The combination of a slumping economy and record labels scraping their vaults for pricey packages aimed at diehard collectors isn't making 2002 a great year for box sets: witness the scattershot six-CD vanity project Capitol Records 1942-2002, or the nine-CD Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, featuring eight (!) versions of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." But here's the cream of the current crop, all reasonably priced, for the music lover on your shopping list:
Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers -- The Complete Specialty Recordings (Specialty)
The end felt so tragic because the beginning sounded so pure. When Sam Cooke was murdered in a Los Angeles motel in 1964 for allegedly raping a woman, pop fans mourned the loss of a bona fide soul singer whose mesmerizing high tenor and boyish charm made him innocence personified. For secular-music devotees and the church community, Cooke's death and its surrounding circumstances were even more shocking; the Sam Cooke they knew was the baby-faced son of a preacher whose tenure with legendary gospel group the Soul Stirrers produced stirring gospel music.
Now every note of those recordings is housed in one slipcase and three CDs. For neophytes and Cooke devotees alike, these tracks are still a revelation, tracking the sound of Cooke rising from an unproven and tentative Soul Stirrers rookie to the undisputed leader of the group in just four years. Besides that unmistakable dazzling voice -- with a pure timbre and soaring multi-octave range reminiscent of another murdered baby-faced dynamo, Little Willie John -- Cooke's genius shines through in his early songwriting, as he penned enduring songs such as "Be With Me Jesus" and "Touch the Hem of His Garment." For listeners more interested in the music over the message, there are plenty of subtle touches throughout these tracks, from the Hawaiian guitar style on "Come and Go to that Land," to the insistent, rolling harmonies of Cooke's fellow Stirrers during "Wonderful."
Like most "complete" box sets, there's some filler and some killer. The former here is multiple alternate takes of multiple songs, often sequenced back-to-back, leaving the effect of hearing a sermon one too many times. But the latter makes up for it, as Cooke's thunderbolts-from-above performances on three live tracks from a 1955 concert are so overpowering, it's enough to make the biggest cynic convert.
Grant Green -- 1961-66 Retrospective (Blue Note)
Grant Green is practically synonymous with jazz guitar. He was one of the legendary Blue Note label's most prolific artists in the '60s, recording as a sideman and leader on more than 60 albums in a five-year span. Green eschewed chords and squalling discordant solos in favor of remarkably fluid single-note runs built on Charlie Christian's legacy and echoed the horn lines of Green idols Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. His style was blues-based and deceptively simple, as the multiple combos and genres on Retrospective show Green's diverse range. There's Latin grooves ("Besame Mucho"), sublime ballads ("You Don't Know What Love Is"), impassioned readings of jazz classics ("My Favorite Things"), hard bop ("Speak Low"), spirituals ("Go Down Moses"), slinky B-3 organ grooves ("Funky Mama"), straight-up trio work (a genius version of Miles Davis' "So What"), and even country and western, as Grant turns in a languid version of "I Can't Stop Loving You."
Part of the credit for that substantial artistic feat deserves to go to his virtuoso collaborators. Drummers Art Blakey and Billy Higgins, organists Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith, pianists Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, saxophonists Joe Henderson, Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and vibist Bobby Hutcherson are just a few of the musicians found on Retrospective. It makes for a free-flowing stream of magical dialogue, illuminating Green's own signature voice. Superb liner notes, packaging and photos make this set a must-have for jazz and guitar fans.
Dwight Yoakam -- Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years (Reprise/Rhino)
When it comes to neo-traditionalist country artists, Dwight Yoakam stands head and shoulders above the crowded field. There might be a few performers who can sing hard country with Yoakam's craft and conviction. There might be a few songwriters who can write devastatingly heartbreaking songs like "Two Doors Down." And there are a few frontmen out there who lead impressive bands. But there's no one who brings the whole package to the studio and stage like Yoakam; he's as close to the genius of Hank Williams you'll get.
Reprise Please Baby includes all of Yoakam's hit anthems like "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere," as well as forays into the Tex-Mex of "Carmelita" and the Stax Records soul of "Gone." And with right-hand man/producer/guitar wizard Pete Anderson at his side, Yoakam's become one of the great interpreters of American music: who else could cut Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," ZZ Top's "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide," Junior Parker's "Mystery Train," Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" and the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'" and make them sound like their own creations?
Yoakam aficionados will flip over the fourth disc of the set, a treasure trove of 21 previously unreleased tracks, including Yoakam's first demo sessions recorded in 1981. On tracks like "This Drinkin' Will Kill Me" and "I Sang Dixie," Yoakam's signature sound is already in full bloom. And when he revs up a live full-throttle electric band version of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," it's the ultimate proof that Yoakam's Bakersfield roots know no boundaries.
- Jazz guitarist Grant Green gets his due with the four-CD box set, Retrospective 1961-66.