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December 8, 2002


Ever since the advent of CDs, the holiday-season roundup/gift guide of new box set releases has been as much of an annual staple as Christmas trees and Yule logs. Unfortunately, after more than a decade during which the major labels gleefully plundered the bounties of their vaults for the benefit of our wish lists and their profit margins, we seem to have finally reached the bottom of the barrel in terms of the treasures that remain to be creatively repackaged and sold to us anew. With all due respect to artists such as Enya, Iron Maiden and Bjork, these names simply aren't in the same league as earlier holiday offerings from the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds, Eric Clapton, Motown or Stax/Volt.

Still, the dilemma remains: What to give the music lover on your Christmas list who seemingly already has everything?

What follows are a couple of suggestions for desirable music gifts this holiday season. It includes a roundup of the admittedly sparse crop of new box sets; a look at the new wealth of greatest hits and best-of discs (which can not only be cheaper, but much more rewarding than the often bloated and overpriced boxes), and a suggestion for making more practical and personal Do-It-Yourself gift CDs. Also be sure to see our semi-annual roundup of rock books elsewhere in this edition of Sunday Showcase.


One final musical gift suggestion for the financially-challenged this holiday season: A present always means more when it was crafted with love by hand.

No, I am not suggesting that you go out and write and record a song or an album for your significant other, but that you take advantage of your home CD burner (or your local teenager equipped with one) in order to craft a disc of his or her favorite songs, or the tunes that mean the most in your relationship. (There are also kiosks at some of the malls and services available online that will do this for you, for a relatively small fee.)

I've gotten a few of these Do-It-Yourself discs through the years, and I've made plenty of them, too, and they are rank among the most meaningful gifts I've ever encountered. (At the ripe old age of six, my daughter still plays the heck out of "Melody's Greatest Hits," the compilation I burned for her and several preschool pals of all of her favorite songs, circa age 3.) And you don't even have to feel guilty about it: Copyright law has always allowed you to tape or otherwise duplicate music you already own as a gift for a friend.

Granted, downloading it for free from the Net is another matter, the legality of which is still being hotly debated. But that's a story for another place and a different season.

Jim DeRogatis


Bjork, "Family Tree" (Elektra)

As I said, the pickings are relatively slim this year as far as new box sets from artists who are actually worthy of that level of attention, but this six-disc offering from Icelandic art-rocker Bjork is the best of a mediocre lot. While fans picked the songs on the singer's recent single-disc greatest hits set, Bjork herself chose and sequenced the 35 tracks here, and they provide a solid overview of her eclectic career, from a tune she wrote on flute at age 15, through her time as the leader of alternative-rockers the Sugarcubes, through her genre-hopping solo albums, with plenty (arguably too many) detours into esoterica such as her mock-classical experiments with the Brodsky Quartet. Casual fans may be overwhelmed--and any one of her fine solo albums would be a better place for novices to start--but the faithful will likely be thrilled.


bob dylan "bob dylan live 1975: the rolling thunder revue - the bootleg series vol. 5" (columbia/legacy)

The tour that fell between Bob Dylan's classic mid-'70s albums "Blood on the Tracks" and "Desire" has become legendary, but unlike the so-called "Albert Hall" concert package, this 22-track, two-disc box (which comes packaged with a bonus DVD) doesn't quite justify the hype. Maybe you really had to be there. To be sure, Dylan is at his artistic peak, with both his distinctive voice and his timeless songwriting in rare form (among the highlights: moving versions of "Tangled Up in Blue," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"). And it's a treat to hear the man playing with respected peers such as multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, and Joan Baez, with whom Dylan performs four duets (including the lovely standard "The Water Is Wide"). In the end, though, as far as prime live Dylan goes, these non-nostalgic ears prefer the stripped-down intensity of the early solo days, or the fire of the tours of the last few years, which are every bit as great if not better than this supposed peak.


iron maiden

"eddie's archive" (Portrait/legacy)

Unlike many rock critics, I refuse to scoff at the sometimes histrionic heavy metal of these pioneering Englishmen. Yes, Iron Maiden could go far, far over the top, but the metal melodrama was always a big part of its charm. On the other hand, there can definitely be too much of a good thing, and this hundred-dollar set (which comes packaged in a fancy tin casket) definitely qualifies, with a flood of superfluous live cuts, B-sides, and assorted ephemera rounding out expected tracks such as "Run to the Hills" and "The Number of the Beast." On the other hand, it does come with a commemorative pewter shot glass.

* 1/2


With the exception of box sets like those commemorating the output of genre-specific labels such as Motown and Stax/Volt, various-artists label-samplers tend to be scattered, unfocused, uneven, and satisfying only to the executives who compile them. This diverse six-disc, 110-track overview of six decades of the Capitol Records roster is no exception. Does anyone really want a collection that includes Frank Sinatra and the Vines, or the Beatles and the Beastie Boys? Talk about a schizophrenic listening experience!

* 1/2


Genre-themed boxes can be somewhat more satisfying than label samplers, but only when they're done well--witness the mixed success of even a good idea like Rhino's earlier progressive-rock set. The problem with this collection is the very notion of '80s nostalgia. Unless you were in high school during the Reagan era and happened to have abysmal taste, favoring MTV and mainstream radio over genuinely exciting underground scenes such as college rock or hip-hop, this seven-disc, 142-song box (nicely packaged though it is) will turn your stomach even quicker than forced repeated viewings of "The Wedding Singer." Schlock like Duran Duran, Rick Springfield, Billy Squier and Kim Carnes is really better forgotten than boxed, and the quicker the better.

* * *


Here's the buried treasure of this season's offerings. These four CDs round up 100 rare Chicago and Delta blues tracks from artists such as Leadbelly, Arthur Crudup, Bukka White, and Jimmie Rodgers with the goal of providing a handy history lesson on the roots of rock 'n' roll (not to mention an instant collection of some of the most influential music of the 20th century). The set can be faulted for skipping plenty of major names that didn't happen to record for the Bluebird/RCA label, but there's no arguing that what is here isn't classic and indispensable American music.

* 1/2


While everyone from high school music teachers to hipsters like Sonic Youth would argue that the music of easy-listening duo Richard and Karen Carpenter is well worth remembering (for the bizarre psychological interplay between the siblings and the subtext of Karen's anorexic tragedy, if not for the sophistication of the baroque arrangements), the '70s hitmakers are best celebrated via the single-disc "20th Century Masters" best-of. This four-disc, 89-track set expands on an earlier box, "From The Top," by adding all too few gems (including a notable duet between Karen and Ella Fitzgerald) and a whole lot of junk (radio spots, jingles, interviews, etc.) that even the biggest Carpenters obsessive probably doesn't want or need.




Pity the humble greatest hits album: Once the music industry's premier way to introduce younger listeners to must-own bands that they hadn't heard, or to spur new sales to old fans in search of the ultimate collection by their favorite artists, the concise and focused best-of was eclipsed over the last decade by ever more extravagant and inflated box sets, much as the dependable and practical family station wagon was replaced by the ostentatious, expensive, and gas-guzzling SUV.

The best-of album never really went away. MCA/Universal Records in particular has done a great job surveying the cream of its roster with the ongoing single-disc "20th Century Masters" collections. But it's not surprising that at this time of dwindling box-set treasures--not to mention a shrinking economy--it has made a major comeback. The revival started in 2000 with the phenomenal success of the Beatles' "1" (leave it to Capitol Records to figure out new ways to sell us what we already own), but it really hit its peak earlier this year.

The allure of these albums is easy to grasp: With one handy purchase, the listener goes home with an instant collection of all of the songs by a given artist that he or she hears on the radio or sees on MTV. Even in this age of instant accessibility via the Internet, our habit of wanting to own a nice collection of what we love cannot be denied.

The music obsessive may argue that a greatest hits set barely glosses the surface of a given artist's career, or that it gives short-shrift to the really good stuff in favor of what was popular or commercial. But even given the pervasive corruption of radio, the hits that really connect with people are usually popular for a reason: It's because they're good! And nobody ever said that a greatest hits album should be the be-all and end-all of your collection. If you really love a given artist, it is simply a handy introduction, a useful starting point for exploring a rich and complex history, or a fun way to listen to familiar sounds in a new and different context.

Here is a look at the most notable best-of discs released in 2002, as well as my choices for some of the very best best-of's ever issued. (Every single one of them is a great idea for that Christmas stocking stuffer, I promise!)


U2, "THE BEST OF 1990-2000" (INTERSCOPE)

This two-disc, 30-song companion to the earlier "Best of 1980-1990" is preferable to that release because U2 was far more adventurous and innovative in the stretch covered here. (Heck, an argument can be made that the best of U2 is simply "Achtung Baby.") The drawback is that this album could easily have been one disc instead of two (cutting everything from "Pop," for example). And even better than that would have been a single CD covering the Irish rockers' entire 20-year career.



Now this is a greatest-hits album as greatest-hits albums were meant to be, with 14 tracks including the 13 most often heard on modern-rock radio and MTV. Whether these songs were Nirvana's best or not can be debated, but they were certainly the most popular, and they appear in remastered form with a sound that makes them seem more vital than ever. Plus there's the bonus of the "great lost Nirvana tune," the brilliant "You Know You're Right." If you own all of the trio's albums, do you need this? No, especially because you've probably downloaded "You Know You're Right" from the Net. But it's not for you! It's for the kids who've been wasting their time with Limp Bizkit or Britney Spears, or the person who simply missed Nirvana the first time around. And in those roles, it performs brilliantly.

*** 1/2


With the exception of the gimmicky techno remix of "A Little Less Conversation," pretty much everything here is essential owning--though as a dedicated rock 'n' roller (as opposed to a fan of pop crooning), my version of the best of the King comes circa the Sun Sessions, and it doesn't always have much to do with his chart successes. An interesting thing about those charts: According to Billboard, the Bible of the music industry, Elvis had only 18 No. 1 hits. The number 30 comes from RCA (the most insidious of all the major labels in their constant repackagings) counting hits in Cashbox and other minor trade publications, as well as in the U.K. Is this cheating? Sure, but it allows for the inclusion of some of the best songs, among them "In the Ghetto" and "Burning Love." And it all makes for an especially worthy introduction to listeners just discovering the King thanks to "Lilo & Stitch."

*** 1/2


It's hard to argue with two discs comprising a greatest-hits overview of the entire career of the self-proclaimed "world's greatest rock 'n' roll band," from the early blues rave-ups, through the psychedelic experiments, to what can simply be called "classic Stones music." There are some problems, though, including the fact that this set slights some of the band's artistic peaks (the brilliant but not exactly hit-heavy "Exile on Main Street," for example), and that it illustrates the precipitous artistic decline that began shortly after "Some Girls" in 1978. Formulaic schlock such as "Start Me Up" simply does not belong in the presence of brilliant tunes such as "Paint It Black," "Wild Horses," and "Happy," to say nothing of the smattering of disappointing new numbers like "Losing My Touch" and "Stealing My Heart."

For these reasons, I prefer the earlier Stones best-ofs, "Hot Rocks 1964-1971" and "More Hot Rocks: Big Hits and Fazed Cookies" (both still available on Abkco). Which brings me to my other choices for the best best-of's ever.


THE BEATLES, "1962-1966" (CAPITOL)


THE BEATLES, "1967-1970" (CAPITOL)

These two double discs (the so-called "red" and "blue" albums) were my entree to the Fab Four, and a fine introduction they were, with every single track standing with some of the finest rock music ever recorded. Personally, I'd vote for the combined present of both of these sets over "1" as the best Beatles primer for the new initiate, but it depends on how just how generous you're feeling. (Total price: about $64, vs. $14 for "1.")



There are only 14 tracks here, and it only takes the band through 1975. But since that pretty much covers Ozzy and his mates at their creative peak, and what's included here sets the template for almost all of the heavy metal that has followed (as well as standing as some of the best heavy music ever recorded), well, it's darn near close to perfection--and almost worth the Faustian price evoked in the title.



This was a triple album when it was first released in 1977, which I suppose makes it the equivalent of a box set at the time. It's still one of the best one-stop overviews of any rocker's career, amply illustrating (with revealing and amusing liner notes by the man himself) the incredible depth and range of Young's talents, and stopping just short of the first of several career revivals circa "Rust Never Sleeps." Yes, there's a need for an update by now--and the much-anticipated box set is still nowhere to be found, even after years of rumors and waiting. But that doesn't detract from the genius that is so well displayed in every one of these 35 cuts.



Fourteen songs, fourteen massive hits, fourteen tunes that pretty much defined reggae music for the world. Plus, on the recently remastered CD reissue of the original greatest-hits package, two added bonuses tracks: "Easy Skanking" and "Funky Reggae Party." Overall, "Legend" is not only aptly named, it's still the strongest introduction to one of the most important voices in black music ever recorded.