While there are many positive things to be said about digital distribution, now the primary means for buying new music and quickly driving the CD to extinction, one thing you can't do with an MP3 file is wrap it up and put it under the Christmas tree.
For the purposes of holiday gift giving, physical product--hopefully purchased from one of the many fine mom-and-pop retailers still thriving against the odds in the Chicago area--remains the best way to bring a big smile to the face of the music lover on your seasonal shopping list.
With that in mind, my annual roundup of the coolest and best rock-related gifts among recently issued CD box sets, DVDs and books follows after the jump, along with some quick notes on what else is out there--and a few lump-of-coal musts to avoid.
CD BOX SETS
Pearl Jam, "Ten: Collector's Edition Box Set" (Sony Legacy)
It's hard to recall another single album that's ever gotten such a lavish reissue: Included in a heavy cloth-bound box celebrating the Seattle rockers' 1991 debut are a remastered CD of that album; another disc with a remixed version by their current fave producer, Brendan O'Brien, along with six previously unreleased tracks; a DVD of the band's appearance on "MTV Unplugged" with one track ("Oceans") that didn't air; four vinyl LPs (the original album, the newly remastered version and a live concert) and, as if all that wasn't enough, a replica of the original demo cassette. Though "Ten" arguably stands as the group's best album and one of the strongest releases of the '90s, this really is environmentally unfriendly overkill--unless you're a true hardcore fan, in which case you'll eagerly be awaiting similar treatments of all the group's other studio discs, too.
The Rolling Stones, "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! 40th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set" (Abkco)
Famously recorded over two nights at Madison Square Garden in 1969, when the Rolling Stones were at their absolute peak onstage, "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out" gets a more reasonable single album-to-box set reissue with one disc of the original album; a second of unreleased tracks (including killer versions of "I'm Free" and "You Gotta Move"); another with the sets that B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner delivered as opening acts on the tour; a bonus DVD with five more songs, and a book that includes the late great Lester Bangs' review for Rolling Stone magazine ("I have no doubt that it's the best rock concert ever put on record"). A winner, even if you already own the vinyl and CD.
Richard Thompson, "Walking on a Wire (1968-2009)" (Shout Factory)
Thoroughly deserving of the box-set treatment, the former Fairport Convention guitarist turned intensely rewarding solo artist has released a treasure trove of great music over the last four decades, including the mid-period stint with his ex-wife, Linda. Though this box doesn't offer a lot for long-time fans, it is a perfect introduction and overview for newcomers, with four discs and 71 songs hitting on every phase of his artistic development, including classic cuts such as "The Calvary Cross," "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and of course the title track.
Big Star, "Keep an Eye on the Sky" (Rhino)
One of the most inspiring if least-heard bands of the '70s, Alex Chilton and Big Star follow only the Beatles in terms of their influence on the power-pop genre, to say nothing of echoes heard in bands as diverse as R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and the Posies. In this four-CD set, the band's first two albums, "#1 Record" (1972) and "Radio City" (1974), are lovingly packaged along with myriad studio outtakes, alternate mixes and demo recordings--and all of the group's final effort from 1978, "Third," a.k.a. "Sister Lovers," is included as well. (Thanks for the correction, John Fry!)
"Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965--1968" (Rhino)
Speaking of "Nuggets," the latest installment of Rhino's series of box sets expanding on and fleshing out the pioneering Lenny Kaye compilation of "Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era" brings us four CDs with 101 more examples from the golden era of grungy garage rock, this time hailing from southern California. As always with these Rhino packages, there are a lot of overly familiar names fleshing out the proceedings--legendary acts such as the Byrds, Love, the Doors and the Beach Boys hardly are in keeping with the original "Nuggets" idea of forgotten one-hit wonders--and the real joy is unearthing much lesser known heroes such as the Electric Prunes, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, the Music Machine and the Merry-Go-Round. Thankfully, there are enough of those to carry the day, or about two and a half of these discs.
"The Beatles Stereo Box Set" and "The Beatles in Mono" (Apple/Capitol)
And now the 800,000-pound gorilla of 2009 box sets: the two Fab Four collections issued earlier this year. Obviously, the music remains some of the greatest ever recorded, and you really should own the entire catalog. Of course, many of us have bought it already--two, three or more times, in fact--and the cynical packaging here can't be criticized harshly enough. The remastered sound on the 13 original studio albums included in the stereo box is indeed wonderful, though we can debate whether it's really worth the $260 list price if you don't have a stereo system that cost ten times that much. But the bigger problem is that ten of these albums originally were mixed for mono--with stereo still a new-fangled afterthought during the period when the later of these 10 albums were released--so if you want to hear the recordings as the Beatles and George Martin originally intended, you have to spend another $300 list for the second box when the band and label easily could have included both mixes on one CD.
If you're shopping for a loved one who owns no Beatles, my advice is to go for the stereo box, since that's how they're used to listening. If you're a Beatles completist, you need the mono. But there's an argument to made for skipping both just to send a message that a little more consideration should have been given to devoted fans in these economically challenging times.
Now, a few more box sets that I've sampled in the last few months. While none of them would be on the top of my wish list this holiday, they may well thrill someone on yours.
Believe it or not, kids, there actually was a time when Rod the Mod was cool, and the first two discs of previously unreleased alternate takes on the four-CD "Rod Stewart Sessions (1971-1998)" (Warner Bros.) are packed with classic tracks such as "Maggie May," "You Wear It Well" and "I Was Only Joking" that make that case. Unfortunately, the second two CDs are entirely disposable, charting Stewart's descent into a caricature of a pandering Las Vegas crooner.
Need live Jim Morrison? "The Doors: Live in New York Felt Forum" (Rhino) boasts no fewer than six CDs taped during two concerts in January 1970. He was the Lizard King, he could do... a few things well, and a lot more that bordered on ridiculous camp. But hey, if you love this band, you're in good company with Oliver Stone and Val Kilmer.
Everything about country-pop legend Dolly Parton always has been larger than life, so it's no surprise that she delivers the goods on the new four-disc "Dolly" set from RCA, a fine instant Parton collection in a box. It stretches from the opening "Puppy Love" to a dreadful closing version of "Romeo" with an all-star roster of guests including spiritual offspring Tanya Tucker, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis... and, um, Billy Ray Cyrus. Geez, couldn't they get Jack White?
Some nostalgic Baby Boomers no doubt will treasure the umpteenth repackaging of "three days of peace and music" via the six-disc set "Woodstock, 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm" (Rhino). If you're not among them, let me offer a helpful synopsis: There was a lot of mud, countless naked and stoned hippies, a few great performances (the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Santana) and a whole lot of dreadful junk, including Richie Havens, Also Guthrie, John Sebastian, Joe Cocker and Sha Na Na. I guess you really hadda be there, man--though judging from the evidence on this box and in the movie, I'm really glad I wasn't.
If there's a snotty, multiply-pierced, tattooed young punk on your copy of Santa's list, they may well dig "Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records" (BYO), a nice package including a double LP (retro cool!), bonus CD and DVD compiling some of the most buzzed acts from these labels, some of the most respected in the punk underground. Among the pick hits: Bouncing Souls, Pennywise, Youth Brigade, NOFX, Anti-Flag, the Dropkick Murphys and 7 Seconds. But this and a gift certificate to the Alley, and you're set.
At the other end of the musical spectrum, we have two more box sets from progressive-rock giants turned mainstream pop peddlers Genesis. (The first three divided the band's history into 1970 to 1975, 1976 to 1982 and 1983 to 1998.) Now comes "Genesis 1973--2007 Live" (Rhino), eight CDs and three surround-sound DVDs that round up remastered versions of earlier live albums such as the superior "Live 1973" and "Seconds Out" (1977) and the pretty awful "The Way We Walk" (1992), as well as adding a killer concert from the Rainbow in 1973. Also hitting the stores: "Genesis: The Movie Box (1981--2007)" (Rhino), which includes most of the long-post-Peter Gabriel concert films, and thus is eminently skippable.
While the wellspring of CD box sets has been reduced to a trickle in recent years--the vaults having been pretty well emptied during the heady days of the CD boom--record companies have been issuing more and more cool DVDs of late, often as part of CD/DVD combined packages. Here are some of my recent favorites.
Nirvana, "Live at Reading" (Geffen)
Quite possibly the Holy Grail for Nirvana fans, the long-awaited official release of the trio's legendary 1992 headlining slot at the British music festival doesn't disappoint in terms of sound quality that betters the bootlegs and an incendiary set list that careers from "Drain You" through "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to "Territorial Pissings." The DVD is the gem because you can see the sweat and the chaos, though a special "deluxe edition" also includes two CDs. The video and audio apparently also will be available soon as separate packages.
Jeff Buckley, "Grace Around the World" (Columbia Legacy)
Another "deluxe edition," this box set contains two DVDs and one CD spotlighting the talented but short-lived singer and songwriter, whose influence looms ever larger on the current "freak folk" scene. One of the DVDs is packed with live footage from the never-ending tour supporting Buckely's debut album "Grace," while the other is an hour-long independent documentary telling his sad tale. The CD includes remastered versions of the live performances from the first DVD. If you're new to Buckley, you're better off starting with "Grace." If you're already one of his many devotees, however, this will be like manna from heaven.
"Scott Walker: 30 Century Man" (Oscilloscope)
Moving on to another idiosyncratic but much-loved singer and songwriter, this 2006 film by Stephen Kijak, executive produced by David Bowie, tells the story of England's darkest and strangest soul man through interviews with the artist, performance clips and additional insight from fans such as Bowie, Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and Radiohead. Finally appearing in the U.S. on DVD, it adds a number of cool extras, including footage of Walker recording a song from his 2006 album "The Drift."
Local H, "68 Angry Minutes" (www.localh.com)
This excellent DVD from Chicago's ultra-melodic rockers Local H captures the duo performing its hard-hitting 2008 album "12 Angry Months" in its entirety at the Beat Kitchen the night of its release that May. The gig was part of a string of shows each focusing on a different album from the group's six-disc catalog, and its live rendition of the breakthrough "Here Comes the Zoo" is included as one of the bonus features.
"You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-1984" (Factory 25)
Staying on the local tip, filmmakers Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman's loving history of the heyday of the Chicago punk scene, first screened in 2007, is at last out on DVD. Appealing to those who were there as well as everyone who wasn't with killer live footage and interviews of giants such as the Effigies, Naked Raygun and Big Black, it's just as enjoyable and illuminating for the light it sheds on much less heralded groups such as Tutu & the Pirates and End Result.
"Jethro Tull Live at Madison Square Garden 1978" (Capitol)
Jethro Tull in its prog-rock heyday remains a guilty pleasure, and this DVD/CD package captures Ian Anderson and his band of merry men at their flute-waving, codpiece-sporting, Merry Olde England silliest but hardest-rocking, just after the release of their last great album, "Heavy Horses," and with most of their classic hits delivered with gusto, from "Thick as a Brick" to "Aqualung" to "Songs from the Wood."
Lastly, in the realm of nostalgia I cannot get behind, we have two DVD sets that I would consider musts to avoid.
"Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood Live from Madison Square Garden" (Reprise) documents one of the more high-profile gigs on the recent tour by the former Blind Faith collaborators, with one disc of the concert--and a performance that is much more lifeless than the gig at Chicago's 2007 Crossroads Festival that prompted the reunion--and a second of additional tracks and documentary footage.
Even worse is the nine-DVD box set "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum Live" (Time Life). It rounds up 24 years of aging rock legends embarrassing themselves by dressing in tuxedoes to provide almost universally forced and rote command performances for Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and the other powers that be behind the inductions into rock's most hackneyed and pedestrian institution. The folks who produced this towering mass of crud really need to see "You Weren't There" for a reminder that the real rock 'n' roll spirit is about not wanting to belong to any club that would have you as a member.
There were a number of instant-classic rock books published this year, and two of the best used very different but equally illuminating approaches to chart the seismic shift that has recently remade the music industry as it existed for the last 75 years: Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper (Free Press) and Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music by Greg Kot (Scribner). (Disclosure: Former Chicago area freelancer Knopper is a friend, and Tribune rock critic Kot and I co-host Chicago Public Radio's "Sound Opinions.") Those two titles may not be properly festive enough for our purposes here, however, so here is a look at some tomes that are.
What Would Keith Richards Do? Daily Affirmations from a Rock 'n' Roll Survivor by Jessica Pallington West (Bloomsbury)
An ideal stocking stuffer for those with a slightly warped sensibility, this endlessly entertaining paperback compiles quotes from the inimitable pirate of rock on topics ranging from Nietzsche to fashion, making a case for Keef as the Zen Buddha of popular music--or at least its Yogi Berra. Some sample wisdom on children: "It's that bit of love you gave your own parents, the bit you don't remember--your kid gives that back to you." He's got a million of them, most present here.
Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer (Scribner)
Less of a dazzling stylist than rock critic greats Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer or Nick Tosches, Palmer, pop music critic at the New York Times from 1981 to 1988 as well as a prolific freelancer and a musician, was more like that clear, concise, intelligent and insightful professor who was a constant font of knowledge without ever being smug or showy about it. Since his death in 1997, the lack of an anthology of his work has left a glaring hole in the canon of rock lit, but editor Anthony DeCurtis has filled it with this satisfying, 400-plus-page collection of Palmer's writings on blues, jazz, soul, rock 'n' roll originators, the punk uprising and John Lennon, always a special obsession.
Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small by John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance (Algonquin)
Based in Durham, N.C., Merge Records has been one of the most consistently adventurous and rewarding independent labels in rock history, giving fans a long roster of acts starting with Superchunk (label founders McCaughan and Ballance's band) and continuing through Elephant 6 Collective heroes Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, the Magnetic Fields and the Arcade Fire. In celebration of its 20th anniversary, this book tells the Merge story via oral-history interviews with all of the key players and a plethora of great photos.
Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined by Saxophone, and 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists by the writers of the A.V. Club (Scribner)
Though the humor isn't as bountiful or obvious as it is in the front section of the Onion, there are still plenty of laughs in the arts and entertainment/A.V. Club portion of the beloved satirical newspaper, and this book--the very definition of the handy bathroom-reading tome--showcases it in list form while also providing a telling overview of the state of pop culture in film, videogames and of course music. One of my favorites: "8 Rock Movies That Make Their Subjects Look Like Dicks." (Numbers one through three: U2, "Rattle and Hum"; Robbie Robertson, "The Last Waltz" and Bob Dylan, "Don't Look Back.")
The Indie Rock Coloring Book by Yellow Bird Project (Chronicle)
Now here's a first, of merit both for twee hipster indie rockers and actual kids: Artist Andy J. Miller presents 27 pages of illustrations inspired by the music or image of bands such as Rilo Kiley, the New Pornographers, the Shins, Andrew Bird and Wolf Parade, just waiting for those lines to be filled in with the glorious colors from a jumbo box of Crayola crayons. Yeah, it's more than a little silly, but the proceeds all go to charity, and you can't help speculating how cool this notion would be if it was expanded into similar coloring books on, say, death metal or gangsta rap.
Grunge: Photographs by Michael Lavine (Abrams)
As the Seattle-area photographer who chronicled the scene there in the late '80s and early '90s and shot more than a few Sub Pop record covers, Charles Peterson is the name most often associated with the alternative rock explosion, but just as many iconic photos were snapped by Michael Lavine, who moved from Washington State to New York in the mid-'80s and captured all of the key bands of the era as they worked their way east. After an introduction by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and an opening section devoted to fans of the music, this beautifully printed art book rounds up Lavine's black and white portraits of Mudhoney, the Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Pearl Jam and of course Nirvana, among others, all of them stunning and unforgettable.
The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side (Voyageur Press)
Finally, one last contender that I can't pretend to be objective about: My name is on the cover, though the editors and designers from the Minneapolis publishing house really deserve the credit for crafting such a beautiful, velvet-wrapped, coffee-table art book full of incredible photos, posters and assorted memorabilia portraying one of the most innovative and influential rock bands in history, much of it never before seen, even if you own a shelf full of books about the Velvets, Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico. I contributed the central historical overview and edited the essays about each of the band's albums contributed by a group of fine critics that included my "Sound Opinions" co-host, Tribune rock critic Greg Kot, among others. And regardless of my involvement, it's a wonderful thing to have on the shelf.