Thanksgiving is over and
the dreaded Christmas shopping season is upon us, but fear not: The task is
easy, at least when there are music lovers on Santa's list.
Here's a look at some of the most notable gift ideas among the pop-music
CD and DVD box sets and music-related books on the shelves this holiday
TALKING HEADS, "ONCE IN A LIFETIME" (WARNER ARCHIVES)
The eagerly awaited Talking Heads box could easily have been a set in the
style of the Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin collections, a simple compilation of
all of the original albums, and it probably should have been, since whether
you're a diehard fan or an initiate, you'll still need to own all of the
original albums. What we get instead isn't bad, but it isn't perfect, and it
comes packaged in what is perhaps the most annoyingly misshapen box ever,
guaranteed to protrude awkwardly from your CDs or books shelf.
The three CDs compile all of the expected Talking Heads hits and
signature tracks ("Psycho Killer," "Take Me to the River," "And She Was"),
plus a rather meager handful of outtakes, live tracks and alternate
versions. The real treat (in addition to the well-illustrated and annotated
booklet) is the DVD, which includes all of the group's justly renowned and
often groundbreaking videos.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, "NO THANKS! THE '70S PUNK REBELLION" (RHINO)
From its original explosion in New York and London in 1976's "Summer of
Hate" through the West Coast hardcore boom of 1980, the initial flowering of
punk was fueled by great singles: Richard Hell and the Voidoids' "Blank
Generation," Wire's "12XU," the Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," the Dead
Kennedys' "California Uber Alles" and on and on.
This four-disc, 100-song set rounds up all of those tunes and just about
every other punk-rock anthem that you can name, with the notable exception
of anything by the Sex Pistols. (In any given Rhino genre box, there's
always one or two key bands that wouldn't grant the rights.)
All right, so no genre box is ideal, and the liner notes here are pretty
much useless (as are most attempts to make any sense out of a musical
movement based on attitude and adrenaline). But this compilation stands as a
punk-era jukebox that's just waiting for you to load it into your multi-disc
CD player and pogo the night away. Hey, ho, let's go!
VARIOUS ARTISTS, "THE FOLK YEARS: A SINGERS AND SONGWRITERS COLLECTION"
To jaded Gen X ears such as this reviewer's, most pre-Dylan folk music
was pretty hokey, even before the Spinal Tap veterans satirized it in "A
But even the most unapologetic rockist can't dismiss all of that music;
there's a big difference between the Kingston Trio playing "Tom Dooley" and
the Sandpipers crooning "Kumbaya" or the New Christy Minstrels doing just
about anything, and this box set helps chart the distinctions.
With eight discs divided into four thematic sets ("Blowin' in the Wind,"
Reason to Believe," and so on) and a total of 120 songs, this is a whole
helluva lot of pluckin', strummin' and harmonizing, probably too much for
the casual listener.
But the box does offer a fairly comprehensive overview of how the folk
scene evolved from the post-Beat coffee houses to the electrified Summer of
Love, with plenty of examples of moments sublime (the Band's "I Shall Be
Released") and ridiculous (Norma Tanega's "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog").
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, "THE ESSENTIAL BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN" (COLUMBIA)
Even as a Springsteen skeptic (i.e., someone who does not consider the
Boss on equal footing with Bob Dylan and who's never had a religious
experience at one of his concerts), I'll grant that there's a need for a
good best-of in any serious rock collection, and all we've had to date is
the Boss' inferior single-disc "Greatest Hits," released in 1995.
This new three-disc set gives us two CDs rounding up just about every
Springsteen classic that you'd expect to hear, while having the exceptional
good taste to keep the tracks from the bloated "Born in the U.S.A." to a
It throws in a bonus disc with some interesting rarities (among them a
"Nebraska"-era home recording, a live Jimmy Cliff cover, assorted soundtrack
work, and a version of "Viva Las Vegas" recorded for an NME benefit album).
MOTORHEAD, "STONE DEAF FOREVER!" (SANCTUARY)
Can there be too much of a good thing, even if that good thing is very
good indeed? But of course, and this five-disc, 99-track Motorhead box is
Given that the band has only ever had one idea (albeit a great one),
something akin to "The Essential Bruce Springsteen" might have served it
better; this is way more Motorhead than all but the most devoted rivetheads
Still, the group is one of the cornerstone bands of the punk-metal
merger, as well as the vehicle for one of rock's all-time great frontmen in
Lemmy Kilmister, and these four chronologically ordered discs (plus a fifth
CD of live tracks) chart its story from Lemmy's split with Hawkwind to his
current ongoing status as one of rock's most tireless road warriors.
MOTLEY CRUE, "MUSIC TO CRASH YOUR CAR TO, VOL. 1" (HIP-0)
A number of otherwise cool rockers from the alternative era onward
continue to celebrate Motley Crue as a surprisingly non-guilty pleasure, but
despite scattered moments of tunefulness, I've never been able to treat
these obnoxiously cross-dressing, sexist, bombastic, wannabe metal clowns as
anything but a pathetic joke, and this four-disc, 70-song,
faux-leather-bound box set (complete with a track titled "Tommy's Drum Piece
from Cherokee Studios") only confirms my worst prejudices.
ZZ TOP, "CHROME SMOKE & BBQ: THE ZZ TOP BOX" (WARNER BROS.)
On the other hand, this chooglin' Texas trio is long overdue for a
reassessment, at least by anyone who's only familiar with its glossy MTV
hits. As is often the case, there is an embarrassment of riches; 80 tracks
is a whole lot of Southern-fried boogie, and I don't know if anybody really
needs the cardboard cut-outs of the Bearded Ones (though the box, shaped
like a tin-roofed shack, is pretty darn cool). However, the sampling of
Billy Gibbons' pre-ZZ Top garage band, the Moving Sidewalks, is a very nice
BJORK, "BJORK: LIVE 1993-2002" (ONE LITTLE INDIAN U.S.)
This is another attractive package, but it's really aimed at the hardcore
fan of the quirky Icelandic art-rocker rather than the casual listener.
This five-disc set contains four live CDs chronicling concerts from
throughout her solo career, plus a DVD with a similarly career-spanning
overview of her ever-evolving stage show. It's a good way to head off those
bootleggers, but as captivating as Bjork can be, many people will find
themselves making a swan dive for the "forward" button before any of these
discs is finished.
THE ROLLING STONES, "FOUR FLICKS" (TGA ENTERTAINMENT)
For decades now, the Stones haven't let a single world tour go by without
an accompanying concert film, so you know there'd be one from the 2002/2003
"Licks" jaunt. The result is as unique (and mildly controversial) as those
The band tried to perform three different types of concerts at three
different sized venues in each city where it stopped, and the misnamed "Four
Flicks" captures three good gigs from the Olympia Theatre in Paris, Madison
Square Garden in New York, and Twickenham Stadium in London, with the band
members alternating their set lists and challenging each other onstage more
than they have at any point since the early '70s.
The controversy comes from the fact that this five-hours-plus, 50-song,
three-DVD box is only being sold at Best Buy electronics stores. The
ever-greedy Stones cut some sort of exclusive deal, thereby alienating the
record stores that have kept them afloat for four decades (including the
Virgin Megastores, the merchandising arm of the corporate empire whose label
they now call home). Many stores have responded by boycotting their music,
just in time for the holidays. Mick Jagger, meet the Grinch Who Stole
Christmas: He couldn't get no satisfaction, either.
DORA LOEWENSTEIN, PHILIP DODD, ACCORDING TO THE ROLLING STONES
(CHRONICLE BOOKS, $40)
Accompanying "Four Flicks" and further cashing in on the "Licks" tour is
this massive 400-page lavishly illustrated coffee-table "history" of the
Stones, though it's really just four long (and only occasionally
illuminating) first-person interviews with Mssrs. Jagger, Richards, Watts
and Wood, with earlier, key band members such as Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor
nowhere to be found. On the long list of superior Stones books, it's pretty
far down, Stanley Booth's brilliant The True Adventures of the Rolling
Stones, Wyman's Stone Alone, and Stephen Davis' Old Gods
Almost Dead all come first, but as I said, there sure are a lot of purty
LUKE CRAMPTON, DAFYDD REES, ROCK 'N' ROLL: YEAR BY YEAR (DK
This thorough, gloriously trivial, day-by-day account of the history of
rock 'n' roll has been around in different forms for years, but this
revised, bigger and better than ever edition is being published under the
imprimatur of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, so you know it must
be -- um, official.
At 600 pages, it's heavy enough to prop up your car while you change a
tire, but it's useful in other ways, too, for all of those times when just
have to know that, say, it was April 10, 1962, when Beatles pal Stu
Sutcliffe died in Germany, or March 3, 1994, when the Smashing Pumpkins were
banned from appearing on the BBC's "Top of the Pops" because of objections
to the lyrics of "Disarm." Of course, you also could learn the same things
for free on the Net.
M.C. STRONG, THE GREAT INDIE DISCO-GRAPHY (CANONGATE BOOKS,
The Net also makes this whopping, 1088-page encyclopedia/catalog of
independent rock recordings not only more or less irrelevant, but instantly
out of date. I put it to the test by looking up half a dozen obscure but
significant indie-rock bands. Four were present with thorough, knowledgeable
and passionately written entries, and the other two were missing entirely.
Unless you're a record-store owner or the kind of vinyl junkie who'd enjoy
the next book (which follows), I can't imagine why you'd need this.
BRETT MILANO, VINYL JUNKIES: ADVENTURES IN RECORD COLLECTING (ST.
MARTIN'S GRIFFIN, $13.95)
If you're not a music fan, reading about people who are obsessed with
finding an obscure 45 cut by a German band in 1962 may seem as pointless and
geeky as reading about model railroaders or stamp collectors, but true music
obsessives will find Boston journalist Brett Milano's quirky homage to vinyl
addicts one of the most entertaining and loving music books since Nick
Hornby's High Fidelity, and they will no doubt recognize themselves
in its pages as he charts the passions of devoted collectors such as R.
Crumb, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Jeff "Monoman"
Connolly of garage-rockers the Lyres. For some of us, fandom has no bounds.
Thankfully, the rest of us have lives.
CLINTON HEYLIN, VAN MORRISON: CAN YOU FEEL THE SILENCE?
(CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS, $28)
If you're the sort of music lover who can't abide by knowing that
beautiful music is sometimes made by ugly people, you'll want to skip
Clinton Heylin's fascinating, exhaustively researched but unauthorized
biography of the curmudgeonly natural mystic. If you can separate the art
from the artist, however, you will find the sad and turbulent tale of
Morrison's troubled and rather miserable life a fascinating contrast to his
complex and brilliant musical legacy.
ANDY FYFE, WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS: THE MAKING OF 'LED ZEPPELIN IV'
(CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS, $14.95)
CHARLES L. GRANATA, WOULDN'T IT BE NICE: BRIAN WILSON AND THE MAKING
OF THE BEACH BOYS' 'PET SOUNDS' (CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS, $15.95)
Chicago Review Press' Vinyl Frontier series sure beats VH1's "Behind the
Music." In this series, British authors dig deep to offer a track-by-track
analysis and an extensive history (often based on firsthand interviews) of
the making of a classic album, focusing on the music and the context in
which it was made rather than the hype and the tawdry personal trivia.
Of these offerings, Fyfe's Zeppelin book is less intriguing than
Granata's Beach Boys tome, but that may be because he's a less gripping
writer and it's a less intriguing album. (I'd rather have read about "Houses
of the Holy" or "Physical Grafitti.") Other books in the series include
Revolution: The Making of the Beatles' White Album and Jimi Hendrix
and the Making of Are You Experienced?
JIM IRVIN, PAT GILBERT, THE MOJO COLLECTION: THE ULTIMATE MUSIC
COMPANION (CANONGATE, $25)
Those Brits do love their rock history. While many music fans swear by
Mojo, and I applaud the magazine in its archeological/historical features
mode, I've always found its record reviews to be bland and overly reverent.
The third edition of this 868-page collection of chronologically ordered
reviews ranging from Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee to Sigur Ros and the White
Stripes bears that out. It's not quite dismissible, but it's certainly not
NEAL POLLACK, NEVER MIND THE POLLACKS: A ROCK 'N' ROLL NOVEL
(HARPER COLLINS, $23.95)
Always good for both a gut-busting laugh and an enraged aneurysm, the
latest novel by former Chicago Reader scribe and McSweeney's literary
hipster Neal Pollack finds him taking his "Greatest Living American Writer"
shtick and using it to parody the small and incestuous world of rock
criticism. Granted, this self-important subculture is certainly in need of a
"Spinal Tap"-like lampooning, and Pollack is just the man for the job. But
as a rock critic myself (and one who often sneers at the fraternity of my
peers), I'm hardly in the position to judge whether Pollack's uniquely
hyperbolic brand of humor will translate outside of my world. And even I got
tired of his braggadocio after a while.