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Think Inside the Box

Some CD/DVD box set suggestions for last-minute holiday shoppers

By Alan Sculley · December 17th, 2008 · Music
Maybe record labels knew much sooner than Washington and the economic experts that hard times were coming, as 2008 will go down as one of the leanest of years for box sets. But here are several 2008 box sets that are worth the price (usually $50 and up), as well as some other releases that are good fits on this year’s shopping lists.

Willie Nelson: One Hell of a Ride (Columbia/Legacy Recordings)
Other Willie Nelson collections exist, but One Hell Of A Ride is the first to cover the entirety of his amazing career. It demonstrates first of all that Nelson’s masterful songwriting skills spanned an impressive range of styles. In the 1960s, he adapted to the orchestrated Country sound that was popular in the day, penning classics like “Crazy” (the Patsy Cline hit) and “Funny How Time Slips Away” (made famous by Ray Price). In the ’70s, he forged the rambling and rocking sound that came to be known as Outlaw Country. Of course, his signature country hits (“On The Road Again,” “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” “If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time” and many more) are included, as are songs from the eclectic range of albums he’s made more recently. Let’s hope Nelson’s long ride still has plenty of good miles to go.

Roy Orbison: The Soul of Rock and Roll (Legacy Recordings)
Arguably the most amazing vocalist in Rock history, Orbison finally gets the all-encompassing box set he deserves. The four discs show Orbison evolving from a very solid Rockabilly artist in the ’50s into a masterful singer and songwriter during the ’60s. During that decade he not only truly found his soaring four-octave voice, but with songs like “Running Scared,” “Crying” and “Oh, Pretty Woman,” reinvented standard Pop conventions. Orbison was making a stirring comeback when a heart attack claimed his life at age 52. Most of Orbison’s late career highlights are here, topping off a box set that does splendid justice to his music and legacy.

Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison (Columbia/Legacy Recordings)
Cash’s 1968 Folsom Prison shows marked a triumphant return from drug addiction and set the stage for huge success and overdue recognition of the genius of his music.

The original At Folsom Prison album, which was culled mostly from the first of two shows that day, remains a landmark release. The two CDs here contain both Folsom Prison shows in their entirety. The first show was clearly the better of the two, but the second show has its moments as well, and hammers home the fact that Cash was pouring everything he had into these performances. The fine documentary DVD that rounds out this set adds considerable insight into Cash and the concerts.

Nina Simone: To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story (RCA/Legacy Recordings)
Simone probably gets as much attention for her outspoken stances in favor of racial equality as for her music. And her politics (particularly of the late 1960s) are well represented in this three-CD set, the most complete retrospective yet of the late singer’s career. But what really stands out is Simone’s singular approach to everything from Jazz and the great American songbook to World Beat and the late 1960s Rock of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and others.

Various Artists: The Motown Collection (Time Life/Universal Records)
This 10-CD set is not the first set devoted to Detroit’s legendary Soul/Pop label. The 1992 Hitsville USA set remains a decent overview of Motown’s best. But The Motown Collection goes that collection one better. It extends things to add post-1972 hits like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Rick James’ “Super Freak (Part 1)” that were released after label founder Berry Gordy moved the label to Los Angeles. More importantly, the new set includes a number of popular songs that for some strange reason were omitted from the Hitsville box (Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour” and The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together,” among others). The set is light on packaging, but musically The Motown Collection stands as a clear upgrade over the Hitsville USA set.

Various Artists: Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (Legacy Recordings)
This four-CD set, devoted to the legendary Philadelphia International Records label, expands and supplements Legacy Recordings’ 1997 three-CD collection, The Philly Sound. Where that previous set highlighted songs written or produced by label owners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (with a few exceptions), Love Train adds tracks written and produced by other Philadelphia International talents. As such, Love Train provides a more complete picture of the label’s heyday, which ran from 1968 to 1976 (plus a handful of successes that extended through 1983).

Cheap Trick: Budokan (Epic/Legacy Recordings)
As a native of Rockford, Ill., I have seen my share of great Cheap Trick concerts before and after these hometown heroes released their breakthrough album Live At Budokan. Now you can see, as well as hear, what the fuss was about. This new package features a DVD of the April 27, 1978 show. Here you not only see the super-charged concert, but the band’s cartoonish visual image played out up close on stage (especially guitarist Rick Nielsen at his youthful bug-eyed, guitar-pick-tossing best). The set also includes a previously unreleased CD of that April 27 show and, for good measure, the complete concert over two CDs, first released in 1998.

The Who: At Kilburn 1977 (Image Entertainment)
It remains a mystery exactly why the film of this show — one of the final performances before drummer Keith Moon died — stayed in The Who’s vaults for 30 years. But finally it’s here (packaged with a 1969 London Coliseum performance). Bits and pieces of the Kilburn show were used in the retrospective documentary The Kids Are Alright, but the full performance captures The Who (and the ever-manic Moon) thundering along in fine form (except for one comical breakdown). It also offers ample visual and sonic evidence of why The Who was never the same after Moon’s premature demise.



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