Music by the boxful

For the fans on your list who crave completeness, big, fat, satisfying collections to listen to all year long.

120111-Spector-Box-400

Decades into the reissue revolution that began with the advent of the CD in the 1980s, the question is: What music is there left to box up?

One answer for music fans who know what they want in the holiday shopping season of 2011: Everything.

Everything, that is, in the sense of all the work an artist has ever done in one giant box big enough to use as a doorstop or a murder weapon. The biggest all-encompassing boxed set issued this year is the 76-disc Tony Bennett set reviewed below, but there are also compendia devoted to the Smiths, Phil Spector, and others.

Another option is to excavate music passed over by popular taste the first time around. The R&B and soul of the Boddie Recording Co., early-20th-century African music found in the Opika Pende box, and rawboned gospel of the This May Be My Last Time Singing collection all fill that bill.

It's also the time of year to present classic albums in expanded editions, with outtakes added on a second disc. The U2 Achtung Baby and Rolling Stones Some Girls sets fall into that category, but they are not included in this roundup, in which three discs of audio are needed to be considered a box.

 

Pop

Various artists

Boddie Recording Co.:
Cleveland, Ohio

(Numero Group ***1/2)

Thomas and Louise Boddie's low-cost record company was open to all comers in Cleveland from the early 1960s to the 1980s, with an all-over-the-place R&B, funk, pop, and gospel approach that is the unkempt, and commercially unsuccessful, flip side to the streamlined Motown sound. What makes the Boddie (pronounced BOH-dee) box a kick is that this time capsule chronicles the musical ambitions of the African American community in a city with deep Southern roots, on dozens of rough-cut tunes of surprisingly high-quality bands with names like Eddie & the Ant Hill Mob and the Gospel Hebrews. (3 CDs, $50; 5 LPs, $60; 57 MP3s, $35)

- D.D.

Bobby Charles
Bobby Charles
(Rhino Handmade ***)

Who was Bobby Charles, and why does he get his own box? A sort-of Cajun version of Woody Allen's Zelig, Charles, who died in 2010, wrote "See You Later, Alligator" for Bill Haley and "Walkin' to New Orleans" for Fats Domino, and he's the guy standing next to Paul Butterfield and Eric Clapton in The Last Waltz. In 1972, he recorded an exquisitely lazy album of swampy Southern roots-soul, with pals such as Levon Helm and Ben Keith backing him up. The original LP is bolstered by outtakes and a selection from a 1974 recording session, plus a 30-minute interview.

(3 CDs, $49.98)

- D.D.

Ray Charles
Singular Genius:
The Complete ABC Singles
(Concord ***1/2)

After making his name at Atlantic Records in the 1950s, Ray Charles made his money with ABC/Paramount, a label that granted him an unprecedented financially beneficial deal and creative control. Given his druthers, Brother Ray pretty much gave up writing his own songs and concentrated on interpreting blues, jazz, country, and classic American pop, from Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" to Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind." Singular Genius runs from 1960 to 1973, and while the songs aren't always great, the singing is.

(5 CDs, $42.98)

- D.D.

John Fahey
Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You
(Dust to Digital ***1/2)

The late, great guitarist John Fahey, who died in 2001, was a restless American musical explorer and experimenter. This lovingly compiled set - subtitled The Fonotone Years, 1958-1965 - captures the early years of the suburban D.C. native's musical peregrinations through the Mississippi Delta and various and sundry forms of American vernacular music, dazzlingly played on acoustic guitar. It's an exhaustive set, to be sure, with perhaps one too many vocal tracks as faux bluesman Blind Thomas and collaborations with flautist Nancy McLean. But Fahey's playing is beautifully entrancing throughout.

(5 CDs, $80)

- D.D.

The Smiths
Smiths Complete
(Rhino ***1/2)

Since splitting up after only four proper studio albums - the last one, Strangeways, Here We Come, came out in 1987 - the Smiths' chiming, cheerily miserable output has been repackaged over and over. So, it's doubtful that there's a devotee of drolly depressed Stephen Patrick Morrissey and economically inventive guitarist Johnny Marr who doesn't already own the nicely remastered music in this package, which includes the one live album and three compilations issued in the band's brief lifetime. If you wanted to test the waters first, go for 1986's The Queen Is Dead. But for new enthusiasts - or those originally averse to Morrissey's mopiness who have come to appreciate his wit and Marr's songcraft - this conveniently gathers (almost) everything they ever recorded in one tidy package. (8 CDs, $68.99)

- D.D.

Phil Spector
Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection
(Legacy ****)

In the early 1960s, producer-songwriter-control-freak Phil Spector created his own Wall of Sound and his own label, Philles, to package to the beehived girl groups whose sweeping sound he so fastidiously oversaw. This set packages six albums, with original artwork - three by the Crystals, one apiece by the Ronettes and Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and one multi-artist collection - that were originally released in 1962-64. There's a seventh disc of rare instrumental B-sides, featuring the famed studio team the Wrecking Crew, with one finger-snapping R&B vamp titled "Dr. Kaplan's Office" - after Spector's New York psychoanalyst. (7 CDs, $54.99)

- D.D.

Tony Bennett
The Complete Collection
(Legacy ***1/2)

When 85-year-old Tony Bennett performed at the Academy of Music last month, he sounded nearly as clear and strong as he does in the earliest recordings collected here in this 76-disc box that includes all - yes, all - of the music Bennett has put to tape in a career that's lasted six decades. There are some special treats, such as two albums recorded with pianist Bill Evans, and Bennett's initial No. 1 hit, a version of Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" - but the main characteristic displayed throughout this 6-pound box is the consistency that has marked pretty much everything ever sung by the longest-working and classiest custodian of American popular song. (73 CDs, 3 DVDs, $399 exclusively at bn.com)

- D.D.

Various artists
Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM
(Dust to Digital ***1/2)

In the Lingala language, Opika Pende "means 'be strong' or 'stand firm,' " compiler Jonathan Ward writes in his notes to this collection of 100 songs, all previously available only on 78-r.p.m. phonograph discs. "It can also mean 'resist.' " Resisting the stylistically varied music on this archival set, however, is futile, from the Angolan thumb-piano groove of Mulaji Ronger and 2 Chokwe Women to the Nigerian penny-whistle juju of the Jolly Orchestra. (4 CDs, $50)

- D.D.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Winterland
(Legacy ***1/2)

Does the world need another Jimi Hendrix box? No. Was there even the slightest possibility that another shopping season would roll around without a new multi-disc set by the left-handed axman just given the shockingly obvious distinction of being named greatest rock guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone? Absolutely not. Winterland is culled from a three-night stand in October 1968 at legendary promoter Bill Graham's San Francisco club that paired the 25-year-old Hendrix with sidemen Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, plus guests such as Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady (on a blistering "Killing Floor"). It expands on the 1987 single disc Live From Winterland, with improved sound. Hendrix is charismatic as always on stage, and his playing is spectacularly explosive. (4 CDs, $49.98)

- D.D.

Aretha Franklin
Take a Look: Complete on Columbia
(Legacy ***1/2)

Before the roaring demands of "Respect" and other raw classics from her Atlantic label's golden period, the Queen of Soul was a princess of jazz and standards. The material and arrangements may have been of an all-around entertainer's level - hammy label-chosen stuff like "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," schmaltzy string orchestrations - but Franklin's then-young voice was clearly born of the church as heard on the likes of "Lee Cross." Better still is how Franklin presents a subtle mastery of jazz nuance during "Skylark" and "By Myself." Plus the DVD of Aretha on Steve Allen's talk show is priceless, with its musical mix of kitsch and raunchiness.

(11 CDs, 1 DVD, $148.68)

- A.D. Amorosi

Howlin' Wolf
Smokestack Lightning: Complete Chess Masters, 1951-1960
(Hip-O Select ****)

No bluesman - and perhaps no popular singer ever - can measure up to Howlin' Wolf in terms of feral, commanding vocal presence. And as Chess Records masters go, no disrespect is meant to Muddy Waters or Sonny Boy Williamson to say that when push comes to shove, I'll go with Wolf. These 97 cuts are drawn from the prime of the 6-foot-6 singer's career, with the great Hubert Sumlin coming on board on guitar as the set moves ahead chronologically. It's absurd yet appropriate that the title cut is now used to sell Viagra: Not much music has been made that's more potent than this.

(4 CDs, $59.07)

- D.D.

Various artists
This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45 RPM, 1957-1982
(Tompkins Square ***1/2)

Another stellar crate-digging job from Mike McGonigal, the ace researcher who also put together the 2009 Tompkins Square collection Fire in My Bones. Most of this music is defiantly unpolished, burning with gospel fervor, and not for the faint of heart. Cuts ranging from Calvin Leavy's ecstatic 7-minute-plus "He Walks With Me (Parts 1 and 2)" to Missionary Mami Sample's title cut, many of them recorded in church, are marked above all by an urgent compulsion to connect, to bridge the gap between the needs of the congregation below and the Almighty above. (3 CDs, $29.99)

- D.D.

The Beach Boys
The SMiLE Sessions
(Capitol ****)

This review is reprinted from the Nov. 24 Inquirer.

 

Maybe hell has frozen over.

Here, finally, is a version of the Beach Boys' 1967 magnum opus, SMiLE.

SMiLE is both one of rock music's greatest lost albums and one of its seminal texts, thanks to songs that appeared on subsequent Beach Boys albums and to myriad bootlegs. The follow-up to 1966's Pet Sounds was never completed. Brian Wilson had a lofty plan to construct the album out of modular sections, and although hours and hours of material were recorded, the project was abandoned before it was ever put together officially. In 2004, Wilson released a newly recorded version of it, Brian Wilson Presents Smile, but here we have the original tapes assembled into a full-album sequence.

From "Heroes and Villains" to "Surf's Up" and "Good Vibrations," these are some of rock's greatest songs, and they sound glorious in newly remastered clarity and more meaningful in the context of SMiLE's impressionistic narrative. The "basic" double-CD version adds 90 minutes of material, including fascinating session excerpts, to the 48-minute album. Completists, or those looking to do postgrad work in Wilson's compositional genius, will need the five-CD/two 7-inch-single/two-LP set for $139.99. Purists will want the double-vinyl version for $25.98.

- Steve Klinge

Sting
25 Years: The Definitive Box Set Collection
(A&M **1/2)

As the box proves, the former chief of Police is one of the few Top 40 artists ambitious enough to be accounted an artist. On this exhaustive and eclectic compilation, he steeps rock, pop, world, jazz, even madrigal in his smoky sophistication.

Many of the remastered tracks are cleaner and leaner than the originals, and the unusual ratio of live recordings bears out what a meticulous performer Sting is.

But this collection has far too many rarities for the casual fan, unless, of course, you've just been dying for a live version of "I Burn for You" from the Brimstone & Treacle soundtrack.

(3 CDs, 1 concert DVD, $119.99)

- David Hiltbrand

Elvis Presley
Young Man With the Big Beat
(RCA/Legacy ***1/2)

This five-CD set documents Elvis' doings in the pivotal year of 1956, when he exploded as a hip-shaking cultural phenomenon after moving from Memphis' little Sun Records to RCA. All the recordings are here - "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," etc. - but not everything will be of interest to the casual fan. In the overkill department is a disc of outtakes - want to hear 11 full or partial versions each of "Lawdy, Miss Clawdy" and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll"? A CD of interviews reveals a self-aware Elvis and is sporadically entertaining. Of most interest is the disc of live performances, which capture the excitement the nascent King of Rock and Roll generated. The lavish booklet contains many fabulous photos. (5 CDs, $84.92)

- Nick Cristiano

Country/Roots

Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings

Collectors Edition

(Proper American ***1/2)

On these five discs are the five studio albums made by ex-Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and his merry band of all-star collaborators between 1998 and 2001. From start to finish, it's a lively and engaging roots-music romp, touching on rock-and-roll, blues, country, and jazz. Wyman is his usual unassuming self, usually leaving the spotlight to the likes of Georgie Fame, Paul Carrack, Albert Lee, Procol Harum's Gary Brooker, Peter Frampton, and the should-be-better-known Beverly Skeete. Turns out Wyman is also no slouch as a writer - his originals fit seamlessly with numbers by Mose Allison, Willie Dixon, Dan Hicks, and Nellie Lutcher. (5 CDs, $44.77)

- N.C.

Jazz

Miles Davis Quintet

Live in Europe 1967:
Best of the Bootleg Vol. 1

(Columbia/Legacy ***1/2)

The year was 1967. Miles Davis was in the last full year of his mid-1960s quintet with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams. And they swung lustily on live gigs in Copenhagen, Antwerp, and Paris. This is the first authorized collection of that tour (bootlegs exist of Paris and Antwerp), and it is a corker, full of quicksilver moments and the kind of kinetic interaction that made this quintet so memorable. (3 CDs, 1 DVD, $33-$41)

- Karl Stark

The Modern Jazz Quartet
The Complete Atlantic Studio Recordings of the Modern Jazz Quartet 1956-64
(Mosaic Records ****)

Their approach and dress set the jazz standard for stylish. The Modern Jazz Quartet was anchored by bassist and Philly native Percy Heath. And it motored on the drive of vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis, and drummer Connie Kay. (Original drummer Kenny Clarke had departed by the time these 14 albums were made.) Now arrayed on seven discs, the Mosaic collection is a fest for bow-tied be-bop. MJQ's classically tinged approach roamed high while never straying far from the blues. (7 CDs, $119)

- K.S.

John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Freddie Hubbard, Thelonious Monk and Johnny Griffin
Jazz Icons DVD Boxed Set
(Mosaic ***1/2)

All jazz is ultimately personal. Caught here are six legendary players stretching out in the moment of creation. The Coltrane DVD session from 1965 captures what the strict constructionists of Mosaic say is the only public recording of "Love Supreme" and "Ascension." Monk is heard in 1969 playing solo in a French studio with no sheet music and clearly no place to be. Kirk bleats his customary three horns and showers his unique energy across the reeds and flute, while Hubbard plays like a man possessed. Griffin and Blakey deserve more than honorable mentions. (6 DVDs, $99.98)

- K.S.

Classical

The Liszt Legacy

Claudio Arrau, Alicia de Larrocha, Raymond Lewenthal, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Egon Petri

(Deutsche Grammophon, ***1/2)

OK, this set doesn't have a lot of direct points of contact with Liszt in this 200th anniversary year of his birth. It's true that most of the pianists here can trace their lineage back to students of Liszt, but the main thing to celebrate is a box full of excellent 1950s recordings by great artists. Many originate from LP issues on the American Decca and Westminster labels and have never been out on CD, though the Beethoven sonatas by Claudio Arrau have never been out in any form. Also included is Spanish repertoire by Alicia de Larrocha, Scriabin by Raymond Lewenthal, and Benno Moiseiwitsch, with his own version of Pictures at an Exhibition. (10 CDs, $89.98)

- David Patrick Stearns

Tomas Luis de Victoria:
Sacred Works
Ensemble Plus Ultra, Michael Noone conducting
(Archiv Produktion ***1/2 )

Though many consider Palestrina to be the height of Renaissance polyphony, others only have ears for the the Iberian Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), with his more intense religiosity, more saturated harmonies and greater sense of light and shade. Commemorating this 400th anniversary year since his death, this biggest-ever collection of Victoria's music is full of rarely-if-ever heard works in new editions, performed by the superb Ensemble Plus Ultra, which is currently the darling of Europe's early music festivals. Prepare to experience heaven on earth, and lots of it. (10 CDs, $99.98)

- D.P.S.