Christmas Boxes

From blues and rock to funk and punk, here's the rundown of prime CD box sets for your favorite music lover this holiday season.

Various Artists
What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves from the Vaults of Atlantic, Atco & Warner Bros. Records (Rhino)

In a tidy little box approximating the dimensions of a dozen 45s stacked neatly atop one another, the 4-CD What It Is! retraces the path of funk leaving its indelible imprint on soul, jazz, and Latin sounds from 1967-77. The rampant and obscure share equal billing as thick, syncopated rhythms lock into an enigmatic pattern, monster stomps by the Bar-Kays, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, and Earth, Wind & Fire keeping things familiar, while rarities push this collection into the essential. Unless you're in the market for out-of-print vinyl, many of the mightiest songs compiled here will remain out of contemporary reach. Fringe singles produced during Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On watershed appear in the form of "Stanga" by Little Sister and "I'm Just Like You" by 6ix. The Meters crop up all over the place, including contributions to Cyril Neville's "Gossip," Eldridge Holmes' "Pop, Popcorn Children," the Rhine Oaks' "Tampin," Dr. John's "Rite Away," and their own "Chug Chug Chug-a-Lug." As Ananda Shankar and the Mystic Moods prove that wicked funk often originates from the most unlikely of places, artists including Mongo Santamaria, Harlem River Drive, Malo, and Macondo remind us that funk never would have gained its bearings without first being influenced by tropical heat. Extensive liner notes yield valuable insight into the background of musicians otherwise forgotten or hardly acknowledged in the first place. Never letting up in intensity, What It Is! is nothing less than a blessing from the funk gods. ' Robert Gabriel

Buddy Guy
Can't Quit the Blues (Silvertone/Legacy/Sony BMG)

Why has it taken a half-century for Buddy Guy to get the box-set treatment? Whatever the answer, the 3-CD/1-DVD Can't Quit the Blues corrects the oversight for the most part. Guy's legendary rep stems from three prime facts: the master bluesman has played professionally since the late 1950s; his wailing, stinging guitar has influenced generations of strummers; and he's performed with Howlin' Wolf, Junior Wells, and Muddy Waters. Critique that Guy ain't so original is misplaced: he's the secretary-general of the blues, deftly interpreting songs, while being a consummate entertainer. Plus, he can play the hell out of the guitar ' ask Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana, both of whom cameo here. This compilation spans 1957's "The Way You Been Treating Me" demo to last year's rendering of Keb' Mo's "The Price You Gotta Pay" with Keith Richards. In short, the 47 songs aptly represent the Stratocaster Master, although rarities and oldies are slim, with only a handful of unreleased tracks. And there's got to be more live gems that need unvaulting. If it weren't for the DVD, which features six of Guy's appearances at the famed Montreux festival starting in 1974, that might be more of an issue. A real treat is DVD documentary My Time After Awhile, where Guy recounts the trek from his roots in sharecropping Louisiana to owning the successful Legends club in Chicago. Add a 40-page booklet with rare photographs and Can't Quit the Blues is a worthy overview for any earnest blues fan. ' David Lynch

The Clash
The Singles (Legacy)

The fact that "Rock the Casbah" is being used to shill music-compatible cell phones is no reason for Clashistas to abandon hope. Three decades after exploding out of London's tube, the revolutionary English quartet retains its sonic potency; although, if you think that chanting "Rock the Cat Box" is anything less than punk rock apostasy, you're going straight to hell, boy. The 19-CD Singles collection is for dyed-in-leather fanatics, featuring 19 career-spanning singles released in the UK, plus bonus tracks, all on digitally enabled (and real) vinyl housed in 7-inch-replica sleeves. Such packaging obviously encourages a fetishistic approach to the music, even if many tracks are collected elsewhere. For newcomers, this approach raises a sticky wicket as there are few fanboys and riot grrrls in this iPod age willing to swap out discs every time the dust settles from yet another stick of Strummer/Jones/Headon/Simonon dynamite. And there's lots of TNT: "White Riot," a live version of "London's Burning," "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais," a remix of "The Magnificent Seven," and myriad rarities. Meanwhile, between the sleeve art and liner notes representing both musicians and cultural curators such as writer Nick Hornby and director Danny Boyle, graying punks will enjoy a double-dose of nostalgia. ' Dan Oko

Tom Waits
Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (Anti-)

Welcome to Tom Waits' garage sale! This 3-CD collection of covers, rarities, new and old songs is a big lot to sort through, but the choice finds are worth it. Orphans is more of Waits' strange fruit: murderers and madmen, petty criminals and wicked women, junk cars and empty bars. The "Brawlers" disc represents Waits' more contemporary recordings: "2:19" echoes Real Gone and "Bottom of the World" waltzes the Pogues' "Matilda." "Bawlers," meanwhile, revisits Waits' jazzy side circa Heart of Saturday Night, with "Little Man," "It's Over," and his cover of "Goodnight Irene" perfectly charming in a three-day bender sort of way. These are the sweethearts, the last calls, the boozy reflections Waits is so good at recalling. "Bastards" shows the most promise for where Waits could be headed. In a word, it's twisted. "Army Ants" sounds like an educational film slowed down and dosed with peyote. The electronic warble of "First Kiss" dulls before the electric "Dog Door" pulls down an actual rocker. "The Pontiac," Waits' description of old cars to a small child is classic, as is his cover of Daniel Johnston's "King Kong." It's a seamless lot, with what probably started out as an odds-and-ends toss-out growing into a bona fide gem of a collection. After 30 years, Waits keeps getting weirder and weirder while still aging gracefully. ' Audra Schroeder

Vince Gill
These Days (MCA)

Vince Gill is destroying his reputation in the best way possible. After Eric Clapton invited the underrated six-stringer to his Crossroads guitar-god summit in Dallas, 2004, the Nashvillian shucked his new-country balladeer shoes for some ass-kickin' boots. These Days is one of the most ambitious artistic statements of the year, a 4-CD box set of all-new material apportioned across roots genres and complemented by a rock-solid roster of guests from Bonnie Raitt to Rodney Crowell. "The Rockin' Record" disc sounds like vintage Delbert McClinton, more than living up to its name with gutbucket blues, rave-up shuffles, brassy R&B horns, and loads of sexual innuendo. "The Groovy Record" feels like a stale step backward, and even smoldering songbird Diana Krall can't ignite watered-down torch songs like "Faint of Heart." The country & western set is stone barroom jukebox material, courtesy of Emmylou Harris collaboration "Some Things Never Get Old" and Patty Loveless pairing "Out of My Mind." The acoustic fourth disc is an ace closer, with "Molly Brown" a haunting elegy of an interracial romance snuffed out by violence and the starkest example of Gill's emboldened artistic vision. "All Prayed Up" and Del McCoury duet "Cold Gray Light of Gone," meanwhile, are bluegrass distillations of mortality and pain. If Gill picks up again where soul-searching Guy Clark duet "Almost Home" leaves off, his grits-and-grease commitment could bury his fading milquetoast Music City image for good. ' Scott Jordan

Robert Plant
Nine Lives (Rhino)

"The only thing I was sure of was that I wasn't going back and relive [Led Zeppelin] in any form." So assures Robert Plant about his unexpected solo career in the hour-long DVD documentary to Nine Lives, with another 90 minutes of MTV video staples doubling as the 9-CD box set's greatest hits. The nine-album arc of the flaxen-haired Zeppelin frontman reveals a different tale. The "great triumph," as Plant calls his post-Hindenburg debut, 1982's Pictures at Eleven, synthesized the thrust of rock's immortal folk-blues juggernaut into a remarkably lithe, elegant extension of Zep swan song In Through the Out Door's airy "Fool in the Rain" and "All of My Love." Pictures pounding like "Kashmir" on "Slow Dancer" can't drown out the rockabilly subtleties of "Pledge Pin" or lean musculature of B-side "Far Post," both still wondrous musical reincarnations. The Principle of Moments polished the formula ("In the Mood"), and here adds a meaty trio of 1983 live tracks. The Honeydrippers EP the following year tapped even further into Plant's '50s underpinnings ("Sea of Love"), before '85's Shaken 'N' Stirred took the more synthetic Principles ("Stranger Hereâ?¦ Than Over There") to wonky extremes, though its axis remains "Little by Little" getting the Led out. Now and Zen (1988) tweaks the tweak into Plant's solo breakthrough ("Heaven Knows," "Ship of Fools"), peaking live with "Billy's Revenge" and the oceanic "Tall Cool One." With the Zeppelin genie finally out of the bong, Manic Nirvana fizzled on Jimmy Page boogie, none of it as ripe as Billy Vera B-side "Don't Look Back." Fate of Nations (1993) harmonized Bonham ("Promised Land") and ballad ("29 Palms"), while a sincere reading of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" anticipated the Page & Plant reunion, the latter's solo rebirth on 2002's Dreamland, and a future Rod Stewart American Songbook recasting. Revving up '60s mystics like Tim Buckley, Jesse Colin Young, and Skip Spence ' songwriters missing on walloping follow-up Mighty Rearranger ' proved well worth reliving. ' Raoul Hernandez

Waylon Jennings
Nashville Rebel (RCA/Columbia Legacy)

There are those who will never get enough of the Outlaw Country served up by Waylon Jennings, who, along with his Lone Star homeboys Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver, more or less created the genre. The 4-CD, Texas-sized Nashville Rebel will have these fans beside themselves with pleasure. Rebel starts off sweetly, with the Buddy Holly-produced "Jole Blon" and charts the highs and lows of Jennings' long and fruitful career, from his studio sides with Chet Atkins to his collaboration with Shaver and the Southern comforts of the theme from Dukes of Hazzard. According to the worthy liner notes by music historian Rich Kienzle, Jennings preferred to be called Waymore, and Waymore fought Atkins tooth and nail when it came to the smooth delivery the RCA producer wanted the young baritone to adopt. (Strangely, the title track by Harlan Howard epitomizes this much-derided Nashville sound.) Even so, Jennings remains a mercurial talent. The first disc follows his career through 1969 and includes Gordon Lightfoot's "(That's What You Get) for Lovin' Me" and the hippy-dip "Love of the Common People." It doesn't take much to figure out the reasons Jennings wanted to get out of Nashville, Tenn., even if ultimately all of his hit recordings were made there. The tracks reach a full gallop on disc two, which features perennial favorites "Ladies Love Outlaws," "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean," and the Shaver-penned "Honky Tonk Heroes." The winners keep on coming on the third CD with "Good Hearted Woman," "Luckenbach, Texas," and a ripping cover of Neil Young's "Are You Ready for the Country?" By the last disc and Waymore's final decade, Rebel starts feeling a bit padded. It may sound sacrilegious, but hearing Waylon and Willie cover the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit," it's simply impossible to conclude Hank would have done it this way. ' Dan Oko

John Lee Hooker
Hooker (Shout! Factory)

No one in Canned Heat called bluff when the Boogie Man, John Lee Hooker, claimed he could cut three records in three days before laying down "Burning Hell" in 1971. During his five-decade career, Hooker waxed more than 100 albums, recording under aliases Texas Slim, John Lee Cooker, and Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar to avoid label disputes. So compiling the first cohesive career overview on the seminal bluesman was no picnic. Hooker, a 4-CD, 84-song collection, brings the "Boom Boom" nonetheless, packing in every quintessential single from "Tupelo Blues" to "Big Legs Tight Skirt" that casual fans would expect. The chronological ordering doesn't reveal an evolution of style, structure, or technique, as Delta John's back-porch poetry, droning six-string shuffle, and incessant toe tapping remain constant throughout his career. The progression of recording technology and the change in scenery doubles as Hooker's arc, beginning with grainy and raw home recordings of traditional numbers like "Moses Smote the Water" and "Catfish Blues" from the late 1940s, transitioning through his various backing bands and hits, and closing with his comeback collaborations of the early '90s, which feature Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, and Jimmie Vaughan, among others. The only drawback is Hooker barely touches on the man's live performances, which were an integral part of his career. Consider ordering Live at Cafe Au Go-Go (And Soledad Prison) on the side and chasing it with "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." ' Austin Powell