Boxes Filled With Music

Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959) Ray Charles box set

Nowhere is Christmas abundance on such display as in the box sets the record companies put in our path every December to reward the virtuous and tempt the greedy.

Let's start with a couple of real prestige items. These are big bound books with CDs inside them covering the careers of the Band and Johnny Cash. They are volumes of Biblical weight, which is appropriate I suppose.

The Band was just about the greatest rock group North America ever produced, and this handsome box contains a healthy portion of their best work, from "Music from the Big Pink" to "The Last Waltz." It also comes with all kinds of rarities: early recordings when they were the Hawks, live tracks from their tours with Bob Dylan, Basement Tapes, demos, and a DVD of stage and television appearances. Even if you've got all the Band's albums--especially if you've got all the Band's albums--you're going to want this.

Even bigger is "Johnny Cash: The Legend." I'd call it a coffee table book but it's larger than my coffee table. It's a four CD tome covering most of Cash's career. It does not include any of the fine American Recordings he did in the last years of his life, but it has highlights from Sun and Mercury Records and from the thirty years he spent with Columbia. It also pulls together a lot of one-off tracks Cash did on albums by friends and family, including U2, Dylan, the Highwaymen and his daughter Rosanne.

You think that's the biggest box Santa can fit in his sack? Don't speak too soon, because Atlantic Records is out to break the reindeer's backs with this nine-hour eight-disk 164-track Ray Charles set: "Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1952-1959." It's everything Ray Charles recorded during his greatest period. Its musical worth is inarguable. This is some of the most important popular music of the 20th century. Do we really need seven outtakes of "The Nighttime is the Right Time"? No, but we don't need all the pages in the encyclopedia either.

Remember, the Grinch learned the hard way that Christmas is about more than getting presents. Would you like to do some good for humanity while you're stuffing someone's stocking? I have two DVD sets that will entertain while saving the world. I am talking about the first all-star charity rock concert, George Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh," with Ringo, Clapton, Ravi Shankar, and there's Dylan again. It's the successor to this past summer's LIVE 8 with Madonna, McCartney, Mariah, Stevie Wonder, Green Day, Coldplay, the Who, U2, the reunion of Pink Floyd and lots and lots and lots more rock, rap, country, and African music. George Harrison really started something with this idea of giant concerts for charity. It was inspired in 1971, and it's still inspiring in 2005.

Hey, what about that troubling person on your list who loves music but has everything already? Write this down: "Senegal," by the great African singer Baaba Maal. Talk about the gift of music. This package has a DVD documentary, a booklet, a National Geographic chart that would qualify you to teach a social studies class on West Africa. All cool stuff, but the main attraction is the CD. Beautiful, intricate music, alternately restful and exciting. Baaba Maal makes meditative music that might remind you of the softer side Peter Gabriel or Marvin Gaye. But when he switches into overdrive—boom--he's the African James Brown. And the African James Brown is a mighty thing to be.

Lastly, what if you can't go spending 50, 60 bucks on CDs? I want to mention one regular priced double-CD that contains more great music than most boxes. "Joan Armatrading Gold." It's 43 songs from a fantastic singer/songwriter who lit up a lot of dorm rooms in the 1970s. Styles changed in the video era, and Joan Armatrading faded out of the public mind. But when you put on this album you will be struck by just how consistently good she was. You cannot go wrong with this.

That's it. I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to drop a hint to my wife to buy me a new bookshelf where I can put all this loot.