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Various Artists
Anthology of American Folk Music
(Smithsonian Folkways)

The indigenous music of this country is too varied to fully capture on six discs, but American Folk Music comes closer to doing so than anyone could have expected. Editor Harry Smith and his crew have done an amazing job of choosing songs that epitomize a thousand others--and the discourses and appreciations that come with them are an added bonus.

Various Artists
Cuba: I Am Time
(Blue Jackel)

A thoroughly enchanting overview of a kinetic musical hotbed. In just four discs, I Am Time introduces listeners to an assortment of Cuban folk styles, concluding with a Cuban jazz album that sports turns by players obscure (Los Terry, Orland Valle "Maraca") and well-known (Chico O'Farrill, Gonzalo Rubalcaba).

Various Artists
Beg, Scream & Shout!: The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul
(Rhino)

The extravagant packaging of Beg, which comes in a carrying case complete with a latch and handle and includes a pack of trading cards, is so excessive that it threatens to overshadow the music itself. But once you finally get these six CDs into your player, the songs take over.

John Zorn
The Parachute Years: 1977-1980
(Tzadik)

Zorn has never pretended to make music for everyone: He is determined to explore the realm of sounds in a way that interests him, and if others want to listen in, they can. The Parachute Years provides the perfect opportunity to do so via seven CDs overflowing with the freest of free jazz and accompanied by oddball notes and doodlings by Zorn himself.

COLLECTIONS

King Crimson
Epitaph
(Discipline Global Mobile)

Art rock is easy to ridicule, but it can be enthralling when it's done well--and Epitaph is. These two CDs of live material from 1969 aren't jam-packed with surprises: The three versions of "21st Century Schizoid Man" differ in length by less than thirty seconds. But Robert Fripp and the other musicians are in optimum condition, frequently transcending the studio versions from In the Court of the Crimson King.

Magic Sam
The Magic Sam Legacy
(Delmark)

The late Magic Sam didn't make as much music as blues lovers would have liked, but much of what he left behind is sublime. Legacy showcases thirteen previously unreleased songs made with lineups elevated by the striking tenor work of the aforementioned Eddie Shaw. It's magic indeed.

Lee Perry
Upsetter in Dub
(Heartbeat)

Arkology, a Perry boxed set on Island, has not wanted for attention this year. But Upsetter is actually a worthier effort--more than an hour of prime dub culled mainly from B-sides that haven't been widely heard since the Seventies. A perilous journey on the Black Ark with an inspired madman at the wheel.

The Residents
Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses
(Rykodisc)

Operating on the most frayed fringes of the entertainment industry, the eyeball-headed Residents have been around for a quarter-century--and they're still weirder than hell. The two-disc Masses, which draws intelligently from the combo's startlingly scattershot oeuvre, is an ideal way to get to know them.

Charlie Rich
Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich
(Epic/Legacy)

Rich was several different performers: a country singer, a jazz man, a rock-and-roller, a rebel (after presenting a Country Music Association award to John Denver in 1975, Rich burned the envelope it came in). These Charlies and more are trotted out over the course of Essential, a bargain-priced two-CD overview that does the Silver Fox proud.

COMPILATIONS

Various Artists
Chess Blues Classics: 1947-1956
Chess Blues Classics: 1957-1967
(MCA/Chess)

The Chess vault is crammed to the ceiling with must-have blues. But for people who want to get a taste of its abundance before sitting down to a full meal, Chess Blues Classics provides a way to do it. Once you hear a little Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and Little Walter, you'll be hungry for more.

Various Artists
Kurtis Blow Presents the History of Rap, Vol. 1-3
(Rhino)

Blow, whose song "The Breaks" helped bring hip-hop into the light, doesn't have his name on these albums for show: He produced History and wrote ebullient essays about the music on them. The first volume touches on rap precursors such as James Brown and the Isley Brothers; the second takes you back to the old school with Grand Master Flash and the Treacherous Three; and the third traces the Eighties with the help of Whodini, Run DMC and UTFO. The Nineties are next, Kurtis.

Various Artists
Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '70s
Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '80s
Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '90s
(Rhino)

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts