6 (old-school) music box-sets for your wish list.
Music is everything, Frank Zappa once said. I’m a voracious music consumer; it is my first choice of entertainment, hands down, be it live or recorded. I love exploring new genres and artists of any decade and most styles. I grew up on vinyl, which is still THE most communal of recorded music experiences. CDs, however, represented an easy transition for me; at the time of their introduction, I was a young parent and quickly realized that if I needed to change my music every 15 minutes, I simply would not be listening to a whole lot of music. Better the hour-long, (so-called) indestructible compact disc format. And now, of course, I love the instant gratification and portability of the MP3 format. Gone are the days of heading off to a bricks and mortar record stores to scan through bins and pick up something that catches your fancy. Or are they?
There are a ton of beautifully imagined and thoughtfully designed box sets out there and there is NOTHING like getting lost in a well-executed collection — that is a tactile, educational and sensory experience MP3's simply cannot provide. The holidays provide ample time to curl up and get way, way out there, or conversely, enjoy and explore music together with friends and family. So, in no particular order, here are six (actually eight!) box sets that I highly recommend picking up for the music fan on your shopping list, or perhaps putting on your own wish list. None of these are new, but most are available through Amazon, and although some are out of print, they are still readily available on the web. Thoughtfully curated, impressively designed and timeless in the music within, all fill the bill of supplying a feast for the ears, as well as the eyes. And the brain.
The 1940s Mercury Sessions
Perhaps the king of all of the box sets I own in terms of packaging and innovation, this numbered, limited-edition set is housed in a plastic replica of an old tabletop tube-radio. The back even features the ‘guts’ of such a radio in a black and white photograph. “Blues, Boogie and Bop” is the subtitle of this set and it delivers on all fronts. Sippie Wallace, Albert Ammons, Helen Humes, Jay McShann, Peggy Lee, Cootie Williams and the Buddy Rich Orchestra have never sounded so good. If you dig boogie woogie piano, blues guitar, jukejoint jump and sexy blues-belters, dig into the book documenting these sessions, load up the multi-disc player and let it rip. Superb!
Charlie Christian: The Genius of Electric Guitar
Everyone digs Charlie Christian! (Or was that Bill Evans?) This set captures the groundbreaking guitarist — so influential in jazz, blues, and even rock — in the three short years he was with the Bennie Goodman Sextet, as well as collaborations with Count Basie and Lester Young. A gorgeous reproduction of a Gibson tweed amp holds four CDs, standing in slotted foam, and a 72-page booklet featuring an introduction by Les Paul. This is one of the simplest, best-executed concepts and design that I’ve seen, and I can’t state it any better than the label’s notes: “this must-have set provides both an invaluable musical history lesson and a chance for pure listening pleasure.” It is perfect.
What It Is: Funky Soul And Rare Grooves (1967–1977)
Get the whole house rockin’ with this stunning 4 CD/91 track collection (also available on vinyl) from the vaults of Atlantic, ATCO, and Warner Brothers Records. A superb box featuring killer graphics and art direction, a perfect-bound book, and a whole lotta deep soul cuts from Don Covay, Clarence Carter, King Curtis, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. But the greasy funk from a host of lesser-known artists will get you digging deep into that book to find out how you missed out on Eldridge Holmes, Lou Johnson, the Black Haze Express and The Beginning Of The End. What it is, is one of my all-time favorite box sets.
CUBA: I Am Time
With Cuba’s immediate future on many people’s mind, what better time to sit back and take a trip through the country’s incredibly rich musical past? Another package exhibiting perfect “conceptual continuity,” you have to cut the paper band, as you would a real box of cigars, to get inside this 4 CD box that simply…well…smokes. Divided into broad genres of Afro-Cuban religious music, songcraft, dance music and jazz, this survey of Cuban music will give your head, heart and feet all you need to keep going straight through New Year’s! If nothing else, put it on, light up a fine cigar, pour yourself some vintage rum and pretend you don’t have to shovel that snow. ¡Baile! ¡Canta! ¡Celebrar!
Atlantic Vocal Groups (1951–1963)
Atlantic Soul (1959–1975)
Atlantic Blues (1949–1970)
No major label has done more to advance the cause of rhythm and blues than Atlantic Records. Ahmet Ertegun was simply a visionary, signing soul and R&B artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Donny Hathaway and jazz artists such as John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. These three separate collections are presented in the same format of 4 CDs and a 12”x 12” book, housed in cardboard LP boxes, with tasteful, silkscreened covers. The doo wop, soul and blues inside each set is the bedrock of all music, ably compiled by Joel Dorn and Billy Vera, and the remastering sounds terrific. These editions were originally from Rhino Handmade, and limited to 3000 numbered boxes. Some are out of print, but are easily obtainable on the web. Get ’em all while you still can! Truly timeless music.
Beg, Scream and Shout!: The Big Ol’ Box Of ’60s Soul
Another fantastic conceptual box, this is designed to look like the boxes of old that you used to tote your 45 rpm collection from house to house. Inside, there are 6 CDs, with vintage-style labels printed on the face, that sit in 7-inch round plastic holders —complete with grooves! Mock retro sleeves — one even has a .98 cent price tag — hold each disc and feature the track list on back. There’s also a perfect bound book. But wait! That’s not all! You also get not one, but two stacks of cards that feature a photograph of the artist on front, and a bio/song description on the back. The music inside is equally as fun, formative and essential — I defy anyone not to be moved by the Jackson Five’s “Who’s Loving You” or sit still through “Memphis Soul Stew” or “Cissy Strut.” More than any other box in my collection, Beg Scream & Shout! best captures that long-lost high school art of hanging out with your friends and listening to records.
So, while you’re enjoying the convenience and instant gratification of new phones, laptops and iTunes gift cards over the holidays, don’t forget to take some time and feed all of your senses with some of the gorgeous box sets available. Being an active, rather than passive, music listener is its own reward. There are literally hundreds of fantastic box sets out there, but these are some in my collection that I return to again and again, for both the music and visual experience they offer, and I’m certain they would make someone on your “nice” list very happy! Maybe it’s even you…