Year-End Close-Out

We've got 1998's best albums in stock, but they're going fast.

Tutu Jones
Staying Power

Jones's voice is better than serviceable; he handles all manner of songs with confidence. But what allows Staying Power to stick around is his guitar playing. The notes stream out in a continuous flow that's juicy enough to quench the fiercest thirst.

Joe Louis Walker
Preacher and the President

Following along the path previously trod by Robert Cray, Walker gives his blues an infusion of soul that's sly and slinky. His lyrics are insightful and diverting, his voice doesn't strain for effect, and his guitar solos pour down like silver. Folks with an appetite for gut-bucket stuff won't be satisfied, but less picky consumers could do far worse than to vote for Preacher and the President.

John Coltrane
The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings

When saxophonist Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones last recorded together, in September 1965, they likely had no idea how influential the music they made in their three-plus years together would become. But any Nineties jazz fan who listens to this sumptuously packaged, meticulously researched eight-CD package will understand immediately why this material has cast such a long shadow. The sonic equivalent of a love supreme.

Miles Davis
Quintet: 1965-1968
The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions

Using the same design approach employed on the fascinating 1996 Davis-Gil Evans box The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, Columbia/Legacy has assembled two more gems. The six-CD Quintet celebrates the transitional period during which the trumpeter played with the sterling lineup of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams; the four-disc Bitches Brew Sessions explores the 1969-1970 tapes that gave birth to that most controversial of musical bastards, jazz fusion. Proper due is given to these essential American sounds.

Herbie Hancock
The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions
(Blue Note)

Hancock has long been praised for his work as a sideman (see above), but his solo work is generally regarded with a more jaundiced eye: His harshest critics have gone so far as to brand him a sellout. The six CDs here, culled from Hancock's work in the early and mid-Sixties, won't settle that debate, but they display the keyboardist's unquestioned virtuosity across a broad canvas.

Bob Marley
The Complete Wailers 1967-1972, Part I
(JAD Records/Koch)

Reggae didn't spring full-blown from the brow of Marcus Garvey; rather, the form evolved over time from rock steady and ska. Complete, a raw but spirited three-CD package, traces this development through the personage of Marley, the genre's most goliath figure. The Wailers provide jolts of pleasure whether they're espousing Rasta-isms in "Selassie Is the Chapel" or making like the Archies on a daffy cover of "Sugar, Sugar."

Randy Newman
Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman
(Warner Archives/Rhino/Reprise)

Newman isn't an ideal candidate for boxing: His best records (such as 12 Songs, Sail Away and Good Old Boys) should be digested in their entirety, not cut up into pieces. Still, Guilty does a commendable job of mating an intelligent overview of his solo compositions with assorted demos, live tracks and ditties originally written for films as disparate as Ragtime and James and the Giant Peach.

Bruce Springsteen

Most boxed sets are stuffed with padding--alternative takes that are hardly different from the official versions, studio chatter and so on. Tracks, by contrast, is four discs' worth of mainly unfamiliar items heard most often in completed form. Better yet, the offerings compare well to the songs Springsteen actually released. The package is more than just an excellent box; it's also a quartet of individual albums strong enough to stand on their own.

Various Artists
Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box

On the way to becoming the top archival record company in the U.S., Rhino has acquired the rights to a staggering variety of music, as this seven-CD cavalcade demonstrates. The packaging here is typically gimmicky (it comes wrapped in shag carpeting dotted with happy faces), and the audio clips from news events of the time that are inserted between tunes can be obtrusive, but the songs chosen effectively represent the good, the bad and the ugly sides of popular music circa the Seventies. The boxed-set equivalent of a coffee-table book.

Various Artists
Nuggets: Original Artifacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968

Compiled by Lenny Kaye, who would go on to serve as a guitarist for Patti Smith, Nuggets was initially a double album filled with garage-rock treasures by artists obscure and really obscure. That must-have is joined here by three more discs filled with songs from the era, and while the selections as a whole aren't as strangely perfect as they were the first time around, they'll provide garage aficionados with hours of greasy, grimy fun.

Hank Williams
The Complete Hank Williams

In all too many cases, the word "complete" doesn't belong in the titles of anthologies; it's more of a sales pitch than anything else. But there's no arguing about the accuracy of the moniker affixed to The Complete Hank Williams. These ten--count 'em, ten--CDs serve as a reminder why the senior Hank is among the seminal artists to emerge during our dying century.

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