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Rounding Up the Best of the Boxed

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November 24, 2006

Rounding Up the Best of the Boxed

Deep catalog keeps getting deeper. Boxed sets now delve into alternate takes, outtakes, studio chatter and video. They round up stray B-sides and compilation tracks; they consolidate careers across labels. They also remix old material for new media. And some repackage everything an act has released — and more — in exhaustive sets. Here, the music critics of The New York Times review the year’s most notable sets of three or more CDs; a selection of greatest-hits and live collections will appear next week. JON PARELES


Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards

When Tom Waits was assembling “Orphans” from songs that had never reached his full-length albums, he decided to add new ones, too. The jumble of past and present suits a songwriter who (collaborating with his wife, Kathleen Brennan) has long abducted vintage Americana — blues, ballads, rockabilly, hymns, saloon songs, Tin Pan Alley — and dragged it into sonic dark alleys of his own.

The three discs of “Orphans” group songs by style. With distorted guitars and loose-limbed drumming behind the wheeze and cackle of Mr. Waits’s voice, “Brawlers” collects rocking tall tales that contemplate love, sin and the road, and it could stand alongside Mr. Waits’s best albums. Most of the songs are blues, a few tuck romance behind the clatter, and one, “Road to Peace,” is as journalistically detailed and bluntly political as anything in the Waits catalog.

“Bawlers” has the slower songs, teetering between gruffly sentimental and existential. They can be touching one by one — particularly “Long Way Home” and “Tell It to Me” — but all the lurching waltzes tend to run together. “Bastards” leans toward spoken word and includes versions of material by Mr. Waits’s idols Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Brecht and Weill. It’s atmospheric and gallows-humored, but Mr. Waits sounds even better with a melody to growl. (Anti-. Three CDs. $49.98.)JON PARELES


The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion and Okeh Small Group Sessions

In 1936 Duke Ellington had been leading a big band for a little more than 10 years and he was an international star, possibly the highest-paid black entertainer in the United States. At this point he undertook a series of small-group sessions. Some of the standout tracks: “Tough Truckin’,” “Indigo Echoes,” “Love in My Heart,” “Pyramid” “Chasin’ Chippies” and “Delta Mood.”

None of them are very famous; most are based on the templates of better-known Ellington songs. They are all marked by Ellingtonian arrangement methods, and in many places the band just flies. Most of these weren’t issued as Ellington records. The most prominent of his sidemen — Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Barney Bigard — were listed as bandleaders; on one session, the trumpeter Rex Stewart, new to the Ellington organization, was drafted as leader. (He ended up spending nine years with the band.) Why did this happen? To keep great, underpaid, underrecognized musicians with him for the long haul, Ellington needed strong diplomatic skills. And, it seems, making cheaper list-price records that could be aimed more directly at jukeboxes was also a factor. A hit kept the experiment going: “Caravan,” from 1936, the first and very widely heard version of it.

Ellington’s music tends to be consumed on CD these days either by canonical collections of his early music or by his later, more carefully programmed LPs; this is a giant serving of early work, with unreleased alternate takes, offering the real truth from a great period of a great band. (Mosaic. Seven CDs. $119. Available only at, or 203-327-7111.) BEN RATLIFF


Instead of chronicling a career or a record label or a genre, this boxed set chronicles a sensibility. For more than a quarter-century, fans of moody, theatrical post-punk have been calling themselves gothic, or goth; the term was often wielded as an insult, but it survived and flourished, and so did the sensibility it described. (Patricia Morrison, a former member of Gun Club who also performed with Sisters of Mercy, describes her bands’ aesthetic as “dark and glamorous.”)

But what does gothic mean? This set wisely dodges the question. The essays are conjectural (mentioning the influence of 1970s horror movies and the importance of the London club the Batcave, which opened in 1982) rather than definitive. And the discs contain a respectable sampling of bands (many of them British and many unopposed to spiky bass lines or atmospheric keyboards) that were associated with the scene — not always happily. In the liner notes, Daniel Ash, who played in the influential band Bauhaus, declares, “I think gothic doesn’t really exist”; Wayne Hussey, from the Mission UK, shrugs, “I’ve been called a lot worse than ‘goth.’ ”

The songs here are elegant (“Blood Bitch,” by Cocteau Twins), eerie (“Hamburger Lady,” a typically unsettling experiment by Throbbing Gristle) and occasionally playful (Alien Sex Fiend’s nine-minute dance track, “Now I’m Feeling Zombified”). Years later, you can hear goth’s influence everywhere from death metal to dance pop to ambient music to emo. If, as Mr. Ash says, gothic didn’t really exist, maybe that helps explain why it never really died. (Rhino. Three CDs and one DVD. $64.98.)KELEFA SANNEH


A Piano: The Collection

There’s nothing casual about Tori Amos’s grand and uncompromising music, or about her followers. And this boxed set, which conceals the discs under a fake piano keyboard, is a reward for longtime fans, not a lure for potential ones (though surely even longtime fans would have appreciated a lyric sheet). There are alternate mixes, B-sides, unreleased songs, early versions and anecdotes; she demystifies her songwriting process without, happily, demystifying the songs themselves. You can read about the time her wardrobe was accidentally given away; then, in “Ode to My Clothes,” you can hear about it. (Rhino. Five CDs. $74.98.) KELEFA SANNEH


Fearless Leader

John Coltrane’s sessions for Prestige records from the late 1950s are seen as warm-ups for his later accomplishments, and rightly so: in technique and sound and concept, he evolved miles past what you hear on these discs, and they don’t benefit from the intuitive magic of a working band. But these sessions — which resulted in LPs including “Traneing In,” “Lush Life” and “Soultrane” — are excellent, casual, small-group pickup jobs, all led by Coltrane, most of them with the bassist Paul Chambers and the drummer Arthur Taylor. Since the last time this material came out on a CD box set 15 years ago the audio has been improved so that you can hear way, way more of the colors in the music, the size of the bass notes, the timbre of Coltrane’s sound. (Prestige. Six CDs. $59.98.) BEN RATLIFF



Poet, singer, lizard king, blowhard: Jim Morrison could be all of them, and the Doors’ three instrumentalists multiplied every flicker of drama. “Perception” should be the final box from an already much-anthologized band. It has the Doors’ six studio albums from 1967 to 1971, surround-sound and high-resolution mixes on DVD, studio gleanings (including a mercurial “Celebration of the Lizard”) and a few video clips (including live versions of “The End” and “When the Music’s Over”). As the set traces Morrison’s arc from brilliance to sodden excess, it also re-emphasizes how closely knit the Doors were as improvisers. (Elektra/Rhino. Six CDs and six DVDs. $149.98.) JON PARELES


The Folk Arrival, 1961-1965

A tiny, scholarly outfit called Friends of Old Time Music put on a series of concerts in the early ’60s at high-school and college auditoriums in Greenwich Village; a man named Peter Siegel recorded the shows with a fairly cheap microphone; and this, at last, is the result, a boxed set of awesome and concentrated power, demonstrating exactly the lure of the particular American musical traditions that got deep into a generation of musicians like the young Bob Dylan. (The first F.O.T.M. concert occurred a month after his arrival here, and many of the concert performers were among the mysterious characters assembled on one of his treasured possessions, Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.”) Here is the scarily intense Kentucky-mountain tenor Roscoe Holcomb, the blues-influenced white singer Dock Boggs, the elegant ensemble workings of the bluegrass bands led by Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers and the purring euphony of Mississippi John Hurt; also, some of the revivalists’ own bands, including the New Lost Ramblers and the Greenbriar Boys. With strong, clear sound, it makes you understand what the fuss was all about. (Smithsonian Folkways. Three CDs. $39.98.) BEN RATLIFF


Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited

Harry Smith’s collection of discs from 1927 to 1934 gave the folk revival a repertory of wild-eyed American story songs. The material gets another go-round from musicians including Beck, Elvis Costello, Wilco, Beth Orton and Steve Earle, recorded at concerts organized by the producer Hal Willner in 1999 and 2001. Whether the arrangements are folky (Geoff Muldaur) or swathed in noise (the avant-jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd with Sonic Youth), the songs still give performers something to tear into. One DVD collects stage performances; the other includes a documentary on Mr. Smith and three of his rare hand-painted, geometric, pulsating short films. (Shout Factory. Two CDs and two DVDs. $59.98) JON PARELES


Can’t Quit the Blues

The bluesman Buddy Guy hasn’t changed much in almost five decades of recording. His voice soars into quivering high notes, blending ache and bravado; his guitar teases and then slashes with maniacal glee. What changed around him were recording techniques — finally capturing his nuanced guitar tone — and sidemen, including admirers like Eric Clapton and John Mayer. In this set, one CD covers 1957-81; the next two distill the albums he has been making since 1991 for Silvertone, conscious that he’s a roots musician but still tearing up the place. Live performances on the DVD confirm his volatile presence and untrammeled fashion sense, including his polka-dotted guitars. (Silvertone/Legacy. Three CDs and one DVD. $49.98.) JON PARELES



Basic, yes. Simple, no. While John Lee Hooker’s blues often revolved around just one chord and a few words, his timing and delivery transfigured them. They became hypnotic drones, dance propulsion, bitter jokes and, most often, come-ons or desolate confessions. In the way his guitar ricocheted off the beat and his voice, or the way he intoned his words, he was a man taunting fate or stoically bemoaning it. This comprehensive collection starts with Mr. Hooker’s primitively recorded but influential 1940s singles and ends with a CD of duets; some of the well-known partners struggle to match Mr. Hooker’s sly attack. (Shout Factory/Sony BMG. Four CDs. $59.98.) JON PARELES


Intersections (1985-2005)

Virtuosity doesn’t always dovetail with pop, but Bruce Hornsby has balanced his career between his own albums and the far-flung collaborations his piano-playing spans: jazz, country, classical music, R & B and a stint with the Grateful Dead. Instead of repeating his 2004 “Greatest Radio Hits” collection, “Intersections” uses expansive live versions of his songs for the first CD of this set. It’s just a warm-up for a collection that extrapolates his thoughtful, Southern-rooted songwriting to all the places his fingers, and kindred musicians from Ornette Coleman to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Chaka Khan, can carry them. (RCA/Legacy. Four CDs and one DVD. $49.98.) JON PARELES


Visionary: The Video Singles

Another year, another opportunity to repurchase Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. This set, aimed at consumers suffering from a common holiday problem (how to get rid of all that excess cash), brings together 20 singles on 20 DualDiscs, which put the song on one side and the music video on the other. The videos you remember are here, along with some you may not. (Remember “In the Closet,” which has the singer writhing with Naomi Campbell?) And though the packaging is absurd, there are a few forgotten treasures, like Steve (Silk) Hurley’s exuberant hip-house remix of “Jam.” (Sony. 20 CD/DVDs. $149.98.) KELEFA SANNEH


Nashville Rebel

Waylon Jennings, who died in 2002, was one of the prickliest country stars of all time, and also one of the most self-conscious; tangling with the Nashville establishment helped him untangle his own ideas about country music itself. This highly listenable four-disc set rounds up 92 songs recorded between 1958 and 1994; he borrowed from folk and flirted with rock ’n’ roll without ever straying too far from country. In fact, he delighted in the idea that he was out-countrying the country establishment. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” from 1975, still comes as a shock: unlike many of these songs, he wrote it himself, and it marries meta-country lyrics (“It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here?”) to a relentless rock ’n’ roll thump. (RCA. Four CDs. $49.98.) KELEFA SANNEH


The Complete Reprise Sessions

This modest (and modestly priced) box pays tribute to Gram Parsons, who was a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers before he released a pair of influential solo country albums: “GP,” from 1973, and “Grievous Angel,” which was released in 1974, shortly after his death. Of course, these aren’t really solo albums; they might not exist at all without Emmylou Harris, who turned many of these songs into gorgeous duets. One disc includes pretty alternate versions; the other two contain the two albums, along with interview snippets. Parsons talks about being a “longhair” who played country; indeed, the melancholy music he made with Ms. Harris has helped inspire plenty of indie-rockers (including Conor Oberst and Jenny Lewis) to try something twangier. (Rhino. Three CDs. $34.98.) KELEFA SANNEH


Fuzzy Warbles Collector’s Album

Get the Beatles hopped up on nerves and caffeine, expose them to music after 1970, keep their sense of humor but set them worrying about the decline of everything from the environment to a marriage, and sequester them in a home studio. The result might be something like “Fuzzy Warbles,” the compilation of demos and outtakes by XTC’s main songwriter, Andy Partridge. Fond of the English 1960s but full of brittle surprises and fearlessly low-fi, Mr. Partridge is a fount of tunes and cracked concepts. This huge outpouring is inevitably uneven and for XTC fans only, but it’s fascinating to hear the songs with their workings exposed. (Ape, Nine discs. $79.98.) JON PARELES


Nine Lives

The one member of Led Zeppelin still working steadily, Robert Plant has veered toward and away from the sound of his old band on the albums he has made since 1982, which are complete (plus outtakes and live tracks) in this set. He can still send his voice soaring in Zep-style guitar stomps and electric-Celt power ballads. But abetted by changing collaborators, he has also branched out: to tricky rhythm patterns, to skewed 1950s and ’60s remakes to Arab-tinged exotica. Not all his experiments work out, but many do, and even the misfires are better than a career of retreads. (Swan Song/Es Paranza/Rhino. Nine CDs and one DVD. $99.98.) JON PARELES


Lest anyone think the 1950s were entirely buttoned down, here are 101 whooping, twanging, leering, snarling, hiccupping, cackling rockabilly songs, forged where country met blues and R & B. The lineup includes the obligatory milestones and stars. But the joy of this collection is the profusion of collectors’ items and no-hit wonders: Joyce Green, the Phantom, Johnny Carroll, Jimmy Wages, Boyd Bennett, Johnny Dollar. Some were opportunists, some were truly gone cats, and their two-minute meltdowns run from the vigorous to the fully deranged. (Rhino. Four CDs. $74.98.) JON PARELES



The raw Las Vegas experience of Ol’ Blue Eyes in his notorious stomping ground is distilled in four CDs recorded at the Sands Hotel (1961 and 1966), Caesar’s Palace (1982) and the Golden Nugget (1987). The DVD, a 1978 show at Caesar’s Palace, which begins offstage, gives you a riveting portrait of this aging lion in his scary tough-guy mode. You feel at any moment that the singer’s punchy bonhomie could turn nasty and he could thrust out a paw and claw your face to shreds. As much as the voice coarsens over the two decades surveyed, Sinatra never loses his ferocious commitment to interpreting lyrics. The collection’s most valuable performance is a slow, torchy 1961 rendition of “Just One of Those Things.” (Reprise. Four CDs and one DVD. $79.98.) STEPHEN HOLDEN


Stitt’s Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952

When you buy a boxed set, it makes you feel better if there’s at least one masterpiece amid the merely good-enough. So there is with “Stitt’s Bits,” the early works of the first-wave bebop tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt: a session from late 1949, with Bud Powell on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums. Something was very, very right that day. All four all hungry and curious, singing through their instruments, Powell’s left hand keeping up a nearly manic murmur. The rest of the set — lots of sessions with the saxophonist Gene Ammons and various rhythm sections — has less focus. But on tenor saxophone Stitt had a sweeping, easygoing tone and time-feel, weightier and more even than Charlie Parker’s sound, to which his was often compared; you may find yourself attached to his sound. And if you’re not, Harvey Pekar’s hectoring liner notes — they begin with the sentence “When is Sonny Stitt going to get his props?” and get more heated from there — may shove you in the right direction. (Prestige. Three CDs. $29.98.) BEN RATLIFF


A Lazarus Taxon

Tortoise, the instrumental band from Chicago, often mingles a soothing Minimalism of rippling vibraphone, tranquil guitar and mantralike bass lines with underpinnings of funk or jazz. On this collection of rarities, remixes and videos — including an entire remix album from 1994 — some tracks peel apart the beat and the meditation as remixers strip compositions down to skeletal electronic riffs or float consonant patterns alone. Other tracks discreetly turn up the rhythm, although they’re still not dance-club bangers. With its music splintered into components, and in video clips of live performances, Tortoise becomes pushier — still cerebral, but with more angles and edges. (Thrill Jockey. Three CDs and one DVD. $19.98.) JON PARELES


If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It!

How do you slim down Fats Waller? This boxed set smartly represents a musician of huge output and very high consistency by breaking down his radiant music into sensible parts — thereby forcing you to understand his working life. First it concentrates on his tunes with words, played by his steady band, at the core of which stood some of the undersung New York jazz players of the ’30s like Herman Autrey, Gene Sedric and Al Casey; then his piano solos; then his powerful stride-rhythm solo piano tracks; then his instrumental songs, original or not; then his versions of Tin Pan Alley songs. The essays in the accompanying booklet have enthusiasm and scholarly integrity, but the photographs are amazing: Waller and company, flashing insouciant grins at booze-ups around the world, the faces all in action. Life was quicker and more interesting around him, and it still is. (Bluebird/Legacy. Three CDs. $34.98.) BEN RATLIFF


Forecast: Tomorrow

Weather Report (1971-86) was many bands; what they all had in common was the presence of the keyboardist Joe Zawinul and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, as well as a general promotion of electric instruments, big and bruising keyboard tones and sophisticated, polyrhythmic jazz-funk. “Forecast: Tomorrow,” put together by Bob Belden, is the kind of judicious retrospective that the band doesn’t just deserve, but needs, to be understood by anyone with even the smallest generational block against this kind of stuff. It begins with prehistory, including the Miles Davis track “In a Silent Way,” which both Mr. Zawinul and Mr. Shorter were involved with; then the strongest parts of the band’s Columbia albums, as well as one unreleased live track, a bruising “Nubian Sundance,” which demonstrates why the band was such a concert draw for so long. (Sony Legacy. Three CDs. $49.98.) BEN RATLIFF


Swamp Music: The Complete Monument


A wah-wah guitar, a Louisiana drawl and a lot of local color go into Tony Joe White’s songs. On this collection of his first three albums and other recordings from 1968 to 1970, tales of the rural South meet the late 1960s: Memphis soul, folk-rock, social consciousness and Top 40 aspirations. In live recordings from 1970, he’s a feral blues-rocker backed only by a drummer. White wrote hit songs like “Rainy Night in Georgia,” but on his albums, even the lesser songs fill out the likeness of a musician loyal to his down-home roots. (Rhino Homemade. Four CDs. $79.98.) JON PARELES

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