After the advent of downloading and CD burning, the humble little CD has fallen from the ranks of “Nothing says I love you like …” gifts to the mere stocking-stuffer department. No, these days, to make a real statement-type gift of music, you have to dig deep in your wallet and pony up for a hefty multidisc box set. Here are a few of this year’s more notable efforts in the genre, just in time for the last-minute holiday shopping season. Get your pen and letter to Santa and write down a few of these before you zonk out from all that tryptophan-laced turkey.
Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans
The skinny: You’d have a hard time convincing me that the Big Easy isn’t the pound-for-pound champ in the “most musical city in America” stakes, and this four-CD set comes as close to having it all as any. From Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory to Earl King and Irma Thomas to the Iguanas and the Rebirth Brass Band, this Crescent City compendium’s breadth is truly impressive …
Drawbacks: … in fact, a little too impressive. I would have left off the Cajun and zydeco stuff that most people think is from New Orleans but isn’t, in favor of more of the city’s own jazz and R&B.
Advantages: Great, offbeat selections such as Dave Bartholomew’s Afro-Cuban style “Shrimp and Gumbo” and the Lil Queenie and the Percolators’ long-lost “My Darlin’ New Orleans.”
Bonus stuff: Excellent and attractive eighty-page booklet, which includes not just copious liner notes and stellar photography but also up-to-date and accurate New Orleans travel tips. (Examples: Do patronize the Mother-in-Law Lounge and Jake and Snake’s Christmas Club; don’t go to Pat O’Brien’s or take a carriage ride through the Quarter.)
Corny verdict: I’m gonna “Tell It Like It Is” — if the “Rocking Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu” has made “You Feel Like Funkin’ It Up,” “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” to “Let the Good Times Roll” with this top-notch box.
Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the ’80s Underground
The skinny: An alternate title could be All That Stuff You Actually Dug, But That Live 105 Never Plays. The precursors to grunge, alt-rock, indie rock, ska revival, and today’s “nü-wave” stud this four-CD treasure trove of Reagan-era underground glory, which does as much to show today’s kids who today’s bands ripped off as James Brown and other vintage soul and funk box sets did to my rap-attuned ears back in 1990.
Drawbacks: A little too catch-all for some. As one Amazon poster points out, “Great box sets like No Thanks! and Nuggets have unifying musical themes. The closest Left of the Dial has to a theme is that these artists weren’t Madonna or Michael Jackson or any of the other zillion-selling money machines of the ’80s.”
Advantages: On the other hand, I see the scattershot approach as a (D.) boon. Where else would you find the Cure, the Pogues, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and the Butthole Surfers’ “Moving to Florida” in the same package? And if you like Lone Justice, say, you could then go seek out other cowpunk; the English Beat will lead you to the Specials and Madness, and so on.
Bonus stuff: Nothing to speak of. Liner notes are difficult to read.
Corny verdict: “Going Underground” sounds “Just Like Honey” on this “Teen Age Riot” that will keep your “Senses Working Overtime.” First, “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” and then “To Hell with Poverty”; “All That Money Wants” is this “Song from Under the Floorboards.”
The Hip Hop Box
The skinny: Get your old-school fix anytime you want with this four-CD set that spans the history of hip-hop from Kurtis, Afrika, and the Sugarhill Gang right up to Fiddy and the Roots.
Drawbacks: Way too East Coast-centric, even if LL Cool J, Missy Elliott, the Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, and Jay-Z were left off, no doubt for some legal reason or another. Also, there’s an error of inclusion — MC Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out.” There are hundreds of better choices.
Advantages: A pretty decent rundown of a portion of the genre’s history.
Bonus stuff: Clever packaging.
Corny verdict: Even if there’s relatively little from south or west of “Tennessee,” this “Rapper’s Delight” can still “Fight the Power” with its “Body Rock” and put plenty of “Flava in Your Ear.”
50 Years of Hits
The skinny: Fifty of the best from the hard-drinking Pride of Beaumont and King of the Honky-Tonkers, including “She Thinks I Still Care,” “You Comb Her Hair,” “These Days I Barely Get By,” “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today,” and “A Good Year for the Roses.”
Drawbacks: Pretty skimpy on notes.
Advantages: Not just a heaping helping from the best male country singer of the century, but a good overview of the last half-century of country, gospel, rock, and rockabilly.
Bonus stuff: Not much.
Corny verdict: “The Grand Tour” of the Possum’s career shows “The Cold Hard Truth” about “Why Baby Why” this “White Lightnin'”- and “Wild Irish Rose”-drinkin’ man will make most of today’s country sound feeble “Once You’ve Had the Best.”
Get Down Tonight: The Disco Explosion
The skinny: A three-disc set that has a pretty broad definition of disco. The Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” always seemed more like funk to me, while Bananarama’s “Venus” struck me as pop/new wave. Between those extremes, though, the mainstream of the genre is well represented by the likes of “YMCA,” “Get Down Tonight,” “Fly Robin Fly,” and “The Hustle.”
Drawbacks: A disco box with no Bee Gees? You must be jivin’.
Advantages: With the exception of the Bee Gees, this is all the disco you’ll ever need packed in one slim volume.
Bonus stuff: The booklet is a style-over-substance affair. But hell, much the same could be said for disco.
Corny verdict: A great set to spin long “After Dark” on one of those “Boogie Nights” to keep the “Boogie Fever” high among those of the “Super Freak,” “Dancing Queen,” and “Disco Lady” persuasions.
Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: Bluegrass/80 Years of American Music
Columbia Legacy, $49.98
The skinny: From forefathers like Gid Tanner, Charlie Poole, and the Carter Family, to codifiers like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs, to latter-day innovators like Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, and Mark O’Connor, this four-disc set presents Southern American “folk music in overdrive” in all its mongrelized Scotch-Irish/African-American/homegrown glory.
Drawbacks: To me it’s not really a drawback, but the set pretty much ignores newgrass, jamgrass, and other latter-day hybrids. Also, the booklet is printed on that stinky recycled paper.
Advantages: It has the hits to draw in the newbies (“Rocky Top,” “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” “Dueling Banjos”), plenty of stuff from the titans to draw in the already initiated (ten from Monroe, nine from Flatt & Scruggs, five from the Stanley Brothers) and a few surprises along the way. Cleverly, the set begins and ends with versions of “Soldier’s Joy,” the first a 1929 recording by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, the last a 1997 cut by Mark O’Connor.
Bonus stuff: Authoritative liner notes by Billy Altman.
Corny verdict: Whether you give this set to a “Rank Stranger,” a “Knoxville Girl,” “Ida Red,” or your “Uncle Pen,” you’ll ensure that the recipient won’t be “A Man [or Woman] of Constant Sorrow.”
100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong
The skinny: Oh, yes, they can. They can, and they are.
Drawbacks: Its very existence.
Advantages: Surely there’s some ne’er-do-well on your Xmas list that deserves this lump of musical coal.
Bonus stuff: None to speak of.
Corny verdict: “You Give Love a Bad Name” when you give someone this for Xmas.