Bingeing on box sets

Look up a box set for a loved one or yourself this holiday season. Here are some picks from local record shops.

THERE is nothing like a fabulous box set (or two) under the Christmas tree for music fans. And that leads us to the question of what’s available at local record stores.

We agree that most record stores here have been negligible. Only a handful are worth visiting these days in the Klang Valley, but nuggets exist, too, if you look hard enough.

For the Christmas season, there has been a serving of sumptuous box sets – expanded and deluxe editions – to stir up some excitement. Of course, there is no replicating the tangible and tactile sensation of running your fingers over a lavish cardboard box and shiny pieces of plastic.

Verve: The Sound Of America: The Singles Collection

The top of the tree pick would be the stylish Verve: The Sound Of America: The Singles Collection (Universal Music) five-CD box set, which retraces the illustrious story of the legendary jazz label through 100 crucial singles from its catalogue (and more) dating back to the late 1940s. The label’s logo on this lift-top box is all you need to guarantee quality.

You get the jazz favourites in spades since Verve’s early years were driven by founder/ jazz impresario Norman Granz’s vision to elevate jazz as a sophisticated art. The way Granz nurtured jazz queen Ella Fitzgerald’s career has also become the stuff of legend.

Apart from Fitzgerald’s strong presence, this box set also collects classics from Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith and many more. Thankfully, the compilers were smart enough and kept to Verve’s golden age recordings. No Andrea Bocelli in sight!

If the informative liner notes aren’t enough, then you can also track down the hefty book Verve: The Sound of America by Richard Havers, which makes a nifty companion to this release.

Ry Cooder 1970-1987

The Ry Cooder 1970-1987: Album Box Set (Warner Music) has been a long time coming. Easily one of America’s most accomplished folk guitar players to have graced popular music’s landscape, the 11 albums (until 1987’s Get Rhythm) in this well-priced collection all exhibit his adeptness as interpreter of various song forms, while displaying his genius on virtually any type of guitar (steel string, electric, slide etc). The picks of the bunch are naturally his older albums, like the consistently brilliant Into The Purple Valley, Paradise And Lunch and Chicken Skin Music (all in the early to mid 1970s). And there’s historical significance in this collection, too – 1979’s Bop Till You Drop is the first digital recording of a commercial album. This box set comes with mini LP-type replicas of the original album, thought there’s nothing in the way of a booklet with literature. Good value for money, but you just wish it came with a cigar.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience box set

The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Sony Music) four-CD box returns from out-of-print limbo. You wouldn’t be blamed for sometimes slipping into the debate that Jimi Hendrix is over-rated, but just pop in the Experience’s Are You Experienced, and that argument vanishes as quickly as it surfaced. There’s good reason why he’s often regarded as the greatest electric guitarist ever. Three studio albums were all he released in his lifetime, but the legend transcends. This beautiful package (with mouth-watering literature and production details) pools together outtakes, demos and different mixes of renowned songs. While the early Experience material is the star of the show – including a scintillating live version of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – there are some gems from his later era, too, particularly the alternative mix of Earth Blues, which, by itself, is worth the price of admission. This is what gospel-meets-rock should be about.

Apart from the Europe-only box set Someday We’ll All Be Free in 2010, soul man Donny Hathaway’s career has always been underserved in terms of catalogue. That shouldn’t be the case. Hathaway’s music – socially aware and fiery soulful – deserves to

be right up there with Marvin Gaye and the rest. This four-CD Donny Hathaway – Never My Love: The Anthology (Warner Music) goes a long way in setting things right. This collection brings together the man’s essential solo tracks (The Ghetto, Tryin’ Times, Someday We’ll All Be Free and A Song For You) as well as his stirring duets with Roberta Flack, which raised the bar for soul-based collaborations in the 1970s. The entire Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway album from 1972 has also made the box set. A 28-page booklet sheds invaluable light on one of soul’s forgotten sons. Two CDs of unreleased solo and live recordings complete this highly recommended trawl through the genre’s lost corners. Roberta Flack said it best in describing Hathaway: “Phenomenal and just awesome.”

Van Morrison's Moondance.

Van Morrison isn’t an artiste short on classic albums. His Astral Weeks and Saint Dominic’s Preview rank right up there with the best, but Moondance, originally released in 1970, is a time-defying masterpiece. Talk about a song-based album that never fails to leave an afterglow in the room. This four-CD (plus one Blu-ray) deluxe linen-wrapped folio edition from Warner Music definitely sounds like an album to fall in love with all over again – thanks largely to the digital upgrade. The additional tracks (outtakes, alternative cuts) shine a light on the then 24-year-old Irishman’s attention to detail and his achingly intimate songcraft.

Admittedly, the unreleased material (50 offcuts from the Moondance sessions!) and studio chatter (ol’ Van sounds grumpy, at times) can diminish the perfect integrity of a sublime album, but worry not, you’ll be totally absorbed by multiple early versions of Caravan, Come Running and Into The Mystic. Raw and ragged might be the order of the day, but there’s always a velvet lining in everything Van Morrison touches. A crackin’ version of blues standard Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out is also another reason for true collectors to take the plunge when it comes to this bumper edition. A two-CD expanded version of Moondance is also available for fans wanting only the actual album and a shortcut to the best of the rarities.

If anything, Moondance makes the perfect record to reinvigorate yourself once the hectic festive season winds down. A far more soulful option than a massage chair, we feel.

Check out the range of box sets at Rock Corner, Victoria Music, Movie Magic and Speedy Video stores in the Klang Valley. Keep it music for Christmas!

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Bingeing on box sets


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