Hits, and misses, for the holidays



November 27, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Hits, and misses, for the holidays


November 27, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Even if the high-tech fortune tellers are correct and CDs will soon be made extinct by the advent of iPods and downloaded music from the Internet, I suspect we will never see the end of the CD box set.

At their best, these releases are ready-made and comprehensive collections of great music, full of previously unreleased tracks and stuffed with extras such as videos and illuminating booklets about the artists' careers.

At their worst, they're a market-driven way to sell us stuff we already own under the guise of a pretty new package.

The bumper crop of new boxes arriving in stores this holiday season include examples of both, as well as indicating that the major record companies will never tire of raiding their vaults.

As you ponder what to give the music lover on your Christmas list who seemingly already has everything, the Sun-Times' music critics have taken a look at the most notable of this year's box sets.



While the Ramones remain one of the most influential and beloved bands in rock history, the idea of a box set seems out of keeping with their famously stripped-down punk aesthetic: This was a band that valued short-sharp-shock brevity above all else, and in that regard, the "Ramones Mania" collection -- first released in 1988 and featuring 30 tracks, every one of them a pure, unadulterated masterpiece -- remains the ultimate tribute, introduction and greatest hits set.

That said, "Weird Tales of the Ramones" is one of the coolest boxes I've ever seen. Sure, there's the music: Three discs with 82 tracks compiled by Johnny Ramone before his death last September and charting three decades of tuneful punk-rock exuberance. And there's the fourth disc, a DVD with 17 of the group's videos and a live version of "Blitzkrieg Bop" (though videos were never really their medium, and I'd much rather have had "Rock 'n' Roll High School," the band's 1979 film with Roger Corman).

But the real treat is the booklet. Packaged as a 54-page color comic book, it features 26 of the coolest underground artists ever -- from Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffin to Punk magazine founder John Holmstrom, and from Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets to Sergio Aragones of Mad magazine fame -- all paying homage to "da brudders from Queens." Short of packing these discs with a pizza or a tube of glue, I can't imagine how Rhino could have come up with a better addition to a Ramones box -- though it's a shame the booklet isn't being sold separately so you could listen while pogoing to "Ramones Mania" or any of the band's original albums from the '70s.


One of the most consistent and creative bands to emerge from the New York punk explosion of the late '70s, Talking Heads produced eight studio albums in their relatively short lifespan, and six of those are absolute must-owns for any fan of adventurous rock. "Talking Heads: 77," "More Songs About Buildings and Food" (1978), "Fear of Music" (1979), "Remain in Light" (1980), "Speaking in Tongues" (1983) and "Little Creatures" (1985) chart the evolution of the group from stark minimalists to Brian Eno-produced art-rockers to a big band incorporating elements of funk and world rhythms, and then back to basics again.

Less essential are "True Stories (1986) and "Naked" (1988), the two albums Talking Heads released before their bitter and seemingly permanent break. (Former bandleader David Byrne maintains that he has no desire to revisit the past, and recent attempts by the other musicians to continue without him as the Heads were just pathetic.) "Brick" packages all of the group's studio efforts in a sleek white plastic box embossed with the names of every song included within, and even if some of the albums fall short of the others, it's hard to argue with these entire-career-in-one-fell-swoop collections. (The Led Zeppelin set remains the pinnacle in this category, with the Black Sabbath following a close second.)

Keyboardist-turned-producer Jerry Harrison has remixed each original album for 5.1 Surround Sound, which may excite the audiophiles out there, but I for one don't have the system to judge whether he's done a good job. Each CD includes the original disc plus assorted extras on one side, while the Surround Sound remix plus a few relevant videos are featured on the flip as part of the new and much-hyped Dual Disc format.

Some consumers have complained that Dual Discs can be rather finicky, playing on some home stereos but not on others. For me, the plain old CDs sounded great, and my only gripes are that I already owned all of these albums, the new live tracks and album outtakes aren't enough to make me buy them again, and there isn't a retrospective booklet accompanying the set to illuminate the group's extraordinary development, just some rather skimpy new liner notes and lyrics included with each disc.



The Man in Black already has received the box set treatment several times, including the themed "Love, God, Murder" collection; "Unearthed," which includes all of the recordings he did late in life with Rick Rubin, and "The Essential Johnny Cash," which only extends up to 1983. Both of these additions to his already considerable box set discography are, therefore, rather transparent attempts to put some "new" product in the stores just as the "Walk the Line" biopic arrives in movie theaters.

Since it is almost impossible to quibble with just about anything Cash ever recorded, the shortcomings of these new sets aren't musical. "The Complete Sun Recordings" is aimed, as the title indicates, at completists, charting the development of a singular talent before he'd really found his way, during a short and concentrated period recording for Sam Phillips. Over the course of three discs with 61 tracks, the singer-songwriter's previously released Sun material is fleshed out rarities and demos, and the set includes a 40-page booklet full of previously unpublished photos. But by no means is this a satisfying collection for someone looking for the best of Cash in his many guises via convenient one-stop shopping.

"The Legend" comes closer to fulfilling that goal, with the 104 songs divided into four themed discs: "Win, Place and Show -- The Hits" (and from "I Walk the Line" on, most of the big ones are here, minus any of the Rubin recordings), "Old Favorites and New" (more of a hodgepodge of undeniably great tracks), "The Great American Songbook" (because Cash could even make a tune like "Old Shep" or "I've Been Working on the Railroad" sound wonderful) and "Family and Friends" (featuring collaborations with everyone from the Carter Family to U2).

The hook for those of us who already own all or most of these recordings is a number of tracks unearthed amid a mountain of tape in a back room at the House of Cash after the artist's death in September 2003. These cuts include the poignant "It Takes One to Know Me," which closes the set, originally recorded in 1977, but previously unreleased. But there are only five other tracks that come from these newly discovered tapes -- more will no doubt show up down the line in yet another box set -- so these hardly justify the $45 list price if you already own one or more Cash collections. Even if you don't, you'd be better served buying a shorter and more focused Cash best-of (there are several), along with a sampling of the American Recordings.


When Lenny Kaye compiled the original "Nuggets" collection in 1972, he charted a particular psychedelic pop/garage punk aesthetic that had flourished only a few years earlier, but which continues to inspire countless rockers today. The soon-to-be Patti Smith Group guitarist also set a high-water mark for all of the countless compilations that would follow, and none of them have ever measured up.

Rhino's first attempt to expand the two vinyl albums that comprised the original "Nuggets" into a box set was marred by the inclusion of quite a few songs that just didn't belong there, and the exclusion of others that did but were sadly missing because of rights issues. "Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire & Beyond" was slightly more satisfying, focusing on the British psychedelic scene from the same period, 1966-68. It sometimes strayed from or fell short of its mission, too, but not to the same degree as the series' third installment, "Children of Nuggets."

The 100 tracks included on these four discs are laid out with no logic I could discern; they're neither chronological nor thematic, and they don't flow particularly well musically, either. As is too often the case with Rhino's boxes, there are too many tracks that just don't belong here (the dB's, the Raybeats and That Petrol Emotion are all great bands -- they just don't fit on this box), and too many other bands that are sorely missed or which are represented by tracks that are far from their finest.

Couple these problems with a booklet that neither sheds much light on the desire to resurrect the psychedelic era, nor tells us much about any of these artists (many of whom will be obscure even to fans of the '80s indie-rock scene), and you have a great idea and a worthy project that falls far short of what it should have been.


Just about anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of the girl-group sound of the early '60s will balk at the giant hole at the center of "Girl Group Sounds, Lost & Found." Because of rights issues, there is nothing included on these four discs from the ultimate architect of the genre, Phil Spector.

Then again, this set does come packaged in a nifty fake hat box, with faux compact mirrors in the cover art of each individual CD.

While there are certainly scattered pleasures here, the cumulative effect of listening to 120 overly polished, hyper-produced and at times unbelievably saccharine combos with names such as the Cookies, the Cinderellas, the Honeys, the Honey Bees and the Goodies is the sort of headache that might come from huffing an economy-size can of fluorocarbon-laden hairspray. It's a case where less would have been much more enjoyable.

Once again, the booklet adds little to one's knowledge of the individual acts or understanding of the overall phenomenon. The plethora of girl groups on the pop charts before Beatlemania was either (choose one), the last gasp of '50s-style female subservience; a foreshadowing of the feminist movement of the '60s and'70s, or a complete coincidence. I'm still trying to figure that out, just like I'm still wondering how Twiggy, Mary Wells, Dolly Parton and Cher, while undeniably "girls," could possibly be considered "groups."