CD sets that sing "Wow!"
Not many blockbuster CD box sets this year, which is not too surprising, given the fact that nowadays you can download your own set of faves...
Seattle Times music critic
Not many blockbuster CD box sets this year, which is not too surprising, given the fact that nowadays you can download your own set of faves, and even rarities, from virtually any artist. Add computer graphics and research recording details, like those found in box-set booklets, and you have a customized box set, for keeping or giving. All that's missing is the box.
But store-bought box sets still make for impressive gifts, due to the "wow" factor — all those tracks, all that information, all those photos! And the price! They're a little luxury you might not buy for yourself but are happy to give. (And while the list prices are shown below, you can almost always find them on sale.) The fact that they're easy to buy, wrap and return also helps.
Here are some of the year's notable recorded box sets:
"Dylan," Bob Dylan (Columbia,$53.98). Some young person on your list who just discovered Dylan? The 51 songs on the three CDs in this handsome red box make for a near-perfect Dylan crash course, with classic cuts from his entire 45-year career. The 40-page booklet has lots of pictures and basic info on each cut. By no means comprehensive, but a smartly-selected, impressive, nicely balanced — and not overwhelming — collection.
"Frank Sinatra: A Voice In Time 1939-1952," Frank Sinatra (Sony/BMG, $49.98). Talk about "wow"! This stellar, four-disc collection is a beaut, musically and graphically. It's the first time his early Columbia and RCA recordings have been collected together. And the price, for a hardcover, 120-page, photo-filled booklet and 80 digitally-remastered tracks housed in a matching hardcover booklet, is remarkable. Almost all of Ol' Blue Eyes' essential early recordings are here, from the big-band era, the bobbysoxer/teen-idol years, the "American Songbook" LPs and '50s pop singles. Included are some rare radio transcripts, some never before released.
"The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze, And Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium," Various artists (Rhino, $64.98). At first, this big, four-CD box seems gimmicky — from the title to the blinking lights on the cover (how long will that last?) to the unfamiliar band names among the 78 cuts. But when you get into it, you discover that a lot of good rock failed to cross the pond in the last 15 years of the 20th century. While it's fun to hear memorable songs like The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?," The LA's "There She Goes" and James' "Laid" (all of which got more radio airplay here than in most American cities), discovering gems from bands like The Verve, Placebo and Elastica sets this box apart. The 90-page book is one of the best Rhino — the Tiffany of box sets — has ever offered. This year's best rock-music box set.
"City of Dreams: A Collection of New Orleans Music," Various artists (Rounder, 4 CDs, $32.98). Rounder has been recording New Orleans artists for years — it has made more than 100 albums there — and here the label collects 48 cuts on four CDs from a variety of artists, many of them little known outside Louisiana. The blues and funk CDs are fine, but it's the keyboard one, with Professor Longhair, James Booker, Champion Jack Dupree and Art Neville, among others, that's most satisfying, because nearly every cut is masterful. The little booklet gives an overview of the city's music scene, pre- and post-Katrina, plus details on all the cuts. It feels good to buy this box, not only because of the music but also because it helps the city's beloved musicians.
Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312, email@example.com
More recommended CDs
Classic Chu Berry: The Columbia and Victor Sessions, Berry plus various band leaders (Mosaic Records, $119.00; available only at Mosaic Records, 203-327-7111, www.mosaicrecords.com.). Curling up with the latest Mosaic Records box set, listening to cut after cut as one reads the nugget-filled liner notes and fastidiously researched discographies, is one of the great pleasures each year for jazz aficionados. This year's catch nets 178 performances on seven CDs by the great swing-era tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, known mostly for his work with Cab Calloway. Due to Berry's early death in 1941, casual fans may not even know who the tenor man was, but serious hipsters — novelist Jack Kerouac was a huge fan who mentioned Berry in his novels — will be overjoyed at this set. A smidgen of the material can be found in previously released Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey Mosaic boxes, but the dozens of sides with Calloway — whose band's jazz quotient Berry improved with material and personnel (including Dizzy Gillespie) — not to mention those with Teddy Wilson, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, and others make for a meaty collection, indeed. Originally influenced by the choppy style of Hawkins, Berry later smoothed out his long lines, playing with a burry but piping tone. But what is consistently impressive is the masterful and composerly coherence of his improvisations. Even as early as 1933, playing with trumpeter Red Allen, he is delivering perfectly-crafted solos. The Wilson small-group sessions are on a par with the contemporaneous Holiday recordings. Calloway's scat vocal on "Mama I Want to Make Rhythm" is a revelation for those who may have dismissed that band leader as a lightweight.
Paul de Barros, Seattle Times jazz critic
Harmonia Mundi's 50th Anniversary Box ($109.98). Harmonia Mundi is celebrating the label's 50th anniversary with this terrific set of 50 great works complete and uncut, not excerpts — on 30 discs. When you consider its stable of artists (the likes of Anonymous 4, Alfred Deller, Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr, Paul Lewis, Rene Jacobs, William Christie and Philippe Herreweghe among them), this is a special treat, especially for lovers of early music (the first 20 of the 30 discs are pre-Classical era, the label's particular strength). The nifty booklet has tracklists and background in three languages.
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies, Mikhail Pletnev/Russian National Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon, $59.98). The wonderfully imaginative conductor Mikhail Pletnev (who is equally, if not more, admired as a pianist) extracts every possible bit of drama from Beethoven's great symphonies, with full-blooded and passionate playing from his Russian compatriots and lots of interesting details. Soloists in the Ninth are very fine (listen especially for the accomplished baritone Matthias Goerne).
"Handel Arias," Danielle de Niese (Decca, $16.98). Bright, sassy and very accomplished, soprano Danielle de Niese is the new star in the vocal firmament, and she has been turning heads in the role of Cleopatra (in "Julius Caesar"). It's a dramatic, vivid voice of extraordinary merit, and here de Niese is joined by Handel specialist William Christie, conducting the award-winning period orchestra Les Arts Florissants.
"Maria," Cecilia Bartoli (Decca, $17.98). It is not Leonard Bernstein's Maria that famed mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is channeling in this charming disc, but the ghost of one of her most renowned predecessors: the diva Maria Malibran, whose favorite tunes Bartoli presents here in a 21st-century homage. Bartoli's sparkling technique and beautiful sound set off bel canto arias of Rossini and Bellini along with lesser-known composers to great effect, accompanied by Adam Fischer and the Orchestra La Scintilla.
"Duets," Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón (Deutsche Grammophon,$16.98). This disc has ranked high on the classical charts for months, pairing as it does the most charismatic and sought-after soprano-tenor combo in the business. The fresh, ardent singing of Netrebko and Villazón suggests deep involvement in their roles, particularly in these high-wattage duets from Puccini's "La Bohème" and Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet." With expert backing from Nicola Luisotti and the Staatskapelle Dresden.
"Handel: Twelve Grand Concertos," Neville Marriner and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Decca, $38.98). This terrific re-release from Decca is part of a remastered series that makes available again some great performances, including these 18 works in the concerto-grosso format by Handel: consistently inventive and full of melodies that are passed between the full Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and its smaller subgroup of principals. Neville Marriner conducts; both maestro and orchestra are at the top of their form.
"P.D.Q. Bach: Jekyll and Hyde Tour," Peter Schickele (Telarc, $17.98). Tickle your funny bone with the always-hilarious Peter Schickele, a legitimate composer whose fictitious alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach, regularly commits musical indiscretions of the hilarious sort. Rock 'n' roll settings of Shakespeare's songs, a string quartet called "The Moose" and a set of "Next-to-Last Songs" that includes "Gretchen am Spincycle" are among the highlights. As always, the more you know about music, the funnier you'll find these parodies.
"The Red Violin Concerto," Joshua Bell (Sony Classical, $18.98). The film score that won the Oscar a few years back, by John Corigliano, gets its first recording in a concerto version here by Joshua Bell, who so memorably played in the film, and the Baltimore Symphony under the able direction of Marin Alsop. Bell's heart-warming tone swoops and soars in the concerto; it's paired with a virtuoso reading of the Corigliano Violin Sonata by Bell with pianist Jeremy Denk (a regular at the Seattle Chamber Music Society).
Melinda Bargreen, Seattle Times music critic
Sinatra Vegas, Frank Sinatra (Reprise, $79.98). The centerpiece of this 4-CD, 1-DVD set is a 1966 live performance with the Count Basie band (conducted by Quincy Jones) at the Sands Hotel. Though released previously as an album, this is a recasting of the show in the order the songs were performed, including mistakes, patter, monologue, hecklers, ethnic jokes, drunk jokes — the whole Vegas shtick. The other jewel is a previously-unreleased 1961 concert at the same hotel. Sinatra is at his absolute peak here — in full voice, swinging, arrogant, funny and in total command of his craft. The third disc, recorded in 1982 at Caesar's Palace, with Sinatra still in fairly good voice, showcases daughter Nancy and some asides with Dean Martin. Disc four is schmaltzier, and Sinatra, mixed poorly in the system, is starting to fade. But it is still poignant. The DVD comes from a fascinating 1978 TV special that begins with a long segment of Sinatra backstage. Sadly, the personnel lists and discography in the flashy, accompanying booklet are incomplete.
Paul de Barros
"Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul," Aretha Franklin (Rhino, $19.98) and "Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen," Aretha Franklin (Arista, $18.98). Though Aretha Franklin's output has been spotty since the 1980s, she's forever the Queen of Soul, so all hail! Her unique, regal soul singing supplied the DNA for many a diva to follow — from Whitney Houston to Alicia Keys. And between these two new albums of her unreleased or formerly uncollected material, the must-have for Aretha-ravers is the double-disc Rhino compilation, mainly from the singer's "golden" era in the 1960s and '70s.
Often backing herself superbly on piano, and sometimes just rehearsing with the studio band (sound mixes can be rudimentary), Aretha attacks the Beatles' "The Fool on the Hill" and Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" with the same firepower she brings to a Motown gem like "You're All I Need to Get By." Along with a thrillingly earthy alternate take on "Dr. Feelgood," and another on the hushed, sorrowful "Sweet Bitter Love," standouts here include Aretha pouring her vocal bravado and deep feeling into (I kid you not) "My Cup Runneth Over" and "My Way" — and doing so brilliantly.
The Arista duets album has its charms too: the feminist rock-out "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" (with Annie Lennox), the foxy "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" with George Michael and (more recently recorded) two strong encounters with Mary J. Blige and a hot retro-R&B romp with John Legend ("What Y'All Came to Do").
But a good third of the songs are '80s and '90s shlock that Aretha covered too much of during her time in the stable of Arista honcho Clive Davis. Blah tunes with Elton John, George Benson and an alarming go at grand opera ("Nessun Dorma") make one happy to hear that Aretha's next disc will be heavy on old-school soul. God save the queen!
"We'll Never Turn Back," Mavis Staples (Anti Records, $17.98). Since her years with the family band The Staples Singers, Mavis has been growling, testifying and crying out the truth in songs of social meaning. Producer Ry Cooder honors that tradition with this splendidly spare, powerful session of songs from the Civil Rights barricades, which Mavis sings with consummate authority. Her versions of tunes like "Eyes on the Prize" and "99 and ½" are chill-inducing triumphs.
"The Scene of the Crime," Bettye LaVette (Anti Records, $17.98). A contemporary of Aretha Franklin with a distinctive, edgy vocal style all her own, LaVette rebounded recently with a terrific album of tunes by contemporary female singer-songwriters. Here she gets way, way down for some "greasy" rock and blues that get you good. Recorded in that summit of soulfulness, Muscle Shoals, Ala., the disc has LaVette telling it like it is on such bluesy psychodramas as "You Don't Know Me At all" and "Jealousy."
"Spring Awakening" (Decca Broadway, $18.98). This original cast album of the dark-horse Broadway hit musical has a parental warning for its "explicit lyrics." But how do you convey the story of two star-crossed teen lovers in repressive 19th-century Germany without getting to the point? Pop composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater have wrought a potent, Tony-honored score for this adaptation of Frank Wedekind's tragic 1891 play. Sung by a fine young cast, the music rocks out ("The Bitch of Living"), goes tender ("The Word of Your Body") and searches for meaning ("Mama Who Bore Me"). So listen to it with your adolescent kids — but don't rule it out for them in advance.
Misha Berson, Seattle Times arts writer
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 12:19 PM
Concert review: Perky Katy Perry finds sweet spot between rock and R&B
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.