The Apple Records Box Set
Ahhh, the holidays! A time to open all those gift-wrapped boxes. And for music fans, boxes mean one thing: box sets. Last year, the big packages everybody wanted to see under the tree were by this little quartet called The Beatles - the Stereo Box and In Mono releases were the toppermost of the poppermost. Now that the whole Fab Four kit and kaboodle is available on iTunes, you can easily give that special someone a digital gift card. But still, it's just not the same thing as owning a piece of music, the physical item, to say nothing of gazing at the accompanying photos or reading liner notes.
Luckily, 2010 brought with it a bounty of packages for those who believe that thinking 'inside the box' isn't such a bad idea. And some of the offerings even came with this newfangled thing called vinyl. Get a load of this: it's a round black doo-hingy with a bunch of scratches on it. And if you put one of these deals on a gizmo that spins round and round and set a big ol' needle on it, well, guess what? Music plays! Holy smokes - what'll they think of next? You know, we wouldn't mind seeing that little Beatles band slappin' some of their tunes on those vinyl thingamajigs. Could catch on.
Till that day, however, let's open up our Christmas menu of box sets and see what might make your loved one say, "You shouldn't have...But I'm glad you did!" We'll start off with...
The Apple Records Box Set
If you thought Apple Records was home to just The Beatles, think again: The Fabs and their crew signed a wide range of artists during the company's short run, and in this 17-CD package we have gems from acts such as Badfinger (Straight Up, No Dice), Mary Hopkin (Postcard), Billy Preston (That's The Way God Planned It) and James Taylor (his eponymous debut), just to name a few.
There's even a couple of releases from The Modern Jazz Quartet, a personal favorite of then-A&R head Peter Asher (from Peter And Gordon fame). A fantastic time capsule.
Read our recent interview where Badfinger's Joey Molland discusses the Apple Records reissues.
Bob Dylan - The Original Mono Recordings
Just like The Beatles, and any other recording artist of the '60s, Bob Dylan had his albums mixed for mono during most of the decade. It wasn't until the end of the '60s that the shift towards stereo-only mixes took precedence. On this handsome nine-disc box, we get Mr Zimmerman's first eight albums remastered in mono and housed in mini-LP replica sleeves.
Classic releases? Uh, yeah. There's his 1962 debut, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin', Another Side Of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisted, Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding. Yep, we'd call those classics.
Whether it's straight-up folk or rough-and-tumble rock 'n' roll, the sound is punchy, direct, intimate and absorbing. Listen and ye shall be reborn.
Jimi Hendrix - West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology
There have been so many posthumous Hendrix releases (with more to follow) that no one compilation can be called 'complete.' With that in mind, this four-CD/one-DVD set is a worthwhile addition for any collector of all things Jimi.
And all things Jimi is what West Coast Seattle Boy truly is: from the guitarist's early appearances as a sideman with the likes of The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and Don Convey to alternate versions of classics with The Jimi Hendrix Experience to 'apartment demos' recorded shortly before his death, it's a brisk examination of one of music's most influential figures.
While West Coast Seattle Boy is a bit scattershot, i.e., not for the casual fan, it's a treasure for serious Hendrix aficionados. The DVD footage, by the way, is incendiary.
Hungry for more Hendrix treats and can't wait for Christmas Day? Then revisit our celebration of all things Jimi from earlier this year.
The Grateful Dead - Formerly The Warlocks
For a brief time in 1965, The Grateful Dead were known as The Warlocks. No, this six-CD set isn't a long-lost document of era. What is is, however, is a fascinating portrait of the band at the height of its fame revving up for a tour and having a little fun in the process.
In 1989, The Grateful Dead preceded their five-night Meadowlands Arena run with two stealth shows at the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia. Billing themselves as Formerly The Warlocks, the Dead stretched out on some of their best-loved songs such as Help On The Way, Slipknot!, Franklin’s Tower, along with an a capella We Bid You Goodnight.
Two Grateful Dead shows beautifully rendered? Even if you're a Friend Of The Devil, you'll be in heaven with Formerly The Warlocks.
David Bowie - Station To Station: The Ultimate Fan Experience Deluxe Edition
In 1976, David Bowie was between David Bowies. He had been Ziggy Stardust, a Pin-Up, and now he was leaving glam behind and experimenting with his Thin White Duke period, during which he would mix electronic space-rock with funk.
This extravagant Station To Station box - five CDs, one DVD and three vinyl LPs - captures Bowie in all of his mid-'70s, coke-fueled glory. TVC15, Word On A Wing, Golden Years - they didn't sound like gems at the time, but they sure do now, and it's fascinating to hear how snappy and wistful they are, coming as they do as precursors to Bowie's not-a-load-of-laughs 'Berlin Trilogy' - the collaboration with Brian Eno that yielded Low, Heroes and Lodger.
The highly coveted and much-bootlegged concert from 23 March 1976 at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum is included here, spread out over two discs. Among the cuts are a slamming Suffragette City, a rocking Rebel Rebel, a gut-grooving Fame, a riotous version of Panic In Detroit, among others.
CTI Records: The Cool Revolution
In 1970, jazz producer Creed Taylor founded CTI Records to expand the boundaries of genre, and on the label's 40th anniversary, this four-CD box gathers primo songs by Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Cleveland Institute Of Music graduate Jim Hall and many others.
The discs are divided into four categories: Straight Up, Deep Grooves/Big Hits, The Brazilian Connection and Cool And Classic. But with artists such as Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington Jr, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, Deodato and Airto, along with true legends like Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, you can call this entire collection one thing: Must-Have.
Matador At 21
Matador Records was a gamble that paid off, and to celebrate its 21st birthday, the groundbreaking indie rock label threw a big bash for itself in Vegas, baby, hence the set of poker chips included in this six-CD collection.
While you play five-card stud and sip some holiday hooch, bask in the sounds of the iconoclastic artists that have called the label home: Teenage Fanclub, Superchunk, Unsane, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Liz Phair, The New Pornographers, Guided By Voices, Belle And Sebastian, Cat Power, Ted Leo - talk about a mind-blowing array of talent, and of course there's more. If you're a fan of left-of-center, daring musicians who aren't afraid to take chances, this set belongs under your tree.
A bonus disc features performances from Matador's 10th anniversary blowout in 1999 (mini-sets by Pavement and Cat Power). The mood is appropriately celebratory, so deal the cards and get the party started.
Bruce Springsteen - The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story
Call this Triumph Of the Spirit. Barred from recording for two years because of a messy legal dispute with his then-manager, Mike Appel, a vindicated Bruce Springsteen hit the studio in 1977, bound and determined to better Born To Run in every way. He spent a year trying to do so, practically going crazy in the process.
All of which is told on a full-length documentary directed by Thom Zimny on the first of three DVDs included here. The other two feature concerts, one from 2009 (at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park - it's pretty good) and the other from 1978 (a bootleg from Houston, and it's incredible!).
But the real selling point of The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story are the CDs containing the remastered original album and the 21 unreleased songs recorded during the period. Cuts such as The Brokenhearted, Ain't Good Enough For You and Spanish Eyes have an enchanting, sweet and naive quality to them. But it's Bruce's rendering of the hits he gave away - Fire (to The Pointer Sisters) and Because The Night (to Patti Smith) - that offer a startling peak into a lyrical world he had only flirted with in the past: pure animal sex.
The Boss' scalding guitar work that informed much of the original Darkness is largely absent on the unreleased material, but Clarence Clemons' sax bursts through like a spirit in the night.
Need any more convincing? Check out our recent track-by-track review of The Promise's new material.
The Rolling Stones - 1964-1969 Vinyl Box Set
As it is with The Beatles, the importance of The Rolling Stones cannot be overstated. Likewise, the band's earliest recordings changed the course of popular music while being transmitted through cheap transistor radios. How you ask, could one tiny speaker effectively render the gritty punch of Keith Richards' guitar or the cold snap of Charlie Watts' drums, to say nothing of the blues-soaked, unintelligible vocals of Mick Jagger? The answer is simple: because the music was made to come through one tiny speaker.
But even through two speakers (or earbuds), you can soak up that same sonic experience on most of these recordings. Spread out over 13 vinyl discs, ABKCO has reissued The Stones' essential UK LPs and EPs, with the first five long-players in their original mono. So what we have here are The Rolling Stones (EP), The Rolling Stones, 5 x 5 (EP), The Rolling Stones No. 2, Out Of Our Heads, Aftermath, Between The Buttons, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, along with the rarities collection Metamorphosis and two 'greatest hits' collections, Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass) and Through the Past, Darkly.
ABKCO has also released another big Stones box that houses their studio albums from 1971-2005, and while there are a few hands-down beauties, to be sure (Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St, even Goat's Heads Soup has its moments), we can't get too excited about a owning a vinyl copy of Steel Wheels or A Bigger Bang. Stick with the '60s, we say.
Ninja Tune XX: 20 Years Of Beats & Pieces
Twenty years ago, Jon More and Matt Black, the hip-hop/electronic duo better known as Coldcut, formed Ninja Tune. The idea was to release progressive, twisted trip-hop, jazz and anything else that couldn't be easily categorized. Were they successful? Undoubtedly. And on this six-CD/six seven-inch singles collection, you get dozens of reasons why.
While there is music from the label's past (archive tracks from The Cinematic Orchestra and Roots Manuva), the emphasis on Ninja Tune XX's discs is on new and/or previously unreleased cuts, all of which are exclusive to this collection. Mr Scruff, Toddla T, Kid Koala, Wagon Christ, Jaga Jazzist, King Geedorah, DJ Food, Kyle Hall, The Heavy, The Qemists, King Cannibal and Blockhead are just some of the names represented.
If that weren't enough, there's also new remixes by from Modeselektor, Cut Chemist, Zomby, Scuba, Dorian Concept, EL-P, The Bug, King Jammy, Matthew Herbert, Rustie, Prefuse 73, cLOUDDEAD, 808 State and others. And you even get some posters, stickers and a hardback book that chronicles the label's history.
Not into Phil Spector or The Rat Pack? Bust out these tunes on Christmas morning for a whole different kind of Yuletide experience.