The year’s best box sets, honorable mentions | Bleader

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The year’s best box sets, honorable mentions

Posted By on 12.07.17 at 06:15 PM

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As I mentioned last week, I couldn't fit everything in my annual column of gift ideas that I thought was worthwhile. On Friday I wrote about a couple terrific music-related photography books, and today I'm highlighting some additional box sets.

This summer RCA/Legacy released the three-CD Elvis Presley set A Boy From Tupelo: The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings, which collects his earliest studio work and includes outtakes, alternate versions, and a disc of live recordings. Presley's music has been exhaustively repackaged time and again (the only previously unissued material here is a single live track), but this particular repackaging at least confines itself to what's arguably his most exciting output, most of it for the Sun label. The set's 120-page booklet follows Presley's activity from summer 1954 through the end of 1955, providing day-by-day details about performances, radio appearances, and recording sessions as well as a slew of rare photos and other ephemera. The first disc opens with four self-financed demos Presley cut in 1953 and 1954, which are interesting but only hint at what was to come. Most of the live material comes from the radio program Louisiana Hayride (some of it appears in the massive box set from the show's archives, which I've already written about) and a few Texas radio stations. I've never been a huge Elvis fan—even at his best, he couldn't touch Jerry Lee Lewis—but if you're in the market for more than a simple greatest-hits collection, this is a good place to dig deeper. The feast of images and information in the accompanying book just pushes it across the finish line.

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I have mixed feelings about Kamasi Washington, who's achieved surprising popularity for a guy playing music that's modeled on the spiritual jazz of the early 70s. But I wholeheartedly appreciate the way his work has directed new attention to some of his inspirations—progenitors of the genre such as Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. It might not have anything to do with Washington's popularity, but Anthology Records (the reissue arm of Mexican Summer) recently dropped a vinyl box set of three of Sanders's greatest albums: 1967's Tauhid, 1969's Jewels of Thought (1969), and 1970's Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun), all originally issued by Impulse. The box includes a 16-page booklet with liner notes, press clippings, and some wonderful photos.

The vision embodied by these recordings still sounds innovative and surprising today. Their mix of sounds—free jazz, modal grooves, and elements from East Asia and Africa—is utterly transformed by their soul-driven improvisational context. The arrangements' cycling rhythms cast a spell that's sometimes dreamy and sometimes feverish, while Sanders and a crew of top-flight improvisers (across the three albums they include pianists Dave Burrell and Lonnie Liston Smith, guitarist Sonny Sharrock, vocalist Leon Thomas, trumpeter Woody Shaw, and saxophonist Gary Bartz) deliver expansive, extended solos that seem to emanate from the rest of the music. Every component ebbs and surges or drops in and out organically, and the tracks develop exquisitely incrementally, threaded together by hypnotic ostinatos. The music isn't as grandiloquent or massive as Washington's, but it feels more urgent, hand-crafted, and intense. It flows back and forth between searing ferocity (with Sanders showing off his fire-breathing attack and lacerating tone) and meditative serenity, with the band functioning like a single organism. Below you can check out the opening track from Tauhid, "Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt."


From the vantage point of 2017, it can seem as though Seattle's underground rock scene didn't exist before Sub Pop Records and grunge, but an unexpected little box set simply titled U-Men offers a small but important corrective. The U-Men themselves existed only from 1983 till 1989, but that was an era when America's posthardcore punk landscape (into which the band fit nicely) was evolving rapidly and producing a disproportionate number of influential sounds and artists. The U-Men curdled old-school rock 'n' roll, creating a harrowing new sound that pushed a ghoulish Cramps-like aesthetic (especially audible in the maniacal, wildly hiccuping style of singer John Bigley) toward the discomfiting antisocial howling of the Birthday Party.

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The band released their self-titled four-track debut EP in 1984 on Bombshelter, the indie label owned by future Sub Pop capo Bruce Pavitt. Finances were so seat-of-the-pants in the indie-rock world that Pavitt couldn't afford to release the band's follow-up, so instead he directed them to Gerard Cosloy at Homestead, which released Stop Spinning in 1985. The U-Men undertook some U.S. tours to general indifference, recorded a couple great singles and the 1989 full-length Step on a Bug, and then ground to a final halt. This new collection affirms the band's wigged-out greatness, which went largely unnoticed at the time—their music eclipses much of what Seattle's underground rock scene has produced since. Five of the set's 30 songs are previously unreleased, and the package includes a 16-page booklet crammed with photos, essays, and band interviews. Below you can check out the slithering, out-of-control "Solid Action."


The Blue Note label has launched a new subscription series that gets you a huge elaborate box of stuff twice a year. The inaugural installment, Blue Note Review: Volume One—Peace, Love & Fishing, doesn't contain dozens of discs like some of the other sets I've reviewed over the years, but it's nonetheless a serious contender for most excessive due to the odd nonmusic merch it includes. Designed to satisfy listeners resistant to the digital future, the set combines LPs and CDs to deliver music from Blue Note's vaunted past and still-worthwhile present. There's a new pressing of Step Lightly, a terrific 1963 session by trumpeter Blue Mitchell that went unreleased until 1980; his band consists of pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonists Joe Henderson and Leo Wright, bassist Gene Taylor, and drummer Roy Brooks. Also included are two copies of a tw0-disc compilation (one on CD, one on vinyl) that rounds up previously unissued material from eight current acts on the label's roster: Charles Lloyd, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Gregory Porter, the Blue Note All-Stars, Terence Blanchard, Derrick Hodge, Kandace Springs, and Wayne Shorter.

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Among the box's bells and whistles are two lovely lithographs of previously unpublished Francis Wolff photos (of Shorter and Stanley Turrentine) and a zine that features an interview with Shorter by comedian and jazz fan Jeff Garlin, a remembrance by Lloyd of drummer Billy Higgins, and a few jazz-themed comics. But then things get dicey: I'm not sure who's out there clamoring for a turntable mat that reads "Jazz Is Not a Crime" (designed by Ryan Adams, for some reason) or a Blue Note scarf designed by John Varvatos. The music is impressive, and the set is limited to 1,500 copies, but at $200 it's a long way from cheap—and you'll be paying for stuff you probably don't want. Fair warning: the scarf is definitely too flimsy to keep you warm through a Chicago winter.


Today's playlist:

Wadada Leo Smith, Najwa (TUM)
Wadada Leo Smith, Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM)
Cat Hope, Ephemeral Rivers: Chamber Works (Hat Art)
Stan Getz, Focus (Verve)
Phonophani, Animal Imagination (Hubro)

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