If you're under 40, you likely see Johnny Cash two ways — as the nearly mythological Sun Records proto-rocker and as the wizened old man staring down God in his American Recordings period in the years before his 2003 death.
Between those two important periods lay decades of songs, personalities and re-inventions many folks aren't familiar with. The massive new box set, "The Complete Columbia Album Collection," will help fill in those gaps for anyone interested in Cash beyond the name-checking cachet he brings to your iPod.
A staggering amount of music is gathered here in 63 discs representing a quarter century of output from an American popular culture icon whose career was far more Technicolor than his Man in Black nickname suggests. And the average music fan yet to turn grey has no idea what that color scheme looks like since 35 of those albums were never released on CD.
The set includes everything Cash released through Columbia from 1958 to 1983. Cash enjoyed creative control over his career, and it showed in his restless inquisitiveness and unusually open-minded approach to music.
There's something here for everyone — gospel, rock, folk and pop fans along with your country diehards. And the range is astounding, including concept albums, soundtracks, political statements, live concerts and a collection of singles and rarities.
— Chris Talbott
*Michael Jackson, "Bad 25"
Three years after Michael Jackson's death, it's becoming pretty clear that his archives don't contain another "Billie Jean," ''Man in the Mirror" or even "Butterflies."
2010's "Michael" was a nice though hardly scintillating collection of previously unreleased Jackson songs, and the three-CD, 1-DVD box set "Bad 25," celebrating the anniversary of Jackson's other blockbuster album, has an even less impressive set of songs from Jackson's vault.
Following the set's first disc, which contains the underrated "Bad" album in full, is another disc of bonus material with several unreleased songs. The problem with those tunes is that they sound like something Jackson wasn't ready to let the world hear.
While Jackson's voice is enchanting, the songs are mired by weak lyrics and melodies and themes that sound too similar to some of his key hits. As scintillating a vocalist as Jackson was, even he can't elevate so-so material.
Perhaps the makers of this anniversary collection knew that as well. So to make the box set worthwhile, they've included a real treasure here — Jackson's 1988 concert at Wembley Stadium. Watching Jackson in what was arguably his peak as performer is chill-inducing — his frenetic gyrations, moonwalks, spins and jumps delivered while he's singing at full-strength.
For the concert alone, "Bad 25" is worth getting (it also comes with a live CD of the concert). There are also other goodies for fans to enjoy, like a double-sided poster, remixes from Afrojack and cool photos in the CD and DVD booklets.
— Nekesa Mumbi Moody
*Led Zeppelin, "Celebration Day"
If "Celebration Day" is it for Led Zeppelin, the final chapter in the long, glorious career of rock 'n' roll's most exciting band, we can live with it.
The box set that captures what will likely be the quartet's final concert is a fitting capstone for a band that remains as popular today as it was more than 40 years ago.
The band's living members — Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones — joined Jason Bonham, son of late founding drummer John Bonham, at London's O2 Arena in 2007 to pay tribute to late Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun.
The concert was a triumph, captured lovingly here with a two-disc live album, a DVD of the concert and a bonus disc of extras. Led Zeppelin played everything you'd want, did it in fresh ways and with such class it's a primer for the endless stream of legacy acts who have gotten it so wrong over the years.
Page is the star here. The camera lingers on him and his flashing hands as he leads the band through thoughtfully reimagined takes of every classic. He starts the concert in suitcoat and sunglasses, disdainfully chewing gum as he belts out riffs that are both familiar and in his hands new.
A few songs later he shucks the coat and rolls up his sleeves for "In My Time Of Dying" (at more than 11 minutes long!). By the time he pulls out the violin bow in the middle of "Dazed and Confused" (12 minutes!), he's disheveled, dripping sweat on a series of beautiful guitars and beaming a crooked smile after each fiery run.
It is a powerhouse performance — and, sadly, not enough for most fans. But "Celebration Day" will have to do.
— Chris Talbott
*Kiss "The Casablanca Singles 1974-1982"
No act has been better at getting you to buy songs you already own in numerous formats than Kiss. With at least 18 greatest hits, compilation or box set albums on the market, here comes yet another one. Something in the neighborhood of $145 will get you this latest box set, a re-release of 29 U.S. Kiss singles, each on 45 rpm vinyl records (remember those?)
Box sets have two main selling points: previously unavailable music, and way-cool packaging. Because these singles have all been out there for decades, this box set's appeal lies in its presentation. Weighing in at a hefty eight pounds, the set starts with the band's very first single, "Nothin' To Lose," with the flip side "Love Theme From Kiss" from way back in 1974.
All but three of the singles come with decorative foreign sleeves with elaborate artwork, and, in the case of the Japanese sleeves, hilarious mistranslations of lyrics. A line from "C'mon And Love Me" morphs from, "The lights are out" to "Your lives are out." Even the misprints are faithfully preserved: Peter Criss' solo single "You Matter To Me" appears as "You Still Matter To Me" on the label.
Far and away the coolest are the singles from each of the band's solo albums, pressed in colored vinyl: red for Gene Simmons, purple for Paul Stanley, green for Criss and blue for Ace Frehley. Each of these four also comes with a cut-out Halloween-type mask of each member's face in Kiss makeup, a throwback to the days when Kiss albums came loaded with swag.
Die-hard Kiss fans will probably want to pick this up — provided they still have turntables.
— Wayne Parry
*Elvis Presley, "Prince From Another Planet"
When it comes to rock's greatest star, it's tempting to dismiss the 1970s as merely the Fat Elvis period. This two-CD, one-DVD collection disproves that notion.
The set pulls together previously released concerts in one package for the first time, capturing Presley during a three-day run at Madison Square Garden in 1972. Because it had been 15 years since he had performed in New York City, these concerts were important to him, and it shows.
He's in fine voice, fully committed to the material and supported by an excellent cast of musicians that includes guitarist James Burton, drummer Ronnie Tutt, bassist Jerry Scheff, horns, strings and backup singers.
Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison and David Bowie were among those attending the soldout shows, along with a gaggle of screaming girls, and there's plenty of energy in the room from the start. Presley opens by taking "That's All Right" at an exhilarating pace, and other oldies also sound new again.
He scats on the bluesy "Reconsider Baby," gives "Hound Dog" a fresh interpretation by tweaking the tempo, and generates his own wall of sound on "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin.'"
There are too many Vegas-style endings, and the introductions of the supporting musicians are painful, especially when Presley can't even be bothered with their last names. But on "Until It's Time For You To Go," when Elvis sings, "I'm not a king, just a man," we know otherwise. "Prince From Another Planet" is a welcome reminder.
— Steven Wine
*The Rolling Stones, "GRR!"
After earning the title of "the world's greatest rock and roll band," the Rolling Stones are going for the longevity designation. This year marks the band's 50th year, and just like they did when they turned 40, they're releasing a compilation set — basically a greatest hits collection — to mark the occasion.
The three-CD set (a fancier version has five CDs with a heftier priectag) represents a remarkable catalog, yet lacks the spontaneity of other multi-disc collections that include more value, such as rare tracks, B-sides, or live performances.
Songs like "Jumpin' Jack Flash," ''Brown Sugar," and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" are forever burned into the psyche, and perhaps our iPod's too, which begs the question: Why do you need this collection? Chances are that if you don't already own the original albums, it's possible you have one of their dozen or so greatest hits collections.
It would have been nice to include tracks like "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," or "Rip This Joint." Instead, you get most of what played on the radio from their first-ever release.
Going back to 1963 — let's not argue about the math of the record's subtitle, "Greatest Hits 1962-2012" — the band's debut single was a cover of Chuck Berry's "Come On." It provides a nice bookend to their new song "One More Shot," lets you appreciate the music in between those two releases.
With such an iconic catalog of songs, it helps you realize their accomplishment. Clearly, time was on their side.
— John Carucci
*"Preservation Hall Jazz Band 50th Anniversary Collection"
This four-CD collection with 58 tracks recorded between 1962 and 2010, including five previously unreleased recordings rescued from a flooded studio after Hurricane Katrina, chronicles the remarkable tale of the tiny French Quarter art gallery that was transformed by owners Allan and Sandra Jaffe into Preservation Hall, an international mecca for lovers of traditional New Orleans-style jazz..
This collection includes six tracks from the four landmark Preservation Hall LPs recorded in 1962 by Atlantic Records co-founder Nesuhi Ertegun that brought wider exposure to the city's overlooked early jazz pioneers such as the sweet-toned clarinetist George Lewis, trumpeter De De Pierce and his wife, pianist-vocalist Billie Pierce, and trumpeter Kid Punch Miller.
In the '70s and '80s, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band became an international sensation with a touring lineup led by the Humphrey brothers, trumpeter-vocalist Percy and clarinetist Willie, that recorded four albums for CBS. That band gets the toes tapping on such selections as "Oh, Didn't He Ramble" and "When The Saints Go Marchin' In."
As the older generations passed, the PHJB rejuvenated itself with musicians who embrace the tradition while reaching out to different genres.
The collection includes intriguing post-2000 collaborations with a growling Tom Waits on the Mardi Gras Indian chant "Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing"; Del McCoury's bluegrass band on "I'll Fly Away," and folk legend Pete Seeger and his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger on the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."
As the collection's co-producer, Ben Jaffe, who became the hall's director after his father's death in 1987, insisted that the tracks not be arranged chronologically — a move that only underscores the cross-generational links and how timeless and vital this music remains.
— Charles J. Gans