'TIS THE SEASON for giving, or so they say—and what better way to show you care than to give that special someone the complete works of Lefty Frizzell or Porter Wagoner? Sure, multidisc box sets aren't a substitute for genuine love and affection, but for most music geeks, they'll probably do just as well.
As we move deeper into the digital age, labels big and small are increasingly digging into their vaults and churning out more and more archival releases to satisfy even the most dedicated completist. From jazz to post-punk, country to electronica, the following selections should include something for everyone on your shopping list.
(Blue Note; 4 CDs)
Anyone who thinks St. Louis' "dirty south" sound started with Nelly, listen here. Within the pantheon of the good groove, blues-picking guitarist Grant Green was the Hammond B-3 organ combo's best friend, a jivey jazz baby with a predilection for the funk who acted as such, whether he led a unit or backed the likes of Blue Note's finest brass and reed men (Lee Mobley, Lee Morgan). So advanced were his driving, down-under picked licks that Green's sounds have been sampled by the likes of Us3 and Madonna. Starting with the midnight blues of "A Foggy Day," Green and a diverse palate of organists—Larry Young, Jimmy Smith, John Patton, Jack McDuff —kick into the ringing swing of "Funky Mama," and join drummer Elvin Jones for dusky rhythmic rides on "Talkin About J.C." and "My Favorite Things." Green can be heard in straight jazz sessions, tackling everything from Miles and Monk to the angled-odd gospel of "Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho." But for Green's fickle fingers, it was always back to the blues, whether down ("The Lamp Is Low") or up ("Minor League") tempo.
The Genius of the Electric Guitar
(Legacy/Columbia; 4 CDs )
Forget jazz. Forget blues. Or rock. In 1937, Charlie Christian invented electric guitar playing. Whether it was for Anna Mae Winburn's Oklahoma City orchestrette, Benny Goodman's jamming sextet, or his own stint at Minton's—the hallowed hall of jazz—Christian took the little-known instrument and made it sing cunningly and rhythmically, without the corn or hokum of its acoustic brethren. Like hearing Robert Johnson, loudly, for the first time, you get past the whistle and hiss to hear Christian's patrician plucking against Goodman's graceful bleating on tunes like "Till Tom Special" and "Wholly Cats" or the crusty balladeering of "I'm Confessin'" and "Memories of You." With hornlike glee (certainly inspired by his buddy Lester Young), Christian makes the body electric sing its own moody song, from an irksome slow tune ("These Foolish Things") to some dusty blues (one of a dozen takes on "Six Appeal [My Daddy Rocks Me]") and beyond. Everyone who's ever grabbed a six-string owes Charlie Christian. This box is your opportunity to pay up.
Back to Mine
(Phantom; 1 CD)
(Qwest/Rhino; 4 CDs)
Anyone who thinks of New Order as the less-emotive son of Joy Division would do well to listen here. In a time of modern-rock-dance, the Brit quartet bent the line between house and heavy-lidded electronic rock. The single-disc Back to Mine collection offers NO as "curators," remixing inspirational tunes (Captain Beefheart's blustery "Big-Eyed Beans"; the messy electro of Mantronix, Cat Stevens, Missy Elliott, Can, and Patrick Cowley's take on "I Feel Love"). Meanwhile, the career-spanning box set Retro too is curated. Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie (live soundboard material), two U.K. journalists (studio sessions), and Hacienda DJ Mike Pickering (heavy mixes) give the inventive quartet context, placing hits, irksome experiments, and forgotten tracks into one gene pool through which to wade. The proceedings start to get hot when Pickering digs out trippy remixes (John Robie's "Shell Shock," Silk Hurley's "Fine Time") before getting downright sweaty for the revelation of Gillespie's passion-filled live volume. Surprisingly, these never-heard tracks—particularly "Age of Consent"—prove New Order to be synth-soulful and devastatingly instinctive as live players, adding more weight to their watery muzak than imagined.
Greatest Hits 1970-2002
(Universal; 3 CDs)
When he's not busy with Billy Joel, buying things, or guest-starring on Will & Grace, Elton John makes grandiloquent piano-pop, the likes of which—"Rocket Man," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me"—will never be written again. It'd be churlish to say that he and his oblique lyricist Bernie Taupin used to do that; despite often-heard claims that John dried up in the mid-'70s, some of the best moments on Hits (significantly the only collection to gather work from his entire career), like "I Want Love," are from the past few years.
Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years
(Rhino; 4 CDs)
Like mentor Buck Owens in his time, Yoakam transfixed and transformed smooth countrypolitan sounds into hard, honky-tonk, hits, a glorious noise—slow and sour, blustery or ballady—that current country is in desperate need of. Neither as dull as most No Depressioneers or as sprightly as the young/Old 97's of the world, the twangy singer/songwriter made flagrantly fiery shit-kicking originals (1986's "Guitars, Cadillacs . . .") and Cali-conjunto-inspired tunes ("Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room," "Carmelita") that held as much spunk as those of the heroes (Elvis, Merle) and punks (Clash) he covers within. Along with several smooth, achy duets with Kelly Willis and a nearly skiffled-out version of "Mercury Blues," there's a nifty batch of demos from 1981—the kind of white-riotish noise and lump-in-your-throat Dixie heartbreak you wish every jukebox would play.
(EMI; 4 CDs)
There was always something lurking beyond the sonorous soul of Boy George's voice (to say nothing of his frumpy ragamuffin look) and the rock-steady pop of Culture Club. The new-wave avatars of sweet sappiness had a darker, messier side that comes out in the un-wash of this box set; first in its reconnoitering of CC rhythms (the bass and drums are finally audible in the mix), then in its new presentation of the group's original (unheard) 1981 demos, revealing a far skankier side to the Club. Get past the smooth hits—"I'll Tumble 4 Ya," "Karma Chameleon"—and you'll find brusquely Bow Wow Wowish cuts like "Stand Down" and "White Boy," edgier versions of "Do You Really Want 2 Hurt Me?" and "Time," as well as bitchy rockers like "Shirley Temple Moment." Along those lines, there's quite the height of shite to be found (dull remixes, tunes like "Love Is Lonely") here. But it's nifty when they pay homage to their glammy, hammy roots with covers of Bowie and Iggy ("Starman," "Suffragette City," "Funtime") or when they camp it up full throttle on "These Boots Were Made for Walking." Meow.
Reason to Believe:
The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings
(Mercury; 3 CDs)
Before he took to crooning Tin Pan Alley allegros and rancid disco tunes, Rod the Mod was Celtic-sequined-soul-folk-rock's grittiest vocal purveyor—the ribald, coxcombical Caucasian heir apparent to R&B interpreters Otis and Joe Tex. (His guitar-slinging pal Ron Wood was at his smoky, greasy, bluesy best as well.) The hits? We know them—"Maggie May," "Every Picture Tells a Story"—as well as he wears them. But what's most impressive is hearing them bumped up against Stewart's most grandiose moments—the pastoral, Eltonesque orchestration of "Handbags and Gladrags," the besotted "Man of Constant Sorrow," the blustery blues of "An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down" and "Mama You Been on My Mind," the booze-hounded frolic of "What's Made Milwaukee Famous" and the unstoppable anger of "(I Know) I'm Losing You." Really, a must.
(Virgin; 3 CDS)
Credit where credit's due: Though long forgotten, multi-instrumentalist/composer Mike Oldfield—with his arch melodramas and ambient orchestration—was as influential to Eno and Phil Glass as he was to Danny Elfman. Wildly whimsical and warm, Oldfield's elongated folk symphonettes—the shimmering "Tubular Bells: Part One" and "Two," the eerie-earthen "The Rio Grande," the churchy "Hergest Ridge," the Afro-Gaelic "Ommadawn"—are, like Ealing and Hammer films, the bridge between Britain's green gardens and Hollywood's stucco walls.
CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN
Cigarettes and Carrot Juice:
The Santa Cruz Years
(spinART; 5 CDs)
Whether you dig them as seemingly Albanian punk hippies, locked-garage Tex-Mex folkies, or skanky-ska surf hillbillies, this colorful box represents the early California lo-fi freakout of CVB's pre-Virgin/pre-Cracker period. Among the goodies crammed into the Carrot are Pitch-a-Tent-label LPs like Telephone Free Landslide Victory, rarities disc Camper Vantiquities, and a latter-day live CD titled Greatest Hits Played Faster. This self- described "surrealist absurdist folk" act proves that early eclecticism in rock wasn't just a show of mp3 files or Moby-like Lomax-mania. David Lowery had a genuine dusty-trail vision of mescaline- affected music in his head—rankling hardcore's hardest corps, shredding the likes of his own ("Take the Skinheads Bowling" and Black Flag's "Wasted") with delicious malice. By box's end—the coffin-nailed ballad "One of These Days"—you'll find yourself missing the era CVB made bright and weird.
(Elektra; 6 CDs)
Rather than regulate herself to hits or mere remixes, Bj�-electronic music's finest executress of horror and humor—eep-op-orps through her catalog with random, pretty esprit. Like the transparent-pinkish-plastic box that contains the CDs (and 3-inch mini-CDs divided into "Roots," "Beats," and "Strings"), there's something spooky, ornate, and opaque about hearing Bj�ravage her past from age 15 (her first flute tune) on to the present day of boisterous balladeering as the Yma Sumac of the modern age. She re-rips the noise of Icelandic punks KUKL, angular poppers the Sugarcubes, and her initial forays into experimental club mixes (with 808 State's Graham Massey and Mark Bell) with madness as her guide, cooing, swooping, and swooning through each tattered, rearranged glitch. Tangential, yes. But her work with the Brodsky Quartet makes for more knotty drama than a dozen Maria Callases.
The Singles Collection
(Capitol; 4 CDs)
Smoky jazz's craftiest singer/songwriter/oddball travels time, trend, and space to pinpoint her 40-year-career's finest single-moments from all of her labels (EMI, Decca, ARA, Columbia, and A&M). While worthwhile to read Will Friedwald's encyclopedic text on Ms. Lee and get hold of 44 tracks making a first CD appearance (her take on the Bob Crosby Orchestra's "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" and "It's Anybody's Spring" is such a rarity that only 10 copies were pressed), you'll marvel at the bluesy mood-swinging Lee does in her vocal vexing. While many a Lee aficionado will go for her big-band work ("Somebody Nobody Loves" and "Why Don't You Do Right" with Benny Goodman) and weird Latino-isms ("My Small Se�" "Manana"), my favorite is latter-day Lee, a lascivious world-weary sound that juts like her tight jaw through the brassy camp of "Big Spender," "Spinning Wheel," and, of course, the mournful cabaret kitsch of "Is That All There Is?" No. There's way more.
LOUIS PRIMA/WINGY MANONE
Mosaic Records Presents the Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings of Louis Prima and Wingy Manone 1924-37
(Mosaic; 6 CDs)
Before Prima became the Dago King of rocking Vegas nights, he was a honking New Orleans trumpeter/showman with a Fats Waller jones and Louis Armstrong's grog in his throat. So, too, was his young trumpeting pal Wingy Manone, later to be known for backing Bing Crosby. Together or alone down by the Swanee, they broke the lines of racism when it came to the politics of black and white. But it's their swinging pre-rock 'n' roll blasts of brio and insistently surging energy that will bring you back to this big box—tunes like the raw-powered "Jamaica Shout," the gutbucket stomp of "Sing Sing Sing," and the dippy yip-de-yips of "Chinatown, My Chinatown." While neither man ever played it cool, you'll be amazed to hear how Manone was the Orleans-tang hotter of the two trumpeters, barreling through Red Nichols sessions, small-band blues ("Swing Street"), sweet pop tunes ("The Isle of Capri"), and buoyant, boozy vocal backings like the ones for Johnny Mercer (yes, the songwriter) and Jeanne Burns. Also included are sessions with Joe Marsala, Bud Freeman, Benny Goodman, Jelly Roll Morton, Artie Shaw, and Teddy Wilson. A true marvel of modern jazz's first steps.
(All Mosaic recordings are available solely through Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902; check www.mosaicrecords.com for more information or to place an order.)