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Top box sets in rock, soul for 2013

Greg Kot

2:39 PM CST, December 6, 2013

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

Various artists, "The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One, 1917-1927" (Revenant Records/Third Man Records, $478.94): An oak cabinet houses the latest magnum opus from Revenant, an enterprise that specializes in lavish musical presentations, and Jack White's vintage-music-obsessed Third Man Records. "Volume One" (with a sequel scheduled for next year) presents the first 10 years of Wisconsin-based Paramount Records, a furniture company that got into the record business almost as an afterthought and ended up nurturing the careers of countless major artists in jazz, gospel, and blues, including King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Blake, Ma Rainey and Duke Ellington. The set's best feature is the way it sheds new light on such relatively unheralded talents as Jimmy O'Bryant and Sister Ernia May Cunningham. It includes six vinyl albums, access to 800 digital tracks by 172 artists, an astonishing array of vintage artwork and a hardcover book.

Sly and the Family Stone, "Higher" (Sony Legacy, $46.58): The most comprehensive overview yet of the grandest work by the San Francisco producer, DJ, multi-instrumentalist and erstwhile gospel singer Sylvester Stewart. His multi-racial, co-ed band reflected the spirit of the music, which explored funk, soul, rock and gospel with disregard for category or color. Of the 77 tracks, a handful are previously unreleased – including revelatory performances from the Isle of Weight Festival on the heels of the group's myth-making appearance at Woodstock.

Donny Hathaway, "Never My Love: The Anthology" (Atco/Rhino, $49.98): The Chicago vocalist is frequently name-checked by in-the-know R&B singers as a major influence, but his work hasn't received attention on par with the soul greats. Trained in classical music and raised on gospel, Hathaway recorded three striking studio albums at the onset of the '70s and collaborated with Roberta Flack. But mental illness plagued him the rest of the decade, and he committed suicide in 1979. "Never My Love" puts his achievements in context, smartly divided into a disc of hits, a live performance that emphasizes Hathaway's virtues as a band leader and musician, a series of duets with Flack, and key tracks from his lost era in the late '70s.

Various artists, "Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound" (Numero Group, $35): The two-CD (or four-LP) set documents the emergence of Minneapolis funk in the late '70s, popularized by Prince and the Time. Futuristic keyboard textures and springy rhythms merged with rock guitars to create a sound that would rule the charts in the '80s (including Janet Jackson's early successes produced by the Time's Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis). A hardcover book, packed with the level of scholarship and artwork now routinely expected of the Chicago-based Numero Group, provides an insightful backdrop for early tracks by Prince collaborator Andre Cymone and future star Alexander O'Neal; the pre-Time innovations of Flyte Tyme; and the Earth Wind & Fire-like anthems of Haze.

Bob Dylan, "Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10" (Columbia, $18.33) and "The Complete Album Collection Vol. One" (Columbia Legacy, $179.98): "Another Self Portrait" collects outtakes from the Dylan sessions that produced his much-derided "Self Portrait" album in 1970 and its follow-up, "New Morning." The stripped-down demos, many with Chicago folk-scene regular David Bromberg and Al Kooper, present a revelatory glimpse of what "Self Portrait" might have been: the singer at his most relaxed, making acoustic music of consolation, heartbreak and resolve in an intimate setting with his friends. The original "Self Portrait" and its overbaked production resurface on "The Complete Album Collection," which includes each of Dylan's 35 studio albums, six live albums and two volumes of singles and rarities (though still lacking a few essentials such as the B-side "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar").

Woody Guthrie, "American Radical Patriot" (Rounder, $89.49): A limited edition six-CD box set chronicling the folk singer's first recordings, many of which were previously unreleased. These recordings, for the Library of Congress and other government sponsors, present a seemingly more benign version of the folk singer than would become apparent with his later protest songs. He's charming, funny and full of sharp insight in interview snippets with the archivist Alan Lomax, and the songs demonstrate a deep understanding of blues and country, the music that defined rural America and its citizens. He sings of hardship, murder and the region (Oklahoma and the Southwest) where he was born and grew up, a place "where the dust blows, the oil flows and the farmer owes." Scathing songs such as "Jesus Christ" and "The Jolly Banker" sound as contemporary today as the day Guthrie sang them.

Various artists, "They All Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration" (Arhoolie Records, $51.66): A three-day benefit concert to celebrate the California roots label's half-century mark included performances encompassing Tex-Mex (Santiago Jimenez), Cajun (David Doucet), blues (Taj Mahal), folk (Laurie Lewis), folk-rock (Country Joe McDonald), jazz (the Treme Brass Band) and everything in between (Ry Cooder). This three-CD set covers the vibrant performances and supplements them with equally vivid testimonials about the label and its legendary founder, Chris Strachwitz.

Stephen Stills, "Carry On" (Atlantic/Rhino, $42.49): The singer-guitarist moved from pristine folk to blues-inspired rock and then the blown-out adventurousness of Buffalo Springfield (check out the astonishing cosmic bluegrass of "Bluebird") in a few short years during the '60s. His songwriting had an edge, whether in the paranoia and protest of "For What it's Worth" or the haunting "4 + 20." Though Crosby Stills & Nash were hailed for their harmony vocals, Stills' guitar playing, whether in flamenco-accented acoustic mode or Hendrix-inspired electric storms, shouldn't be overlooked. Unfortunately, there's not enough greatness to fill four CDs, as Stills softened and dampened his sound in a misguided effort to keep up with trends in the '80s and '90s.

greg@gregkot.com