Testify! The Gospel Box(Rhino Records).
Los Lobos: Mas y Mas (Rhino Records)
Respect: A Century of Women In Music (Rhino Records)
Box sets, those multi-disc collections, generally come in two flavors. One type compiles a certain musical genre or theme (i.e., four discs of the greatest polka music or all the music from the 1960s that you’ll ever want to hear). The range of this approach is surprisingly broad and mixed. Although these sets do deliver a focused view of a particular genre or a specific point of view, the musical quality of any one set can run from material that is essential for a complete overview of a genre to the inclusion of material that are just too bizarre, too musically weak to warrant a second listen, much less inclusion in a boxed set. What often happens is that you get all that polka music both good and bad, thus yielding a collection only partially satisfying, and a collection that could be pared down in terms of both scope and price. Of course, there are exceptions to this generalization.
The other kind of boxed set focuses on the broad career perspective of a particular artist. At best they include rare cuts, alternative takes of classic hits, and/or previously unheard live performances. For the "true" fan these sets are appealing. They often fill voids in one’s collection, but they too can include material that only a true fan would appreciate. For instance, on the Beach Boys’ boxed set there was a complete side of just the accompanying music to their hits and another side with just the vocal arrangements. This material might be musicologically interesting, but it is hardly the material you’d put on at a party. Of course, like the genre box, the quality of this type of set also has variations. And I’d like to mention three sets.
Testify! The Gospel Box In this ambitious task, Rhino records has compiled on three discs a broad array of African American gospel music from the early 1940s through the late 1990s. The first disc emphasizes the glorious early period of the vocal harmony groups (The Golden Gate Jubilee Singers, The Fairfield Four, The Original Five Blind Boys, plus soloist Dorothy Love Coates, Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland). The second disc features artist of the 1960s and ’70s like The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar, and Andre Couch. The final disc shows how gospel has been modernized. Instead of using the organ and vocal chorus as the main units of accompaniment, we hear synthesizer backing The Winans and Take 6, and a truly pop sound supporting Yolanda Adams and Whitney Houston.
Showing us the changing sound of gospel music is the strength of this collection. By dedicating an entire disc to the contemporary sound of gospel music and by not focusing only on its classic sound, this becomes an excellent set for hearing the evolution of gospel music. Although one might argue that the new popularization of the gospel sound is a step removed from the early traditional sound and thus somehow less authentic, one cannot say that you won’t hear the musical difference on this set. If unaware of the gospel sound, this is an excellent place to start your listening.
Los Lobos: Mas y Mas This excellent four-disc set is a chronological look at the 20-year-plus recorded career of Los Lobos, an exceptional East LA band. Starting with some of their earliest recorded material, showcasing their rough but exciting bar band days, this sets includes most of their subsequent hits, a fair smattering of alternative cuts and rare recordings plus versions of tunes with guest artists. On the surface this set looks like a typical artist-perspective collection. But what makes it valuable and worthwhile is that it goes beyond highlighting one group’s evolving sound. It shows how a group went from a rag tag local phenomena using musical conventions endemic to their local audience, to a group who keeps their local musical integrity while their material and musical perspective changes as they use the musical convention found in much of pop music. The result is a set that traces how a little band from LA grows into a big band from LA that still advocates the feelings and sounds of its original East LA audience. One might say the first and second discs highlighting their early career are a more authentic reading of their "true" sound where disc three and four show them now to be a polished and worldly pop band, but I would argue that on all discs they still sing the songs of East LA with their roots up-front for all to hear.
Respect: A Century of Women In Music. This wonderful set mixes 89 years of recorded women’s music into a breath-taking panorama of sounds, styles, attitudes, and social stances. It mixes 114 female artist’s material that reflects different decades, different genres, and different musical choices into an astonishing whole that shows the fundamental importance of women in music. Essentially chronological in order, the first disc features the soloists (Ada Jones), blues belters (Ma Rainey), Broadway divas (Ethyl Merman), early country ensemble singers (Aunt Molly Jackson) representing the first thirty years of the century. The second disc we hear the power of black gospel singers (Mahalia Jackson), the cowboy "sweethearts" (Patsy Montana and Kitty Wells), the big band singers (Ella, and Lena), the musical "starlets" (Judy Garland, Debbie Reynolds), and the R&B chanteuses (Sarah Vaughn, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker) from the forties and fifties. Disc Three highlight the "girl groups" (Shirelles, Vandellas), the "Soul Sisters" (Nina Simone, Aretha, Betty Wright), and the balladeers (Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Carole King) of the sixties and early seventies. The "Women of Rock" are found on disc Four: Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt, The Slits. Disc Five features the musical mixes of the eighties and nineties: Rap (Salt-N-Pepper), Pop (Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash), and "Women’s Music" (Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Sarah McLachlan).
From this long and broad array of artists it is clear the importance of women in recorded music’s history. Besides getting an excellent group of artists, this boxed set truly puts the voices of women out front where they rightfully belong. This, like the other two sets, should be an important part of your CD collection.
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