Back to the future
Despite the fear and loathing involved in joining hordes of frenetic holiday shoppers - and reading charge-card statements - musical gift-givers have plenty of reasons to do both this season. The goodies are out there, waiting to be plucked ... or ordered online.
This year's big trend is basically "back to the future": Music marketers are using new technology to remaster albums to their original form after selling us sonically sweetened versions for ages. With the success of historical and theme compilations, they've figured out these carefully made reproductions - with a few add-ons - will entice us anew.
Fans will also be lured by commemorative, special-edition packaging, bonus DVD samplers, and CD-Rom or Super Audio CD (SACD) technology. True devotees also will need the concert or video compilation DVDs, and if there's a new book or related product, well, hey, why not make it a package?
With this anniversary chronicle of its 60-year history, Capitol Records has created a timeline of popular music's development. Capitol Records: 1942-2002 ($114.98) contains six lovingly produced discs with a wonderful book (though, at jewel case size, too small) of rare archival photos. Starting with big band, it moves from Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Miles Davis, Merle Haggard, Pink Floyd, disco ("Boogie Oogie Oogie" anyone?), Bonnie Raitt, the Beastie Boys, and Garth Brooks to Coldplay and the Vines. The Beach Boys are here, along with those other B-boys: the Beatles. Sure, there are both skimpy and skippable parts, but it's quite a history lesson.
Amateur weightlifters can pair that with the hefty large-format paperback, The Book of Rock, by Phillip Dodd (Thunder's Mouth Press). At $29.95, this thorough, well-written encyclopedia is literally worth its weight. Full of arresting artwork, these 500-plus pages contain both legends and "whatever happened to" obscurities. Each gets equal respect - and space.
The three-CD A Salute to the Delta Blues Masters (Telarc, $30.98) will appeal to casual blues historians, with discs devoted to Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Charley Patton. Some of the art form's finest players of every generation show up on this tribute, filled with lots of slide guitar and elemental emotion. Among the hard-to-pick highlights are "Walking Blues" by Susan Tedeschi and husband Derek Trucks, Joe Louis Walker's "Sugar Mama," and the sublime instrumental "Some Summer Day."
Package that with Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters ($29.95), a biography by renowned blues writer Robert Gordon. The man after whom both the band and the magazine were named (for his song, "Rollin' Stone") is a pivotal figure in blues and rock history, and Gordon examines his story in compelling detail. He also provides details about the illiterate sharecropper/Chicago transplant that only a fellow Delta native could convey. For more Muddy synergy, pick up the remixed, remastered The Last Waltz box (Rhino, $59.98), which includes the late bluesman and a bevy of rock greats saluting the band in a farewell event marking its finest hour. Make that hours - the four-disc set has 24 previously unreleased tracks, plus other add-ons.
Proving that time is on their side, some of the more ballyhooed releases are from older artists capitalizing on best-selling tours (the Rolling Stones) or special anniversaries (David Bowie's 30-year-old "Ziggy Stardust" release).
Speaking of the Stones ... as if their "40 Licks" tour and CD aren't enough, ABKCO Records has issued The Rolling Stones Remastered series, a 22-disc chronology (26 counting alternative British versions) of what some consider the band's best years. "Let It Bleed," "Beggar's Banquet," "Exile on Main Street" ... yes, maybe they were. Each disc also is encoded for SACD play. Packaging, playback speeds - everything has been restored as closely as possible to the originals - with the notable exception of a few tracks that apparently were mastered at the wrong playback speed and have now been corrected. First editions contain "certificates of authenticity" ($18.95). Wrap one with the Pretenders' new Loose Screw (Artemis Records, $17.98) because Chrissie Hynde and her band mates opened the first few "40 Licks" dates - and because they've created a fine, mature, yet far-from-staid album. Middle age agrees with these rockers, too.
A boxed special collectors' edition of George Harrison's just-released final recording, Brainwashed (Capitol, 18.98), contains a "making of" DVD, a poster, and even an "official" Harrison guitar pick. It'll go well with the coffee-table release, Harrison, a collection of almost every story Rolling Stone magazine ever published about the former Beatle, coupled with stunning photographs, insightful essays, a discography, and a loving forward by his widow, Olivia Harrison ($29.95).
Nostalgic Grateful Dead fans will love Between the Dark and Light: The Grateful Dead Photography of Jay Blakesburg ($35). Blakesburg almost never scored photo passes; most of his marvelous shots were from, and frequently of, the audience, the scene, the experience - which he started capturing in 1978, just when the Deadhead phenomenon coalesced.
The ever-cool David Bowie also had a big year. In addition to touring with Moby, he released a new album, "Heathen," a 30th-anniversary edition of his groundbreaking "glam-rock" opus, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," and single- and double-disc versions of his new Best of Bowie compilation. They go nicely with his same-named double DVD, which apparently contains his entire output of equally groundbreaking videos. Any one of these would impress, but a set containing each would blow a Bowie fan back to Mars.
Alison Krauss didn't have a bad year, either, with her participation in the "Down from the Mountain" tour, her own "New Favorite" tour, more Grammys, and now the release of her first live album (the DVD will arrive in 2003). With a soprano that truly is one of the prettiest in any musical realm, along with the five-way instrumental wizardry between her and band mates Jerry Douglas, Barry Bales, Ron Block, and Dan Tyminski, she makes fans fall in love anew with each performance. But until now, they had no way of re-creating the sublime memories of an actual Krauss concert. Alison Krauss & Union Station Live ($19.98) fixes that with two bluegrass-infused discs recorded at Kentucky's Louisville Palace.
Two years behind schedule, U2 has chronicled its second decade with The Best of 1990-2000 & B-Sides (Interscope, $24.98). It contains two new cuts and some new song mixes, plus a DVD sampler (but don't be fooled; it's not better than the real thing, released separately on Tuesday).
In three years, the Irish rockers will be eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; among those receiving that honor this year are the still-missed Police. Mercurial frontman Sting is marking the occasion with The Very Best of Sting & the Police (Universal, $18.98 ), which includes some choice solo cuts, plus a fraction of his incredible output with his old band. Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers are not mentioned anywhere on the album, however, because every song was written by Sting. They likely don't own a penny of the publishing rights to this material - but the album's still a winner.
And speaking of the '80s, what gift guide could be complete without mention of a Rhino Records box? This year's is Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box (Totally). It's got seven discs, 142 hits (they found that many in the '80s?), and a 90-page book with essays, track annotation, trivia, and possibly more than you want to know about these first-generation MTV stars ($99.98). The first 25,000 copies have a limited-edition "sculpted" rubber cover. And why not? The '70s box has shag carpeting and smiley faces.
For a taste of one of the '80s better offerings, try the DVD audio disc, Crowded House (EMI, $19.98). Usable only on DVD players (and if you don't have one, it's time, already!), preferably with surround sound, "Crowded House" captures this talented New Zealand trio at an early peak. Bonuses include onscreen lyrics, a discography, and videos for "Something So Strong" and "Don't Dream It's Over" - one of the finest pop songs ever written, even if it did come from that sculpted rubber era (Capitol).
Now get out there and boost the economy.