Stax: 50th Anniversary Celebration ($19.98)
The Stax records story is nearly as stirring as the music on this 50-song collection. A lavish booklet lays it all out in detail, but the bottom line is that an opportunity was created in a converted movie theater – in one of segregated Memphis's transitional neighborhoods – for blacks and whites to make music together. Stax Records invited the neighborhood in and the results were funky, fresh, and historic. Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, and others brought a soulful spontaneity and emotional rawness to Top 40 radio that had not been heard before. Much of it was improvised and recorded on the spot by a self-integrated group of like-minded musicians between 1961 and 1968, and it's never been topped.
The Summer of Love: The Hits of 1967 ($39.98)
In 1967, the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco was a melting pot of musical styles, from the mesmerizing folkrock of Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane, to the unchained blues of Janis Joplin, to the hippy-dippy agitpop of Country Joe and the Fish. Young people were taking to the American streets to protest the Vietnam War and gathering in parks and festivals to create a new communal lifestyle based on free love that would end all wars. Well, at least the music was cool. San Francisco bands such as The Byrds, The Rascals, and the Supremes are represented here, alongside pretenders such as Strawberry Alarm Clock. This colorful box set of two CDs is packaged with a booklet and DVD, which includes riveting live performances by the Doors, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.
U2 – The Joshua Tree, 20th Anniversary edition ($59.98)
Revisiting this classic on its three-disc 20th anniversary edition, one is struck by just how much of the record is infused with the band's fascination with America, from the stark cover photograph shot in California's Death Valley to the topographical references in the lyrics. No wonder it was the album that broke them in the United States. That mutual love affair is chronicled in the short DVD documentary, "Outside It's America," which includes a scene of the band shopping for boots and cowboy hats. (It also shows The Edge stitching his own clothing repairs on the band's airplane.) A bonus disc collects B-sides and unreleased tracks, including "Rise Up," a song as rousing as its title suggests. Also on the DVD: a 1987 Paris concert on a bare stage that reminds one that, even before Bono became a de facto head of state, he could command a multitude like Moses.
The Classic Bluegrass Collection ($119.98)
Just can't get enough of that high, lonesome sound? Then the Classic Bluegrass Collection is for you. This three-disc set covers more than 60 years of true American roots music from Bill Monroe and Lester, Flatt & Earl Scruggs, through the Stanley Brothers and the Osborne Brothers, up to Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, and Alison Krauss. The sound started in Southern Appalachia, and though it still carries the rhythms and sweet-sad stories of those hills and hollows, it now can be heard on front porches and in small clubs and major venues around the country. Best of all, it keeps producing new generations of fiddlers and banjo pickers adding their own versions of classic tunes.
Donald Fagen – The Nightfly Trilogy ($59.98)
Music fans who know Donald Fagen only as the Steely Dan frontman behind "Reelin' in the Years" should ignore this set. But for those who like the band's later work, this trilogy is a treasure. Enhanced audio shows Fagen's studio mastery – and peerless instrumental composition – on such tracks as "I.G.Y.," "Snowbound," and "Morph the Cat." Most of the bonus songs and special features are skippable, but the written lyrics are a great help in deciphering Fagen's cryptic tunes.