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Crush holiday gift giving with box sets for music fans

This has been exceptional year for box sets, headlined by sets from Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. If you’re looking for a special gift for a music fan, you can’t go wrong with any of the dozen following sets.

Bruce Springsteen: “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection” (Columbia) — Like the box set reissues of Springsteen’s “Born To Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” albums, “The River” is a bonanza for “Boss” fans. The set expands on the original two-album set with “The Ties That Bind,” the nearly released 1979 single album that was shelved and expanded into “The River.” Another disc features two dozen outtakes. Half surfaced on Springsteen’s “Tracks” box set, the others are genuine finds, including “Stray Bullet,” an eerie slow burner in the vein of “Point Blank,” and “The Man Who Got Away,” which recalls such anthems as “Badlands” or “Prove It All Night.” Add in a December 1980 concert capturing Springsteen and the E Street Band at their peak as rock’s greatest-ever live group, and this set is as close to perfect as a box set reissue can get.

Bob Dylan: “The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: 1965-1966 The Cutting Edge” (Columbia) — Recorded over an astonishingly short 14-month period, the albums “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde” remain the pivotal works as Dylan moved from acoustic folk to plugged-in rock. This six-CD set presents fascinating alternate versions and partial takes of all but a couple of the songs that made those classic albums, while offering multiple insights into Dylan’s methods as he literally reinvented the sound of rock 'n' roll.

The Staple Singers: “Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976” (Stax) — This four-CD career box set nicely chronicles the influential career of Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his children (most notably singer Mavis), from their gospel beginnings, into their socially conscious, folk-influenced '60s music and finally into the percolating soul of the ‘70s that gave the Staple Singers their mainstream breakthrough with hit singles like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” 

Little Richard: ”Direct From My Heart: The Best of the Speciality and Vee-Jay Years” (Specialty/Concord) — Sixty years ago, Richard Penniman helped invent rock 'n' roll with frenetic R&B-laced rockers like “Tutti Frutti,” "Keep a Knockin’” and “Lucille.” This three-CD set shows Little Richard was more than the one-trick pony his signature hits might suggest. Wop-bop-a-loo bop” indeed.

Them: “The Complete Them: 1964-1967” (Legacy) — Fronted by a young Van Morrison, Them became famous for the hit “Gloria.” Like peers the Rolling Stones and the Animals, Morrison and Them were creating their own rocked up version of the blues, and doing it well. A disc of alternate versions, demos and live cuts sweeten this thorough set.

Weather Report: “The Legendary Live Tapes” (Columbia/Legacy) — What makes this four-CD set of live performances from 1978-81 special? For one thing, it captures what many consider the definitive Weather Report lineup of keyboardist Joe Zawinul, sax great Wayne Shorter, bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine. Another plus: most of this set comes from unheard-until-now board tapes recorded by the group’s soundman Brian Risner. Then there’s the music itself, which struck a fine balance between being melodic and accessible, while showcasing the virtuosity of the players

Frank Sinatra: “A Voice On Air: 1935-1955” (Columbia/Legacy) — This four-disc set brings together more than 100 songs Sinatra performed on radio from 1935-55. Nearly half of the songs weren’t on any Sinatra album, and all but a handful of these performances are unreleased, making this a treasure for Sinatra enthusiasts.

Miles Davis: “At Newport: 1955-1975” (Columbia/Legacy) — Four CDs present six Davis performances at various editions of the Newport Jazz Festival. They capture the trumpeter playing with two of his greatest combos, which included such talents as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock — plus his “Bitches Brew” band and adventurous early '70s units.

Various Artists: “Groove & Grind: Rare Soul” (Rockbeat) — This fine four-CD set features such stars as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, who weren’t the only talents making great soul music during the '60s and ‘70s. This collection will be a revelation to those who haven’t dug this deep into soul’s golden era.

Alan Jackson: “Genuine: The Alan Jackson Story” (Arista/Legacy) — A key figure in the '90s country traditionalist movement, Jackson’s laudable 25-year career is nicely summarized in this hit-filled three-CD set.

Bobby Rush: “Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush” (Omnivore) – An under-appreciated talent, these four discs present Rush’s distinctive gritty blend of blues, funk and soul, and lyrics that are by turns clever, salacious and insightful.

311: “Archive” (Volcano/Legacy) – 311 empties the vaults with this four-CD set of non-album tracks, some spotty, but many more of which — “Dancehall,” “Bomb The Town,” “Earth People” and “Seal The Deal” — are well worth hearing.

Crush holiday gift giving with box sets for music fans