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Best Music Gifts


Best Music Gifts

From hippie pop and seminal punk to girl groups and the three-fingered banjo, PopMatters has got perfect picks for even the most fussy music fan on your shopping list.


The Band, A Musical History (Capitol)
Yes, this is roughly the 400th reissue of Band-related material in the past few years � but with such a rich past to draw from, Robbie Robertson seems justified in releasing this beautifully packaged box set. Covering the group's career from Ronnie Hawkins to The Last Waltz, it includes all that is important, and adds a little something extra (32 previously unreleased tracks!). Much of the first two seminal albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, are included here, and live versions of classics like "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" round out the five discs of music. The sixth disc, a DVD, includes nine performances from the likes of Saturday Night Live and the celebrated Rock of Ages concert. With any luck, this will be the collection that ensures the Band's place in history, but if not, well, there's always next year.
-- Ben Rubenstein

June Carter Cash, Keep on the Sunny Side: Her Life in Music (Sony/Legacy)
Her Life in Music is a completely appropriate subtitle for this two-disc remembrance of June Carter Cash's career. It perfectly summarizes this chronological tour, which begins with spunky nine-year-old Junie Carter singing "Keep on the Sunny Side" with her musical family (The Carter Family) and finishes with a stately, moving rendition of the same song, this time from her final album Wildwood Flower, recorded in 2003 months before she passed away at the age of 73. In between is her entire debut solo album Appalachian Pride (1975), duets with her husband Johnny Cash, and more. The set as a whole offers plentiful evidence of the warmth and power of her singing, which was always in touch with the country music traditions of her youth, yet at the same time always full of an in-the-moment energy with the ability to provoke tears.
-- Dave Heaton

Johnny Cash, The Legend (Sony/Legacy)
Four discs spanning the best Man in Black material from 1955-2002: two discs from Columbia and other labels (even a smattering of Sun tracks), one disc of Cash covering Americana standards, and a fourth disc that collects many of his duets and collaborations. The Legend covers a lot of ground, netting most of the good stuff in the process. It's a perfect introduction for the fan who hasn't yet started a sizeable Cash collection (longtime fans probably have much of this material already). 104 songs (seven unreleased), spread out across thematic (and roughly chronological) discs � it's a wealth of classic country. True, it doesn't cover his recent resurgence with Rick Rubin on American, but we already have the Unearthed box for that. As it stands, The Legend charts Cash's growth from a young man full of piss and vinegar to a weathered elder statesman whose voice sounded like eternity.
-- Andrew Gilstrap

Miles Davis, The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Columbia/Legacy)
One thing you're constantly reminded about Miles Davis: the man was a relentless braggart, but never a liar. When he boasted that he could put together "the greatest rock 'n' roll band you ever heard", he did so out of utter confidence; his progressive players consumed the raw rapture of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Sly Stone and spat out the bones with a bloodthirsty aural lust. This new six-disc set (over five hours of unreleased live performances along with the material that became Live/Evil) is a wicked chunk of Miles's torrential electric juggernaut. Bassist Michael Henderson, who had previously played with Stevie Wonder, anchors the grooves in funky pockets as Jack DeJohnette kicks up heavy rock beats; Keith Jarrett, Gary Bartz, Airto Moreira, and John McLaughlin (only on two discs) wax prophetically with instruments full of lava. As usual, Miles is behind most of the sessions' thrills, his wah-wah trumpet running the voodoo down as if it were fleeing some demonic curse. A must-have for fans of Miles's adventurous years, The Cellar Door Sessions will be greeted with shrieks of delight when the gift wrap comes off.
-- Zeth Lundy

Miles Davis, 'Round About Midnight: Legacy Edition (Columbia/Legacy)
Like you needed a reason to buy another copy of 'Round About Midnight. Sony and the whole Legacy series simply tacking on another retread to sell more units, right? Wrong. If the jazz lover you're shopping for doesn't already have a copy of this, the first record Miles recorded for Columbia and the disc that spawned the creative fertility of those early Columbia years, then you can do no wrong by giving them this classic. But this is the release that currently trumps all others with lovely packaging, great notes, the bonus tracks attached to the 2001 re-release, and the loving mastering of the Davis classic, including the signature recording of "Round Midnight". But for the real jazz head, the treat is the bonus disc, containing two gems of historical reassure. The first is the live Newport Jazz Festival recording of Davis performing ''Round Midnight" with the song's author, Thelonius Monk � the very performance that inspired Columbia's George Avakian to sign a revitalized Davis. The remainder of the bonus disc is made up of Miles Davis's first quintet performing a hitherto unreleased set from a live date in February of 1956. Even on this short program set, the magical chemistry of that quintet shines through, and Coltrane, Garland, Chambers, and Jones each get their moment to shine. The great thing is that the bonus disc compliments the original recording superbly, adding just enough to appeal to new and old fans, but maintaining the power of 'Round About Midnight whole and intact in a way that few reissues achieve.
-- Patrick Schabe

The Decemberists, Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars)
Looking for that hard-to-find gift for the 150-year-old Russian soldier in the family? Or do you know any Lit. Majors? On Picaresque, writer/singer Colin Meloy and the rest of the Decemberists weave playfully anachronistic tales that are almost as enjoyable as literature as they are in the form of songs. The album shines most upon thorough, imaginative listening, but the songs are catchy and enjoyable enough regardless. Some parts are so infectious that recipients of this gift might find themselves involuntarily recalling the track "Eli, the Barrowboy" (a sad song about a boy's ghost) the next time they're pushing a cart at the supermarket.
-- Chase Martyn

Donovan, Try for the Sun (Sony)
Dismissed as a Dylan impersonator and then as a purveyor of fey hippie pop, Donovan came to be unfairly regarded as a nostalgic relic, his music shorthand for the more cartoonish aspects of paisley-sodden flower power. His struggle to be taken seriously is painfully obvious from the 60-page booklet accompanying this boxed set, which is overloaded with testimonials from other artists. But Donovan needs no one to apologize for him; his brilliant songs speak for themselves. This collection supplants the previous two-disc, 44-song Troubadour: The Definitive Collection 1964-76 (which apparently wasn't so definitive after all), with three music discs, including a dozen previously unreleased songs, and a DVD filmed during his 1970 tour. Gifted with a superlative melodic sense and a knack for locked-in grooves, Donovan makes otherwise repetitive and potentially corny songs like "Atlantis" and "Season of the Witch" compelling, even transcendent.
-- Rob Horning

Tommy Dorsey, The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing: Centennial Collection (RCA)
The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing's three discs take a two-pronged approach to the career of Tommy Dorsey: Dorsey as a talented sideman, playing trombone and trumpet in excellent big bands of the '20s and '30s, and Dorsey as the leader of one of the greatest swing bands of the era, captured here both in the studio and in live broadcast performances. In both cases he comes off as a consummate professional, highly proficient, but also as an emotional player, able to evoke deep feelings with his horn. The latter quality gives a fuller meaning to the title's description of him as "sentimental". The track "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" vividly captures a melancholy mood, perhaps as well as any music has ever. At the same time, the bulk of the set is given over to music that jumps and swings with precision but also raw energy, big band jazz at its best.
-- Dave Heaton

Bob Dylan, Live at the Gaslight 1962 (Columbia)
Many a feather was ruffled when it was revealed that this CD was being sold exclusively at Starbucks (one major Canadian chain went as far as yanking every Dylan title off its shelves in protest), but those who continue to complain are missing out on one of the year's musical treasures. Recorded in the cozy basement confines of famed Greenwich Village coffeehouse the Gaslight in October 1962, we're offered a rare glimpse of a 21 year-old Dylan on the cusp of greatness, on the heels of his modest self-titled debut, and right before his legendary 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. His interpretations of such well-known folk standards like "The Cuckoo" and "Barbara Allen", and his confident readings of "Moonshiner" and "West Texas" are examples of his mastery of folk music at such a young age, but the two biggest revelations are his stunning performances of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and then-work-in-progress "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right". All the while, you hear the odd creak of a chair, a clink of a glass, or someone singing along, which only re-emphasizes the intimacy of the venue and enhances the mood of this fine little CD. It's the best thing Starbucks has sold since those little cinnamon mints.
-- Adrien Begrand

Bob Dylan, No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (The Bootleg Series Vol. 7) (Columbia/Legacy)
Although I bristle at the seemingly endless and unqualified praise that has accompanied his every gnomic utterance these past few years (for Chrissakes, he's not even dead yet!), there's no denying that the man deserves his central position in the pop pantheon. Conceived as a companion piece to Martin Scorsese's hagiographical exploration of Dylan's formative years, these two discs present as amazing and eye-opening a history of the artist's most prolific period as could be imagined. Of 28 tracks, only two have been previously released. At this point, after all these years of archival reissues, the question needs to be asked: just how deep do Dylan's vaults go? If there's more where this came from, expect to be seeing his grave visage under Christmas trees for many years to come. Although some songs betray their haphazard origins in the form of poor recordings (an unavoidable evil), the majority of tracks are simply breathtaking backstage views into one of the most storied careers in the history of music. As close to essential as any compilation of this type can possibly be.
-- Tim O'Neil

Guided By Voices, Suitcase 2 (Recordhead)
Just like the name of his publishing company, Bob Pollard knows that Guided by Voices fans always Needmore Songs. Thankfully, the former frontman's vaults are loaded with lo-fi treasures. Bob is back with another installment of Suitcase, a catch-all box set filled with demos, minor musical moments, and a few fascinating lost classics. Divided up over four CDs and featuring 100 � count 'em, 100 � brand new editions to the GBV catalog, the seemingly infinite tunesmith proves that when it comes to sheer quantity of composition, Pollard's a songwriting savant. If you long for the pre-mainstream days of Same Place the Fly Got Smashed. If you can't live another day without hearing new standards like the gorgeous "Lonely Town" or the raucous rocker "The Issue Presents Itself", then Suitcase 2 will satisfy your sonic sweet tooth.
-- Bill Gibron

J.B. Hutto, Stompin' at Mother Blues (Delmark)
Powerfully poetic title! Even if Mother Blues weren't a venue, it's a nice metaphor. The three men on most of this set's titles were simply the working group at a South Side bar Bob Koester reminisces about tellingly in his terrific liner notes. Herman Hassell was a tight bass guitarist and Frank Kirkland a powerful drummer, Hutto an in every sense electric slide guitarist, matching the cliché of the young boy in the city with the country dance in his bones. Especially his fingers. The main set, which has been waiting a long time in archives � J.B. left us a little while back, aged only 57 � is combined here with an update of an electric string band, in the purest blues . He played what you'll hear from the start for five bucks a night in 1966 and went home to the far suburbs on public transport. Hot stomping love.
-- Robert R. Calder

The Manic Street Preachers, The Holy Bible: 10th Anniversary Edition (Epic)
There's not much that I can say about this elegant (and elegiac) box reissue of the Manic Street Preachers' band-defining 1994 release that hasn't already been said, and said better, by PopMatters' own Tim O'Neil in his previously published review of the album, or detailed in the excellent two-part interview he conducted with the Manics' Nicky Wire. What I can offer is the perspective of the newly initiated as a confirmation that this album, and this collection in particular, represents an often ignored link in the rock history of the 1990s. One listen to the ultimately shelved US version of the album (included as a bonus disc) makes a dramatic case for The Holy Bible as a lost classic on the left side of the Atlantic (a disc that might have sunk its desperate teeth into the fleshy throat of Bush's Sixteen Stone had it not been buried). And for fans on the right side of the pond, who've lived with this album for the last decade, the DVD collection of videos and live performances captures the band at a fiercely alive moment just before it was eclipsed by the tragic disappearance of Richey Edwards. In that respect, The Holy Bible: 10th Anniversary Edition is an easy recommendation for the British rock fan you adore, appealing to fans of the history, the genre, or the band in equal doses. It's a rich and loving look at a piece of rock 'n' roll mythology that never quite got the attention it deserved, and it's sure to impress your raucous rocker elf.
-- Patrick Schabe

Monk's Music Trio, Think of One (CMB)
One to think of! No sign of a label website, and only big white moustaches rather than beards on the drummer Chuck Bernstein and the pianist Si Perkoff. Their bassist just turned thirty, so is at best a big (and very helpful) Santa's helper. If you can find this CD it'll be a nicely out of the commonplace one, and a better surprise than anybody deserves who'd remark that dese guys ain't famous. The repertoire is famously tricky, the performance idiomatically subtle with guts, able to drive and harness with wit every element in the piano trio, not least the pianist's left hand, into � well � the music that's Monk's. Find this and be a friend: shock a friend with how good this set is.
-- Robert R. Calder

Jelly Roll Morton, The Complete Library of Congress Recordings (Rounder)
A hugely gifted musician and composer, Jelly Roll Morton fell foul of fickle fashions he'd no need to respect. Money-oriented stage musicals have lied about him; he was the opposite of colorless; his huge talents showed both in his music and his awareness of its worth. Seven years after his main band recording career ended (issued in a different CD box), Morton profited a little from the revival of an as-yet unsmothered interest in his music. Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress organized a recording of Morton reminiscing about his past life as composer, bandleader, and itinerant pianist whose travels were a vastly unrepeatable musicological field trip. He played lots of piano for Lomax, sometimes singing (wonderfully well), and some four hours of that came out on another CD set ages ago. Here there's lots of talk, too, the sound quality beautifully re-engineered. The brief parental control required sections sound cracklebacked because they were initially recorded at a low level. The material's priceless, the engineering achievement massive � this is a set to retire to.
-- Robert R. Calder

The Oranges Band, The World and Everything in It (Lookout!)
Pegged by reviewers as a summer album thanks to its generous use of beach and surf imagery, it's short-sighted to think that the majesty of the Oranges Band's latest album is specific to the middle months of the year; it's going to keep sounding good no matter when you play it. The band draws quick comparisons to past-tour mates Spoon and Guided by Voices but older craftsmen like Nick Lowe equally inform their sound. Their best album so far, its concise pop songs are full of nostalgia and longing fleshed out with naked optimism and surprisingly subtle guitar work thanks to front man Roman Kuebler and lead guitarist Dan Black. "Ride the Wild Wave" is one of the year's most beautiful songs, rich with some of the album's best harmonies. It's a shot of sunshine for sure, but it's easy to feel the leaves changing after only a few songs as you start to take notice of the album's finer details. Not to be missed.
-- Jon Langmead

The Ramones, Weird Tales of the Ramones (Rhino)
Hey Ho! Ho! Ho! Ramones fans can rejoice at the latest tribute to their fallen heroes. A primer course in all things Ramones, Weird Tales chronicles the band's career with a sizable collection of tracks (85 total) on three CDs. Don't forget the beautiful collaborative effort comic book and accompanying DVD, Lifestyles of the Ramones, which includes interview snippets and a hodgepodge of the band's low budget (albeit classic) videos. A careful listen will evidence two things: The Ramones were not only the original punk rockers who spawned an entire musical movement, but also a brilliant pop-punk quartet, incorporating equal amounts of humor, hilarity, genuine teen angst, and tunefulness into their fast-paced and criminally underrated catalogue. A wonderful acknowledgement of one of the most influential bands ever to turn on and tune up, Weird Tales will make Punks and Pinheads of us all.
-- Adam Williams

The Residents, Present Third Reich and Roll (Mute)
Here it is, the ultimate mash-up, long before iPods and MP3s were the sonic standard. Newly remastered in a wonderfully informative hardbound booklet presentation (complete with loads of laugh-out loud images), the Residents' raping of the entire '60s songbook begins with a German Chubby Checker announcing a Nazi version of the "Twist" (before segueing into an ultra-primative take on "Land of a 1000 Dances") and ends with the most harrowing "Hey Jude" you have ever heard. In between, the entire progression of the peace decade's pop catalog is cold-cocked and discombobulated into frantic aural submissions. With cover art depicting Dick Clark in swastika-ed SS garb, and song segment titles like "Why Hitler Was a Vegetarian", the Eyeball guys seem to be making a link between the music industry and immoral fascism. Talk about your prophetic pronouncements.
-- Bill Gibron

Silver Jews, Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City)
For the friends on your list still cutting out magazine pictures of Stephen Malkmus and think The Slow Century is rad enough to go Criterion, this one's a real lump of coal: after a seven-year absence from the band, the former Pavement pounder barely registers a vocal presence. The good news is that Cassie Berman � husband to lead Silver Jew, David Berman � takes Malkmus's role, her gypsy punk voice an even more effective foil to David's baritone crooning. Released after Berman's tango with depression and suicide, Tanglewood Numbers is as dark and satisfying as it is life-affirming and accessible. This ain't touchy-feely crap, but rather a hosanna set to the max, cried out after liberation from the black cave of death.
-- Alex Vo

Will Smith, Lost and Found (Interscope)
If you're hoping to find a gift that will earn you cred from your indie friends, keep looking. This Wild Wild West star's name carries with it a certain stigma that Smith himself acknowledges on one of Lost and Found's tracks when he predicts (accurately) that he's unfortunately prevented Lost and Found from being taken as seriously as it should've been. But, if you can get your intended recipient to listen to the album with an open mind, he or she may find it to be one of the catchiest and all-around best mainstream hip-hop albums of the year. It's also kid-friendly.
-- Chase Martyn

Spoon, Gimme Fiction (Merge)
From the first slow-grinding notes of "The Beast and Dragon, Adored", it's apparent that previous reports that Spoon had abandoned guitar rock were highly exaggerated, though they still hold the element of restraint in high esteem. Packed with distortion, yet full of melody, the songs on Gimme Fiction pack a satisfying punch without being too earnest � and they'll stay in your head for good. Though Britt Daniel's lyrics are as cryptic as ever ("Planning for the apocalypse is not considered cool," he counsels on "My Mathematical Mind"), his powerful voice matches the instrumental force of tracks like "The Infinite Pet" and lead single "I Turn My Camera On". Part high art, part rock 'n' roll, this album makes the perfect gift for the darkly comic brooder in your family. Just don't be surprised when you see him tapping his foot.
-- Ben Rubenstein

Various Artists, Heaven Must Have Sent You: The Holland/Dozier/Holland Story (Hip-O)
A quick glance at a list of pop music's finest writers will show Brian Wilson, Lennon and McCartney, Carole King, and possibly Pete Townshend sharing the top perch. Yet such a list could never be complete without the presence of arguably the greatest songwriting team ever to pen a #1 smash: Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland. A veritable hit-making juggernaut, H/D/H fueled the incredible success of Motown throughout the 1960s with a staggering catalogue of material. A total of 65 tracks fill the three discs in this box set, spanning the prime Motown years, H/D/H's post-Motown career, and various latter day solo projects. Take the time to savor the songs individually, as each is but a small piece of the trio's collective brilliance. Would the musical world have been different without the Beatles? Absolutely, but it would have been nonexistent without the remarkable talents of Holland/Dozier/Holland.
-- Adam Williams

Various Artists, The Motown Box (Motown)
Ignore, if you can, the protestations of the purists who bewail the new stereo mixes which compose the box's primary appeal. These kinds of projects are bound to attract controversy from the faithful, but that shouldn't obscure the essential appeal of these tunes, or the fact that, quibbles aside, the songs have never sounded better. The Motown catalog is easily one of the strongest and most enduring in the history of pop music, and this box proves that there are still many surprises left to be discovered. Just how great were the Four Tops in 1966, when they released both "Reach Out, I'll Be There" and "Standing in the Shadows of Love"? Are the Supremes really the greatest female group in the history of pop? Most importantly, is it really worth it to spend the better part of a hundred dollars on a box set featuring songs you've probably bought a dozen times before? The answers are: really fucking great, without a doubt, and most certainly.
-- Tim O'Neil

Various Artists, One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found (Rhino)
I'm becoming convinced that girl groups might have made the most fascinating pop music of all: it's conflicted and complex, full of gorgeous harmonies and stylized voices, and, not least of all, it's extremely fun. The 120 tracks collected here come from superstars and unknowns alike. While it contains few hits (the Ronettes selection, fascinatingly, is pre-Spector), the box covers a broad spectrum (107 artists from an enlarged version of the genre) with no miscues. The packaging is perfect; the hat-box container, digipacks that look like compacts, and thick liner notes in a diary is equal parts flair and kitsch. To any guy who's put off by the set: you're not afraid of girls, are you?
-- Justin Cober-Lake

Various Artists, One More: Music of Thad Jones (IPO)
On this CD Thad Jones's 87-year-old brother Hank does in truth sound an even better pianist than ever. Amazing. This is another of the not over-common examples of friends getting together to re-realize a jazzman's music as perfectly simpatico with him as a composer. The music's been re-scored by Michael Patterson, a real pro, the standard small big band instrumentation includes Jimmy Owens on trumpet, along with Bob Brookmeyer, Frank Wess, James Moody, Benny Golson, and Richard Davis Mickey Roker. Golson may be playing better than ever, and so might the other recommendations of this distinctive mellow manifestation of jazz virtues. Meet the music of Thad Jones, including the bits that wonderful cornetist/trumpeter didn't himself play better. He left that to Richard Davis and the other guys! How many father Christmases do you need?
-- Robert R. Calder

Various Artists, Prestige Profiles (Prestige)
Prestige, the great jazz label, is back as a name. This bumper set's recommendable for both its headline names and the bonus CDs, sampling the vast archive from the 1950s to the early '60s. Coleman Hawkins plays uncle with others on his accompanying sampler. Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis bridges to organ-tenor jazz. Jackie McLean excels, simpler than subsequent major fellow altoists on his sampler. Eric Dolphy's adventurous still by any standards, but always honoring jazz values. Kenny Burrell's a great guitarist, with Prestuge stablemares. Tommy Flanagan's a brilliant piano accompanist everywhere, Mal Waldron likewise well represented, and Red Garland, whose Quintet CD is, however, dullish. Overall, John Coltrane's probably over-featured, his own Profile approachable and stunning. Sonny Rollins is wholly better than reliable, Miles Davis likewise, pre-Kind of Blue, all his virtues displayed. Lightnin' Hopkins, the unfailing bluesman, comes with samples from the Bluesville catalogue. Twenty CDs, each with sampler in two-CD sets also available separately.
-- Robert R. Calder

Various Artists, Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar (Sony/Legacy)
This box set manages to reduce the history of jazz guitar to four CDs, five hours, and 75 tracks. Oddly, it also manages to expand the scope of jazz, including a variety of subgenres and venturing out into the pop and rock world. Jimi Hendrix might seem like an odd inclusion, but only until you hear "Manic Depression" between Derek Bailey and John McLaughlin. Of course, the material you need to begin exploring the canon is here, too, including Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, and pretty much whoever springs to mind when you hear the term "jazz guitarist". To aid your journey, the box also includes a tall 145-page book full of artist bios, glossy pictures, and a list by 25 guitarists of their favorite artists and performances. As a final bonus, it also contains transcriptions and analyses of eight classic solos. This should suit any jazz lover perfectly.
-- Justin Cober-Lake

Various Artists, Rockin' the Spirit: Piano Blues, Boogie and Spirituals (Chesky)
This terrific record's being marketed with a little handful of hooey. The music's none the worse for not being quite that combination of gospel piano and boogie woogie mentioned on the pack. Listeners who don't suspect the difference won't be disappointed as they hear the very belatedly recorded master Bob Seeley's adaptation of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues". Stride, boogie, and Earl Hines were never combined better. Young lion Eric Reed plays brilliant swing and gospel. Johnny O'Neal (less veteran than Seeley, less known than he should be, too toned down as Art Tatum in the Ray Charles biopic) duets beautifully with Reid on a Benny Golson. The blues pianist Mark Braun is also here, along with the merely more famous Monty Alexander. This set demonstrates a widely neglected range of jazz and near-jazz piano. Reed and especially Seeley are current genuine American national treasures.
-- Robert R. Calder

Various Artists, Whatever: The '90s Pop and Culture Box (Rhino)
Boxes this sweeping get about as much wrong as they get right, but not for lack of good intentions in the face of licensing conflicts. So it's good that Rhino focuses on the early-to-mid-'90s. With those qualifiers in place, Whatever is a breezy listen, especially if you first heard these songs at the right age. Whatever skims the '90s charts for hits that everyone remembers (MC Hammer, Sinead O'Connor, Oasis, Sir-Mix-a-Lot) with a touch of patented Rhino obscurity (The Gits, Jane Siberry); consequently, every major musical movement of the '90s gets covered, but in cursory fashion. Rap, which blossomed in the '90s, suffers the most (I'm sure the genre would rather be remembered for more than "U Can't Touch This" or "Baby Got Back"). Still, Rhino's egalitarian approach creates an interesting mix, with only one truly surreal pairing ("Thunder Kiss '65"/"Whoomp! (There It Is)"). Comprehensive? No. But not a bad effort at evoking '90s radio and MTV.
-- Andrew Gilstrap

Various Artists, You Ain't Talkin' to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music (Sony/Legacy)
You Ain't Talking to Me tells the tale of Randolph County, North Carolina's hard-drinking, hard-living mill worker Charlie Poole, who had his own unique, and ultimately influential, three-fingered style of banjo-playing, plus a distinct singing voice. In the early 20th century, Poole recorded 78s that would eventually be coveted by collectors and regarded by some as the foundation of bluegrass music. A three-CD set in unique faux-cigar box packaging, You Ain't Talking presents Poole's riveting recordings � often his own variations on popular tunes of the day � but also makes the tale bigger than that of one man. The set includes many of Poole's contemporaries and disciples, giving a greater sense of context to Poole's music while hinting at the ways the music would mutate into the styles of bluegrass and country music that modern audiences are familiar with.
-- Dave Heaton

Jeff Wayne, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (Sony/Columbia)
Break out the headphones, crank up the black light and get ready for one mind-blowing epic of a concept album. Jeff Wayne's ambitious, gaudy musical version of H.G. Well's classic sci-fi novel seems silly by today's standards, but back in the incense-scented '70s, it was following well-worn grooves laid out by other prog rock superstars. Featuring Richard Burton (in full blown thespian magnificence) as our narrator, and guest vocals by Moody Blue Justin Heyward and "Rock On"'s David Essex, this fully orchestrated experiment is narrative songwriting at its very best. The sensational seven-disc collectors' set (there is a standard two-CD recreation of the album as well) has been remastered to sonic perfection, and includes outtakes, unused songs, and a complete DVD presentation on the making of this musical monument. There's even a full CD of remixes, proving the overblown opus's continued aural influence.
-- Bill Gibron

Hank Williams, Turn Back the Years: The Essential Hank Williams (Mercury)
The aficionados could probably fill a stadium with qualms, but for most generalists this handy anthology presents the legendary troubadour in as close to perfect a context as possible. With Williams's three signature themes split evenly between three distinct discs � roughly speaking, a honky-tonk disc, a love-song disc and a spiritual disc � it's easy to understand the contradiction and conflict that lay at the heart of such an essential talent. Although he died before the birth of rock 'n' roll, Williams understood better than almost anyone the unique mixture of lustful anxiety and shameful repentance that lay at the heart of the blues and formed the crucible for almost every popular musician who followed in his footsteps. Although he is properly considered a country singer, his influence envelops the entire spectrum � from Bob Dylan to Isaac Hayes to Metallica to Eminem, there aren't many people who can rightfully say they aren't following, to some degree, in Williams's haunted footsteps.
-- Tim O'Neil

Wormburner, Wormburner [EP] (WB)
Is it possible to morph the songwriting sensibilities of 1970s country rock with the bouncing rhythms of 1980s pop? Wormburner thinks so, proven by this six-track disc of breezy, unobtrusive enjoyment. Attracting the attention of producer David Lowery (Cracker, Camper van Beethoven) has given Wormburner the next piece in the big artist breakout puzzle. By presenting a well-crafted alternative to the conveyor belt mainstream, the band has laid the foundation to propel itself upward and outward to the next level. At the very least, Wormburner will thaw the coldest of winter days with its warm, toe tapping songs, and alert listeners to a talented up-and-comer.
-- Adam Williams

XTC, Apple Box (Idea)
When Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding ended their recording exile of several years, no one could have predicted the staggering results. Apple Venus Volume 1 was an orchestral masterpiece, and the frisky follow-up, Wasp Star, proved that the boys still had plenty of potent power pop left in them. Still, XTC had always envisioned the project as a double album, and now the group has reconfigured the separate selections into one amazing example of songcraft and musicianship. The Apple Box � available in either a standard four-CD set, or a limited edition Apple Set loaded with swag � is another masterwork from the duo. Packaged in a stark, stunning white box and accompanied by a 64-page booklet, there is enough harmonious joy here to remind one of a time when melody, not misery, guided modern music.
-- Bill Gibron

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