There's nothing quite like a CD box set to thrill the heart of even the most jaded music junkie on Christmas, or any other special occasion during the holiday season.
Rip open the packaging, and find such previously unissued goodies as the B-sides, alternate takes and demo recordings heard on Bruce Springsteen's "Tracks." Or, as with Chick Corea's "A Week at the Blue Note," discover an ambitious project documenting nearly the entire proceedings of an extended engagement.
The liner notes, too, are often as extraordinary as the recordings. Witness the lost chapter of '60s rock history examined in the 100-page booklet accompanying "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era." Dig the detailed analysis and amusing anecdotes offered in the companion text to "Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman." The handsome, oversized guide to the people and faces of "The Blue Note Years" is gorgeously illustrated with the black-and-white photographs of Francis Wolff and Jimmy Katz.
A box set, in addition to satisfying picky gift getters, will last far longer and in some cases cost less than even a single ticket to Mick and Keith's latest Steel Wheelchairs trek. Here are several worth giving, or keeping for yourself:
Blue Note, founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion, kicks off its celebration of six decades as a major force in the jazz world with "The Blue Note Years," a staggering 14-CD collection that amounts to an illuminating correspondence course in boogie-woogie, bebop, soul jazz, hard bop, the avant garde and recent developments in acoustic and electric jazz. Kudos to researcher and reissue producer Michael Cuscuna for choosing representative tracks -- by Meade Lux Lewis, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson and countless other greats -- as well as several overlooked gems. "Blue Note Now as Then," the last of seven 2-CD volumes, has contemporary artists tackling new arrangements of tunes important to the label's history: Jacky Terrason does "Un Poco Loco," John Scofield takes on Wayne Shorter's "Tom Thumb," Eliane Elias interprets Kenny Dorham's "Una Mas," and Joe Lovano puts his own spin on Ornette Coleman's "Good Old Days." Hey, where's Medeski, Martin and Wood? (Suggested retail: $223.97)
Ray Charles' early experience in a Florida hillbilly band informed 1962's "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" and its sequel. Both of those groundbreaking albums are heard in their entirety on "The Complete Country and Western Recordings, 1959-1986" (Rhino), a sublime four-disc collection that offers one man's version of country soul. "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Bye, Bye Love" and "You Are My Sunshine" are blasts from the past as marvelous as we (vaguely) remember them. But for real revelations, hear what the R&B genius does to "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Ring of Fire" and -- no lie -- "Take Me Home, Country Roads." The real urban cowboy is also joined by duet partners including Hank Williams Jr., George Jones, Ricky Skaggs, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. ($49.98)
The birth and evolution of an immeasurably influential jazz group is celebrated on "John Coltrane: The Classic Quartet -- Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings" (Impulse). Coltrane completists and other enthusiasts will thrill to these eight CDs, tracking the celebrated tenor saxophonist's studio recordings -- those released and shelved -- with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, in chronological order from December 1961 through September 1965. The ensemble, responsible for such monumental albums as "Ballads," "Live at Birdland," "A Love Supreme" and "Sun Ship," is a finely tuned instrument as impressive on the Coltrane-penned blues, bebop and ballad tunes as on popular tunes "The Inchworm," "What's New?," "All or Nothing At All," "You Don't Know What Love Is," "Nature Boy" and "Chim Chim Chereee." The second half of the set -- following, appropriately, "The Last Blues" and "Transition" -- has Coltrane stretching time, experimenting with atonality and pushing into the spiritually centered, freer terrain of "Suite," "Attaining," "Compassion," "Joy" and other similarly attuned pieces. The final disc is a collection of works in progress, with incomplete takes and snatches of band discussions. ($89.98)
Jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea demonstrates the fine art of building a near-perfect band on "A Week at the Blue Note" (Stretch), six CDs capturing the birth of the gifted artist's new collaboration with woodwind men Steve Wilson and Bob Sheppard, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Adam Cruz (since replaced by Jeff Ballard). Multiple versions of the same tunes -- like the lovely standard "Bewitched" and Corea's shape-shifting "Double Image" -- allow listeners in on the sextet's transformation from tentativeness to assurance. The sextet's sturdy ensemble work, bracing three-horn harmonies and fluent improvisations, caught live last January at the noted Greenwich Village jazz club, also shine through on Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk," "Straight No Chaser" and "Four in One," and Miles Davis' "Four." ($59.98)
Miles Davis fans have been treated to two major plunderings of the vaults in recent months, both on Columbia/Legacy. The six-disc "Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-'68" represents the other great jazz band of the '60s, with the trumpeter leading saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and the late Tony Williams through the adroitly balanced moods and modes heard on albums including "E.S.P.," "Miles Smiles," "Water Babies" and "Circle in the Round." Those musicians (minus Williams) were joined by keyboardist Joe Zawinul, guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Jack DeJohnette and others for the recordings collected on "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions," collaborations that sparked the fusion revolution. ($69.98)
Listeners up for adventure might take to "Global Voices" (Music of the World), an entrancing journey through umpteen shades of vocal-based music culled from locales as familiar as the American Southwest and as far-flung as Bali, Croatia and the Congo. The samplings are conveniently split into three traditional, sacred and contemporary CDs. Among the most offerings are an example of the Karnataka College of Percussion's hyper-rhythmic konakkol style from South India, a lilting, hypnotic piece by Zimbabwe singer Dumisani Maraire, accompanied only by the plunking of his mbira, and the cross-cultural a cappella splash of SoVoSo, an American sextet created 22 years ago by Bobby McFerrin. ($39.97)
The late Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a man of many horns, gets props on "Aces Back to Back" (32 Jazz), a four-fer package comprising a quartet of albums released on Atlantic in the late '60s and '70s -- "Left and Right," "Rahsaan, Rahsaan," "Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle" and "Other Folks Music." This is dense, richly textured jazz that incorporates the music's New Orleans roots, swing, bebop and the avant garde. Two melodies played simultaneously on different horns on "Medley," and the colossal "Saxophone Concerto," featuring Kirk on tenor, flute, clarinet, baby E-flat sax, nose flute and black mystery pipes, are among the show stoppers. Note to the "Guinness Book of World Records" (as suggested by producer Joel Dorn): Kirk, not pretender Kenny G, is the documented holder of the world's record -- two hours and 27 seconds -- for holding a note. ($30.97)
Randy Newman, during the '90s, has primarily catered to the short people (kids) who thrill to Disney/Pixar animated movies "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story" and other flicks. So it's a pleasure to hear the four-disc "Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman" (Reprise/Warner Archives/Rhino) and be reminded of the caustic, socially conscious songs the singer, songwriter and pianist composed before turning to slick movie music, the profession practiced by three of his uncles. "Sail Away," the free-floating title track from Newman's 1972 album, is about the slave trade; 1974's "Rednecks" lambastes racism; 1983's "I Love L.A." mockingly honors the New Orleans native's adopted home town; and 1988's "It's Money That Matters" gives the lie to such a sentiment. Novelties include "Golden Gridiron Boy," a promotional single produced 36 years ago by Pat Boone, "Magic in the Moonlight" recorded live at the Bitter End, and several demos for film soundtracks. ($59.98)
Clunky, fuzzed-up guitars, cheesy organs, raw rock rhythms and the sound of sexual frustration are the stars of "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965- 68" (Rhino), a four-CD treasure trove of all those garage-rock gems stuck somewhere in the recesses of pop fans' memories. The set, encompassing the original "Nuggets" compilation released in 1972 on Elektra, captures the euphoria of teen-age American males -- inspired by the British invasion, the San Francisco sound and surf music -- embarking on their own let's-start-a-band adventures. We nearly forgot that we remembered the likes of the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)"; the Strangeloves' "Night Time"; Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction"; the Outsiders' "Time Won't Let Me"; the Beau Brummels' "Laugh, Laugh"; the Music Explosion's "Little Bit O' Soul"; the Amboy Dukes' "Journey to the Center of the Mind"; and Richard and the Young Lions' "Open Up Your Door." That is, until we heard them again here. ($59.97)
Also of interest:
Herbie Hancock, "The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions" (Blue Note), a comprehensive six-disc guide to the deep and broad jazz work of the important pianist, long before the days of the funky Headhunters, the electronic "Rock- It" and such eclectic pop-jazz projects as the recent "World of Gershwin." ($102.97)
Kronos Quartet, "25 Years" (Nonesuch), a 10-CD retrospective capturing the string quartet's critically lauded forays into pop, rock and the avant-garde.
John Lennon, "The John Lennon Anthology," a four-disc collection devoted almost entirely to previously unissued solo material. The set stretches from a demo for 1970's "Working Class Hero" to music heard on 1984's posthumously released "Milk and Honey" collection. ($72.97)
Taj Mahal, "In Progress and In Motion 1965-68" (Legacy), a three-CD set detailing the highways and byways -- the Rolling Stones' "Rock and Roll Circus" -- of the pan-African blues man. ($39.97)
Bruce Springsteen, "Tracks" (Columbia), four discs and 66 tracks' worth of demos of the hits and top-shelf songs that the Boss never saw fit to release. ($69.97)
Hank Williams, "The Complete Hank Williams" (Mercury), 10 CDs crammed with live and studio versions of the Nashville legend's hits and misses. ($159.97)