A SACK OF TRACKS Boxed Sets to Unwrap

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IT will come as no surprise to aficionados that once again the best box sets of the year come from Rhino Records, now the foremost label for quality music reissues.

Among the company's outpouring of compact disc releases are three absolute standouts: The R&B Box is a massive, six-CD set tracing the evolution of rhythm and blues all the way from Louis Jordan in the 1940s to the Spinners in the 1970s. It contains 108 tracks from the greatest names in pop-music history, digitally remastered, representing dozens of record labels.

The Sun Records Collection contains 74 cuts from the most influential small label ever and documents the virtual birth of rock-and-roll. Among the artists represented are Elvis (of course), Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and many others. The Doo Wop Box is the definitive history of harmony singing, with four CDs containing 101 tracks spanning nearly every incarnation of this music style that is still making its influence felt today in such groups as Boyz II Men.

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Rock releases abound. Syd Barrett: Crazy Diamond (Capitol) is devoted to the legendary founder of the group Pink Floyd, and features his two solo albums as well as a disc dedicated to rare and unreleased material. The Everly Brothers: Heartaches & Harmonies (Rhino) compiles 103 tracks by this great rock singing duo, from the first single to their recent recordings. Unlike other compilations of the pair's work, this covers their career through more than a half-dozen record labels.

The Moody Blues: Time Traveller (Polydor) contains 71 digitally remastered tracks of the band's trademark symphonic rock, with all its hits as well as rare and unreleased tracks, and a bonus disc of live recordings. Tina Turner, The Collected Recordings (Capitol) is the most comprehensive retrospective yet of this great singer, spanning her work from the 1960s with Ike to her phenomenally successful solo career. The Band: Across the Great Divide (Capitol) is a three-disc set devoted to the influential American group, including their hits, rarities, demos, unreleased recordings, and much live material.

The roots of rock are explored in three superb packages from EMI, all chronicling influential record labels that came and went. The Minit Records Story celebrates the New Orleans label known for its short, punchy R&B recordings, many of them under the artistic guidance of Allen Toussaint.

The Aladdin Records Story features great tracks by the likes of Illinois Jacquet, Amos Millburn, Billie Holiday, Shirley and Lee, the Five Keys, and many more. The Sue Records Story: The Sound of Soul collects 100 songs recorded from 1957-66 for this important black-owned label, including cuts by Inez Foxx, Ike & Tina Turner, Baby Washington, and Don Covay.

Sam Cooke is known as one of the greatest singers of all time, but he was also an extremely influential producer. Sam Cooke's Sar Records Story 1959-1965 (ABKCO) contains 56 recordings, many of them gospel, from the singer's own label, the first black-owned label in history.

The War Anthology 1970-1994 (Avenue) celebrates the 25th anniversary of the seminal funk-Latin band (``Why Can't We Be Friends,'' ``The Cisco Kid''). Carole King: The Ode Collection (Epic/Legacy) chronicles the singer's career from 1968-76, including the entire ``Tapestry'' album, and live and unreleased recordings.

Frank Sinatra is represented in two important new compilations. Tommy Dorsey/Frank Sinatra: The Song is You (RCA) showcases the singer's work with Dorsey's big band, in five compact discs containing 5-1/2 hours of music, including every studio track, alternate takes, live recordings, even Sinatra's ``farewell speech.'' The V-Discs (Columbia/Legacy) collects all of the V-Disc recordings that Sinatra made between 1943-47, exclusively for the armed forces. This is the first time these rare recordings have seen the light of day since their original issue.

Jazz lovers have three extraordinary new collections to choose from. Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1923-1934 (Columbia/Legacy) collects the greatest tracks of one of the most brilliant musicians in jazz, 81 tracks spanning his work with King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, among others, and his own early big bands.

The Fletcher Henderson Story (Columbia/Legacy) is a three-disc set capitalizing on the career of one of the most important, if little-known, early big bands. It was Henderson's arrangements that helped make Benny Goodman the ``King of Swing.'' Bud Powell: The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings (Blue Note) contains everything the influential modern jazz pianist recorded for those labels, including rare alternate takes.

Country lovers can rejoice in several new collections, including Honky Tonk Girl: The Loretta Lynn Collection (MCA), which chronicles her career as country music's reigning feminist, and The Conway Twitty Collection (MCA), which contains Twitty's 35 No. 1 country hits, as well as such rarities as his original audition tape for Decca Records. That label is the subject of From the Vaults: Decca Country Classics 1934-1973 (MCA), practically a history of country music, featuring cuts by the likes of the Carter Family, Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, Patsy Cline, and others.

The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country (Epic/Legacy) presents 44 songs from the man many consider the greatest country singer alive. Meanwhile, the father of bluegrass gets the deluxe treatment in The Music of Bill Monroe (MCA), with nearly 4-1/2 hours of music on four CDs, spanning a nearly 60-year career that is still going strong.

Motown has dipped into its vaults to honor two of its greatest artists. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles: The 35th Anniversary Collection gives us nearly 100 songs that illustrate how sophisticated Robinson's songwriting and producing was. There's even more quantity in The Temptations: Emperors of Soul - five discs, 110 songs, every hit plus rare and unreleased tracks representing the group through every incarnation.

World-music boxes are relatively rare, although there is Duende: The Passion & Dazzling Virtuosity of Flamenco (Ellipsis Arts), three discs documenting the evolution of the Spanish music form from the 1930s to the present day. Marked by its powerful emotionalism and its emphasis on rhythmic guitar playing, Flamenco has reinvented itself over the years, adding rock and jazz elements.

Kids will enjoy Weird Al Yanovic: Permanent Record (Scotti Bros.), four discs of the musical parodist's twisted takes on popular music, with liner notes, suitably, by Dr. Demento.

Walt Disney Records celebrates its most successful contemporary composers in The Music Behind the Magic, four discs chronicling the work of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice, responsible for the songs in ``The Little Mermaid,'' ``Beauty and the Beast,'' and ``Aladdin.'' This set contains all of the songs from those pictures, as well as demo versions and work tapes that provide fascinating insight into the creative process.

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