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’Tis the season for musical boxed sets

Nirvana, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis among new collections

Boxed sets always make good holiday gifts, and this season there are plenty of outstanding collections to choose from. The long-anticipated set from Nirvana and collections from Michael Jackson, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead are among the sets reviewed.

“With The Lights Out,” NirvanaMore than 10 years after one of the world’s greatest rock stars took his own life, bringing to an end the pioneering music of Nirvana, the legacy of Kurt Cobain lives on with the box set release of “With The Lights Out.”

The long anticipated release, held up for years by a legal battle between Cobain’s widow Courtney Love and the surviving members of Nirvana, reminds listeners even a decade later of the powerful influence of the band that changed the face of rock music.

Of the box set’s 81 songs, 68 are previously unreleased. The CD/DVD collection features such rarities as a 1992 acoustic solo of “Rape Me” and a 1993 demo “Heart Shaped Box.” But it is the last of the three CDs, featuring music from 1992 until his death, that foreshadows — through dark music and even darker lyrics — Cobain’s downward spiral. You can hear it in “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die,” a 1993 B-side release, and “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam,” a 1994 rehearsal demo.

If the chance to hear new Nirvana music doesn’t hook listeners, then rare footage of the band should . The biggest draw on the DVD is the first live performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The performance is of a song that appears to be a work in progress. The lyrics and the arrangement sounds like they are still being worked out.

There is also a chance on the DVD to glimpse a 1988 rehearsal in bassist Krist Novoselic’s mother’s house. It is early Nirvana — before drummer Dave Grohl. There are also candid moments of the band on tour before the fame and money, and of them clowning at rehearsals.

There will be those who will likely scoff at the box set, saying it doesn’t represent the real Nirvana. Or accusing Novoselic, Grohl and Love of selling out Cobain’s memory. Ignore it, all of it. This is a chance, perhaps one final time, to hear something new — to hear the genius and pain that was Cobain.— Chelsea J. Carter

“The Ultimate Collection,” Michael Jackson
Forget about Red Sox fans — if you want to talk about a group that has endured true suffering, try being among the Michael Jackson faithful.

It’s bad enough to see your idol fall from artistic greatness and Jesus-like popularity. Throw in criminal charges, embarrassing lawsuits and public acts of madness, and it becomes almost too much to bear — sometimes you almost feel like throwing in the white glove.

But M.J. fans, don’t despair: There is a little respite from the constant storm of Jackson negativity. “The Ultimate Collection” is a four-disc boxed set chronicling how the King of Pop earned his crown (plus a DVD concert film, from his 1993 world tour, as an extra treat).

Even though the set is being released by Epic Records — Jackson’s musical home since the late ’70s — it pays tribute to his Motown heritage, including Jackson 5 classics like “I Want You Back” as well as preteen Jackson’s early solo hits, like the weirdly enchanting “Ben,” about a pet rat. There’s also hits from The Jacksons, including “Shake Your Body (Down To the Ground).”

But if you are a committed Jackson fan, you probably have a lot of this material already. There are his biggest hits from “Off the Wall,” “Thriller,” “Bad” and “Dangerous” — as well as his post-child molestation scandal material (“HIStory” and the 2001 full-length studio album “Unbreakable”).

Still, put together in one box set, with a 64-page color booklet chronicling each step in his rise to greatness, and it’s tough to pass up. Besides, there are also hard-to-find tracks included, such as his songs from his movie debut in “The Wiz” and his 1984 hit with Mick Jagger, “State of Shock.”

What’s noteworthy here are demo recordings of some of his biggest hits, including a completely unrecognizable “P.Y.T” — in its previous incarnation, it was a lush, downbeat track that seemed tailor-made for lite-FM radio. We also hear an early version of “Dangerous,” and realize it was better than the one that ended up as the title track. This version has a more intense drumbeat that gives it extra funk; the album version sounds more sanitized.

There are also unreleased tracks from the Jackson vaults, some more polished than others. “In the Back” is a chill-out groove that is musically polished, but Jackson is still trying to figure out the lyrics. On others, we get to hear some of his signature freakiness play out in his songs: “Monkey Business,” with a lusty beat, features monkey noises, and the lyrics are just as bizarre as the sound effects.

But on the whole, you don’t hear eccentricities on this album. What you do hear is the superb vocalist, songwriter and musician who managed to capture the hearts of a nation for three decades. You’re reminded why he has the biggest-selling album of all time, and that there was a time when Michael Jackson was charming, alluring, and even sexy (yes kids, look it up — such a time did exist).

At this point, it seems unlikely that the Jackson we knew then will ever resurface. But when you listen to this box set, the possibility seems less remote.— Nekesa Mumbi Moody

“100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong,” Bon Jovi
Twenty years after roaring from the blue-collar bastion of Sayreville, N.J., Bon Jovi remains a hard rock institution, the only one of the ’80s hair bands to not only survive but thrive in the new millennium. This 4-CD set, and a bonus DVD, offer up 50 tracks that trace the band’s evolution from Jersey bar band to global phenomenon.

Bon Jovi closely follows the rules for all good box sets: virtually all the tracks are previously unreleased, eschewing album cuts that have been heard a million times before, and avoiding live filler. A 64-page book offers track-by-track notes from Jon Bon Jovi, rare photos and notes from fans on what the band has meant to them.

One of the best tracks is the opener “Why Aren’t You Dead?” A smart-aleck anthem in the tradition of “You Give Love A Bad Name,” this has the makings of a hit itself with its catchy chorus (“You said you couldn’t live without me/So why aren’t you dead?”) and a very mid-’80s “Slippery When Wet” vibe.

“The Fire Inside” is an early version of what would later become “Blood On Blood,” and “Out Of Bounds” is a stripped-down, aggressive guitar-heavy demo. Guitarist Richie Sambora’s own underrated vocal talents are showcased on “If I Can’t Have Your Love,” and keyboardist Dave Bryan shines on lead vocals with the Elton John-ish “Memphis Lives In Me.” (Memo to band: After hearing “Only In My Dreams,” renew that restraining order that keeps drummer Tico Torres at least 100 yards from the nearest microphone.)

Also interesting is a demo version of the smash hit “Always” which should be titled “Always: The Wedgie Version” because no human being with properly fitting underwear can hit the high notes Jon does on this track.— Wayne Parry

“The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1,” The Beatles
Warning: If you’re a Baby Boomer, this music review is politically incorrect.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s wonderful to hear the Beatles in full blossom again, energy bursting from their instruments and their most creative years still ahead of them, singing the groundbreaking pop that catapulted them to the top of the Mersey Beat and “The Ed Sullivan Show” beyond it. But listening to four early Beatles Albums in 2004 is, sadly, an exercise in nostalgia and little else.

Capitol is playing the release of this box set big. Of the albums included, it says this: “They sold in millions, they re-energized a troubled U.S. music business, and they helped fashion contemporary and future generations.” And that’s not overstating. The songs on these CDs — from “And I Love Her” and “She’s a Woman” to “All My Loving” and the amazing “I Feel Fine” — changed the way that pop music was viewed.

Each albums — “Meet the Beatles,” “The Beatles Second Album,” “Something New” and “The Beatles ’65” — is worth listening to, simply to listen for the ripples they caused and contemplate the influences they created. These days, with 20-20 hindsight, you can listen to early Beatles and hear Oasis and Fountains of Wayne and the Modern Lovers and all sorts of others in the voices of Lennon and McCartney and George Harrison’s guitar.

Still, you can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit antiquated. And truthfully, it is: However revolutionary and talented they were (and they were), in many ways the Beatles still shared as much with crooners of the 1950s as they did with the tide of 1970s pop superstars that they helped create. It was only later, beginning with “Rubber Soul,” that they entered the period of bizarre genius that ultimately defined them for good.

Maybe I’ve spent too many nights seeing too many bar bands do bad covers of “I Saw Her Standing There,” but in the end, this multi-CD set is more like a security blanket than a resonant musical experience — reliable but worn, at hand in a pinch for comfort and familiarity but very little else.— By Ted Anthony

“Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia
Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964”
If reality TV had been in fashion then, this seven-CD box set could have formed the soundtrack for Miles Davis’ version of “Making the Band.” “Seven Steps” documents a transitional phase in the trumpeter’s career when he was putting together what would become his second great quintet with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. Among the 47 selections are eight previously unissued tracks, three tracks heard for the first time in unedited form, and live concert recordings from Tokyo and Berlin not available before in Davis’ U.S. Columbia catalogue.

In 1963, Davis found himself putting together an entirely new band for an April recording session in Los Angeles with the 26-year-old Carter, the blues-inspired hard-bop tenor saxophonist George Coleman, and two West Coast players, pianist Victor Feldman and drummer Frank Butler. Disc 1 offers the complete recording session by this more laid-back and conventional quintet, including previously unreleased takes of “Seven Steps to Heaven” and “Joshua” that provide an interesting contrast with what was to come.

By the time Davis returned to New York the next month for a follow-up studio session for his “Seven Steps to Heaven” LP, his group included the 23-year-old Hancock and the 17-year-old phenom Williams. From their first recording date, included on Disc Two, it’s clear that this younger rhythm section has energized Davis’ playing as evidenced by their faster tempo versions of “Seven Steps” and “Joshua,” selected for the LP release.

The remainder of Disc Two and Disc Three presents for the first time the quintet’s entire July 1963 set at the Antibes jazz festival in France, previously available in abridged form on the “Miles Davis in Europe” LP. The risk-taking, versatile and inventive new rhythm section helps Davis breathe new life into tunes from his old repertoire such as “Walkin”’ and “Milestones,” and the informal setting gives the musicians lots of room to stretch out, including on a previously unissued 16-plus-minute version of “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

The remaining discs might be subtitled “Miles and the Three Tenors,” featuring three live concerts, often with overlapping repertoire, but with three different tenor sax players — Coleman who is too traditional, Sam Rivers who is too avant-garde, and Shorter who is just right for the new ensemble. Discs Four and Five offer a particular treat — one of the best live concert recordings in Davis’ discography — with both sets from his February 1964 concert at New York’s Philharmonic Hall restored to their original sequence, including an unreleased version of “Autumn Leaves.” Previously, these performances had been reshuffled on two LPs, “My Funny Valentine” (ballads) and “Four & More” (uptempo material). The quintet with the underrated Coleman is in peak form, particularly on ballads like “My Funny Valentine,” and extends the conventional structures to the breaking point on Davis classics like “So What” and “All Blues.”

On Disc Six, Coleman has been replaced by the more modern Rivers for Davis’ first visit to Japan. Their July 1964 Tokyo concert finds the saxophonist in sync with the rhythm section but not quite meshing with the leader. Davis finally got the saxophonist he was looking for when Shorter joined up for a September 1964 Berlin concert. From the opening, faster-tempo version of “Milestones,” it’s clear that Davis has found the missing link needed to take the quintet to new heights. A major find here is a previously unissued “Stella By Starlight.” A year later the quintet released its landmark “E.S.P.” album with all new compositions by its members, establishing its reputation as one of the most innovative combos in jazz history.

This box set might be too big an investment for the casual listener, but it’s a must-have for Miles aficionados.— Charles J. Gans

“Studio Recordings 1972-2000,” Paul Simon
Quietly, slyly and persistently, Paul Simon became one of the most indispensable voices in American music during the last half of the 20th century. After Simon & Garfunkel went their separate ways, his restlessness — expressed in songs of almost crazy variation — bounced from pole to pole, and his genius was only made more evident by the occasional mediocrity that he offered forth.

For that reason, “Studio Recordings, 1972-2000” is both a wild, offbeat ride through the culture as seen through Simon’s eyes and a solid piece of evidence that, like anyone pondering the human condition, he has amazing successes and near-genius failures.

The box set includes nine Simon albums, from his first solo effort to 2000’s “You’re the One.” Many are old friends, particularly the earlier ones, and each is pleasing to hear again — even “Songs from the Capeman,” Simon’s high-concept blend of theater and music that ended in commercial failure.

But what makes this set worth a closer look is its bonus tracks, mostly unreleased early version and prototypes. They offer an engrossing glimpse into a master songwriter’s process.

An early version of “Duncan,” for example, is not simply a rough draft but an entirely different story that features a married man instead of a wandering lost boy. And “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” in its embryonic state, is saturated with wink-nudge hints of early-1970s radicalism that were lost in the final version. “One Trick Pony,” meanwhile, features the welcome reappearance of one of Simon’s oddest songs, “Stranded in a Limousine.”

And of course “Graceland”: a triumphant fusion of World Beat and a deeply American sensibility, it is blues rethought, retooled, repurposed. He went searching in Africa and came back to America again, and his recipe totally works, even two decades later.

In a way, just as certain Simon & Garfunkel songs were anthems of one corner of the 1960s (“The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson”), the wistfulness of many of Simon’s solo efforts — confused, seeking, finding solace in word play and introspectiveness — reflected that East Coast 1970s angst captured so perfectly in Woody Allen’s movies.

What Adam Duritz was to the 1990s — sullen and lonesome and wise, self-indulgent and occasionally oddly exuberant — Simon was to the 1970s. “The problem is all inside your head,” he sings, and that’s just the point.— Ted Anthony

“Beyond Description (1973-1989),” Grateful DeadThe Grateful Dead rose from the streets of San Francisco in the early 1960s on a wave of their own invention as one of rock’s earliest jam bands, redefining success with a fan base that favored live shows above all else.

“Beyond Description (1973-1989)” is a remastering of 162 songs and 10 albums recorded on Grateful Dead Records and Arista that chronicles the band’s hit-and-miss effort to translate that live performance groove into chart-topping gold.

Beginning with a folky blend of blues and rock in 1973’s “Wake Of The Flood” and carrying through to 1989’s “Built to Last,” an album recorded just six years before lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death, the box is overwhelming.

More than half of the songs are unreleased studio out-takes, alternate cuts, and demos. As an example, Phil Lesh fooling around between refrains of “Pride of Cucamonga” during an acoustic demo on “From The Mars Hotel,” and two very different live versions of “Monkey and the Engineer” on 1981’s “Reckoning.”

These are cherished rarities Dead Heads collect like memories. And while almost all of the albums were only modestly received, including them in this massive of a re-release has one benefit: old becomes new.

Even if you’re not into the Dead, there’s a sense of loss as the songs shuffle along and those wild-eyed musicians from California become paunchy middle-aged men struggling to adapt to changing musical mores, but finding comfort on the stage.

When Garcia died in 1995, there was a sense that the lights were being turned on at a party no one wanted to end. But few bands have had the Dead’s longevity. Their music spanned generations with a tour that ran through four decades.

Even now the remaining members of the Dead remain a top concert draw. That too will stop, but hopefully there’s another drawer of recordings waiting to be opened when the music finally stops.— Ryan Lenz

“Black Box: The Complete Original Black Sabbath
(1970-78),” Black Sabbath
To many, Ozzy Osbourne is TV’s most befuddled house-father. But “Black Box” shows us a different Ozzy — the banshee-voiced wildman singer for the group that would become the prototype for a heavy metal band.

The eight-CD box set covers Ozzy’s recorded tenure in Sabbath from 1970-78. It includes a DVD with early television performances by the group and an 80-page book bound in crushed velvet with pictures and lyrics.

Sabbath pioneered a guitar-focused, heavy rhythm sound that took cues from earlier volume-heads like Cream and Jimi Hendrix. When guitarist Tony Iommi lost the ends of two fingers in an industrial accident, he tuned his guitar down, making it easier to play with his handicap. That distorted, bottom-heavy guitar tone powered Sabbath.

Iommi was backed by one of rock’s best rhythm sections in drummer Bill Ward and bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler, who played with agility hinting at jazz influences.

The classic rock canon songs, “Paranoid” and “Iron Man,” are in “Black Box.” But so are the lesser-known tracks that made Sabbath great. The group alternated between heavy-fast (“Children of the Grave”) and heavy-slow (“Hand of Doom”), with the occasional depressed ballad thrown in for a breather (“Changes”).

The band’s first five albums rival Led Zeppelin’s similar run of classic records. But cracks began to appear by “Sabotage” (1975) as the group wore down from drug use and internal fighting. The riffs sounded like caricatures of classic Sabbath. Ozzy left after the mediocre “Never Say Die” (1978).

Black Sabbath were called many things by critics in the ’70s, most of it bad. But “Black Box” shows a group with an influence that has outlasted it all — just turn on the radio.— Mark Donahue