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Backtracking: The box set gift guide

December 12, 2008 |  3:39 pm

Gordy_500

'Motown: The Complete No. 1s' tops CD gift guide

Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and Michael Jackson are among the array of hit-makers on a spectacular new 10-CD salute to Motown Records, but the real star of the Motown story is the man whose photo is featured on the cover of the package's booklet: Berry Gordy.

In his liner notes to the boxed set that tops this holiday gift guide edition of Backtracking, Smokey Robinson points out that Gordy's goal in starting Motown in 1959 wasn't just to build the most successful African American record company in the country. He wanted to revolutionize the music industry by making black music into an equal partner in the world of mainstream pop.

"Back then the music business was divided," Robinson explains. "If you were black, your record was called rhythm & blues. If you were white and you made the same record with that same arrangement, it was called pop. But from the day Motown started, Berry Gordy said to us, 'We are not going to make "black music." We are going to make music for everybody.' "

Sure enough, the Miracles' "Shop Around" soared to No. 2 on the pop charts in 1961, followed by the label's first No. 1 pop single: the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." By the end of the decade, more than 50 Motown singles reached No. 1 on the pop or R&B charts. The new "Motown: The Complete No. 1s" contains all those hits and nearly 150 more, including such landmark recordings as Gaye's "What's Going On" and Wonder's "Higher Ground."

Though Motown's impact on pop has waned significantly in recent years, Gordy's influence is still evident in the work of Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Usher and dozens of other bestselling contemporary artists who, too, aim at "making music for everyone." This new set is an extraordinary slice of American pop history and is packaged in a handsome replica of Motown's historic "Hitsville USA" headquarters. It is being sold for around $120.

What follows is a list of other recommended boxed sets. Prices may vary; the one listed is the lowest found in a check of major Internet merchants.

Ry Cooder
"The Ry Cooder Anthology:
The UFO Has Landed."
Warner Bros./Rhino. $24

Whether he's interpreting a song by Johnny Cash or playing music he wrote for such films as "Paris, Texas," Cooder brings such deep longing and desire to his sensual guitar lines that he seems at times to reflect the mysteries and wonders of the human heart. He is a musical treasure and this two-disc retrospective is long overdue. Bonus: Cooder introduces each of the songs in an accompanying illustrated booklet.

Miles Davis
"Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition."
Columbia/Legacy. $70

"Kind of Blue" is one of the most revered albums ever made. Calling it a "painterly masterpiece," Rolling Stone has named it No. 12 on the magazine's list of the 500 best albums, the only jazz album to make the Top 40. The album -- on which the trumpeter was joined by a dream-team group of musicians including Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, John Coltrane on tenor sax and Bill Evans on piano -- is commemorated with a Grammy-worthy package.

Besides the original album, two CDs include more than an hour of rarities or previously unreleased music. In addition, the set features a DVD documentary, a poster, a handsome 60-page book featuring essays about Davis and the album and a 12-inch vinyl copy of the album, complete with the original cover and liner notes by Evans. A classic set.

The Jesus and Mary Chain

"The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides and Rarities."
Blanco Y Negro/Rhino. $46

Warning: This four-disc set of miscellany isn't for everyone, but I can't get enough of the brothers Reids' captivating blend of blistering guitar and sweet, seductive melodies. Among the gems: a demo of "Just Like Honey" and several acoustic versions of their tunes. The set feels like you are getting to step inside the great band's musical workshop.

Roy Orbison

"The Soul of Rock and Roll."
Monument/Orbison/Legacy. $31

Even if all you know about Orbison is the striking, black-and-white concert special that airs periodically on PBS, you're probably hooked by the epic nature of his tales of romantic tension. In inducting Orbison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Bruce Springsteen said, "When I went into the studio to record 'Born to Run,' I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan, that sounded like Phil Spector's production, but most of all I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison."

This four-disc overview of his career -- from the little known rockabilly days in the 1950s and the signature hits in the 1960s to his revival on Virgin Records in the 1980s -- shows you what Springsteen was talking about.

Various artists
"Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story 1961-1977."
Kent (British import). Approximately $55

While Motown was forging a synthesis of R&B and pop, various producers and musicians in the South were focusing on a grittier mix of R&B and gospel. Much of the music in this collection was released by such high-profile Memphis labels as Stax and Hi, but other recordings came out on Northern labels like Atlantic and Chess. Rather than include the biggest soul hits, the producers of the set have tried to provide a more wide-ranging look at the scene by including tracks by as many artists as possible.

Among the many standout moments: Arthur Alexander's "Go Home Girl," Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine," Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone," Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and Ann Peebles' "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down." Superb.

-Robert Hilburn

FOUNDER: Berry Gordy outside Motown’s onetime Detroit home. Courtesy: Motown Records Archives

Backtracking is a monthly column focusing on CD reissues and other pop items of historical interest. For previous editions, click here.

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