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CD boxed sets: Still fun for the holidays

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Even as the importance of the CDs to music consumers seems to decrease by the day, something wide-eyed and fun remains around boxed sets. Maybe it’s the completist thing, maybe it’s the big holiday present thing, maybe its the idea that once you have this, you have something definitive about an artist or band. Here are these songs, here is this moment in time, here is this legacy -- you’re done.

Until next year.

For now, here is a selection of some of the boxed sets worth giving and receiving this holiday season.

— Joe Gross

Hank Williams

‘The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings ... Plus!’ (Time Life, 15 CDs, one DVD, $199.99)

What Time Life boxed up two years ago was just a drop in the bucket with a hole in it. “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings ... Plus!” super-sizes to 15 discs and one DVD in a box that looks like an old radio, not unlike the one that WSM listeners would have used in 1951 to tune in Williams’ morning broadcasts on the station.

Exhausting? Of course it is. Overkill? Possibly. But these performances, recorded live in the studio, feature Williams performing lots of old songs he rarely dusted off, including “Where the Old River Flows,” as well as loads of gospel and hymns. The standout in the latter category may be “That Beautiful Home,” which the liner notes (more of a book, really) point out feature Williams in obvious and extreme back pain, struggling to lay down a vocal line over which the Drifting Cowboys can harmonize. He would be dead less than two years later.

You can’t argue that the country icon’s life wasn’t brief and tragic, but the image of him as a mournful ghost is reductive. On these broadcasts, he chats about the weather, about where the songs came from and who the new engineer in the booth is. It’s revealing and intimate. And it also sounds pretty much every bit as good as his more “professional” studio recordings, thanks to the restoration efforts of Grammy winner Joe Palmaccio. Fun fact: These were originally acetate recordings, only good for a few plays. If the performances had been committed to tape, they likely would have been erased and gone forever.

There’s also a DVD with Williams’ daughter, Jett, interviewing the two surviving (now deceased) members of Williams’ band, Don Helms and Big Bill Lister, along with WSM engineer Glenn Snoddy.

— Patrick Beach

The Grateful Dead

‘The Warner Bros. Studio Albums’

(Warner Bros., 5 LPs, $134.98)

The line on the Grateful Dead has become rock ‘n’ roll holy writ: Their studio output is a distant second to the live recordings, but to really understand the band, you had to see them in person, multiple times.

Nevertheless, their first five studio albums -- “The Grateful Dead” (1967), “Anthem Of The Sun” (1968), “Aoxomoxoa” (1969), “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty” (1970) -- came to define their time (a good 30 years or so).

This is a set for Deadheads and vinyl fans alike -- the five albums, pressed on 180 gram vinyl from the original analog masters, are housed in study cardboard jackets with tip-on sleeves. The box is a nice shade of acid orange; the booklet contains previously unpublished photos and new liner notes. Hearing the blues-boogie ballroom bastions on the self-titled debut remains striking and the two 1970 albums are country-rock touchstones. Shades of “Uncle Johns Band” and “Ripple” can be heard on everything from the Eagles to Ryan Adams.

But it’s the collection’s psychedelic heart — the still-out-there collage “Anthem of the Sun” and the trippy-yet-tighter “Aoxomoxoa” — that will sell this set. The original LP mixes for “Anthem of the Sun” and “Aoxomoxoa” are featured here. (Both “Anthem” mixes made various CD pressings, “Aoxomoxoa” never did.)

“Anthem” was a conscious attempt to replicate hearing the band live, while tripping. This meant stacking up live and studio recordings, adding prepared piano, a bucket of oddball instruments and, as Garcia famously put it, “mixing it for the hallucinations.” A few years later, even Garcia thought this a bit much, and remixed it for greater clarity. In fairness, there isn’t that much difference between the two, but the original does feel wackier.

“Aoxomoxoa” is a different story. A transition point between the band’s acid blowout years and the songcraft that would follow in 1970, the two mixes sit at those extremes.

“ Aoxomoxoa” was the first full collaboration between Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, an attempt to render in shorter songs what the band had been doing in the ballrooms. The result was jam-band root integers such as “St. Stephen’s” and “China Cat Sunflower,” mixed the first time around with a load of effects, layered vocals and a density that would appeal to the “Anthem” types. The remix removed a lot of those effects, leaving songs that suddenly sounded more in line with their soon-to-be chiller, more acoustic direction. Having the original on LP again is a rubbery joy. — Joe Gross

Bill Hicks

‘The Essential Collection’

(Ryko, two CDs, two DVDs, $39.98)

Like Hank Williams, you can never have too much Bill Hicks, and Ryko’s previous reissue efforts were laudable. Here we get two CDs and two DVDs. One of the DVDs includes very early performances of the Houston comedian not long out of high school, making fun of his dad and his aborted attempt at college.

If you are a fan, you have heard many of these bits before; Hicks was constantly reworking his material. But there are enough unreleased cuts to make it worth your while. One DVD contains “Ninja Bachelor Party,” the short film in which he starred, interviews and a photo gallery. A download card also includes original songs.

Yeah, some of the references are dated. Billy Ray Cyrus and New Kids on the Block, ha ha ha. But his bits on the hot-button issues of the ‘90s such as abortion, evolution and gays in the military, show he’s every bit as relevant today as he was before his death. (It also shows our penchant for fighting the same battles over and over.)

One standout on the second DVD is a performance from Austin in the early ‘90s, where Hicks does a long segment on Charlie Hodge, a member of the Memphis Mafia best known for bringing Elvis his water and scarves onstage. With every repetition it gets funnier.

Hicks was savage, but there was always a point to his anger. He couldn’t stand muddy logic, hypocrisy or imperial aggression. He would have loads of material these days.

— Patrick Beach

Bruce Springsteen

‘The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story’

(Columbia, three CDs, three DVDs, $119.98)

Fans of Bruce Springsteen are often very particular about which era of the Boss’ career is best. His catalogue can be like a giant buffet — a lot of options for different tastes, with the occasional unappetizing, hard-to-identify side dish lurking in the corner (others can decide which albums fall into that category).

1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” differs from many of his most well-known albums in that it doesn’t contain the top-40 busting singles of its predecessor “Born to Run,” but it’s also infused with enough rock to stave off at least some of “Nebraska’s” gloom. It hovers somewhere in between, representing the best of both worlds.

Part of the craftsmanship on “Darkness” can be attributed to a legal dispute that kept Springsteen from releasing anything for three years. During this time, he writes in the liner notes to “The Promise: The Lost Sessions from Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the classic rocker dug into the burgeoning punk genre, something which informed his music on a thematic level.

He also produced four times as much music as what eventually appeared on “Darkness,” much of which appears on “The Promise.” Some of the material, including “Racing in the Street,” make it onto “Darkness” in altered forms. Others, such as “Because the Night” and “Fire,” were made popular by others. While those tracks deserve to be included here, the heart of the collection, which is available on its own or as part of a larger box set containing a remastered version of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” along with concert DVDs and a documentary on the making of the album, is the music that the Boss left behind. “It was like revisiting old friends who’d been awaiting your return to close the circle on an important experience that somehow had gotten interrupted,” he writes.

He’s right. “The Promise” is packed with great new-old material that doesn’t just feel like “Darkness” trimmings. Listening to the title track (a melancholy follow-up to “Thunder Road”) or even the pop-rock “Save My Love,” which Springsteen wrote during the “Darkness” sessions but recorded this year with his E-Street cohorts, it’s hard to believe this stuff didn’t find it’s way onto an album.

— Peter Mongillo

Bob Dylan

‘The Original Mono Recordings’

(Columbia, nine CDs, $129.98)

Beatles on iTunes? Feh. For fans of listening to music somewhere other than an iPod, the real game-changing happened last year, when the Beatles albums appeared in their mono form on CD.

Large record companies, understandably eager to embrace anything that involves people actually buying music, have stepped up their mono-mix reissue game. The Rolling Stones are emptying fans’ wallets this Christmas with “The Rolling Stones 1964-1969” (ABKCO/Universal, 13 LPs $389.99), a 13-disc set of the Stones’ earliest releases, LP and EP, in mono, in their original UK running orders.

Dylan’s first eight albums are now available in mono on LP and CD, and while not quite as socks-blowing in their differences as the Beatles albums, they are a must own for the Dylan fanatic.

The earliest recordings, “Bob Dylan,” “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and “The Times They Are A-Changin,” suddenly sound like the blues and folk recordings they were trying to emulate — present, intimate and deeply alive.

“Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde and Blonde” come at you in a rush, instruments jostling into each other, competing for your attention. Dylan’s voice is another element in the mix, easy to find, but not right up front, as in the stereo versions. Like the Beatles mono reissues, bass and drums are the real winners here -- they’re fat and loud and well rounded.

“Like a Rolling Stone” is an interesting case. At this late date, the stereo version is practically encoded in American psyche with Dylan’s voice right up front. The mono version puts Dylan voice in the middle of the maelstrom, the famous organ somewhere in the mix, while the drums really sound like that “kicked-open” door Springsteen went on about at Dylan’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It’s dazzling.

The stunner is “John Wesley Harding.” After the density of the previous three albums, Dylan stripped back for a new kind of roots music. He had been rock ‘n’ roll future, now he set out rewriting the past. You can hear what Hendrix must have heard in “All Along the Watchtower,” a rock song about the end times that sounded written a thousand years ago.

— Joe Gross

Michael Jackson

‘Michael Jackson’s Vision’

(Epic, three DVDs, $39.98)

When the archaeologists of the year 3011 go combing through artifacts from the 20th and 21st centuries in order to understand this strange creature called “Michael Jackson,” they’d do well to start with this collection. Jackson was a star for the MTV age, an artist who needed both sound and imagery to capture his outsized persona and bottomless creative ambition. So “Michael Jackson’s Vision,” which collects 42 of Jackson’s music videos across three DVDs, is the single most comprehensive portrait available of Michael Jackson at his most indelibly … well, Michael Jackson.

It kicks off with “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” a simple promotional video with an injection of ‘70s disco cheese, and traces Jackson from an infectious-yet-straightforward performer to the high-concept dreamer that gave us the multimillion-dollar spectacle of “Scream” and the iconic 14-minute “Thriller.” A laundry list of great directors — Spike Lee, David Fincher, John Singleton — keep the visuals fresh and the package enticing even (especially) when the videos revel in absurdity.

Unfortunately, “Michael Jackson’s Vision” is a little incomplete. Some videos, like “Butterflies” off “Invincible,” are conspicuously absent, while the full 40-minute, Stephen King-scripted oddity “Ghosts” is only briefly excerpted. And there are no extras on the bare-bones release — particularly disappointing is the lack of any director’s commentaries; the mind trembles at what posthumous insights a man like Spike Lee might have into Jackson’s unique persona. Throw in the inconsistent video quality, and “Michael Jackson’s Vision,” while the best package of its kind yet for Jackson fans, falls just short of perfection.

— Patrick Caldwell

Other sets that might hit a wish list or two this season:

‘The Rolling Stones 1971-2005’ (Universal, 14 LPs, $419.99.)

‘Africa: 50 Years of Music, 50 Years of Independence’ (Discograph/Sterns, 18 CDs, $139.98.)

‘Grateful Dead: Formerly The Warlocks’ (Grateful Dead/Rhino, six CDs, $69.98.)

‘Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology’ (Numero Group, six LPs, four CDs, $79.99.)

‘Matador at 21’ (Matador, six CDs, $49.98.)

‘The Complete Elvis Presley Masters’ (RCA/Legacy, 30 CDs, $749.)

‘Selena: La Leyenda’ (EMI Latin, four CDs, $98.98)