Top box sets, from the Beatles to Bill Withers

Here are some of the more notable box sets of the season in rock and pop:

Beatles, “Stereo Vinyl Box Set” (Capitol, $319): The Beatles’ core 14 albums are repackaged again, this time with vinyl connoisseurs in mind. Each remastered LP is available individually, but the box contains a beautiful coffee-table book loaded with striking images and insightful text on the making of each album by Beatles historian Kevin Howlett. The original artwork is restored (the “white album” poster, the “Sgt. Pepper” cutouts), and the music brims with warmth, clarity and punch. The quartet’s self-titled debut pops out of the speakers – driving guitars, Ringo’s walloping drums and syncopated handclaps on the incandescent “I Saw Her Standing There.” And the latter-day studio-as-instrument masterpieces still dazzle: even at a modest volume level, “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds strange and terrifying. 

Johnny Cash, “The Complete Columbia Collection” (Columbia/Legacy, $255.99): Cash spent the bulk of his legendary career on Columbia, and this box collects 63 CDs spanning 1958 to 1985. Cash kept the hits rolling through the ‘60s and most of the ‘70s, which enabled him to call many of his own shots. There were huge hits such as “At Folsom Prison” and its sequel, “At San Quentin,” which gave him the license to craft concept albums such as “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indians,” the frontier travelogue “Ride This Train,” the cinematic Wild West narrative “Sings The Ballads of the True West” and the working man’s tribute “Blood, Sweat and Tears.” These are as essential to his legacy as a songwriter, social activist and voice of the outsider as anything he ever recorded. After the hits dried up, he continued to produce daring if unsung albums such as “Silver” (1979) and the gritty “Johnny 99” (1983). There were also a few duds and toss-offs, but they’re in the minority. If you’re going to go deep on any artist of the last century, this set makes an eloquent case for Cash.

Woody Guthrie, “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection” (Smithsonian Folkways, $59.99): The 100th anniversary of the folk legend’s birth has brought an outpouring of tributes, none better than this coffee-table collection. It wraps together a 154-page book and 57 tracks on three CDs, including 21 previously unreleased performances. These include his earliest known originals dating to 1937. As evidenced by “Them Big City Ways” and “Skid Row Serenade,” the twangy upstart is speaking truth to power from the get-go. The music’s the thing, obviously, but the essays, detailed notes on the songs and recording sessions, audio interviews, and replicas of the troubadour’s artwork and handwritten lyrics make this a terrific Guthrie starter kit.

Led Zeppelin, “Celebration Day” (Swan Song/Atlantic, $30.56): Two CDs and a DVD devoted entirely to what is being billed as Led Zeppelin’s final performance, in London in 2007. John Bonham, without whom there really is no Led Zeppelin, is long gone, but son Jason acquits himself admirably on drums. Robert Plant has lost some of the high end off his vocal range, but that’s not a devastating loss. He, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are all in fighting trim, and they run through their past with conviction. Led Zeppelin cover bands don’t get much better, but this set is for hard-core collectors only. More casual Zep fans should fill out their collections with the band’s original recordings from the ‘60s and ‘70s before investing in this final-bow souvenir.

Elvis Presley, “Prince From Another Planet” (RCA, $26.18): The years immediately before Presley slid into bloated self-parody remain fascinating for their mix of spectacle, showmanship and sometimes surprising artistry. This two-CD, one-DVD set documents the singer’s Madison Square Garden concerts of June 1972, his first live performances in New York. Adorned in rhinestones, the still-svelte Presley came on like “a glorified stripper” in the words of his drummer, Ronnie Tutt. He meant it as a compliment; the excellent band challenged Presley instead of reverently deferring to him, and the singer sounds determined to reassert his relevance. The DVD includes grainy performance footage shot by a fan using a hand-held camera, plus a Presley media conference from the New York stand that’s like a performance in itself. On stage, Presley blows out the extremes – cranking the tempo on “That’s All Right,” plunging deep into the swampy lust of “Polk Salad Annie,” milking the drama of “Suspicious Minds” and the melodrama of “An American Trilogy.” As last stands go, it’s worth hearing if hardly essential.

Paul Simon, “Graceland: 25th Anniversary Edition” (Sony Legacy, $82.49): Simon’s iconic, 14 million-selling melding of Manhattan-esque introspection and African rhythm gets richly deserved in-depth treatment. Besides two CDs devoted to the original album, the set includes a previously issued 1987 concert on DVD for the first time and Joe Berlinger’s “Under African Skies” documentary. The latter confronts the more complicated political issues surrounding Simon’s decision to ignore the U.N. cultural boycott against South Africa. In the end, the music trumps all quibbles – any tendency Simon had toward solipsism is more than balanced by the all-enveloping groove and ebullient counterpoint harmony vocals.

Bill Withers, “The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums” (Columbia/Legacy, $61.99): This folk-soul singer’s modesty defines his relatively brief but sublime career. A U.S. Navy serviceman, he was making a living installing toilets in commercial airlines when his recording career began at age 30. His albums combined homespun wisdom and gentle empathy with folk-soul instrumentation. This nine-CD set covers the entirety of Withers career, from 1971 to 1985. He’s remembered for the hits (“Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me”), but his crowning achievement just might be the fiery “Live at Carnegie Hall”; it’s the one Withers album to own if you don’t want to spring for the entire set.



Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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