It’s that time again — time to hunt through record stores for something nice that the music lover on your list doesn’t already own, whether it’s unheard sounds or a novel collection of beloved ones.
In the first department, a standout this season has to be Rhino Handmade’s spelunking voyage through the catalog of Atlantic Records. In two four-disc boxes, Atlantic Soul 1959-1975 and Atlantic Blues 1949-1970, they focus on the rarely heard siblings of classic tracks — famous songs sung by those who didn’t chart with them, iconic voices on tunes you may not have heard, and artists who simply never achieved the fame of Atlantic’s legends.
Another label-specific box, Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection, highlights a company that could never be pigeonholed by genre but produced some of the 1950s’ greatest sounds. (Vee-Jay didn’t stop at 1959: Their 1962 Frankie Valli hit “Sherry” is featured both here and on Rhino’s recent Valli set Jersey Beat.)
Other troves of unheard music venture from the American backwoods to the Asian heartland. Boutique archival label Dust-to-Digital celebrates 50 years of musicologist Art Rosenbaum’s work with the double-entendre Art of Field Recording, which bounces happily from decade to decade and state to state. Smithsonian Folkways, continuing their “Music of Central Asia” series, offers three new mini-boxes that each devote a CD, a DVD, and detailed notes to an individual artist.
Meanwhile, two labels offer new sets focusing on the sound of a particular place, taking both narrow and broad chronological views. Rhino’s Love is the Song We Sing looks at San Francisco in the late ’60s and argues that it can’t be tied down to a single sound, much less to the vague label “psychedelic”; their The Brit Box stretches through the ’80s and ’90s, from giants (The Smiths) to one-hit wonders of the proto-“alternative” era (The La’s). Time-Life goes micro with the New York-centric doo-wop collection Sound of the City, then sprawls out with Chasing the Sun, where beach-loving tunes from four decades (from the Ventures to DJ Jazzy Jeff) are stuffed into an imitation Igloo cooler.
Time-Life also has welcome offerings when it comes to well-known favorites: On the three discs of The Original Outlaw, they boast the only complete retrospective among other Merle Haggard collections that focus on specific periods in his career. Ditto with their Ike & Tina Turner Story, which corrals 45s from labels like Sue, Kent, Atco, Minit, and Blue Thumb. Rhino’s Songbird, on the other hand, takes the multi-label, whole-career approach to Emmylou Harris — but highlights “forgotten gems” instead of chart-toppers.
If you’re buying a CD package for an older fan, though, whose shelves are full of LPs that go unlistened to, you probably want a concentrated dose of an artist’s best period. Legacy Recordings has you covered, with rock-sold four-discers from Billie Holiday (Lady Day) and Frank Sinatra (A Voice in Time).
Those among the 98.6 percent of Christmas addicts who hold the opinion that nobody sang of roasting chestnuts better than Nat King Cole will appreciate the fact that the impressively in-depth (if generically named) new box set Collection, Vol. 1 is also available as nine individual discs, each presenting two of Cole’s original LPs in their entirety. These 200-plus songs, some hitherto unheard on CD, are the first installment of Collectors’ Choice’s project to reissue the entirety of the smooth-voiced legend’s Columbia career; more will come next year, but this should keep you busy for a while.
Finally, given SA’s well-established rep as a metal-lovin’ town, we must include what for me is a damned guilty — make that just plain damned — pleasure: Heavy Metal, another one of those cutely, if wastefully, packaged gift sets (this one takes the form of an amplifier, with a knob on the front that indeed “goes to 11”) that charts a genre’s evolution. Here, we get a 666-word essay on the form, a left-field feature on Lita Ford, and 70 tracks of rawk, from In-a-Gadda-da-you-know-what to “Cowboys from Hell.” Merry Christmas, you Satanic sons of bitches! •