This is my fifth year rounding up box sets for the Reader's gift guide, and during that time the music business in general—and the CD business in particular—has continued to decline. But music remains a gift that keeps on giving, and box sets are more fun to unwrap than digital downloads. Plus, instead of just taking up a bit of space on a hard drive, they can occupy prime real estate on your mantel, bookshelf, or, um, floor. Sadly, box sets increasingly seem to be little more than repackaging of widely available material—cash-ins that don't cost record labels anything more than the materials used to produce them. But some labels will still invest the money and labor to make box sets that can help us approach familiar material in new ways or discover stuff we never knew existed, and the ten titles below do both. Physical media may be turning into a niche market in music, but these collections will feel good in the hands of the listeners in your life.
(Numero Group) $35
The Numero Group travels far afield from its comfort zone in soul and rock with this rich three-CD set, which compiles music from the first 25 years of postcolonial Burkina Faso—known as the Republic of Upper Volta till 1984. The landlocked West African nation declared its independence from France in 1960 and, like many other African countries at the time, struggled to find its footing financially, but locally produced music became an important source of cultural pride.
Compared with that of neighboring Ghana, Mali, and the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso's output was modest, and none of the groups featured here could be considered innovators or influencers. But Volta Jazz, Coulibaly Tidiani et L'Authentique Orchestre Dafra Star, and others built satisfying bodies of work, creating dynamic hybrids of Afro-Cuban music, funk, and native modes. The thick book that houses the CDs contains concise essays on the bands and some basic historical and cultural background, though nothing approaches the detail in the label's previous multidisc sets—hardly surprising, considering the limitations imposed by geography, language barriers, and the lack of archival material in Burkina Faso.
The packaging makes up for this with a lovely array of album and single art and a large selection of photographs by Sory Sanlé, a cousin of Volta Jazz founder Idrissa Koné—both were key figures in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso, at the time the nation's cultural center due to its location at the original terminus of the Abidjan-Niger Railway. The dozens of beautifully reproduced black-and-white photos recall the look and aesthetic of work done around the same time in Mali by Malick Sidibé. Stylish youth pose with prized possessions—a motorcycle, a radio, a musical instrument—in street clothes or elaborate costumes, either in front of a screen or an illustrated backdrop depicting an urban scene or the wheeled stairway leading up to a jet. Many other Sanlé shots depict the bands in performance, conveying the irresistible energy that helped them assert their postcolonial dreams and desires in the face of corruption and crushing odds.
A couple years ago Mosaic Records assembled a superlative nine-disc box set of the paradigm- shifting bebop released by tiny LA indie label Dial Records between 1945 and '48, capturing the nascent days of the genre—including the first sides Charlie Parker cut as a leader. While Blue Note famously released some of the earliest work from bebop pioneers Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, the other vital independent label chronicling the emerging revolution was Savoy Records, which thanks to the keen A&R instincts of Teddy Reig got on board in 1945 with a Dexter Gordon session.
The many sides Parker made for Savoy in the coming years aren't included in this ten-disc set because they've been widely reissued elsewhere, but there's no shortage of stuff to dig into. Savoy initially made its mark with R&B and gospel, but its bebop catalog arguably surpasses that material. The sessions collected here—deftly annotated in a 32-page booklet by longtime Reader writer Neil Tesser—include early work from some of the most towering figures in jazz history, who'd become stars of the strength of subsequent sides for Blue Note, Roost, and Capitol. Among the bandleaders are Stan Getz, Tadd Dameron, Leo Parker, Fats Navarro, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, J.J. Johnson, Brew Moore, and Howard McGhee (who, like Navarro and Gordon, cut his first sides for Dial). The Savoy set covers a broader stylistic range than the Dial box, with many tracks that back off from the breakneck pace of much bebop. Like the Dial box, it's remastered by Steve Marlow and Chicagoan Jonathan Horwich, who used a digital technique called bit-density processing to add clarity and brightness to the horns and pianos and help eliminate surface noise—the unfortunate whooshing quality it imparts to the drums on some of the earliest material feels like a minor quibble.
(Sony Legacy) $199.98
Few rock icons have achieved that status on the back of a solo career as erratic and uneven as Lou Reed's. Granted, Reed was peerless in the Velvet Underground, but this new collection rounds up 16 albums he made after leaving that band in 1970, beginning with his eponymous 1972 debut for RCA and ending with his final mid-80s records for the label. (He would experience one of his periodic rebirths with the 1989 release of New York, but he made that record for Sire.) Reed oversaw the remastering of the set shortly before his death in October 2013.
Of course, Reed's reputation and genius are inextricably bound up with his contrariness—he reveled in ignoring the rules of the music business, and his solo records ping-pong between rock orthodoxy and bull-headed abstraction, stopping at many points between.
This set includes several undeniable classics, among them 1972's Transformer, coproduced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson (who both played on it too), which includes three of his all-time best solo songs: "Walk on the Wild Side," "Satellite of Love," and "Vicious." Though the 1975 double album Metal Machine Music doesn't register as a classic to many—in fact, it infuriated most fans upon its release—its seething feedback and grinding noise laid the groundwork for industrial music and introduced avant-garde experimentation to unsuspecting record buyers.
I'm also a big fan of the two studio albums Reed made with guitarist Robert Quine—The Blue Mask in 1982 and Legendary Hearts in '83—where a nimble band gives some of Reed's most thoughtful and mature writing the crisp, hard-hitting, fat-free execution it required. Other records are trickier, such as the notoriously depressive 1973 LP Berlin—a fuck-you to fans expecting a sequel to Transformer—and the sprawling 1978 double live album Take No Prisoners, dominated by acerbic banter between and during songs, with Reed lashing out at the audience and cracking interminable jokes.
Two live albums released by RCA—Lou Reed Live and Live in Italy—aren't included here, presumably because they were mandated by the label rather than backed by Reed. None of the outtakes and bonus tracks from previous CD reissues appear either, likely for the same reason. The set comes with an envelope of reproductions of promotional eight-by-tens, a reprint of an RCA poster, and a hardbound 80-page booklet full of rare photos, commentary, and ephemera from the singer's archives.
The trend of mono reissues continues with this comprehensive set collecting the music the Rolling Stones recorded before they formed their own label in 1971 to release Sticky Fingers. Like many popular British acts in the 60s, the Stones had their UK releases sliced and diced by American labels, so this 15-disc set includes UK and U.S. versions of three early albums that vary in track sequence and selection (and have slightly different covers).
Most folks won't need both, just as most listeners probably won't care if they have a stereo or mono release. But only the two latest albums in the set—Beggars Banquet from 1968 and Let It Bleed from 1969—were recorded in stereo. For the earlier records—as was the general practice at the time—engineers created simulated stereo versions for customers who preferred that format, and they were released alongside the mono versions. Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed were also released in mono, and those are the recordings you get here.
Because the bulk of this familiar music was made in mono, hearing it that way delivers a more accurate picture of what the band was doing, with a directness that after-the-fact stereo renderings typically compromised. But that's not to say it makes a dramatic difference. I'm reminded of my days working in a CD store, when digital recording technology was still new and a certain class of customer refused to buy albums that weren't made that way—the sort of idiots who treat a stereo system like a sports car, privileging supposed sound quality over the quality of the music they listen to. You wouldn't be wrong to prefer these mono releases, but what makes this stuff great is that it's the Rolling Stones.
The set includes a 5,000-word David Fricke essay in his typically overripe prose, but the recordings sell themselves. The bite and snap of the remastering allow the minimal grace of Charlie Watts's graceful, minimalist drumming, the snarling guitar fuzz, and Mick Jagger's howl to sound more alive that they ever did in a fake stereo version.
If you know anything about the importance of Frank Sinatra, you know about his global reach. He brought his own distinctive precision and originality to the art of phrasing, adding fresh nuances and wrinkles to the American songbook over the decades, and his career became an international phenomenon: this new four-disc set collects live performance recordings made between 1958 and 1982 on five different continents, nearly all of them previously unissued.
Shows taped in Monte Carlo in 1958 and Sydney, Australia, in 1961 capture Sinatra at his peak, breezing with preternatural ease through his classic Capitol Records repertoire—especially songs that from his great travel album Come Fly With Me, appropriate considering the locales. On the final disc, which includes concerts recorded in Egypt in 1979 (at the pyramids, no less) and in the Dominican Republic in 1982, Sinatra's range is diminished and his timbre less velvety, but his phrasing remains impeccable, allowing him to work around those creeping limitations.
The liner notes devote a good deal of space to Sinatra's charitable efforts—his 1962 world tour, for instance, raised money for underprivileged children in each of the countries he visited, among them Hong Kong, Israel, Greece, Italy, France, and Japan. The set includes a DVD featuring TV footage of the Tokyo concert, where the rather polite, impassive audience does little to demonstrate the fervor of Sinatra's international fans—but he kills it from the first song, leading an efficient sextet that adapted his usual big-band arrangements for the tour.
The same DVD also includes a promotional film for his fund-raising campaign, a promo clip collecting highlights of the tour's nine days in Israel, and a selection of commercials shot for his Italian dates—truncated versions of tunes played in a studio, with overdubbed Italian intros. It's hard to argue with the scope and quality of this set—but it's also hard to imagine anyone but the most obsessed fans of Ol' Blue Eyes finding much use for it.
Paul Bowles famously served as the center of a circle of itinerant literary figures that gravitated to Morocco in the 50s and 60s, including William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Brion Gysin; he also set his famous 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky in Morocco. Bowles lived there for more than four decades, and he was obsessed with the country's traditional music. In 1957 he began a years-long effort to make field recordings of it, preserving sounds he felt would be lost as they were watered down by postcolonial nationalism. In 1959 he received funding from the Library of Congress, and for six grueling months he lugged a cumbersome Ampex tape machine around the country to document its vibrant folklore. Some of his recordings turned up on a two-LP set in 1972, but many weren't released till this gorgeous four-CD set dropped in April.
As usual with releases from Dust-to-Digital, the packaging and annotation are sublime. The CDs come in what could almost pass for a cigar box, except that it's covered in beautiful foil stamps and mosaics, and a leatherette-bound 120-page book contains detailed notes by ethnomusicologist Philip Schuyler, an essay by Lee Ranaldo, and Bowles's original notes. But the music makes the set worth the price: though Bowles was a nonexpert, he had exceptional taste, and he recorded a sprawling array of arresting styles and sounds.
Bowles wanted to capture an end-blown reed flute called a qsbah by itself, but the instrument didn't occur that way in traditional Moroccan music—so he made up a story about the American government specifically requesting it. For the most part, though, he didn't involve himself in the circumstances of a recording, instead allowing the players to do their own thing.
I'm not about to get rid of my copy of the 2005 CD box set Pure Genius, which collects every live and studio recording Ray Charles waxed for Atlantic Records. But this new vinyl-only collection, which consists of beautifully remastered versions of all the studio albums the pianist, singer, and bandleader made for the label, might be the one I reach for more often.
When Charles signed with Atlantic in 1952, he hadn't yet found his voice—he was essentially delivering a well-crafted imitation of the intimate urban piano blues of Charles Brown and the smooth trio jazz-pop of Nat "King" Cole. In his liner notes for the set, Charles biographer David Ritz explains that at first Atlantic wasn't giving Charles good material to sing, so he started writing his own—a decision that inarguably altered the direction of American music. The sides he cut during his seven years at Atlantic—beginning with material recorded before he assembled his working band and began forging his powerful hybrid of post-Count Basie jazz, blues, and gospel—spell out that monumental accomplishment.
Early on, Atlantic marketed Charles alongside popular R&B singers such as Big Joe Turner and Ruth Brown, and his first LP for the label, a 1957 collection of singles, was part of its "Rock & Roll" series. But Charles's music was significantly more sophisticated and adult than rock 'n' roll, even as it harnessed the same sexual energy—his 1959 smash "What'd I Say" remains the most effective musical translation of fucking ever made.
Charles devoted a couple of his Atlantic records to his piano playing—they're basically instrumental jazz given pop concision, made with trusted collaborators such as saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, drummer William Peeples, and bassist Roosevelt Sheffield. These LPs still sound fantastic, but Charles's vocal sides—which famously transplanted the sounds of the church into a profane world—are what display his true genius. In these glorious mono mixes, the music sounds as electric and suave as ever.
Cult band NRBQ have long deserved the career overview they receive on this fantastic five-disc set. Until recently the appeal of this veteran crew was something of a mystery to me, though their music sounds great on paper: rooted in good-time rock 'n' roll, it's slathered with pop, influenced by a longtime obsession with Sun Ra, soaked in R&B (which provides the middle two letters of their name—the first and last stand for "New" and "Quartet"), and spiked with silly humor (they've sung about pro wrestling manager Captain Lou Albano and written a song called "Wacky Tobacky"). But whenever I dug into NRBQ's back catalog, it failed to measure up to what I'd heard about them. No doubt that's partly because they're celebrated for their infectious live shows, and that onstage energy has often failed to translate to the studio. This masterfully curated collection has provided the breakthrough I've been searching for.
NRBQ have scored only one chart hit during their five-decade career—the 1974 single "Get That Gasoline Blues"—and that's a bit mind-boggling given all the irresistible hooks here. Keyboardist and vocalist Terry Adams has been the sole remaining original member for many years, but before he put the band on ice in 2004 during a struggle with throat cancer, he spent decades working with guitarist Al Anderson (original guitarist Steve Ferguson left the group in the early 70s), bassist Joey Spampinato, and drummer Tom Ardolino. When Adams re-formed the group in 2005, the all-new lineup included Chicagoans Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough. The work they've done together—collected on the first disc of High Noon—carries on the NRBQ legacy without a hiccup.
(Sony Classical) $199.79
This brick of a box—stuffed with 86 CDs—reflects a growing trend in classical music, where labels comb through their holdings and release everything they've got from, say, a single well-known conductor, without any significant reframing or reconsideration. This set collects the voluminous U.S. output of French conductor Charles Munch, beginning with his arrival from the UK in late 1947 and ending when he returned to France in 1963 to become president of the École Normale de Musique. For the bulk of his time in the U.S., he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra—his prolific stint there, from 1949 till 1962, resulted in most of the albums in this set. His work for RCA also included a handful of recordings made with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. A small booklet lists all the tracks alongside a brief essay about Munch, but the only other notes appear on the sleeves of the CDs, in reproductions of the original LP covers—you'd need a magnifying glass to read them.
Munch was celebrated for his affinity for French music, and this set includes plenty of it: Saint-Saéns, Ravel, Franck, Roussel, Berlioz, Chopin. But its sprawling scope provides an incredibly broad look at Munch's aesthetic, compiling a good chunk of the most important work in Romantic music—French and otherwise—all in one place. I've yet to listen to everything here—more like 10 percent—but these are recordings of great craft and subtlety, and the hefty price tag is a bargain when you consider the sheer volume of music. As a gift, this could provide a solid foundation for someone who wants to start classical collection—and it makes a good doorstop.
(Deutsche Grammophon) $87.84
Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer has been one of classical music's most prominent instrumentalists since emerging in the West in 1970, earning a reputation for facility across a wide stylistic range. This 20-disc set collects his work for Deutsche Grammophon, displaying Kremer's facility interpreting Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart as well as contemporary composers from the former Soviet Union such as Schnittke, Gubaidulina, and Kancheli. Most of the set focuses on standard repertoire, but the final two discs are by Kremer's remarkable Kremerata Baltica, an ensemble that nurtures young composers from the Baltic states.
Kremer grew up under authoritarian rule, and strong political and social motives color many of his choices. That makes him more than a virtuoso—a rare quality in a classical-music world dominated by conservatism and orthodoxy. His readings of Bach, Beethoven, and Berg (to name just three) are extraordinary, but you can feel a deeper fire when he turns to music from his homeland—such as explosive performance of Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina's 80s masterpiece Offertorium. v