Music listening is increasingly a nonphysical, semi-magical experience, with streaming, cloud storage, and the like.
Until boxed-set gift-giving season comes around, that is.
Once again this year, there's an abundance of multi-disc packages that sum up epic careers, dig deep into individual albums, compile previously unavailable live shows, or otherwise afford shoppers suitable gifts you can actually hold in your hand.
Some of this year's boxes have already been covered in these pages, including a worthy 5-CD Smithsonian Folkways box devoted to mid-20th-century folk singer Leadbelly, and The Cutting Edge, the Bob Dylan exploration of his intensely brilliant mid-1960s studio recordings that's available in 2-, 6-, and 18-CD configurations.
And there are many more great boxed sets out there. Among them: A 13-CD Roy Orbison box; a 3-disc set (two of which are fabulous) devoted to Little Richard called Directly From My Heart; an 8-disc exploration of the 1979 Fleetwood Mac album Tusk; Coming Through to You, four CDs devoted to '60s psychedelic rockers Arthur Lee and his band Love; and The Complete Them, 1964-67, on the Belfast R&B band fronted by Van Morrison.
Prices below are from Amazon.com. They're likely to vary elsewhere.
David Bowie, Five Years (1969-1973) (Parlophone ***). 12 CDs, $119.99.
This Bowie box covers his glam-rock creative burst, starting with his second album, Space Oddity, and running through the punnily titled Aladdin Sane.
Bowie put out five alternately inconsistent and brilliant LPs in that period, but Five Years includes 12 CDs. That means that in addition to stone classics, it includes the middling covers album Pin Ups, a pair of live albums, a Ziggy remix, and a double CD of frequently compelling rarities. Cool stuff, but for hard-core fans.
Various Artists, Hulaland: The Golden Age of Hawaiian Music (Rock Beat ***). 4 CDs, $47.19.
The eclecticism of Hulaland's frequently kitschy approach is clear from the first track, a 1936 in which Louis Armstrong teams with Andy Iona & His Islanders for "On a Bamboo Bridge."
The set includes cuts sung by Ethel Merman and Dorothy Lamour and TV themes to Hawaiian Eye and Hawaii Five-0. Along with surf tunes and Slim Whitman novelty songs, it has two discs of traditional slack key guitar music and ukulele workouts.
The Jam, Fire and Skill (Polydor ***). 6 CDs, $71.52.
This set, celebrating the punk-era British trio led by Paul Weller, takes a novel approach of gathering together six live concerts, one from each year of the band's 1977-to-1982 existence. It moves from the ferocious energy at an early gig at London's 100 Club to the second-generation Mod band's more mature, Motown-influenced command when they were headlining Wembley Arena. A fabulous time capsule for serious fans.
Frank Sinatra, A Voice on Air (Columbia/Legacy ***1/2). 4 CDs, $46.69.
In his centennial year, Frank Sinatra is being packaged six ways from Sunday. (See the 4-CD Ultimate Sinatra box on Capitol for a solid career survey.)
Kudos to A Voice On Air for a fresh approach. It gathers radio recordings from the matinee-idol and big-band stages of the Voice's career. The set has its fair share of goofy interludes with guests such as Jimmy Durante and Slim Gaillard, but also spots with great songwriters such as Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer and fellow vocalists Bing Crosby, Doris Day, and Nat King Cole, not to mention dozens of previously unavailable performances when Sinatra's voice was at its most lush.
The Staple Singers, Faith and Grace: A Family Journey, 1953-1976 (Stax ****). 4 CDs, $48.99.
This set tracks the rise of the gospel band led by Delta blues guitarist Pops Staples as they worked "the chitlin' circuit" and became civil rights movement leaders before scoring soul hits such as "Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There," and "If You're Ready."
The voice of sister Mavis is the standout instrument on a remarkably consistent set that erases distinctions among gospel, blues, and rock.
The Velvet Underground, The Complete Matrix Tapes (UME **** ) and Loaded: Re-Loaded (Rhino ***1/2). The Matrix box (4 CDs, $51.98) draws from two 1969 concerts recorded at a San Francisco pizzeria. The massively influential punk precursor band fronted by Lou Reed is at the peak of its powers, starting with a swoony, expanded version of "Waiting for the Man."
Re-Loaded (5 CDs, 1 DVD, $59.10.) repackages the band's (relatively) underrated pop-friendly 1970 masterpiece and includes two live shows, including a mostly acoustic 1970 show at the Second Fret in Philadelphia.
- Dan DeLuca
Yes, Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (Rhino ****). 14 CDs, $68.03.
Bassist Chris Squire is gone, and vocalist Jon Anderson is a solo act now. So a definitive record of Yes at their live peak and in their best lineup (Squire, Anderson, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and still-stalwart Yes men Steve Howe on guitar and Alan White on drums) is welcome. The band's signature tension, dynamics, and inventiveness are in full flower with vibrant versions of "And You and I," "Heart of the Sunrise," and more, plus Wakeman's weirdly grand "The Six Wives of Henry VIII."
- A.D. Amorosi
Alan Jackson, Genuine: The Alan Jackson Story (Sony/Legacy ***1/2). 3 CDs, $29.98.
Since his 1989 debut, Alan Jackson has elevated himself into the pantheon of country greats. These 59 songs (eight previously unreleased), survey his hits-laden career and show how the low-key, straight-shooting Georgia native cannily mixes radio-ready accessibility with country traditionalism and real-life substance.
- Nick Cristiano
Bobby Rush, Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush (Omnivore ***1/2). 4 CDs, $49.98.
This career-spanning compilation of 74 tracks is named after Rush's 1971 breakout hit, which employs his trademark marriage of blues and funk. He has gotten remarkable mileage out of that style and its various mutations across numerous record labels (including Philadelphia International). Even when the music turned sleeker and glossier in the '80s and '90s, Rush maintains a pungently down-home presence. And with his sometimes raunchy and comical tales, he remains hugely entertaining.
- Nick Cristiano
Various Artists, Decca Sound: Mono Years 1944-1956 (Decca ****). 53 CDs, $352.00.
Decca has released massive anthologies before, but this one is particularly packed with lost or forgotten treasures. Many artists here, remnants of Europe's great pre-World War II classical music culture, died or otherwise faded in the stereo era.
Highlights include all four Ernest Bloch string quartets played by the Griller Quartet, as well as performances by violinist Alfredo Campoli, pianist Kathleen Long, and conductors Erik Tuxen, Thomas Jensen, Anthony Collins, Boyd Neel, and Eduard van Beinem. Bonus cuts are especially rich, many originally issued on 10-inch LPs and lost in the shuffle of modern reissues.
- David Patrick Stearns
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Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, The Recitals (Warner Classics ****). 31 CDs, $86.98.
Soprano Schwarzkopf's reputation as a chilly, cerebral singer simply doesn't hold up. She had a remarkably intimate relationship with microphones, even beyond that of Maria Callas, the evidence being the near-religious rapture she brings to Hugo Wolf's Goethe songs. Many familiar Schwarzkopf classics are here, including her two recordings of Strauss' Four Last Songs, Mozart songs with Walter Gieseking, Schubert with Edwin Fischer, and Wolf with Wilhelm Furtwängler. Especially astounding are her impassioned excerpts from Walton's Troilus and Cressida when the opera's ink was still wet, the honeyed timbre she brings to Strauss' Arabella, and her terrified outburst in the "Willow Song" of Verdi's Otello. In supervising reissues during her lifetime, Schwarzkopf was her own worst critic and admittedly should have retired sooner. Yet one is still grateful for her late-period Schumann Liederkreis.
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters (Verve ***1/2). 2 CDs, $16.59; 3 CDs, $29.89.
"Music shouldn't be easy to understand," tenor saxophonist John Coltrane once said. And so it is with Supreme, a mere 33 minutes at its monumental 1965 release. It stood apart for the mantra like repetition of the title, the fierce interplay of Coltrane's Classic Quartet, and even the liner notes that appeal directly to God. While disc one comprises the original set, disc 2 bristles with the fervor of fellow Philadelphian Archie Shepp, who joined the group on the second day of recording. And the third disc -- containing the piece's only known live performance -- is the climax for this obsessive but worthy set.