Selected box set reviews:
John Lennon, "Signature Box" (Capitol)
As a member of The Beatles, John Lennon was among the most important songwriters in pop history. He helped unleash the form from the mundane and showed that ceaseless experimentation could lead you to learn more about the world, not just teen love and the other tropes of rock 'n' roll.
As a solo artist, Lennon went in the opposite direction, yet the destination was no less important or profound.
"Signature Box," a loving repackaging of all of Lennon's post-Beatles music with heavy input from widow Yoko Ono and celebrates what would have been the singer's 70th birthday, reminds us of this.
Included are the seven albums released during his lifetime, as well as "Milk And Honey," which came four years after his 1980 murder, two bonus discs of non-album singles and previously unreleased studio outtakes and home recordings. It also contains a book that includes artwork, rare photos and an essay by Anthony DeCurtis, and access to online content.
Taken as a whole, the music here is startling for how different it was from The Beatles, yet every bit as important.
Lennon's solo work was an inward exploration. From the opening salvo, "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band," in 1970, which included "Mother," "Working Class Hero," "Love" and "God," Lennon announced his intentions. And over the next decade he was gloriously free - with Ono's assistance - to take us on a very different trip.
"Signature Box" is Lennon laid out there for examination and celebration, and the simple pleasure of the box set is that it allows us to explore his music on our own, and to draw our own conclusions.
These are the highs and the lows, the moments of sheer genius and mere self-indulgence. You decide which is which.
- Chris Talbott, AP Entertainment Writer
Elvis Presley, "The Complete Elvis Presley Masters" (Sony Legacy)
"The Complete Elvis Presley Masters" is like a peanut butter and banana sandwich topped with an ice cream sundae and candy bars, then dipped in batter and deep-fried like something you'd find at the fair.
Surely it is the greatest thing ever, but for most people it's really just too much.
But nothing brings out the completist in us like Elvis Presley. EVERYTHING is here, from his first sessions at Sun Records in 1954 to the final recordings he made in 1977.
There are 711 original master recordings and 103 rarities spread over 30 discs and a 240-page book that is the real jewel here, with an annotated discography by Ernst Mikael Jorgensen and Peter Guralnick.
Though his list of faults may have grown over the course of his career, Elvis was a tireless explorer, moving from genre to genre and mood to mood with a kind of ceaseless curiosity that kept us interested longer than we probably should have been.
It's an absolute pleasure to listen to a song while reading a short essay that gives you a snapshot of its history.
Of Presley's breakthrough "That's All Right," the authors write: "Probably what made it most different was its youthful purity, its unchecked sense of joyous release and exuberant lack of restraint."
This isn't a fawning retelling of history, though. The authors don't hold back where the truth is concerned.
For instance, "Do The Clam," a cut from the movie "Girl Happy," "represented one of the low points of Elvis' film-related singles releases, a halfhearted attempt at creating a new dance craze, which ... was more silly than satirical."
"The Complete Elvis Presley Masters" is only available online at www.completeelvis.com and a first-run of 1,000 numbered copies has already sold out. Fear not, however, obsessive Elvis fan. A slightly, less dear version will be available in the new year ... if you have the appetite.
- Chris Talbott, AP Entertainment Writer
Jimi Hendrix, "West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology" (Sony/Legacy Recordings)
It's easy to think highly of Jimi Hendrix's signature songs. They soar with experimental sound and left a lasting mark on rock 'n' roll. What more could you ask for from Mr. Experience himself?
Well, "West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology" is a five-disc (four CD/one DVD) set that gives you a little bit more background and context for the path that Hendrix drew for himself. It treats the listener to the backup work that Hendrix did to make ends meet and build up his credentials as the type session guitarist that could take your music a bit further.
The collection is brimming with previously unreleased recordings and alternate versions of songs from his solo career discography. These aren't some scratchy, poorly mastered throwaway tracks. The quality here is top-notch and the Summer of Love-era music springs to life as soon as you push play.
The documentary DVD is fine and full of rare footage and interviews, but the music discs outshine it.
Some of the best material is on first disc, which focuses on Hendrix mid-1960s work with the Isley Brothers, Don Covay and Rosa Lee Brooks. Here, Hendrix can be heard distinguishing himself with flares of panache, as on the Isley Brothers' electrifying "Testify." Hendrix doesn't simply want to be a part of the backing band. He wants to be heard rising above it.
On "Utee," Brooks vocals are about a popular funky Detroit dance move called the U.T. But Hendrix quickly turns this dance ditty into a rock fusion attack, opting for less funk and more psychedelic lead guitar to leave his brand on the track.
This box-set comes with the four CDs encased in a hardbound book with beautiful photos of a young Hendrix storming his way to rock infamy. This is a loving and deserving treatment to Hendrix and the artistic path he took, a path born first of necessity and later desire.
- Ron Harris, Associated Press
Bob Dylan, "The Original Mono Recordings" (Sony Legacy)
Let's just take a minute to think about how many different times Bob Dylan's first eight studio albums have been released.
Of course, there were the original mono and stereo versions from "Bob Dylan" in 1962 to "John Wesley Harding" in 1968.
Then there were the original compact disc releases, all in stereo. Six years ago we got six of the first eight albums in the experimental SACD format and then there were various vinyl reissues, both in mono and stereo, over the decades.
Now, everything old is new again with the release of all eight in their original mono for the first time on compact disc in "Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings."
There's absolutely no point in discussing the quality of the music itself. The fact that it's some of the most influential, most important, popular rock music of all time is well established.
So let's talk about the sound.
The whole point of recording the albums in mono to begin with was to present the music as it most likely were to be heard: through one speaker, likely AM radio.
Unlike the Beatles, who also rereleased their original records in mono last year, Dylan didn't record alternate takes for the mono releases. That makes these Dylan releases less of an event.
So which is better, mono or stereo? It largely boils down to a listener's preference.
With mono, the sound feels like it's coming straight at you, head on, warmer and more natural.
In stereo, especially the SACD versions, the sound is allowed to flex and work its way around the room, enveloping the listener and making them feel more like they're in the recording studio with the musicians. It's certainly cleaner and brighter, but also not quite as organic as the mono.
Dylan completists will absolutely want to pick up the set, not just because it hasn't been previously available, but also because it does present the music as it was originally recorded and meant to be heard.
For everyone else, it's a tougher sell.
- Scott Bauer, Associated Press
Michael Jackson, "Vision" (Epic/Legacy)
Michael Jackson so defined the video era of music that it seems like we know each one of his epic videos by heart.
But as amazing as "Thriller," "Beat It" and "Smooth Criminal" were, they only represent a portion of his vast, and mostly amazing, video portfolio.
"Vision" is an attempt to paint the fullest picture of Jackson's genius in the visual realm, with more than 40 clips, including rarely seen videos from the Jacksons, spread out over three discs (a bonus booklet is included).
Die-hard fans will complain, surely: The full "Smooth Criminal" is not a part of this, "Ghosts" is only represented by a clip and not the longer film it was taken from, and there's no "Captain EO," the short 3D film he made for Disney.
But even Jackson fans will have reason to rejoice. "The Way You Make Me Feel" includes the original beginning, filled with dialog that puts the rest of Jackson's playful yet semi-harrassing approach to his leading lady in context. "Black Or White" is restored to its controversial entirety, complete with the perplexing sex-and-violence tinged mayhem at the end.
There is also archive material like "She's Out of My Life," where Jackson clearly has yet to grasp the magic of the video; he even scratches his head absent-mindedly as he simply sits in front of a spotlight.
But once Jackson mastered the video, as he did from "Billie Jean," he rarely disappointed (the embarrassingly bad "Bad," also fully restored here, is a rare exception).
Toward the end of his career, though, you could see the weight of the world and the toll of Jackson's life in his clips. His eyes are glazed on "You Rock My World," and "Blood On the Dance Floor" looks low-budget.
Perhaps that's why the previously unreleased "One More Chance," recorded shortly before he was charged with child molestation in 2003, is so moving: Jackson, perhaps weary of the camera's gaze, chose to film this video with his audience as the star, while he is shown mainly from the back. It puts the focus on those scintillating moves that made him famous, and we are in wonderment once again.
- Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Music Writer
Grateful Dead, "The Warner Bros. Studio Albums" (Rhino)
Like a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, these albums on CD always seemed incongruous. The Grateful Dead were an analog band, which makes it appropriate that Rhino has released the group's first five studio albums as an LP boxed set.
These records are heavy, man - 180-gram vinyl, to be precise - which means sound quality superior to the old LPs. As always, Rhino's packaging is handsome, despite liner notes briefer than a Jerry Garcia solo. The iconic album covers replicate the originals in all their psychedelic glory, including a reference on the first album to Garcia as "Captain Trips."
The caliber of material spans extremes. Two of the albums serve as cornerstones of the band's catalog - "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty," both from 1970. The Summer of Love debut, "The Grateful Dead" (1967), captures the granddaddy of all jam bands at comically fast tempos. The pace slows on the experimental, druggy "Anthem of the Sun" (1968) and "Aoxomoxoa" (1969). They're included in rare original mixes, but both remain tough to sit through, even a side at a time.
Phil Lesh's bass has a warm rumble on vinyl, and the format and brings forward the ragged, folksy charm of the vocals, although the falsetto harmonies get to wearing thin. Pingpong vocals, drums in both channels and other instruments panning from side to side make for some hifalutin hi-fi.
The set features many of the songs that formed the core of the Dead's stage repertoire, among them "St. Stephen," "China Cat Sunflower," "Cumberland Blues," "Casey Jones," "Sugar Magnolia" and "Truckin'." There are also moments when the listener will long for a skip button, especially when it seems as though the needle is stuck ("Viola Lee Blues," "Mountains of the Moon," much of "Anthem").
Even so, rock's most communal group is best shared on a turntable, rather than relegated to a private audience on iPod headphones. The Dead on vinyl is groovy.
- Steven Wine, Associated Press
Danny Elfman & Tim Burton, "The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box" Warner Bros. Records
There are boxed sets and then there are works of aural art that encompass, extend and envelop the quirks, brilliance and sheer showmanship of the music composer and film auteur.
"The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box" - that's a mouthful - is just about the only magnum opus that qualifies as the latter.
And what an opus it is! Sixteen compact discs, some 19 hours of music - including seven hours that has never been released - from "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" to "Alice in Wonderland" and every other Burton film in between, along with rarities from the vault, original demos and short soundtracks to Burton's TV work on "Amazing Stories" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
And that's not even counting the head-sized collectible Zoetrope box that it comes in, as well as a 260-page hardback book sporting photos, stories and interviews from cast and crew of the Burton films that Elfman scored.
Of course objects like this don't come cheap. At $499, this set - limited to just 1,000 editions - is for the serious fan only, but that does nothing to diminish the expansive geography covered within, from the pumping pounding that opens "Beetlejuice" to the gentle tones of "The Journey Home" from the film "Big Fish."
- Matt Moore, Associated Press
Oasis, "Time Flies 1994-2009" (Big Brother/Columbia)
The U.K. music press predicted big things for Oasis when they hit their stride in the mid 1990s. Oasis, never a band to pat themselves on the back too lightly, predicted even bigger things for themselves. Both were right, and you can hear the band's complete singles collection on the box-set "Time Flies 1994-2009."
This package is available in several flavors. Oasis fans in North America can opt for a two-CD version. There's also a deluxe import four-disc box set that includes a DVD with video clips and throws in a CD of the band's last recorded live show from 2009. Audiophiles might want to opt for the 5-LP version, which features 27 songs pressed lovingly onto 180-gram vinyl.
On the vinyl edition, the mega-hits are here in "Wonderwall" and "Stand By Me." And there are some other stellar tracks, such as "Stop Crying Your Heart Out," a beautiful, slow piano-powered song that peaked at No. 2 on the UK charts in 2002.
There's no new or newly released music here. Rather, it's a nicely packaged cream of the crop issue of the songs that Oasis and their label had the biggest belief in. These singles put Oasis on the map in their home country and abroad. It's fitting to hear them featured in one collection without their middling tunes mucking up the playlist.
- Ron Harris, Associated Press
Pantera, "Cowboys From Hell: 20th Anniversary Edition" (Rhino)
Nirvana is often credited with hammering the final nail into the coffin of '80s glam around 1991. But it was a year earlier that Pantera's "Cowboys From Hell" helped drive the stake into hair-metal's lifeless heart.
The Texas foursome's major-label debut gets the deluxe treatment with a three-disc set commemorating the 20th - yes, 20th! - anniversary of its release.
On "CFH," the late Dimebag Darrell (guitars), his brother Vinnie Paul (drums), Rex Brown (bass) and Phil Anselmo (vocals) set the template for nearly every '90s metal act that followed.
Furious cuts now considered classics sound incredibly fresh, including the defiant title track, the blitz of "Domination," the artful shredding on "Psycho Holiday" and "Primal Concrete Sledge," and one of the greatest pieces of melodic, transitional metal in "Cemetery Gates."
Anyone who already knows all that already owns this disc.
The treat comes after the remastered album on disc one, with outstanding live tracks from 1990-91 on disc two, and a batch of demos on disc three. Listening to these early takes juxtaposed against the songs they became on "CFH" will make fans ecstatic, and the demo of "The Will To Survive" from the "CFH" sessions is a rare gem that shows a bit more of a Judas Priest influence than their later efforts.
Often overshadowed by their even more muscular sophomore disc, "Vulgar Display of Power," Pantera's "Cowboys's From Hell" captures a pivotal moment where - as far as metal goes - the '80s was ending and the '90s beginning.
The Deluxe Edition features just the three discs, while the Ultimate Edition is a must for hardcore fans. In addition to the music, you get a booklet with rare photos and band remembrances, backstage laminates, early career posters, a replica ticket stub, a T-shirt, and even a band pin - just in case there's any bare denim left among all the patches.
- John Kosik, Associated Press
Slayer, "The Vinyl Conflict" (American Recordings/Sony Legacy).
The debate rages on: Vinyl or CD? Those who argue for vinyl - the only side which seems to actually be "arguing" - cannot be swayed, while most digital listeners don't care all that much.
Slayer makes a case for the former with a remastered vinyl set of all ten of their releases on American Recordings from 1986-2009, the perfectly titled "The Vinyl Conflict."
Everything has already been said about this music, including the fact that Slayer's first three offerings - "Reign in Blood" (1986), "South of Heaven" ('88) and "Seasons in the Abyss" ('90) - are cornerstones in any respectable metal collection.
Also worth a mention is their live double-LP "Decade of Aggression" ('91), as well as '92's "Divine Intervention," the experimental but no less brutal "Diabolus in Musica" ('98) and the band's unapologetic assault on fanatical religion, 2001's epic "God Hates Us All."
The individual LPs come in a thick and sturdy slipcase, and the only thing lacking is an in-depth booklet. But this set is all about the music - and what a sound it offers.
Pressed onto 180g Audiophile vinyl, most listeners may not notice a difference, but for those who love Dave Lombardo's drumming, this set is for you. The digital format thankfully has never stifled the guitar assault of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman. The same can't be said for Lombardo and singer Tom Araya's bass work, and the robust clarity of these pressings is a testament to how good they really are.
For $200, casual fans may want to steer clear, but what this set offers the hardcore listener goes beyond the distinct romance of vinyl's warm, earthy sound.
- John Kosik, Associated Press
The Stooges, "Raw Power: Legacy Edition" (Sony Legacy).
Iggy Pop and The Stooges have been called everything from overrated to the greatest rock band to ever walk the Earth.
Following a long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, one thing remains indisputable: There is nothing that sounds like their 1973 swan song "Raw Power."
The band's third record before sinking in a swirl of drugs and disillusion is yet another strong offering in the Sony Legacy series - in both two-disc and four-disc sets.
The first disc offers the remastered "Raw Power" in its original incarnation: the David Bowie mix. Out of print for many years - the CD version many own is Iggy's cranked-up mid-'90s remaster - the hectic Bowie mix now offers a bit more clarity on the low end. You still have to blast this thing through the roof to hear the bass and drums - and that's probably the point.
Pointless debate remains over which mix is superior, but no variation can tame such classics as "Search and Destroy," "You're Pretty Face is Going to Hell," "Penetration" or the title track, and "Gimme Danger" may be the toughest song ever built around an acoustic guitar.
The real find is disc two, which features a previously unreleased live show from 1973 that celebrates the band's violent stage presence. The audio isn't up to modern standards, but it's a treat to hear Iggy antagonizing the crowd throughout - at one point between songs you can clearly hear a woman say, "I don't think he likes us."
The Deluxe set - available only through www.iggyandthestoogesmusic.com - offers a third disc with a few energetic outtakes and demos from the "Raw Power" sessions and a DVD containing a well done 42-minute documentary on the making of the album, featuring new interviews with band members and fellow musicians.
Both editions come complete with booklets containing several strong essays, photos and remembrances, while the Deluxe set also tacks on a few quality photo prints and a reproduction of a Japanese 45.
This reissue is a classic effort with The Stooges at their raw and powerful best.
- John Kosik, Associated Press
George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, "Collaborations" (Dark Horse) and George Harrison, "All Things Must Pass" (EMI)
For anyone who can't get enough of George Harrison's work with sitar master Ravi Shankar, "Collaborations" is a must-have. The three-disc, one DVD set collects all three recordings the two friends made over a 23-year period.
Even to Harrison fans, these recordings are obscure.
There's 1974's "Shankar Family & Friends" and 1976's "Ravi Shankar's Music Festival from India," both of which have never been available on compact disc, and 1997's "Chants of India," which has been out of print for five years.
Thrown in for good measure is the DVD taken from a 1974 live show.
Harrison fans who like his rock music, and aren't necessarily enamored with his digressions into Indian music, are forewarned to stay away. The music, as wonderful as it is, is all about Shankar and Indian instruments like the tabla, damaru and tanpura, not Harrison and his gently weeping guitar.
Those who want to relive that part of Harrison's career are better suited to check out the vinyl rerelease of his first solo record, the triple album "All Things Must Pass." It faithfully reprints the three-album set on 180-gram vinyl, including the poster, replicated album art and lift-top box packaging.
Released to commemorate the album's 40th anniversary, it shows Harrison at his best with his No. 1 single "My Sweet Lord," and other hits "What is Life" and "Isn't it a Pity."
Taken together with the Shankar collaborations, the two box sets help to paint a picture of Harrison's musical endeavors and how they were realized, both through more traditional rock and Indian music.
- Scott Bauer, Associated Press
David Bowie, "Station to Station" Special Edition (Virgin Records)
Thirty-four years ago, David Bowie introduced the world to The Thin White Duke on his seminal "Station to Station" album. Now, he brings the era back with a special edition that includes the remastered original album and a full concert recording.
Captured at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, N.Y., the 1976 show presents Bowie at a transitional point in his career. The glam rocker had nine studio albums under his belt, just completed his motion picture debut in "The Man Who Fell to Earth," and was dealing with the excesses that went along with fame.
Teaming up with music pioneer Brian Eno, Bowie reinvented himself on the "Station" album, opting for an electronic sound with soulful vocals and sprinkled with funk and dance beats. The album's six tracks are sung through his Thin White Duke alter ego who delivers them with eerie, emotionless intensity. From this album, Bowie staples like "Golden Years," "Stay," and "TVC15" were born.
But what separates this collection from other box sets and reissues is the full concert recording, instead of the usual sub-par outtakes. Most of the tracks from the album are performed along with Bowie classics like "Rebel, Rebel," and "Suffragette City."
Bowie modified the arrangements of these older songs to match the style of the record. "Diamond Dogs," and "Panic in Detroit" get a fresh makeover that doesn't stray too far from the original. And then there's a funky, tightness of "The Jean Genie," which takes on a life of its own with its infectious rhythm. By record's end, it's apparent that a magical event took place.
"Station to Station" is also available in a deluxe edition that includes five CDs, a DVD, three vinyl albums, and a plethora of collectibles, including replica tickets and backstage passes, booklets, and a poster.
- John Carucci, Associated Press