You Can’t Unwrap a Download

Last-minute ‘hard copy’ gift ideas for the music lovers in your life


usic always makes a great holiday gift, and this year the record industry has again put together a wide selection of box sets and other collections to please fans of just about any style of music. Here are some excellent options if you’re stuck and looking for a last-minute present. 

• The Beach Boys -

The Smile Sessions


Planned as the follow-up to the classic 1966 Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, Smile remains popular music’s most famous unfinished album. Wilson eventually re-created what Smile was supposed to be on a 2004 release. Now, The Smile Sessions collects the actual Beach Boys recordings from the mid-’60s sessions that were intended for Smile. Available as a two-CD set or as an outtakes-filled box set, The Smile Sessions includes the closest thing to the original Smile that we’ll hear. It’s understandably a bit disjointed but there are many moments of brilliance in these tracks, as well as the outtakes in the box set. It’s clear Wilson had the makings of a whimsical masterpiece in Smile and it’s fascinating to hear Wilson as he tries to realize his vision for the album. 

• Elvis Presley -

Young Man With The Big Beat



These five CDs document Presley in 1956, the year he became a full-blown phenomenon, selling 10 million singles, 3 million EPs and 800,000 albums. It’s anchored by Presley’s first two albums — Elvis Presley and Elvis — but also includes songs recorded in 1956 but not released on album until later (including “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel”), a disc of outtakes, performances from three 1956 concerts and audio interviews. This is the sound of Rock & Roll being revolutionized.

• Ray Charles -

Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles


Charles started out on Atlantic Records, but his career didn’t really take off until he left Atlantic for a lucrative deal with ABC Records. This five-CD set compiles Charles’ recordings for ABC from 1960-1973, so it has hits like “Georgia On My Mind,” “Hit The Road, Jack” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” But what this set really demonstrates is the consistent quality of Charles’ work during this period. 

• Nirvana -


(Universal Music Enterprises)

This recent two-disc reissue features the original groundbreaking album, plus unreleased early recordings and rehearsals of Nevermind tracks and outtakes from the recording sessions. For those who want more, a “Super Deluxe” edition also includes a previously unreleased concert recording from Halloween 1991 and producer Butch Vig’s previously unreleased mixes of Nevermind. The sets provide a fitting in-depth look at an album whose influence continues to reverberate today. 

• Howlin’ Wolf -

Smokestack Lightning: Complete Chess Masters

(1951 to 1960)

(Hip-O Select) 

This 97-song set features several classic songs that established Wolf as a towering figure in Blues (“Spoonful,” “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” and “Moanin’ At Midnight”). There are also plenty of alternate takes of songs and superb album tracks, making this a great document of Wolf’s first decade. Now let’s see a box like this covering Wolf’s post-1960 work.

• The Rolling Stones -

Some Girls

(Universal Republic)

Along with the original 1978 Some Girls album, this two-disc reissue also has a dozen unreleased bonus tracks from the period. They include some genuinely worthy songs, like the swaggering rocker “So Young,” the slinky Blues cut “Keep Up Blues,” the frisky Country-fied track “Do You Think I Really Care” and a rollicking cover of “Tallahassee Lassie.” These tracks make the Some Girls reissue an essential addition to any serious Stones fan’s collection. 

• R.E.M. -

Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011

(Warner Bros. Records)

This 40-track collection hits the highlights of R.E.M.’s stellar catalog, plus three fine new songs. Also recommended: R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant 25th Anniversary Edition, one of the AltRock pioneers’ best albums and the one on which the band’s sound gained grandeur and power. The anniversary version is supplemented by a 19-track collection of demos that includes several tracks that didn’t make the original album. 

• Johnny Cash -

From Memphis To Hollywood: Bootleg, Vol. III


This two-CD set collects 53 mostly unreleased live performances from 10 shows that span 1956 through 1979. Of special note is a 1970 White House concert with a Gospel slant. Many of Cash’s famous songs are included in the shows, but what the collection really illustrates is Cash’s range and growth as a live performer. 

Etta James -

Heart & Soul: A Retrospective (Hip-O Select)

Aretha Franklin may be the “Queen of Soul,” but Etta James is a close second. Spanning 1955-2008, this four-CD set covers everything from the lush balladry of “At Last” to the rough and tumble sounds of “Pay Back” and “Tell Mama.” Few artists — female or male — can match James’ command of R&B and Soul in all its variations. 

• The Jimi Hendrix Experience -


(Experience Hendrix/Legacy)

A year after these 1968 shows, Hendrix disbanded his group, the Experience. But the trio of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell is in fine form on this four-CD live set, as they take tracks like “Foxey Lady,” “Purple Haze” and especially “Are You Experienced?” to fresh and adventurous new places. 

• Miles Davis -

Miles Davis Quintet Live In Europe 1967


This three CD/one DVD set features unreleased performances by what many consider Davis’ greatest band (Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums). Die-hard fans will love comparing multiple versions of songs like “Footprints,” “Round Midnight” and “Mesquelero” while enjoying the classic Miles Davis Quintet in prime form. (Also recommended: Davis’ Bitches Brew Live.)

The Temptations -

50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection 1961-1971

(Hip-O Select)


The Supremes -

50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection 1961-1969

(Hip-O Select)

These two three-disc collections are the first releases to include every A- and B-side released by these two legendary vocal groups. The hits from each group are here, but so are lots of intriguing lesser-known songs. And one can literally hear both The Temptations and The Supremes develop their signature sounds as the sets move from early singles to heyday material. 

• Pink Floyd -


(and other releases) (EMI)

This was a great year for Pink Floyd fans. The Discovery box collects remastered versions of all 14 of the group’s studio albums. Even more exciting for hardcore fans are reissues of three key albums — Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall — in expanded “Experience” sets and massive multi-disc “Immersion” packages filled with outtakes, concert recordings and more. ©

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