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Perhaps a box set or two would look good under the tree

Welcome to this year's guide to some of the more promising CD box sets of 2006, which patiently wait on music-store shelves for fans eager to shell out that holiday bonus money burning holes in their pockets. Naturally, it is better to give than receive, so generous readers might want to consider the following to be Gene Armstrong's wish list.

This is by no means a comprehensive listing. Among the omissions are box sets the contents of which are pretty predictable, including George Michael's "best of" two-CD set Twenty Five; The Clash's The Singles, a nevertheless way-cool collection of 19 CD singles; The Byrds' entirely redundant, four-disc There Is a Season; David Crosby's three-disc Voyage; The Doors' career-spanning CD-and-DVD extravaganza Perception; and Robert Plant's 10-disc Nine Lives, which includes each of his nine solo albums as well as a DVD.

Not yet released at press time, although expected in stores by the time you read this, was L-O-V-E: The Complete Capitol Recordings 1960-64, a $300, 11-CD compendium of 292 songs by Nat King Cole.

Retail prices are shown, but persistent and careful buyers should be able to locate at least some of these sets at discounted prices through various online outlets or, heck, even at brick-and-mortar stores that have them on sale.


Tori Amos
A Piano: The Collection
Atlantic
Five CDs, $74.98

This one takes the cake for the most kitschy packaging. The box comes mounted with a faux chunk of piano keyboard--not too easy to shelve. With this collection, Amos looks back at most of her oeuvre, offering fresh remastering, a few studio outtakes and a special treat for devoted fans in a resequenced and expanded edition of her breathtaking 1992 debut, Little Earthquakes. Many Tori nuts have commented online and offline about the unfortunate lack of the inventive covers for which Amos has become semi-famous. At the very least, it would have been great to include her revelatory version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."


Vince Gill
These Days
MCA Nashville
Four CDs, $29.99

Among the more adventurous and creative musicians in mainstream country, Gill was a chart-topping star in the 1990s, but he has dropped out of the Top 10 since the turn of the century. That's probably for the best, considering Gill's latest project is one that might not have been undertaken by an artist more dependent on courting mass appeal. He has recorded and released (in one package) four distinct albums, focusing on the following themes: love ballads, rock 'n' roll, mostly bluegrass acoustic music and (naturally) traditional honky-tonk. Gill's sweet, gospel-style vocals and sizzling guitar playing are highlights no matter the genre. Guest stars include Gretchen Wilson, Rodney Crowell, LeAnn Rimes, Trisha Yearwood, Diana Krall, Patty Loveless, Allison Krauss, the Del McCoury Band and Guy Clark.


Andy Partridge
Fuzzy Warbles Collectors Album
Ape
Nine CDs, $79.98

Collecting musical genius (and former XTC leader) Partridge's eight-album series of archival psychedelic pop-rock recordings, this gorgeous box makes those United Kingdom-only releases available for the first time in the United States, along with a bonus disc, Hinges. It exceeds eight hours in length and features more than 100 tunes--a veritable cornucopia of early demos and alternative takes of XTC songs, previously unreleased nuggets and diverse rarities from extracurricular projects, including material that was intended for, but didn't make it into, the animated film James and the Giant Peach. Truly a labor of love, the package includes Partridge's wry and meticulous liner notes.


Steve Reich
Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective
Nonesuch
Five CDs, $34.98

The 70-year-old minimalist Reich, arguably one of the greatest living composers, gets the "greatest hits" treatment in this set, spanning the years of 1966 to 2004. It's a genuine bargain at seven bucks a disc and a testament to Reich's massive influence on classical, jazz, avant-garde, pop and electronica musicians. Some of the best work by Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, David Bowie and Tortoise (see below), not to mention most remixers and DJs (whether they know it or not), might not exist if not for Reich's pioneering lead. The 1988 work "Different Trains," performed by Kronos Quartet, is clearly a multimedia masterpiece. Though "Drumming" might not sound like the revelation it once was in 1971, the 30-year-old landmark piece "Music for 18 Musicians"--especially its opening and closing "Pulses" movements--still gives me chills.


Tortoise
A Lazarus Taxon
Thrill Jockey
Three CDs/one DVD, $19.98

Hardly the comprehensive boxed set that many fans of this Chicago "new-rock" band are waiting for, this release nevertheless includes the previously out-of-print 1995 album Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters, as well as hard-to-find European singles, tour EPs, compilation tracks and remixes by Jim O'Rourke, Brad Wood, Steve Albini, Mike Watt and others. The DVD has some two hours of footage collected from live performances, videos and shorts. For listeners enamored with Tortoise's instrumental and often hypnotic melding of prog rock, jazz, minimalist composition and electronica, this is a must-have.


Various Artists
The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited
Shout Factory
Two CDs/two DVDs, $59.98

Contemporary artists cover vintage blues, folk, gospel and country tunes from archivist Harry Smith's immortal field recordings, which were first released by Folkways Records in 1952. These tracks come from a series of live concerts held in 1999 and 2001 and produced by impresario Hal Willner. Track after track is entertaining, artistically engaging and inventive, including incredible contributions from Steve Earle, Beth Orton, Beck, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Eric Mingus with Gary Lucas, Don Byron, Marianne Faithfull, Roswell Rudd with Sonic Youth, Robin Holcomb with Todd Rundgren, and the Fugs' Ed Sanders.


Various Artists
Ictus Records' 30th Anniversary Collection
Ictus
12 CDs, $169.99

A criminally overlooked musical fringe gets its props on this 12-disc set celebrating the output of the Italian independent label Ictus Records, for which improvised music and free jazz is the modus operandi. Label head and percussionist Andrea Centazzo collaborates with an all-star lineup of envelope-pushing musicians such as Derek Bailey, Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Anthony Coleman, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Lester Bowie, Vinny Golia, John Zorn, Toshinori Kondo and others. Avant-garde aficionados will be delighted to learn that Ictus also has released six other box sets--focusing variously on percussion, contemporary classical, "new" music and recordings by Centazzo's Mitteleuropa Orchestra--from its archives. FYI: You can score this set at a special discounted holiday price of $100 at ictusrecords.com.


Various Artists
Rogue's Galley: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys
ANTI-
Two CDs, $21.98

Always-daring producer Hal Willner has been the guiding force behind previous collections paying tribute to Kurt Weill, Nino Rota, Thelonious Monk, Carl Stalling, Charles Mingus, classic Disney tunes and the above-mentioned Harry Smith Project, as well as the soundtrack to the recent documentary Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. Here, he turns his attention to vintage songs of the sea, as performed by many of the usual tribute-album suspects--Nick Cave, Richard Thompson, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell, Bono, Sting and the McGarrigle sisters. Of special note are appearances by Bryan Ferry, Robin Holcomb, Van Dyke Parks, Akron/Family, Martin Carthy and cartoonist Ralph Steadman.


Various Artists
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Yazoo
Two CDs, $26.98

This much-anticipated anthology brings together 46 "rarest of the rare" country and blues sides from 78-rpm records of the 1920s and '30s. From Son House's "Clarksdale Moan" to the Georgia Pot Lickers' "Up Jumped the Rabbit," from Dock Boggs' "Old Rub Alcohol Blues" to Chubby Parker's "Davey Crockett," this collection constitutes a Holy Grail for serious record collectors, such as cartoonist-musician R. Crumb, who happens to contribute the lovely cover art. Those same collectors might lament the lack of annotation, but they probably already know the obscure provenance of each song. The rest of us just want to hear the music, most of which is reproduced with a minimum of annoying surface noise.


Tom Waits
Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards
ANTI-
Three CDs, $49.98

Jeez, it's like three new albums in one. The 54-song collection boasts 30 new tunes, Waits' versions of songs he wrote for other artists and his covers of material by The Ramones, Daniel Johnston, Brecht and Weill, and Leadbelly. Among the styles incorporated include his trademark growling, back-alley blues and swamp stomp, Celtic and country ballads, gospel, weepy waltzes and tender lullabies, as well as experimental stuff, jokes and spoken-word performances of works by Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. Not much in the way of liner notes, though; the discs are stored in a deluxe booklet that has precious little information other than song lyrics, musician rosters and atmospheric photos. It's a keeper, nonetheless.

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