Break Out Your Wallets

In my book, buying Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Whatever presents before, say, December 20 is a mark of anal retentiveness. (Mothers are excluded from this rule of thumb.) But for those who like to get the shopping out of the way so they can grin smugly at the rest of us, a few suggestions for the music-lovers on your list - arranged this year according to the decade with which your loved one most identifies:

The '20s-'40s: It's true that the title implies a wide timespan, but nobody on Can't You Hear Me Callin' - Bluegrass: 80 Years of American Music (Legacy) would exist were it not for the pioneers on the first discs of this box set, folks with names like Monroe, Acuff, and Stanley. More obscure pioneers are included too, but the playlist is programmed for maximum listenability - so it's plenty accessible for fans who came to the genre via the artists on Disc Four: The Byrds, the Chicks, and Ms. Krauss.

The '50s: Crooner Tony Bennett has been at it so long, and has had a substantial enough comeback, that his old career-spanning Forty Years set has had to be revamped as Fifty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett (Legacy), with a fifth disc added just to hold the '90s hits. It's not every old-school showman who gets immortalized on The Simpsons, and this set proves Bennett earned his place.

The '60s: Brian Wilson gave the world his Christmas present a few months early or a few decades late, depending how you look at it, when he finally finished his lost masterpiece Smile (Nonesuch), which had lived so long in sketchy bootlegs and hyperbolic lore. Finally, a chance to see what all the fuss was about. You could say the same for Chronicles, Volume One (Simon & Schuster), the long-awaited memoir by Bob Dylan. Fans, who worried that Dylan would drop the ball or deliver an unreadable Tarantula-like opus, have been almost universally thrilled with the result. What's more, there's an audio book version, and if you worry that Mr. Poor Enunciation can't tell his story as well as he pens it, fear not - it's read by none other than Sean Penn.

The '60s, Version Two: Two heavy-hitting options await your jazz-loving loved ones. For obsessives, there's the new Miles Davis box, Seven Steps (Legacy), which presents every sound he made for Columbia between 1963 and 1964. These are the years of My Funny Valentine, Quiet Nights, and of course Seven Steps to Heaven, along with live records made before the onset of Davis' electric years. For a somewhat wider scope, there's The Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige, natch) of Dexter Gordon. The tenor king is featured here on 11 discs collecting a whopping 15 albums made between 1965 and 1973; studio LPs, live recordings, and 17 cuts that have never been released before. Give it to them on Christmas Eve, and they'll still be plowing through it after the New Years' hangovers are a memory.

The '70s: There's no insightful essay or meticulous scholarship to be found on Virgin's three-disc comp dedicated to Brian Ferry + Roxy Music, The Platinum Collection, but what is in the skimpy booklet is appropriate for such an image-conscious band: The picture sleeve to every one of these fantastic singles. More substance can be had on The Immortal Soul of Al Green (Hi), a solid retrospective which, as you might guess, is skewed a bit toward tunes with "God" or "Jesus" in the title.

The '80s: Mascara-wearing devotees of The Cure probably already have Join The Dots (Elektra/Rhino), but it's worth checking to find out: This B-sides/rarities collection could enable them to hock boxes full of old import singles that have been gathering dust on the shelves ever since the turntable broke. Rhino packs a huge jolt of nostalgia on Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the 80s Underground, a self-explanatory set that is a must for anyone who remembers what came before the so-called "alternative" music scene. Again, the label's archivists make their jobs tough, insisting that no band be allotted more than one track. Hard for them, fun for us, as nearly forgotten groups like The Raincoats and The Rain parade share space with XTC and REM.

The '90s: It's not too soon for nostalgia, as VH1 keeps telling us. So two of the decade's finest indie labels threw audio birthday parties this year: Matador at Fifteen and Old Enough to Know Better: 15 Years of Merge Records do their respective imprints proud, each packaging hits with a disc's worth of rare or unheard stuff. Sweeter still, both labels are going strong today. Matador, for instance, is doing right by their Pavement catalog, as the recent deluxe edition of Crooked Rain Crooked Rain proves: The two-disc package boasts a "lost album" worth of material from what many fans consider the group's finest hour.

Now get to the mall, guys - or do like me and file this away for the mad rush three weeks from now.

By John DeFore

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