demented blues here still sounds like a "barn dance for intergalactic grasshoppers," as liner-note writer Rip Rense puts it in a memorable formulation. Bully for Beefheart. - Dan DeLuca
George Harrison, The Apple Years, 1968-1975 (Capitol **1/2). 7 CDs, 1 DVD, $99.64. Besides All Things Must Pass, what more do you need? This 7-CD box gathers the spiritual Beatle's early solo work, including the world-music-dabbling Wonderwall Music and the Moog experiment Electronic Music. It peaks with the masterful Things, the 1970 triple LP. Following that, 1973's Living in the Material World was spotty (with the bottleneck slide highlight "Deep Blue"), and things went downhill until Harrison's pop rebirth with 1976's 331/3, which is not included here. - D.D.
Joni Mitchell, Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced (Elektra ***). 4 CDs, $50.98. This year's most pretentiously titled box comes from the revered Canadian songwriter, who set out to choose one disc of music to score a ballet about love, then realized she needed four. The 53-song nonchronological collection is thematically linked. It opens with "In France They Kiss on Main Street" from 1975, then jumps to "Ray's Dad's Cadillac," from 1991. The results will frustrate casual fans interested in a conventional career survey, but reward diehards with fresh juxtapositions. - D.D.
William Onyeabor, William Onyeabor (Luaka Bop ****). 9 CDs, $58.99. Last year's single-disc Who Is William Onyeabor? reissue asked a musical question about the 1970s and '80s Nigerian mystery man. This box tops that, with the entirety of the hard-to-find Onyeabor oeuvre in one place. It sounds like what might have happened had Fela Kuti adopted a more brightly optimistic attitude and become obsessed with synth-funk. Fabulous. - D.D.
Frank Sinatra, London (Universal ***). 3 CDs, 1 DVD, $59.98. Rather than simply trot out live performances recorded in the titular city, as was the case with previous Vegas and New York boxes, London takes a hybrid approach. It's built around the Chairman's lush, underrated 1962 album Great Songs From Great Britain - a worthy work not up to being stretched over two discs - plus three memorable live shows, from 1962, 1970, and 1984. - D.D.
Bruce Springsteen, The Album Collection, 1973-1984 (Columbia ****). 8 CDs, $74.99. From word-slinging Dylanese on Greetings From Asbury Park to the clenched-fist working-class claustrophobia of Darkness on the Edge of Town and the big-drum-sound superstardom of Born in the U.S.A., this set captures the steady rise of Springsteen when he could do little wrong. The remastered discs sound great. The question is: Do you need to buy the music all over again? - D.D.
The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 2, 1928-1932 (Third Man/Revenant ****). 6 LPs, 800 MP3s, $400. Last year, Jack White's Third Man label, in collaboration with Revenant Records, got going on reissuing the vast catalog of Paramount, the label founded by the Wisconsin Chair Co. in 1917 that released a dazzling mother lode of blues, jazz, and gospel "race records." Vol. 2's Machine Age stainless-steel case contains an art deco-designed "jobber luxe" USB drive with 800 MP3 files, plus 6 LPs and two books. And, oh yeah, the music: Along with an ample supply of hot jazz and gospel, Vol. 2 is a lively, highly entertaining history lesson that features Delta blues acts Charlie Patton, Skip James, and Son House, plus treasured rarities from Geeshie Wiley, Elvie Thomas, and scores of others. - D.D.
When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel, 1926-1936 (Tompkins Square ***1/2). 3 CDs, $31.99. San Francisco's Tompkins Square label keeps up the superb work with this 42-song collection of prewar sanctified music marked by an intensity to send shivers down the spine. "Fight On Your Time Ain't Long," the Primitive Baptist Choir of North Carolina warn, and this music will sure enough convince you that now is the time to seize the day. - D.D.
Wilco, Alpha Mike Foxtrot (Nonesuch ***1/2). 4 CDs, $34.49. This alternative history collects live versions, B-sides, and rarities from the Chicago band's 20 years together. For serious fans only. For newbies, there's a separate double-disc set of essential tracks called What's Your 20? But this is a smartly compiled box and full of unexpected gems, such as the more-serious-than-you-might-think "Bob Dylan's 49th Beard." - D.D.
David Bowie, Nothing Has Changed (Columbia ****). 3 CDs, $21.99. Rather than solely spin his hits from past to present, Nothing focuses Bowie's voice in the present, starting with 2014's avant-jazzy "Sue" (think Gil Evans meets Scott Walker), moving backward through art-pop rarities from the never-released Toy (mini-dramas "Your Turn to Drive" and "Shadow Man"), and touching on his mod-era start with 1964's swinging blue "Liza Jane." Bowie-philes possessing Nothing's smashes, weird remixes (e.g., "Young Americans," 2007), and oddities will want the vinyl of "Sue" and its raw, electronic B-side, " 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore," with Bowie at his hammy best. - A.D. Amorosi
Henry Mancini, The Classic Soundtrack Collection (Legacy ****). 9 CDs, $89.99. Audiences familiar with the cocktail jazz of composer Mancini's theme for 1963's The Pink Panther will thrill to 18 full soundtracks, with accompanying rarities (e.g., Julie Andrews singing the "Nothing to Lose" samba of The Party rather than the film's costar, Claudine Longet). Yes, the music is often dated and corny (e.g., 1965's The Great Race). Yet, there's subtle musicality found on the dark, Euro-jazzy likes of Two for the Road and Charade, the noir flourishes of Experiment in Terror, and delicious, hokey romance of Breakfast at Tiffany's. - A.D.A.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, The Complete Epic Recordings Collection (Epic/Legacy ***1/2). 12 CDs, $99.99. He burned brightly but all too briefly. Stevie Ray Vaughan was a towering guitar talent who left an unforgettable mark on the blues and on blues-rock. And the five studio albums here, from 1983 to 1989, show the Texan was doing his best work just before being killed in a 1990 helicopter crash at age 35. Five live sets, the first from 1980, display his awe-inspiring power and range, and include 1983's A Legend in the Making - Live at the El Macombo, previously unavailable on CD. (Missing is 1990's Family Style, a collaboration with his brother Jimmy.) - Nick Cristiano, Inquirer staff writer
Various artists, The Soul of Designer Records (Big Legal Mess ****). 4 CDs, $39.99. Outside of James Ingram, nobody here is famous or even well-known. But oh, what music was made by these black gospel groups that traveled to Memphis from the late '60s to the late '70s to capture some of their passion on vinyl at Designer Records. Roland Janes, the great Sun Records guitarist and an excellent producer himself, engineered nearly all the sessions. Yes, this is gospel, but across these 101 tracks you also hear strong elements of soul, R&B, blues, and funk. The group names sometimes come with adjectives such as "Dynamic," "Magnificent," "Mighty," and "Sensational," and that's how you can describe the music. - N.C.
Leonard Bernstein Edition: Concertos and Orchestral Works. Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, and various orchestras. Sony Classical ***1/2). 80 CDs, $121.69. Not to be confused with a similarly packaged Bernstein box on Deutsche Grammophon, this massive set mainly from the 1950s and '60s collects recordings that have somehow eluded past high-profile Bernstein reissues. Usually, concertos resurface in boxes dedicated to the star soloist; this time, it's the full range of Bernstein's collaborations with Isaac Stern, Glenn Gould, Zino Francescatti, and Gary Graffman, most of them holding up beautifully. The "Orchestral Works" in the title counts out his famous Haydn/Schumann/Mahler symphony recordings. But as grateful as one is to have his ambitious ballet Dybbuk on disc, Bernstein isn't best remembered for conducting, say, Viennese waltzes. He was up for anything during those years. Maybe that's why the set is budget-priced. - David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer music critic
Pierre Boulez, The Complete Columbia Album Collection. Pierre Boulez and various orchestras. (Sony Classical ***1/2). 67 CDs, $221.98. Comprehensive boxed sets like this are great for revising history. Boulez's simultaneous New York Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestra tenures in the 1970s didn't leave New York and London whistling Schoenberg. And hearing Boulez trying to mainstream his cutting-edge mentality in standard concert repertoire has fascinating ups and downs. His Beethoven Symphony No. 5 seems to be conducted by a Martian, although his Handel Water Music isn't bad and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder is exquisite. Boulez's superb ear for sonority makes his Debussy/Ravel/Stravinsky recordings seductive standard-setters. Generally, the sense of adventure and discovery makes many of these recordings preferable to his more sedentary Deutsche Grammophon outings, particularly with the explosiveness he brings to modern works, both his own and others'. - D.P.S.
Louis Armstrong, Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (Mosaic ***1/2). 9 CDs, $149. The things that set this collection apart start with how the world's archetypal jazz figure was captured live. These pieces between 1947 and 1958 catch the force of Louis Armstrong's brio on the bandstand, where all true jazz lives. Mosaic also bills it as the first compilation from an intriguing period of Armstrong's career, when Pops had shed some of his Dixieland petticoats and was playing stuff of the time that popped or soothed. Armstrong was criticized for covering commercial hits like "Blueberry Hill," but they sure sound fun looking back. - Karl Stark, Inquirer staff writer