CDs: Christmas Delights

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The gift of music is a common one during the holidays. But choosing just the right tunes for just the right person is an art. VH1's Bill Flanagan, a CBS News Sunday Morning contributor, points us in the right direction. Here is his commentary.

My theory about buying records for Christmas is, you want to give people something they will be glad to have but would not buy for themselves.

So although there are new CDs in the store from everyone from Britney Spears to Bob Dylan, it's probably safe to assume that the people who want those have them. Christmas is about beautifully wrapped packages...or in the case of the record business, beautifully wrapped RE-packages: box sets, greatest hits albums, live records, and DVDs.

First, let's look at the new "greatest hits" collections. Madonna has a "Greatest Hits 2" set, covering her singles in the '90s. Madonna's one of those singers whose singles are a lot better than her albums, (I always think of her as the modern equivalent of the Supremes.) So this is something anyone with a soft spot for Madonna will be glad to have.

For the edgier listener, Smashing Pumpkins have a greatest hits album. If you have a nephew in college with black fingernails, he'll love this. Of all the American alternative bands to get big in the wake of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins were the least conflicted about going flat out for rock stardom. They were a really good group who never made a bad album and broke up before they were asked to leave. This record is a great entry point for new fans, and a fond farewell for old ones.

What will probably turn out to be the best-selling best-of this year is "Echoes - The Best of Pink Floyd," a two CD set that covers the British group's most popular and influential songs from the '60s to the '90s. Put on your headphones, turn on the lava lamp, and fill up the waterbed. In 1973, this music took you to 2001. In 2001, it will take you to 1973. Pink Floyd: It's not just a trip, it's a ROUND trip.

Re-issues have become popular in the CD era, but they raise the question: if you've already bought an album on vinyl, 8-track, cassette, and CD, how can you be enticed into buying it again? Well, in the case of Elvis Costello, Rhino Records has the answer. They are re-issuing all of Costello's albums as double CDs, with a remaster of the original record and a whole second disc of demos, outtakes, non-LP-B-sides, and other lost treasures from the time each of the originals was made. This trick only works if you have a musician like Costello, who is as talented as a Beatle and as prolific as a rabbit. They have started their series with three great Costello CDs, one from the '70s ("My Aim is True"), one from the '80s ("Spike") and one from the '90s ("All This Useless Beauty"). If you know any smart people who like rock 'n' roll, this is for them.

DVD players have exploded across America in the past year and that gives us another format to stick in the stockingBruce Springsteen has released three DVD collections recently. One is a double DVD of all his videos, some of which I never knew existed. One is the documentary called Blood Brothers, made around the reunion of his E Street Band, and the best of the bunch is called Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live in New York City. It was filmed at Madison Square Garden at the end of their tour last year. Part of it was seen on HBO last summer and just won an Emmy. But I've got to tell you, the whole disc of material that was not included in the HBO special is even better than what made the air. There are some great new songs, some reinterpretations of old songs, and a lot of moments that remind you that these guys will probably hold the crown as greatest American rock band until someone is tough enough to step up and take it away from them.

Also on DVD and a great, great gift for anyone with an interest in where all this stuff comes from is "American Roots Music," an expanded version of the recent PBS series that covers the birth and development of country, gospel, blues, and folk. This includes archival footage, great performances, and a wonderful overview of how American music got to where we all came in. I know I'm going to be giving away a few of these - and probably getting a couple, too.

Finally, what Christmas is really all about - box sets. As my brother always says, even if you don't like the music, they sure look good on the shelf. The people at Columbia Legacy have been working overtime on the catalog of Miles Davis, one of the richest mother lodes in 20th century music. They have just released a beautiful three-CD set of the complete sessions for "In a Silent Way."

This is important because for all the deification of Miles that's occurred since his death, there is still tremendous controversy around this period, when he began creating what would come to be called Fusion - a mix of jazz, rock and funk. Fusion is very unfashionable now, but this set demonstrates how much creativity Miles and his great collaborators Joe Zawinul and Tony Williams could pull from that form. If a lot of the people who followed them were not as talented, that's not their fault, and it should not diminish what they accomplished.

Simon and Garfunkel were recording for the same label at the same time as Miles, but you can't call them controversial. Everyone liked them. "The Complete Simon & Garfunkel" box is just what it says: all their studio albums, as well as 13 bonus tracks. I could pick a bone over the failure to include their 1975 reunion single, "My Little Town," or the infamous unreleased track "Cuba Si, Nixon No," that Garfunkel fought against including on "Bridge Over Troubled Water." On the other hand, maybe there's a good reason no one ever heard it. Maybe Garfunkel was right. One thing's for sure: you know at least five people who would love to own this collection.

Now get a load of this. Talk about a wonderful gift: "Lady DayThe Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944." This is a magnificent set, a real "album" in the true sense with great binding, a terrific 116-page book, and 230 tracks on 10 CDs of some of the defining music of the 20th century. I guess Billie Holiday is not for everyone, but she's for anyone with a heart, anyone with ears. If you need a gift for a person who loves jazz, who loves classic American vocalists, or who just loves popular music, this Billie Holiday collection will not only delight them on Christmas, it will stay with them forever.

And it will look really cool on their shelf.

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