Box sets from Bruce, Bob, Aretha and more for the holidays

AP News
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Posted: Nov 20, 2015 4:12 PM
Box sets from Bruce, Bob, Aretha and more for the holidays

Selected box set reviews from The Associated Press:

Bruce Springsteen, "The Ties That Bind: The River Collection," (Columbia) $119.98

No one does deluxe album reissues quite like Springsteen: 22 outtakes, half never before heard, a DVD of a concert from that era (1980) and a new film where he talks about his artistic choices at the time. Even more intriguing, he includes the completed single album he submitted in 1979 only to pull back (he released the double album "The River" a year later). For fun, mix and match your own album: the quality of outtakes like "Chain Lightning," ''Mary Lou," ''Party Lights" and others is such that even Springsteen can't recall now why some made the final album and some were tossed aside.

— David Bauder, AP Entertainment Writer

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Aretha Franklin, "The Atlantic Albums Collection" (Atlantic), $89.98

Beginning with the landmark album "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You," these 16 CDs highlight Franklin's explosive breakthrough with Atlantic in 1967 after years of struggling with Columbia, and continue through her more erratic output of the 1970s. She is "The Queen of Soul," but the compilation also showcases Franklin's embrace of virtually every kind of American music, whether the straight gospel of her "Amazing Grace" live album, the pop standard "You are My Sunshine," or her bluesy cover of Willie Nelson's "Night Life."

Most of her signature hits, including "Respect" and "Think," can be found on the first four CDs. After that, it's best to hunt around. Try the moody, intimate ambience of her 1970 album "Spirit in the Dark" or the hard funk of "Rock Steady" from 1972's "Young, Gifted and Black," or the reflective "Angel," from the Quincy Jones-produced "Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)."

No booklet or biographical notes are included, but the liner notes for the original records were written by Jon Landau, Nat Hentoff and other top critics of the time. "An incisive dramatist, a conjugator of soul, she gets inside lyrics and shapes them into extensions of herself," Hentoff writes for "Aretha Arrives," which came out in 1967. "This is a woman of unremitting, overwhelming vitality."

— Hillel Italie, AP National Writer

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Bob Dylan, "The Cutting Edge 1965-66: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12" (Columbia/Legacy) $149.98

Bob Dylan stopped in mid-song while recording "Mr. Tambourine Man," unhappy about the arrangement.

"The drumming is driving me mad," he said. "I'm going out of my brain."

Even Dylan himself was thrown by his 1965 switch from folk to rock. Fans were outraged, with feedback from concert crowds so negative drummer Levon Helm quit Dylan's tour.

Half a century later, Dylan going electric is hailed as a defining, glorious moment in his career and the history of rock. The morphing of his music is captured here on a collection of work tapes from the sessions that produced three landmark albums in a 13-month span — "Bringing It All Back Home," ''Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde On Blonde."

The deluxe six-CD set is an exercise in Dylan immersion. Disc Three, for example, consists solely of various versions of "Like a Rolling Stone." Experiments with keys, meters, rhythms and tempos leave Dylan laughing, and for folks who can recite every couplet, his last-minute tweaks of lyrics will fascinate. There's a knock-knock joke, too, and a sampling of "Jingle Bells" recorded in July.

With multiple takes of many songs included in succession, this set's not for background listening. But then Dylan never was.

— Steven Wine, AP Writer

Frank Sinatra, "The Ultimate Sinatra" (Capitol/UMe)

This centennial compilation does not approach the ultimate Sinatra, even at four CDs, so call it "Starter Sinatra," or "Tourist Sinatra," a primer for someone who's heard the name, but not the music. During his 50-some years in recording studios, Sinatra turned the great American songbook into a personal journal of romance and longing, despair and exhilaration, and the selections here follow a path known to millions of a certain age — from the earnest balladeer on "All or Nothing At All" to the swinging prime of his middle years and on to the paunchy, but spirited final chapter.

The usual hits are accounted for, from "My Way" to "New York, New York," along with such Sinatra standbys as "All the Way," ''Fly Me to the Moon" and "I've Got You Under My Skin." Obsessives could compile another 4 CDs of the missing: "I Thought About You" and "Old Devil Moon," the lovely "If I Had You" and the hypnotic "The Lonesome Road," his great Irving Berlin covers "Change Partners" and "Be Careful It's My Heart," his carousing with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. on Cole Porter's "We Open In Venice." A booklet is included, mostly pictures and random quotes. James Kaplan's two-volume biography fills in a lot more.

—Hillel Italie, AP National Writer

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Otis Redding, "Soul Manifesto: 1964-70" (Atco/Rhino) $69.98

Some consider Otis Redding's "Live in Europe" the best concert album ever. Others argue it's not even the best live record by Redding, which speaks to the remarkable depth of his catalog.

The Georgia soul man recorded enough material for 12 albums before dying in a plane crash at age 26 in 1967, and his glorious music is all collected here in a small box free of frills but well worth the bargain price.

The set includes 12 CDs, each packaged in a reproduction of the original LP sleeve. There are no liner notes beyond what's reprinted on back of each CD jacket.

No matter — the discs include some of the best performances in R&B history. Many follow a familiar formula, with a gutbucket groove and horn jabs behind Redding, who vamps on the fadeout at the three-minute mark. But his wonderful, weathered, old-soul tenor makes every song exciting, and the quality remains consistently high even on four posthumous releases.

As for the concert records: Play "Live in Europe" and "In Person At the Whisky A Go Go" back to back, and the verdict will be easy. They're both great.

— Steven Wine, AP Writer

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Amy Winehouse, "The Collection," Island Records/Republic/UMe ($159.99)

Given that she only put out two albums during her short life and one posthumous one, an Amy Winehouse box set may seem like a bit of a reach. But the big lure here is the vinyl: The box set is the only way this format is being released. And it allows more casual fans who only heard of Winehouse with "Rehab" to fall in love with her brilliant debut "Frank" — if "Back to Black" was her "Thriller," ''Frank" was her "Off The Wall."

There's also live material, part of the reason this set is eight discs and 65 tracks. While it's duplicative — there are two live versions of songs like "(Expletive) Me Pumps" — those performances chart a change in Winehouse. In 2003, during the "Frank" period, she sounds vivacious and her voice strong. Four years later, her voice is sometimes ragged and her enunciation off. Now, it may not have anything to do with the substance abuse that led to her 2011 death — she could have just been tired — but the buoyancy in her earlier work had certainly dissipated.

Still, her uneven performances show the unique gift that Winehouse possessed, which is why "The Collection" is to be cherished — redundant material and all.

— Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Entertainment Writer

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Alice Cooper "The Studio Albums 1969-1983" (Rhino), $79.99

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better tutorial of what 1970s and early '80s shock rock was all about than this 15-disc box set from the master of the macabre. It encompasses every album Cooper released, from the 1969 psychedelic "Pretties For You" to 1983's "Dada." In between were some of the greatest classic rock songs ever recorded, including "School's Out," ''Under My Wheels," ''Welcome To My Nightmare," ''I'm Eighteen," ''Billion Dollar Babies" ''Go To Hell" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy." It also includes the brilliant "Flush The Fashion," with the 1980 hit "Clones (We're All").

Unlike many box sets, there's precious little swag here. Each album comes in a mini cardboard sleeve reproducing the front and back covers, but some of the print is so tiny as to be unreadable. Inserts that came with a particular album, such as the billion-dollar bill from "Billion Dollar Babies" are here (again in tiny form), but the real appeal is getting pristine copies of albums that may have been worn by decades of scratches and pops on the vinyl originals.

— Wayne Parry, AP writer

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Bob Marley and the Wailers, "The Complete Island Recordings," (Island Records/UME) $235 for standard edition, $650 for collectors' edition

Break out the turntables, light one up (where it's legal), and let the full Bob Marley experience waft over you with "The Complete Island Recordings" box set. Available only on 180-gram vinyl, with no digital downloads, this 11-record set is narrowly targeted to those music aficionados who like their tunes analog, on pressed wax.

But this set of nine studio and two live albums will cost a whole lot more than it would have in the laid-back 1970s when most of them were first released.

The collectors' edition, which is cleverly packaged in an individually numbered velvet-lined silver metal box set replicating a Zippo lighter and comes with two prints and a turntable slip mat, clocks in at $650. The more economical regular edition foregoes the superfluous prints and mat, and comes in a less-expensive cardboard box for $235.

But the music is the same in both — and that's what really counts.

The 1973 Island debut "Catch a Fire" through 1983's "Uprising," released posthumously, sound better than ever. Everyone knows the hits like "No Woman, No Cry" and "Stir it Up," but for fans who never took a deeper dive in Marley's rich catalog, now is a great time to do it.

—Scott Bauer, AP Writer

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Fleetwood Mac, "Tusk: Deluxe Edition" (Rhino) $119.98

Considered a commercial disappointment when it was released in 1979, Fleetwood Mac's experimental double album "Tusk" is now regarded a creative achievement meriting the full commemorative treatment. This isn't just a remastered reissue — that came out in 2004. This deluxe edition includes five CDs, two vinyl LPs, a surround-mix audio DVD and extensive liner notes featuring band member commentary on nearly all of the songs.

The collection is comprehensive to the point of overkill. Along with the original remastered tracks and remixes, there's also an entire version of "Tusk" comprising demos and outtakes. The set includes eight — EIGHT — versions each of the title track and Lindsey Buckingham's "I Know I'm Not Wrong." While it's interesting to hear the evolution of the tunes and the artistry of their creators as they rode high on the success of 1977's "Rumours" (among other things), only the most obsessive fan or musician would need so many versions of the same song in their personal library.

A treat for any Fleetwood Mac fan, though, are the two CDs of previously unreleased live tracks from the band's performances in 1979 and '80, offering listeners a chance to indulge in a 12 ½-minute version of "World Turning" and hear Stevie Nicks' delight when she realizes fans are singing along with "Landslide."

— Sandy Cohen, AP Entertainment Writer

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Lead Belly, "Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection" (Smithsonian Folkways), $99.98

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, revered as a king of folk music. But his life was a turbulent one, spending stretches in prison due to a sporadic life of crime.

It was during some of those despairing moments, while in prison work crews, where he produced classics such as "The Gallis Pole," ''Pick A Bale Of Cotton" and "Black Betty." They're all here, as well as recordings for radio appearances.

This five-disc set is packaged in a handsome, album-sized picture book that chronicles the life of Lead Belly that took him from penitentiaries to performance halls. Handwritten notes and typewritten song request lists from recording studios are all on fine display.

Lead Belly's guitar work remains crafty in retrospect. On "The Bourgeois Blues," his voice is strong and clear while his fingers walk an entertaining bass line. But he's at his best on "Fannin Street." His fretboard work here shows a busy intricacy, while maintaining a delicate volume below his voice at times. Near the end of the song it all explodes into a glorious jumble of notes that few others in the genre could handle as well.

When you're as influential as Lead Belly, this is the kind of treatment you get and deserve.

— Ron Harris, AP Writer

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Neko Case, "Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule, (Anti-) $199.99

Only fans of vinyl records need to seek out this package of eight of Neko Case's solo albums, since that's the only format being offered. Starting with 1997's "The Virginian," it traces her progression from fairly generic (although energetic) alt-country singer to the more eclectic artist with a golden voice. Of these eight albums, "The Virginian" has never been offered on vinyl and five have been out of print for at least six years. There's a Case-designed photo book, but no extras — outtakes or alternate versions of songs. And nothing from her work with New Pornographers. As such, it's a project of limited appeal.

— David Bauder, AP Entertainment Writer

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Weather Report, "The Legendary Live Tapes: 1978-1981" (Legacy Recordings, $59.98)

This four-CD box set of previously unreleased live performances, culled from soundboard tapes and bootleg audience recordings, fills a glaring gap in the discography of the legendary electronic jazz-rock-funk band Weather Report, which released only three live albums in its 16-year history.

It's also noteworthy because it features Weather Report's seminal lineup with co-founders saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, fretless electric bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, and drummer Peter Erskine, with some tracks adding percussionist Robert Thomas Jr.

The 28 tracks showcase a band that freely crossed musical boundaries, blending cutting-edge electric technology with acoustic sounds, creating unique sonic textures, and delving into world music on such compositions as "Madagascar."

Weather Report's high-energy concerts would include stretched out versions of their studio recordings. Highlights include a 21-minute-plus version of "Gibraltar" as well as new looks at some of Weather Report's best known tunes. Also included are solo improvisations as well as a Shorter-Zawinul duet paying homage to Duke Ellington.

— Charles J. Gans, AP Writer

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This story has been corrected to show the byline for the Bob Marley item as Scott Bauer, not Steven Wine.