Gifts for hungry ears 

The cream of the year-end crop of box sets and reissues: Coleman Hawkins, Bessie Smith, Tunji Oyelana, Bill Withers, and more

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Bessie Smith Complete Columbia Recordings Legacy

Bessie Smith, The Complete Columbia Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)

Like the Bill Withers set I discuss below, this indispensable ten-CD box is exhaustive but no-frills. It collects the voluminous output of brilliant blues singer Bessie Smith on Columbia Records from 1923 to '33. In the 90s the label issued this material in five cumbersome two-CD boxes with elaborate liner notes; this much more compact version contains the same five double-disc sets but lacks most of the documentation. Smith's career was cut short by a fatal 1937 car crash at age 43, but she was one of America's biggest musical stars, burning hot, bright, and fast—her first single, "Down Hearted Blues," sold an unprecedented 780,000 copies in its first six months, becoming Columbia's first major pop hit, and from then on the label kept her busy in the studio, renewing her contract over and over. Smith was sometimes accompanied by instrumentalists who matched her talent, including Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson, but she routinely overcame subpar backing bands and mediocre material with the power of her voice and the ingenuity and precision of her phrasing—listen to this set and you'll understand why they called her "the Empress of the Blues." $79.99

Diablos del Ritmo Colombian Melting Pot 1960-1985 Analog Africa

Various artists, Diablos del Ritmo: The Colombian Melting Pot 1960-1985 (Analog Africa)

Though German label Analog Africa focuses on rarely heard music from West Africa, in 2010 it released a terrific collection by Colombian accordionist and bandleader Anibal Velasquez, whose work has always extended beyond cumbia, the de facto national genre. Most vintage Colombian reissues draw from the deep catalog of powerhouse label Discos Fuentes, but for the sprawling new double CD Diablos del Ritmo Analog Africa owner Samy Ben Redjeb relied almost entirely on tiny imprints such as Felito, Machuca, and Discos Tropical. The first disc looks at the myriad ways Colombians absorbed and translated African influences—funk, Afrobeat, champeta—and the second offers a dizzying range of homegrown variants of cumbia and related forms, including puya, mapale, and cumbiamba. I recognized a few artists' names—Wganda Kenya, Sonora Dinamita, Alejandro Duran—but nearly all of the music was new to me.

As usual for Analog Africa releases, Diablos del Ritmo comes with a photo-packed booklet of engrossing liner notes, which is almost worth the set's price all by itself. Redjeb shares background on the music's cultural roots and development and includes interviews he conducted with most of the musicians who are still alive, but for me the best part is the story of how he discovered this part of Colombia's musical legacy. African records have been popular in the country since the 70s, but because most weren't formally distributed there people could generally only hear them via sound-system DJs, who often guarded them fiercely to prevent rivals from learning what they were playing. When Redjeb visited Colombia, he brought hundreds of his own records, in effect pulling back the curtain on African music for local collectors—who in turn helped school him on the music that ended up on this compilation. $28.98

Sound Art Het Apollohuis Wergo

Various artists, Sound Art @ Het Apollohuis (Wergo)

Dutch sound artist Paul Panhuysen and his wife Helene started Het Apollohuis in 1980 in Eindhoven, and for 21 years it stood as a groundbreaking outpost where experimental music and art collided and performances and installations shared space under one roof. This double CD contains 24 excerpts from performances between 1980 and '85, providing a great snapshot of what the venue provided even though the selections are incomplete documents—not just in duration but also in the absence of an often crucial visual component. A wide variety of approaches and theoretical schools are represented, including the post-Fluxus verbal play of Jackson MacLow, the postpunk percussion of Z'ev, the guerrilla electronic music of Mark Trayle and Hugh Davies, and the minimalism of Phill Niblock and Arnold Dreyblatt. The set includes a 74-page booklet with notes on each performance, which certainly helps in the case of Alvin Lucier's head-rattling 1987 piece "Music for Solo Performer"—you'd never guess just from listening to it that it was created with brain waves. $49.98

Work Play Pray Hard Good End Time Music 1923-1936 Tompkins Square

Various artists, Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time, and End Time Music 1923-1936 (Tompkins Square)

Guitarist Nathan Salsburg, who's also curator of the Alan Lomax Collection, built this three-CD set of early country and folk music from the massive record collection that Don Wahle of Louisville, Kentucky, amassed between the 50s and the early 80s. Salsburg got wind of Wahle's trove the night before most of it was scheduled to be hauled away in a Dumpster, and he pulled an 11th-hour rescue. In his notes Salsburg writes that he'd been planning on assembling a compilation around the themes of working, playing, and praying, and Wahle's records galvanized the project—the songs here show some of the ways rural southerners coped with toil through drink, romance, and religion. There are some country giants featured, including Gid Tanner, the Allen Brothers, and the Dixon Brothers, but most of the music is obscure; the majority of the songs have been unavailable since their original release on 78. As usual with the Tompkins Square label, the package (designed by Susan Archie) comes with excellent liner notes and fascinating photos. Encountering buried treasures like this always makes me wonder how many more American music can possibly still hold, but I'm thrilled they keep coming. $32.99

Bill Withers Complete Sussex Columbia Albums Legacy

Bill Withers, The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums(Columbia/Legacy)

This handy set collects the discography of soul singer Bill Withers—the eight studio albums and one live collection he made between 1971 and 1985, when he quit the record biz. Each CD is enclosed in a miniature facsimile of the original LP cover, but none of the bonus tracks that have previously turned up on individual album reissues are included; the 40-page booklet doesn't contain much more than some photos and album credits, aside from a short piece by Withers (who's still alive) and an essay by author and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson. But who cares about liner notes when the music says so much? Withers stood alone in his time, and his singular sound kicked off a paradigm shift in soul: his laid-back, adult spin on the music, with relatively restrained singing and stripped-down arrangements, emphasizes poignant commentary on the human condition rather than outpourings of individual emotion. Early classics such as Still Bill (which contains the timeless "Use Me" and "Lean on Me") and +'Justments, and later albums such as Menagerie treated the same sort of songwriting to more elaborate, jazz-kissed production. Through it all Withers's voice embodies "chill," saying more with less. $74.99

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