The holiday shopping season gets under way in earnest on Friday, and record labels have been preparing with the usual outpouring of elaborate box sets. A fair number of those titles are being released as part of the Black Friday offshoot of Record Store Day, but this year the RSD offerings are particularly lame—most of them just repackage music that's already widely available. In an attempt to provide an antidote to that foolishness, I've reviewed ten of the best box sets I heard in 2013—all these releases put music first, bells and whistles second (when there are any bells and whistles at all). Each would make a great present for the right friend or loved one—and with any luck, this will help you decide if you know that person (or are that person yourself).
The Disintegration Loops box
(Temporary Residence) $80
The story of William Basinski's Disintegration Loops is probably familiar to you already, because it's been told so many times since he began sharing work from the project in 2002. In the 80s Basinski had made tape loops out of music recorded off an easy-listening station, and in 2001 he dug them out of a drawer, intending to digitize them. As he played the loops, though, he noticed that the layer of magnetized oxides on the tape was falling apart with each pass, crumbling into dust. Over the course of 30 minutes to an hour of playback, these serene snatches of ethereal melody broke down dramatically, providing a poignant aural metaphor for decay and death. That metaphor soon grew more resonant for Basinski, as he watched the World Trade Center towers collapse on September 11. That evening he set up a video recorder, and as the sun set he taped an hour of the dust and smoke billowing from the destruction. The following day he watched the video synced up to one of the disintegrating loops and realized a powerful marriage of sound and imagery.
This lovely set, released last year on vinyl, is now available on CD. It collects all four volumes of the original Disintegration Loops, two orchestral renderings of the first loop (whose arrangements bring out subtle developments and nuances that give its airy melody almost uplifting overtones), and a DVD of Basinski's 9/11 footage accompanied by that same loop. The 148-booklet contains a long series of still images from the video footage and short essays by Basinski, Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons), David Tibet, and others.
Le Grand Kallé
His Life, His Music: Joseph Kabasele and the Creation of Modern Congolese Music
Ken Braun, who has already produced and annotated career-spanning overviews of Congolese soukous greats Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco Luambo, turns his attention to genre's earliest genuine superstar, Joseph Kabasele (aka Le Grand Kallé). Born into a prominent family in 1930, Kabasele grew up in Leopoldville, the capital of what was then called the Belgian Congo. Soon the lure of music—both local styles as well as French chanson, American jazz and pop, and especially Cuban son—became too much for him, and he dropped out of high school. He spent much of his time hanging out in the studio of Opika Records, one of the first labels to record and release soukous, which reclaimed African rhythms that had been transformed in Cuba by slaves and replaced rumba's distinctively Caribbean piano montunos with guitars. In 1951 Kabasele was invited to sing with guitarist Georges Doula on "Valerie Regina," a song he cowrote, and soon he was busy, writing tunes and singing both lead and harmony.
Within a couple years Kasabele began to make records under his own name, scoring a big hit in 1952 with "Parafifi," a lilting, propulsive love song with a cheap organ imitating a saxophone. By 1954 he'd formed his own group, African Jazz, which began pushing a much more rhythmic sound, and shortly the group's acoustic guitars were entirely displaced by electric instruments—a key component of the liquid sway that came to characterize soukous (aka Congolese rumba). Kasabele was one of the first African artists to record prolifically in Europe, where studios were better, and his bands nurtured some of soukous's greatest talent, including Rochereau, fellow singer Vicky Longomba, and guitarists Nico, Papa Noel, and Tino Baroza. He was a close friend of revolutionary Patrice Lumumba and played an important role in ending colonial rule in 1960. In the late 60s, while some of Kabasele's disciples pushed soukous forward radically, he seemed content refining the sound he'd forged in the previous decade—but everything in this two-CD set, which covers 1951 through 1970 and comes with a 104-page hardback booklet, holds up marvelously.
American Radical Patriot
This elaborate package compiles for the first time everything that American folk icon Woody Guthrie recorded for the Library of Congress in 1940, when he sat down for more than five hours of sessions with folklorist Alan Lomax—condensed versions were previously released by Elektra (in 1964) and Rounder (in 1998). These recordings include lots of conversation, with Guthrie generously showing off his storytelling prowess, giving background for many of his songs, or going off on engrossing tangents. Among the songs are relaxed versions of many of his most enduring tunes ("Do Re Mi," "Talking Dust Bowl") and adaptations of American folk classics. The six-CD set also includes songs he cut while working for the Bonneville Power Administration (an agency of the Department of the Interior based in Portland, Oregon), which were intended to promote the organization's effort to harness hydroelectric power in the Pacific Northwest; other tunes he recorded to support World War II antifascist campaigns or the U.S. Public Health Service's efforts to eradicate venereal disease.
The package is a handsome simulation of the sort of old album used to store 78 RPM records, and alongside the CDs it contains an actual 78 RPM disc—a 1951 Guthrie version of "The Greatest Thing That Man Has Ever Done," backed by a 1961 hotel recording of Bob Dylan singing Guthrie's "VD City." The lovely 60-page booklet is a condensed version of a 256-page book by Bill Nowlin published this year, also called Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot (it's included as a PDF). Finally, there's a DVD with a 60-minute documentary, Roll On Columbia, about the singer's work with the BPA. This wouldn't be an ideal introduction to Guthrie, but for those interested in his background and ethos as much as his songs, it's a treasure.
Complete Columbia Album Collection: 1972-1988
Herbie Hancock began his 16-year association with Columbia Records with the 1972 release of Sextant, the swan song of his paradigm-shifting electroacoustic Mwandishi band. The following year, he used a stripped-down lineup to refine the murky funk sound he'd developed with that group, decisively demonstrating the commercial viability of fusion with the relatively direct Head Hunters. This remarkable 34-disc set documents many other stylistic shifts as well, demonstrating just how mercurial and curious Hancock was during his stay at Columbia. Protofusion, neobop, experiments with R&B and hip-hop, cross-cultural collaborations—he consistently looked forward, absorbing new technologies and styles.
Many of the albums in this set sound dated, a side effect of Hancock's early embrace of electronic instruments. And some of those are definitely duds. The 1979 record Feets Don't Fail Me Now is shameless, vocoder-slathered disco that was clearly aiming for the same sort of pop success he achieved a few years later, when he paired with Bill Laswell for Future Shock. But even Hancock's failures display his restless inquisitiveness and willingness to experiment. Eight of these albums were released only in Japan, while three others have never been previously available on CD. The set also includes an exhaustive 200-page booklet crammed with annotations, discographical info, and photos. The vibrant, multifaceted portrait this collection paints is especially impressive considering it covers only one period in Hancock's lengthy career.
Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection
The work of quirky American pop craftsman Harry Nilsson is undergoing a sorely deserved reevaluation. In 2010 filmmaker John Scheinfeld made the acclaimed documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, and this year Alyn Shipton published an in-depth biography, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter; in 2014 Brooklyn label the Royal Potato Family will release a tribute album that includes contributions from Langhorne Slim, Willy Mason, and Dawn Landes. But nothing is a better testament to the singer's genius than the records he made for RCA between 1967 and 1977. Nilsson scored hits with a cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" (prominently included on the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy), his take on Badfinger's "Without You," and the catchy novelty "Coconut," but his contrariness, bad luck, and substance abuse prevented him from achieving sustained success.
This 17-disc set is insanely comprehensive, augmenting the extra tracks that graced previous reissues of classic albums such as Nilsson Schmilsson (1971) and Pussy Cats (1974), with three additional discs of outtakes, alternates, and demos. Nilsson had a gorgeously clear and powerful voice, but as drugs and alcohol took their toll, it began to fray: in a bit of studio chatter on the 1973 standards album A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (with gorgeous orchestrations by onetime Frank Sinatra arranger Gordon Jenkins), Nilsson jokingly asks for "some Scotch, some water, some matches, and some heroin." Geared toward obsessives, this box includes a 48-page booklet stuffed with discographical data, but anyone with an abiding love of pop ought to appreciate the craftsmanship and catchiness of the music.
Wood Flute Songs: Anthology / Live 2006-2012
(Aum Fidelity) $60
New York bassist William Parker is a muscular improviser and inexorable propulsive force, not only underlining his bandmates' melodic shapes but also driving ensembles like a drummer. In 2000 he formed a sturdy quartet with trumpeter Lewis Barnes, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and drummer Hamid Drake, and it's earned a reputation as one of the strongest working groups in free jazz, building on Parker's simple, earthy compositions with vigor and intuition. In his liner notes to this eight-CD box set, Parker writes, "After forty years of playing music I discovered that I am not a musician in the traditional sense, I am closer to the word Shaman." Anyone who's seen Parker play live can attest to the way he transcends the conventional role of his instrument and seems to enter a trance.
Sometimes trancelike music can take that quality too far, so that it prevents a musical statement from emerging, but Parker plays with such focus and energy that it's never a problem with his bands. These beautiful live recordings—all previously unreleased—were made between 2006 and 2012. The more recent sessions include guests that Parker has added to the quartet's lineup, bringing in new tone colors and melodic ideas. The first four discs showcase the power and concision of the core group, but the others are more special—particularly a set recorded in 2009 at the Vision Festival (which Parker coproduces), where violinist Billy Bang, cornetist Bobby Bradford, and alto saxophonist James Spaulding turn the combo into a swinging, stomping multigenerational juggernaut that marries the 60s New Thing to a postmodern free-jazz aesthetic that can accommodate Spaulding quoting "It Ain't Necessarily So" over Drake's bobbing reggae groove. Also included are a 2011 date from Geneva, Switzerland, with eight additional Swiss players, a 2012 sextet concert with pianist Eri Yamamoto and singer Leena Conquest, and a performance from last year's Vision Festival by a quintet with pianist Cooper-Moore.
I Heard the Angels Singing: Electrifying Black Gospel From the Nashboro Label, 1951-1983
(Tompkins Square) $39.98
Ernest L. Young started Nashville label Nashboro in 1951 as an outgrowth of his music store, Ernie's Records. Though it began with a primitive jury-rigged studio in the back of the shop, it soon became one of the country's most important black gospel labels. Young started another label, Excello, for blues and R&B (it released classic sides by Slim Harpo and Lightnin' Slim, among others), but the four discs of I Heard the Angels Singing restrict themselves to Nashboro's voluminous, raucous output. I was previously familiar with only a few artists on this 80-track collection—the Fairfield Four, Joe May, the Radio Four—and the quality, vitality, and diversity of the music makes me feel foolish for my ignorance of the others. Nashboro material has only received scattershot reissues since the label folded in 1981, and this set is the first to offer a comprehensive overview.
A fair number of the artists featured were from Chicago—the Gospel Songbirds, the Salem Travelers, the Christland Singers, the Pilgrim Jubilees—but most were southern. The majority of the music is either stirring vocal-group material or straight-up sanctified soul, the collection includes a few mind-melting burners: the Bevins Specials' extroverted 1969 single "Everybody Ought to Pray" quotes liberally from the Isley Brothers classic "Shout" and Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" (which makes me wonder if John Belushi had heard this record) and spins borderline psychedelic slide guitar over a barnstorming groove. In the liner notes, though, Opal Louis Nations says nothing about this record (or about many of the others), opting for an overview that seems bland compared to the obsessive scholarship of, say, a Numero Group booklet. But this killer set can go toe-to-toe with any other black gospel collection I've heard, so in the end I'm not inclined to complain.
Longing for the Past: The 78 RPM Era in Southeast Asia
Dust-to-Digital, the reissue label that brought us the sprawling 2011 collection Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM, gives a similarly lavish treatment to early records made in the Far East with Longing for the Past. Its four CDs are accompanied by a hefty 272-page hardbound book, which contains extensive notes on each of the 90 tracks (recorded between 1905 and 1966), myriad shots of gorgeous record sleeves and hub labels, and dozens upon dozens of photographs of musicians from the countries involved: Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. When the bulk of these recordings were made, record companies were scrambling to build their catalogs, hoping to motivate people to buy phonographs (which generated much more profit), and this seems to have led to an indiscriminate approach to A&R. Popular, traditional, and classical sounds were treated more or less equally.
For decades ethnomusicologists seemed to dismiss music made for the 78 market, but that's changing now; the scholarly writing in the book is not only informative but accessible. Longing for the Past, like Opika Pende, is an overwhelming omnibus, a feast for the ears, eyes, and mind that demands a significant investment of time and attention before its historical, social, and musical pieces fall into place—but I've found few exercises more pleasurable. You might not even notice the hours passing.
Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound
(Numero Group) $35 CD, $85 LP
The folks at Numero Group turn their laserlike attention to the groundswell of Twin Cities soul and R&B from the mid-70s through the early 80s that foreshadowed (as the title suggests) the massive success of Prince. Like most Numero projects, it aims to uncover and preserve an overlooked episode in American music history—these two CDs (or four LPs) document the early output of the scene that produced Prince, the Time, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Alexander O'Neal, and Andre Cymone.
Both versions of the set include a gorgeous, photo-packed 108-page booklet, and John Kirby's liner notes are typical Numero fare: rigorously and fanatically detailed, they provide such thorough context for the music that they make up for the occasional mediocre song. Obvious inspirations on these artists include George Clinton, the Philly International sound, and Earth, Wind & Fire, but on certain tracks you can hear the strong rock influence that would come to fruition with Prince. The scorching quasi-metal guitar solo on the funky 1979 Flyte Time single "It's the Thing That You Do" presaged Eddie Van Halen's collaboration with Michael Jackson by three years. Numero hosts a listening party for Purple Snow on Tue 12/3 at Trenchermen, 2039 W. North.
Verve: The Sound of America—The Singles Collection
(Verve/Universal Music Enterprises) $57.99
This five-disc set serves as a reminder that jazz was once a meaningful part of American popular music, back in the 40s and 50s, when jukeboxes were the YouTube of the day. The anthology collects 100 singles, mostly released between 1947 and 1972 (the inclusion of a 2001 track by Diana Krall feels superfluous), looking back to an era when the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, and Jimmy Smith were charting stars. Verve wasn't founded till 1956, when producer Norman Granz wrested Fitzgerald away from Decca Records, but he'd released many key bebop records on his Clef label in the previous decade, which were eventually folded into the Verve catalog: among the most notable were raucous jam sessions cut at Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (which he presented) and the late works of saxophonist Charlie Parker, including his oft-maligned sessions with strings. Verve recorded many singers in addition to Fitzgerald—Billie Holiday, Mel Torme, Anita O'Day, Blossom Dearie, and others—but most of these singles are pithy, elegant instrumentals.
Alongside blaring, brassy big-band tracks from Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Bellson, and Gene Krupa are loads of intimate small-group pieces from pianists (Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans) and horn men (Johnny Hodges, Roy Eldridge). Though Verve released plenty of relatively heady music—Lee Konitz, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Giuffre—this is its more accessible and commercial material. Those commercial impulses paid off in the 60s, when the label pretty much cornered the market on the bossa nova craze with classic records by Getz, Astrud Gilberto, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, scoring a top-five hit with "The Girl From Ipanema."