Oeuvre in a box

A few tips for those last-minute shoppers: boxed sets, anyone?

Most people have that gift-buying thing down. Some of them started shopping for presents before last year’s NBA finals and had everything bought and wrapped by Thanksgiving. Lucky them.

Others remain in full denial. What? Christmas is next Tuesday? Lemme see that calendar, buddy.

Usually, the modus operandi, for those of us who fall in the latter camp, is massive denial, followed by furtive recon missions to stores and malls, followed by sweaty, heart-pounding incidents involving spending way too much money on items that have nothing to do with the intended recipient: “Honey, I know you really don’t care a whit about medieval Bedouin history and sociology, but I wanted you to have this complete and unabridged hardback version of The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun, because, um, historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote that it was really cool.”

So here it is, the weekend before that dreaded holiday, and you’ve got that one person to buy something impressive for. If he or she loves music, a boxed set may be the way to go—lots of music, deluxe packaging, informative liner notes. While we don’t have the space to list this year’s crop, numbering nearly 50 (if you want an exhaustive compendium, check out Jeff Tamarkin’s piece in the December issue of Tower Records’ Pulse magazine), we’ve picked a few favorites.

The Grateful Dead, The Golden Road (1965-1973). Yep, the Dead. While conventional wisdom says this oft-maligned band was the progenitor of an entire genre of extended noodling that motivated more than one trust funder to abandon that safe path up the ladder of respectability for a peripatetic life following Jerry Garcia and the boys around the country in a VW microbus, the reality is that this group was responsible for a surprising amount of good music. And, while there’s nothing more boring than listening to two Dead fans compare notes on Garcia’s loopy guitar solos, which often flew apart like a spilled colander of spaghetti, the reality is that such albums as the band’s two 1970 song-focused studio masterpieces, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, are as good as anything from that era. This set collates all nine of the Dead’s Warner Bros. albums (five studio, three live, one odds’n’sods) and adds bonus tracks plus two entire CDs of stuff recorded before the first album. If you’re interested in tracing the evolution of a garage band as it assimilates an encyclopedic knowledge of blues, rock and folk forms into its music, you can’t go wrong here (GDR/Warner Archives/Rhino, 12 CDs).

Miles Davis, The Complete ‘In a Silent Way’ Sessions. This is the fifth volume in Columbia Legacy’s ongoing Miles Davis repackage, and it contains the pivotal recordings where Davis shed his jazzman snakeskin for something more liquid and profound. Put in historical context, In a Silent Way, released in early 1969, and the double album that followed it that summer, Bitches Brew, were revolutionary albums that introduced the trumpet player to rock audiences who were looking for something more progressive than warmed-over Chuck Berry riffs. The music on these three discs—some of which came out on In a Silent Way or on its 1968 predecessor Filles de Kilimanjaro, much of the rest surfacing a decade or so later on such releases as Water Babies, Circle in the Round and Directions—is deliciously psychedelic; it combines essences of rock, gospel, R&B, European music and jazz into something altogether more fluid and futuristic, anticipating the textural revolution that would arrive years later via electronic music. This is where so-called “fusion” began; these sides feature such names as Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams and Joe Zawinul—but, unlike the creative washout that fusion would become, this music remains vital and alluring today (Columbia Jazz/Legacy, 3 CDs).

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Creedence Clearwater Revival. If you’re looking for the roots of Sacramento’s redneck-rock sound—Forever Goldrush and Jackpot, to name two), this El Cerrito band holds a few keys. From 1968 to 1974, John Fogerty, his brother Tom, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford cranked out one double-sided hit single after another (e.g. “Bad Moon Rising b/w “Lodi”), at a time when most bands were busy trying to stretch the form of rock by recording long, extended—and often quite boring—album cuts. CCR’s forte was compression; no one could pack a tight narrative into country-rockabilly-blues form like songwriter/frontman John Fogerty, whose gravel-voiced delivery and timeless songs more than made up for his unexceptional backing band—one reviewer at the time compared CCR’s rhythm section to “an old man coughing.” This set delivers all seven studio albums, some stuff that Fantasy later released on live albums, plus more than an entire CD’s worth of sides from the Golliwogs and the Blue Velvets, the high-school dance-playing combos that preceded CCR (Fantasy, 6 CDs).

Joy Division, Heart & Soul. The trouble with most boxed sets is that they tend to anthologize stuff that isn’t of much interest to post-boomers who don’t care about older forms. Fortunately, that’s changing. This set celebrates the complete work of Joy Division, a late-1970s Manchester-based combo whose frontman, Ian Curtis, effectively ended the group by hanging himself. Joy Division was the Clifford Brown of post-punk—while it was around for a very short time, it left a lot of music and had an enormous impact on what would follow in its wake, as anyone who’s heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart” can attest. These four discs deliver everything—all the studio cuts, live stuff, outtakes and more. Rhino also has released Dead Can Dance and Echo & the Bunnymen multi-disc sets, which should bode well for other acts that have deep catalogs ripe for anthologizing (Rhino, 4 CDs).

Various artists, Say It Loud: A Celebration of Black Music in America. While the official line is that aging white U.S. senators singing Lawrence Welk-sanitized barbershop quartet versions of gospel songs and patriotic favorites represents all that is great about American music, those of us who actually listen to the stuff know differently. Basically, just about everything that’s great in American music has some kind of African-American influence, and the enormous contribution to our national canon by black people cannot be underestimated. Ergo, this companion to the Quincy Jones-produced VH1 special attempts to tackle a Brobdingnagian challenge—create an anthology that encompasses 100 or so years of black music and represent all the diverse strains. Starting with Scott Joplin’s essential “Maple Leaf Rag,” the set moves through Delta blues, hot jazz and raw gospel to more urbane forms—swing, supper club, bebop—to the postwar revolution that saw jump blues mutate into rock ’n’ roll and doo-wop, then R&B, soul, funk and hip-hop. If there’s a shortcoming here, it’s that the set peters out with cuts by Living Colour and Coolio, acts arguably of much lesser importance than what came before; a seventh disc documenting the hegemony of black pop forms (from P. Diddy to Dr. Dre) and underground hip-hop around the turn of the millennium might complete what the first six discs started. But that’s a minor quibble. Interspersed among the songs are sound bites taken from a larger historical context—Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King, etc. This set quite cogently accomplishes its mission, the music’s often riveting (Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers’ “Touch the Hem of His Garment”), and the accompanying text ties the set together quite nicely (Rhino, 6 CDs).

If these don’t work, there are many other choices—Columbia’s massive Billie Holiday set (10 CDs), or Rhino’s ’70s soul box Can You Dig It? (whose package looks like a box of 8-track tapes), to name two.

And, face it—even if you hate shopping, at least you can hang out for a while in a record store, which is a lot cooler way to spend time than looking at lawnmowers at Sears, or watching teens paw through racks of hideously skanky “J-Lo” outfits at Macy’s. Unless, of course, you like that sort of thing.