Christmas gifts - music collections

9 months ago
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Gift guide: the best pop and classical collections for Christmas

Choose from the top musical stocking-fillers for 2017


The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: 50th Anniversary Edition

Controversially, given that tinkering with Sgt Pepper is tantamount to spraying graffiti on the Turin Shroud, Giles Martin (son of George) remixed the album for its 50th anniversary. The results are, thankfully, pretty good. The original stereo mastering was done quickly as an afterthought; on Martin’s new stereo and 5.1 surround-sound mixes instruments are clearer, separation more defined. This six-disc set is for serious Pepperites: it includes alternate takes (nice to hear George Harrison coaching the musicians through Within You Without You), the original mono recording and a 1992 making-of documentary on the DVD. Two posters, a hardbound book and the cut-out moustache and badges of Pepper legend also feature.  50 years ago today…

David Bowie A New Career in a New Town 1977-1982

This is a glorious summation of Bowie’s most creative period. Escaping cocaine-induced paranoia in Los Angeles for Europe, he teamed up with Brian Eno and the producer Tony Visconti for the “Berlin” trilogy of Low, “Heroes” and Lodgerbefore capturing post-punk dissonance on the less experimental but equally arresting Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). This 11-CD/13-vinyl collection features the original Lodger and a remastered, less muddy edition, two versions of David Live, one-offs including an instrumental for a Crystal saké advert, and a book of photos, notes and reviews. Some dislike Visconti’s remastering, notably a volume drop on “Heroes”, and nobody needs 13 discs from a five-year period. Yet losing yourself in Bowie’s expressionistic world remains a pleasure.

Joan Baez features on Milk of the Tree: An Anthology of Female Vocal Folk & Singer-Songwriters 1966-73

A folk revival, the feminist movement and a mood of introspection made the late 1960s and early 1970s a golden age for female singer-songwriters, the best of whom are collected on this neat three-disc collection. Alongside Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt are Wendy and Bonnie, sisters from California whose By the Sea is a dreamlike reverie; and David Bowie’s one-time girlfriend Dana Gillespie, who curses herself for falling for a faithless lover (was his first name David?) on the eerie Foolish Seasons. Some songs, such as Judee Sill’s Jesus Was a Cross Maker, have the questing spirit of the times; others, especially Anne Briggs’s Sandman’s Song, capture the hippy era’s dream of rustic simplicity. Having this in the car will make that drive home on Boxing Day far more harmonious. 

REM Automatic For The People: 25th Anniversary Edition

REM’s mordant, reflective, 18 million-selling masterpiece from 1992 cemented their status as “the acceptable edge of the unacceptable”, as the guitarist Peter Buck put it. It was also an album about death, made at the height of the Aids crisis and capturing the bands’ discomfort with fame and turning 30. The remastered album sounds fantastic, especially Everybody Hurts, even if REM did intend it to be a parody of Nazareth’s saccharine standard Love Hurts. An album’s worth of unreleased demos, including a couple of so-so songs (Mike’s Pop Song, Devil Rides Backwards), a 1992 recording from the 40 Watt Club in Atlanta, a Blu-ray disc of promotional videos and a book of interviews and photographs complete this edition, which offers a good excuse to revisit the high watermark of alternative rock.

Eagles Hotel California: 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

Hotel California gets a bad rap, being emblematic of a time when rock was set adrift in a sea of excess, yet the album is about that very subject. The title track is an indictment of Los Angeles high life; New Kid in Town parodies Hollywood’s obsession with the new. Here we have the original recording remastered, plus a Blu-ray audio version, a concert from the Los Angeles Forum, three posters, a tour diary and a book with colour-saturated photos of Don Henley and co looking suitably overindulged. This is an expensive way of stretching out what is essentially one 32 million-selling soft-rock album, and the volume-heavy remastering adds little, but the box-set treatment offers immersion in a milieu that by today’s puritanical standards, feels tantalisingly louche. 

Find live bands available to play at a wedding, party or other event

Robert Redford’s American Epic is a three-part documentary on the early days of the American recording industry, and this five-disc, 100-song set gathers together the 1920s rural music featured on it. It is remarkable to hear not just the country, bluegrass, Latin, gospel and blues gems that influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to the White Stripes, but also the sense of mystery that runs through so many of them. Some, such as Eddie Head’s Down on Me (made famous by Janis Joplin), are desperately sad. Some, such as Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues (covered by Eric Clapton and countless others), reverberate with supernatural menace. And others, such as Dilly & His Dill Pickles’s Pickin’ off Peanuts, are downright silly. Presented within a hardbound book featuring details on people who often recorded a single session round a microphone before returning to their lives as farmers, preachers and hobos, this is not only a feat of curatorship, but also a window into the mindset and landscape of rural American life in the early 20th century. 

Prog Rock

King Crimson Sailor’s Tales

In the early 1970s they called this “heavy music” and, heavens, it still is. Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s lavish slab of collected works weighs in at three kilos; an exhaustive exhumation of live and studio material by King Crimson from 1970-72 is two kilos.

It’s hard to know how a rock band quite so flamboyantly risky as ELP could succeed today. A mad amalgam of Led Zeppelin and Mussorgsky, they assaulted blameless classical tunes with thunderous abandon, all the while laughing at the taste police. For bombast, I suppose, Muse are their stadium-stomping heirs. The best of the original albums, all featured here, are the early ones. There’s lots of decent unreleased live material too, although the multiple versions of Take a Pebble and Tarkus are a reminder that being a rock god had its repetitive side. So is it worth rebuying the greatest hits for the rarities? The answer involves a complex algorithm factoring in the extent of your fandom and the size of your overdraft.

King Crimson’s scouring of the archive extends to a couple of audition jams by failed would-be band members. The box compilers concede that 1970-72 was not the band’s starriest period, occurring after the unexpected triumph of In the Court of the Crimson King. These myriad alternate takes and live versions of knotty tunes from Lizard, Islands and In the Wake of Poseidon are very much for completists. But there are lots of those out there; like the Jesuits, successful musicians know that fans caught young often stick around.

A fine low-cost alternative is Live in Chicago, a double album by King Crimson’s present eight-man line-up. This umpteenth version features three drum kits. As they perform Crimson tunes ancient and modern they sound at times close to being their own tribute band. Yet the dense interplay can be breathtaking, and a mighty rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes” will charm your prog-sceptic partner.

Finally, evidence that the venerable sound of prog can still attract lively minds. Big Big Train is a clunker of a name and I’m not overwhelmed by their new Christmas single. But recent albums, particularly Grimspound, have been hugely impressive in a slightly retro way. And on their website,, instead of a wallet-emptying box set, the band offer a download of their EP London Songfor which you can pay what you like. Hey, it’s the season of giving.


Herbert von Karajan Complete Recordings

Despite his early Nazi affiliations, the glacially dictatorial maestro of the Berlin Philharmonic sold 200 million recordings before his death in 1989. This epic collection — 330 CDs, 24 DVDs, a substantial book by Richard Osborne, Herbert von Karajan’s acolyte on Earth — may explain why. Karajan’s genius was to complement the dark power of his orchestra with an ultra-refinement that some saw as perfection, others suffocation. His first cycle of Beethoven symphonies may never be surpassed, and his finest opera recordings — Salome, Tosca, Falstaff and Der Rosenkavalier among them — assemble peerless mid-20th-century casts. Nothing was ever spontaneous with Karajan, and that limited him in my eyes, but for £1 short of 800 quid you will get 4,000 tracks of Austro-Germanic music-making at its most precisely engineered.£799, 330-CD, 24-DVD edition

Sviatoslav Richter Live at Carnegie Hall 1960

Emil Gilels was the first great Soviet pianist to play in the United States after Stalin’s death made such excursions possible. He was greeted with wild acclaim, whereupon he told the American press: “If you think I’m good, wait until you’ve heard Richter.” The latter duly appeared at Carnegie Hall in October 1960 and played five sold-out recitals in 12 days, with two more in December. These have been gathered on 13 CDs. There’s some duplication of repertoire, but that’s tolerable in view of the interpretations, especially of Beethoven, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. Has any other pianist combined such colossal power and spirituality? Richter’s wife later revealed that he was suffering from severe depression at the time. You would never have guessed.

Pianists available to book for events and functions

Karl Böhm The Early Years

A towering interpreter of Austrian and German music in the golden 130-odd years from Mozart and Beethoven to Wagner, Brahms and Bruckner, Karl Böhm is celebrated with a 19-CD set encompassing his recordings between 1935 and 1949. Of course, that was also exactly the period when he was (like Karajan, see above) implicated with the Nazis, accepting the music directorships of the Dresden and Vienna opera houses when many of his colleagues went into exile rather than support Hitler’s regime. If you can stomach that, there are magnificent performances here, especially of Wagner (Act III of Die Meistersinger is particularly wonderful). It’s fascinating, too, to hear how different, and more characterful, the Vienna Philharmonic sounded in the 1930s and 1940s.

Luciano Pavarotti The Complete Operas

It’s ten years since the Massive One died, and Decca has used the anniversary as a springboard from which to launch a suitably bulky tribute: 101 CDs and Blu-rays containing the tenor’s complete opera recordings, starting with his debut in La bohème in 1961. That means you also get a stellar array of “supporting artists” (not that they thought of themselves as such). 

The conductors include Karajan, Solti, Muti, Mehta and (not exactly a selling point after this week’s revelations) James Levine, while Pavarotti’s co-singers range from Joan Sutherland and Renata Scotto to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Sherrill Milnes. 

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It’s not quite all opera; Verdi’s Requiem is also included, conducted by Solti. Pavarotti’s voice remains astonishingly rich and vibrant for almost the whole half-century span, and it’s no loss that you don’t get to see him lumbering round the stage.

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