The holiday CD hunt has begun. Be warned: You might have to look hard.
The boxed-set craze, which hit full stride in the early 1990s, has cooled off. Could be that record labels have gathered up and shoved out most everything their classic artists left lying around.
Indeed, this autumn the compilation masters at Rhino Records issued a press release promoting fake boxed sets from the Spice Girls and Hanson. It was a joke with an underlying message: We’re running short on artists worthy of honor.
This season finds regulation-sized hits collections from John Mellencamp, the Police, the Replacements, Dick Dale and Enya. Meanwhile, here’s a glance at some of this year’s notable music packages, along with other pop odds-and-ends.
If you’re buying for someone who likes …
… melodies, they can harmonize to: Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” (Columbia, $46.95) packages most of the duo’s studio work, plus a few extras, into this crystalline, three-disc boxed set. One of the top remastering jobs in recent memory.
… tripping back to the ‘60s: “The Doors Box Set” (Elektra, $67.98), the latest in a long line of Doors compilations, features most of the requisite hits. But the bulk of this erratic, four-disc package is made up of live tracks and studio oddities. Casual fans beware.
… the heavy stuff: “Bonfire” (Elektra, $67.98), AC/DC’s long-awaited five-disc set honoring the late vocalist Bon Scott, is a mixed bag. Newbies may be disappointed that it doesn’t include familiar versions of Scott’s greatest hits, and the live recordings lose some of the crunch that drove the band’s sound. The set’s savvy compilers did include the entire, evergreen “Back in Black” album, recorded in 1980 as a tribute to Scott.
“Led Zeppelin: BBC Sessions” (Atlantic, $24.98) is a kicking two-disc set of live-in-the-studio performances from 1969 and 1971, and reveals Zep bounding toward status as the biggest band of the 1970s.
Moving ahead two decades, some of the best latter-day hard rock is found on Soundgarden’s “A-Sides” (A&M;), a single disc that compiles well-known material from the recently departed Seattle band.
… cosmopolitan soul: Don’t need to tell you where Ray Charles sits in the pantheon of 20th-Century music. “Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection” (Rhino, $67.98) is a 101-song, five-disc set - the first to span his entire career - and a whopping reminder that he sits on top. Gorgeous packaging, elegant liner notes and can’t-miss music.
… real-deal R&B;: Ever-reliable Rhino Records has crafted what could be its finest big project yet: “Beg Scream & Shout: The Big Ol’ Box of ‘60s Soul” ($96.95) is a gritty, sweet, heavenly, earthy, six-disc masterpiece. Featuring one track from each important soul artist of the decade and most every one-hit wonder, the collection is both familiar and obscure - and a consistently rewarding listen. It’s presented in a nifty old-style record case, with baseball-style info cards and photos for each of the 144 cuts.
… a little bit of everything: In a stroke of licensing lightning, Time-Life has gathered what is probably the most comprehensive collection of pop standards. “Gold & Platinum: The Ultimate Rock Collection” features 110 classic recordings, including stuff from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, the Police, Madonna, R.E.M. and U2. Among mega acts, only the Rolling Stones are conspicuously absent from the six-disc set. The set - which comes with 80 pages of liner notes and a shiny, 128-page album guide - is $119.95 plus shipping costs, and is available by phone order only: (800) 828-8565 anytime.
… tinkering with sound: Flaming Lips’ four-disc “Zaireeka” (Warner Bros., $24.98) is a sonic gimmick, albeit a fun one, and you’ll need four CD players to make it work. The collection features only eight “songs” - more like bizarre assemblages of tones, rhythms and noises - that melt together when the four discs are played in sync. It’s an interesting, if rambling, drive down the road between glorious polyphonic sound and musical chaos. Very limited pressing.
… putting words with the music: The year’s top music read is Fred Goodman’s “The Mansion on the Hill” (Times Books, $25), a vigorous, provocative probe into rock’s evolution - or devolution - from counterculture art to streamlined capitalist enterprise. Former Rolling Stone editor Goodman pulls no punches with icons - Dylan, Springsteen, the Dead - or the ruthless businessmen who pushed their careers - Jon Landau, David Geffen, Albert Grossman.
On the lighter side, “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Joke Book” (St. Martin’s, $7.95) collects 90 pages of musician jabs (“Why are set breaks limited to 20 minutes?” “So you don’t have to retrain the drummer”). It’s an equal opportunity offender, with pokes at guitarists, rappers, fans and, yes, rock critics.