Last-Minute Gift Alert: The Season In Music Box Sets
They pop up every year and come out of the woodwork just before the holidays: those expansive and expensive collectors' packages that mine every corner of a musician's back catalog. The box set, says critic Tom Moon, is "a lavish production that's geared to the completist: someone who just has to have every last morsel of music from an artist." Here, Moon tells NPR's Melissa Block why three new collections are worth your attention.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm Melissa Block.
And music reviewer Tom Moon joins me to spin through some box sets, big collections of music that have caught his ear lately. Hey, Tom.
TOM MOON, BYLINE: Hey. How are you?
BLOCK: I'm good. And it does seem like this time of year is when we invariably see these big, expensive collections of music.
MOON: That's right. It's a lavish production that's geared to the completist, someone who just has to have every last morsel of music from an artist.
BLOCK: Let's start with a collection of box set from the band Roxy Music. And, boy, this one - this album took me right back. It's the album "Avalon" from 1982 featuring Bryan Ferry, of course, on vocals.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE THAN THIS")
BRYAN FERRY: (Singing) I could feel at the time there was no way of knowing. Fallen leaves in the night, who can say where they're blowing? As free as the wind...
BLOCK: I still get shivers when I hear that. So, Tom, what's new in this box set from Roxy Music?
MOON: It's a chance to reappraise Roxy Music. They were never really loved in the U.S. the way they were in the rest of the world and yet very influential. One of the great art rock bands of all time. But the real news is that the early Roxy Music records, and they go back to the early '70s, those records were never properly transferred to compact discs. So the initial Roxy Music CD issues were, in my opinion, terrible. They were gunky, they didn't have any of the sort of sonic flair that was so important to the band. They were, you know, a pioneering band in terms of their sound. And we don't really hear that until this set.
BLOCK: Well, let's listen to one of those early songs you're talking about, the song "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" from 1973. It's from their album "For Your Pleasure."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN EVERY DREAM HOME A HEARTACHE")
FERRY: (Singing) The cottage is pretty. The main house a palace. Penthouse perfection. But what goes on, what to do there? Better pray there.
BLOCK: OK. So the box set from Roxy Music. Let's move on, Tom, to talk about a collection that wins the prize for sheer mass alone. I think 63 discs of Johnny Cash, "The Complete Columbia Album Collection." It's going to set you back about $300. Where do you even start with a collection like this?
MOON: I know. It's massive. It covers many of the peaks of his career, though not all. Interestingly, the late records that he made with Rick Rubin from American Recordings are not here. And he had a brief period in the '80s, I believe, when he was on Mercury Records, and those are not here either.
BLOCK: But everything else seem - is here: gospel, a lot of gospel albums, an album that's all "Ballads of the American Indian." And I want to play a bit of my favorite.
JOHNNY CASH: (Foreign language spoken)
BLOCK: Tom, just correct me. This is Johnny Cash singing at a prison in Sweden in 1972, the Osteraker Prison, and who knew he speaks Swedish?
CASH: (Unintelligible) song "Me and Bobby McGee."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND BOBBY MCGEE")
CASH: (Singing) Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for the train. Feeling 'bout as faded as my jeans.
MOON: What I love about this collection, too, is that, you know, we associate Johnny Cash with that "Folsom Prison" record. That was so important and, you know, galvanizing. But he actually did this a lot. And to hear sort of another day in another prison, in another continent, it's kind of - it's very interesting.
BLOCK: This Johnny Cash collection, Tom, goes back to 1958. And it's so sweeping and just looking at this title gives you such a sense of Johnny Cash's range over all those years.
MOON: He was, first of all, incredibly prolific. Country music at that time was a cycle where you almost always had to have a new product, so there were, you know, probably years where he recorded three or four records, and they all came out in the period of that year. But you see him do a lot of live records. There's a lot of gospel music in this collection, some of which is just sparkling. The early gospel stuff, that's great.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT")
CASH: (Singing) Well, I'm sometimes up and I'm sometimes down. Coming for to carry me home. But I know my soul is heavenly bound. Coming for to carry me home. Swing low, (swing low) sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home. Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home.
BLOCK: So "The Complete Columbia Album Collection" from Johnny cash. And the last box set you want to talk about, Tom, is a collection from the late Tito Puente, the percussionist, composer and arranger. It's called "Quatro." Let's listen to a bit of his biggest selling single. This is "Ran Kan Kan."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAN KAN KAN")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)
BLOCK: So, Tom, there's Tito Puente, timbales. This is from 1949, a bonus disc. But the bulk of this collection is from the late '50s, the real heyday.
MOON: That's right. With Johnny Cash, we get a long sweep of time. With Tito Puente, it's very short. It's - the creative heyday of his career, I think, starts in 1956 with the record called "Cuban Carnival" and goes through the 1960. It's the period where his band becomes the leading dance band in Latin music. And he's also exploring big band ideas and orchestration stuff that takes his band out of sort of the dance mode and becomes more exploratory.
The other thing that's amazing about this set is it sort of fleshes out the impression we have of him. Everyone knows him as a timbale player. He was a master - he was a percussion master, but he also played wonderful vibraphone and made some of the great arrangements that are on these records.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Tom, who do you think box sets like these are marketed to?
MOON: I think, in part, it's just a quick, shorthand gift where, you know, if you have your Uncle Bill and you know he's a Johnny Cash fan, maybe the family pools their resources and comes up with this monster box. I think also, now, there are completists who want every iteration of everything. And so here's this Tito box that's focused on a very small time frame but has some incredibly important recordings. And to hear them in remastered form, in sharp sound, rendered in this beautiful package, it's like people who are maybe casual Tito Puente fans will find something to love in there.
BLOCK: Well, Tom Moon, thanks so much. Happy listening.
MOON: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Tom Moon talking about recent box sets from Roxy Music, Johnny Cash and Tito Puente.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.