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Holiday gifts for the music lover on your list

Collections from Elvis to Miles Davis to Leonard Cohen will delight fans

Staff Writer
Austin 360

With music fanatics increasingly devoted to digital music or vinyl, CDs haven't quite gone the way of the eight-tracks, but the prognosis is not good. One place they still thrive is the box set. Collectors value these special editions for the add-ons, hard-to-find recordings and other bonus features. Casual fans like the convenience of having access to an artist's complete catalogue, as a recent box set of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen offers, or the form's sheer gifty-ness. Here are a few of 2011's best, as well as a few non-CD ideas for your favorite listener.

- Peter Mongillo

Elvis Presley: "Young Man with the Big Beat: The Complete '56 Elvis Presley Masters."

By 1955, Elvis' career was rising with a string of singles on Sam Phillips' Memphis-based Sun Records label, including "Mystery Train." RCA took notice and offered to buy out the man-who-would-be-the-king's contract. Phillips refused at first, but Colonel Thomas A. Parker worked a different angle - Presley's parents, who gave him authority to negotiate a new contract. Phillips, beset by financial issues, relented, setting the stage for Presley's explosion.

"Young Man with the Big Beat" is a celebration of Elvis' move to RCA, five discs including the original 1956 masters, live performances, outtakes and interviews. Though jumping to a major from an independent label isn't exactly something that an artist might go around bragging about these days, it was a pivotal point in the King's career, as "Blue Suede Shoes," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog" and many of the other tracks here demonstrate.

Elvis fans probably already have much of the material gathered here, but the box gets it all in one place. A packet of photos, posters and reprints of old ticket stubs and other memorabilia is excessive - but perhaps perfect for the Elvis fan - and a vinyl-size, 80-page book that spells out Elvis' early rise is a nice touch. The music is at the heart of the collection, though - "Blue Moon" alone warrants repeat listens, as do his charismatic mush-mouth vocals and down-home humor on the live recordings (complete with a rushed television host announcing "Heartbreak Motel"). (RCA/Sony Legacy, five CDs, $84.99 )

- P.M.

Leonard Cohen: "The Complete Albums Collection."

Looking at the 17 albums - 42 years of music spanning from 1967 to 2009 - collected in this set, it's hard to believe that Leonard Cohen didn't become known as a musician until his early 30s. This box, a modest, rust-colored cube that serves only to house the CDs and a small booklet, might be a daunting introduction to newbies, overwhelming in a "Ulysses" sort of way in which the energy spent dissecting the first pages can be tiring enough to dissuade further exploration of the seemingly endless volume. Hardcore fans (and Cohen is one of those songwriters who inspires the most passionate fans or none at all) will appreciate having everything in one place, with CD sleeves that re-create each album jacket and a book that includes all the liner notes. Cohen's evolution is on full display, the early, bittersweet "So Long, Marianne" and the sad, hypnotic "Bird on a Wire" on through the vaguely sinister "Dance Me to the End of Love" from 1984's "Various Positions" (which also contains the covered-to-death "Hallelujah"). The six live performances add another layer, offering reinterpretations of that material, including 2008's "Live in London," a portrait of an artist revisiting old friends in his twilight years. A smaller set including only the studio albums is a less expensive option. (Columbia/Sony Legacy, 18 CDs, $119.99)

- P.M.

Miles Davis: "Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1"

The endless musical restlessness, the outsize personality, the sheer amount of musical ground covered: There's likely not been another career in popular music quite like that of Miles Davis, from whom critics could claim the amazing band here was his Second Great Quintet. Led by but never hampered by Davis (quite the reverse, actually) bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams were at a dazzling peak, operating in that mercurial era after Davis had redefined cool but before his electric funk thrilled or confounded fans. The sound of motion as a unit here is thrilling without ever being willfully obtuse. The music surges and throbs, Davis'solos suave and dashing - his "Round Midnight" seems like a benediction for an era about to pass. Then the band cruises or crashes into "No Blues" and they're back to breathing with every muscle, Williams' athletic finesse (he's all of 21 during these sets) powering the whole enterprise. The DVD lets you see these gents in action and reminds you that, yes, Miles Davis has always dressed better than you. (A pocket for the booklet would have been nice, however.) Word has it that, like the Bob Dylan series, this is the first of many. Yes, please. (Columbia/Sony Legacy, three CDs, one DVD, $49.99.)

- Joe Gross

Skullflower: "Carved into Roses/Infinityland/Singles"

Supreme Dicks: "Breathing and Not Breathing"

Anyone who attends Austin's Psych Fest owes it to themselves to check out these inexpensive monsters.

First, Skullflower. British multi-instrumentalist Matthew Bower, the core of Skullflower, has been making gloriously horrible noise with an ever-shifting relationship to the idea of "rock music" since the early 1980s. Skullflower, essentially Bower and a revolving cast of collaborators, kicked around from around 1985 to 1997, then again from 2003 forward, moving from a thudding, dunder-headed noise rock to something more abstract and psychedelic to truly harsh noise. His most recent efforts are informed by black metal's hideous buzz, but these three hypnotic CDs date from 1994 and 1995, two separate albums and a collection of singles that nonetheless hang together exceptionally well. It's a portrait of the band moving away from songform (or at least riff-form) to something blurrier - layers of guitar squall, chaotic amp feedback, subdermal drums, vocals somewhere in the middle. Riffs (and even pop melodies) are still there, but they are quite hard to discern and catch hold of, like looking for waves hitting the shore in the middle of a hurricane. Elegant paperboard packaging ties it all together.

As for Supreme Dicks, if you spent any time in college radio in the early 1990s, the standard bearer for loose-knit indie rock was Sebadoh, whose often-zero-fi acoustic songs needed a good cry and whose electric songs flailed around before passing out on the couch. It might be hard to believe for those who equate indie rock with the comparative precision of, say, the Decemberists or Bon Iver, this sort of sound got even wilder and looser, even quieter and more delicate and far, far odder. (And from the same state, no less.) This no-frills box set collects all four S.D. albums (two proper studio records, two anthologies of singles and early tracks) which range from crossed-legged acoustic mumble to heavy-lidded-yet-delicate guitar jams, spoken words over spacey horns, the sound of dudes re-creating the Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead that only existed in their heads in their rec room on a lunch-money budget. As much as Nirvana, Biggie or Garth Brooks (albeit on a far smaller scale), this was the sound of the 1990s. (VHF, three CDs; Jagjaguwar, four CDs,; both around $20).

- J.G.

"This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM 1957-1982."

A righteous sequel to Tompkins Square's similarly excellent "Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007)" also compiled by longtime scenester/zinester/collector Mike McGonigal, "This May Be...." is a set of obscure gospel songs released as 45s, some of the time by the church involved or the artists themselves. The lo-fi, roughshod nature of these recordings and their record-collector nature will, of course, appeal to the most devout atheist, as will the wide deep stylistic range. Everything from from guitar-heavy soul workouts to a capella songs to piano/choral tunes makes its case for the Lord. "Who" by Sunset Jubilees could have been on Stax, and the amazing, one minute, 42 second "Jesus Been Good" by the Fantastic Angels sounds like a Jackson 5 outtake, while things get genuinely heavy and distorted on Prophet G. Lusk's "The Devil's Trying to Steal My Joy," a vamp worthy of any modern blues-punk outfit. And everyone needs to hear Sound of Soul's "Perfect Like the Angels," which sports a tip-tip drum machine right out of early New Wave. Consider yourself blessed. (Tompkins Square, three CDs, $29.99)

- J.G.

John Fahey: "Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You (The Fonotone Years 1958-1965)"

Perhaps a year before ever-increasingly legendary guitarist John Fahey started his own Takoma label in 1959, he started releasing 78s on Fonotone, the private press, 78-only label started by fellow prewar blues fanatic and collector Joe Bussard, who also hailed from the Maryland area. This set collects 115(!) songs, the vast majority of which have never been on CD, let alone heard by anyone.

It's a bit of a revelation for Fahey fans: Here are covers, collaborations and early workouts of songs that would end up on future albums. The source tapes have held up shockingly well, and it's a treat to hear a fellow so associated with the LP format making, essentially, singles. There was no expectation or airplay, or even distribution outside a hardcore fanbase even then, but it is wonderful to hear Fahey sound more and more like himself during the seven years documented. By '65, his crystalline sound, a finger-picked, deeply American blend of classical, blues, folk, bluegrass and country is fully formed and like nobody else. Here are hours of how he got there, housed in a beautifully simple LP-sized box with 88 pages of photos, essays and analysis. (Dust-to-Digital/Revenant, five CDs, $85.00)

- J.G.

Turntable love

Austin is a wonderful place to buy used and new vinyl, and it seems like more and more music fans (the sort that actually still like to buy things) are adding turntables to their home stereo (or computer) systems. A few stores in town sell used turntables, including various pawn shops and End of an Ear Records. For a basic, entry-level turntable that can convert vinyl records to mp3s, there's the ION Profile USB Turntables ($109.99 to $149.99). For the aspiring record collector and music nerd who wants something better, is willing to pay three figures for it but can't afford to dive into serious audiophile water, there's the belt-driven Rega RP1 ($445 with cartridge), the entry-level turntable in the Rega series (I own the P2 myself, which is no longer made). (Belt-driven turntables tend to reproduce sound in a more natural manner than direct-drive turntables.)

For aspiring DJs, there are plenty of entry-level turntables, but, much like buying a high quality instrument you won't grow out of instead of something cheap, you can't go wrong with the classic Technics SL-1200, which has been the DJ gold standard for decades. Two of them and an entry-level mixer will set you back about $2,500 new, but there are plenty of deals to be had on used equipment online.

- J.G.

Stream away

As the cloud(s) gathers, another option for digital music is a streaming service such as Rdio, Rhapsody and newcomer Spotify, which offers three subscription tiers: a free, ad-supported level; $4.99 a month for ad-free, unlimited streaming from a computer; and $9.99 a month for unlimited streaming from mobile devices and a feature that allows users to cache songs for offline use. The upside: With a few exceptions (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd), it's tough to find too much that isn't on Spotify's catalogue, making a subscription a great gift for music lovers who would appreciate having access to a vast library of music. The downside: Though it's nice that local bands can make their music available alongside the latest from Kanye or Drake, indie bands aren't going to see money from royalties.

- P.M.

Carry it away

If there's one thing that Austin does well, it's record stores. Almost all of them offer some sort of gift certificate, of course, but with the vinyl boomlet going on, the aspiring record collector might love a tote bag filled with LPs used or new. Pictured is the End of an Ear version ($5); the Waterloo tote costs $14.99.

- J.G.