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Pop music gift guide: Because it's hard to wrap MP3s

November 29, 2010 |  6:07 pm


If you want to give the gift of music, these impressive new deluxe packages include some of the greatest sounds around. 

Syl Johnson “Complete Mythology” (Numero Group) $75

A four-CD, six-LP set, this collection spans more than a decade of Johnson's career, showcasing the work of the Mississippi-born artist throughout and just beyond the ‘60s. A criminally unheralded stylist of urban funk and Southern soul, this detailed and annotated set provides a snapshot of Johnson's expansiveness, and a voice — one that can wail with heartache just as easily as it can rip up the floorboards — that is long overdue for rediscovery. (Todd Martens)

Feist “Look at What the Light Did Now” (Interscope) $26.98

Bruce Springsteen's “The Promise” may be stealing all the thunder on the archival-set road, but this film about the process of making and touring the Grammy-nominated album “The Reminder” is, in a quieter way, an equally powerful statement about art and community. Leslie Feist graciously shares space with her team — a puppeteer, a photographer, her producer Chilly Gonzales — to show how even solo albums are anything but. The DVD comes with a bonus CD of songs from the film. (Ann Powers)

“Matador at 21” Various Artists, (Matador Records) $35

Though this set showcases just one label, this economically priced six-CD collection provides a rather thorough lesson in American underground rock for the last two decades. Be it the slacker sarcasm of Pavement, the pop experiments of Yo La Tengo or the earnestly left-of-center folk-pop of Cat Power, Matador, as well as Sub Pop in Seattle and Touch & Go in Chicago, set the stage for the Shins, the Arcade Fires and the Interpols to come. (TM)

Bob Dylan “The Original Mono Recordings” (Columbia) $129.98

As was the case with the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the producers and engineers who worked with him in the 1960s channeled most of their time and passion into the monaural mixes of his first eight albums because stereo was still in its infancy and was regarded in many quarters as a technological gimmick. Over time, most listeners have become familiar with the stereo versions, so it can be a revelation to hear everything balanced the way Dylan had in mind. Bonus: A coupon to download the entire set as high-quality MP3s. (Randy Lewis)

“Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s” Various Artists, (Dust-to-Digital) $28.50

The 66 songs collected over three discs here don't leave much to the imagination. The full span of passion, breaking up and moving on is tackled just by looking at the song titles — “Let Me Play With It,” “I'm Gonna Kill Myself” and “There's More Pretty Girls Than One” are a small sampling. These back-porch, vaudeville-like recordings, featuring blunt proclamations from both sexes, prove the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. (TM)

“The Rounder Records Story” Various Artists, (Rounder) $49.98

When the feisty indie label launched in 1970, it specialized in bluegrass, but over the next 40 years Rounder became a beacon for American roots music of all stripes. This set covers its journey from its first release by banjoist George Pegram to wunderkinds such as Mark O'Connor and Alison Krauss, from blues, Cajun, zydeco, country, Tex-Mex and polka on up through this year's solo album from Led Zeppelin alumnus Robert Plant. A long, strange and remarkably rewarding trip it's been. (RL)

Rikki Ililonga and Musi-O-Tunya “Dark Sunrise” (Now-Again) $20.98

Rikki Ililonga was a prime mover in the Republic of Zambia's rhythm rock scene of the 1970s, and this two-CD set captures a unique, and nearly vanished, secret history. Released by the Los Angeles-based reissue label Now-Again, Ililonga's early recordings with Musi-O-Tunya music are filled with steady rhythms, a funky horn section and some great, James Brown-esque swagger. The second disc features solo Ililonga, who sounds like a mix of Arthur Lee, Bob Dylan, Damo Suzuki and Curtis Mayfield, and, musically, moves from groovy, Dylanesque garage-rock breakdowns — augmented with congas and wood blocks — to wilder, more guitar-centric, psychedelic work. (Randall Roberts)

Plastikman “Arkives” (M_nus) $199

Techno master Richie Hawtin has been a steady presence on the electronic dance music landscape for more than two decades and helped transform the beat-heavy sound of Detroit from its synthetic beginnings into a brand of minimalism that celebrated structure and repetitive mantras to create new sonic spaces for the dance floor. From early influences like “Spastik” — and all of the full-length “Sheet One” —- to the profoundly sparse “Consumed,” “Arkives” collects 11 CDs and one DVD into one heavy-duty package. (RR)

Dinah Washington “The Fabulous Miss D! The Keynote, Decca and Mercury Singles 1943-1953” (Hip-O Select/Verve) $79.98

Like the proto-rock 'n' roller she was, Dinah Washington lived hard and died young — and effortlessly blended influences in a style all her own. Yet her music, full of spitfire and smarts, didn't feed her tragic myth the way blue Billie Holiday's did. Maybe that's why she's a little bit forgotten, despite the deep relevance of her recordings. This set collects her fantastic early singles, including her first R&B chart-topper, “Am I Asking Too Much”; the hard-swinging Ben Webster duet “Trouble In Mind”; and the elegantly bereft “I Can't Face the Music.” (AP)

Bruce Springsteen “The Promise” (Columbia) $119.98

The Boss' lonely, introspective “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” originally released in 1978, transformed the singer and songwriter from the buzzing hitmaker of “Born to Run” into a critic's darling unafraid to tackle subject matter less inspired by pop radio of the 1960s and more consumed with matters of life. This three-CD, three-DVD box features a loving remaster of the original album and offers outtakes, alternative versions and epiphany after epiphany. Also included is a full concert DVD from the period, a documentary and rehearsal video, as well as a fascinating reprint of the notebook that Springsteen wrote his lyrics in. An essential document of a masterpiece. (RR)

Images, from top left: Pavement's Stephen Malkmus (Gary Friedman /Los Angeles Times); “Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s” (Dust-to-Digital); Bruce Springsteen (Sony); Syl Johnson “Complete Mythology” (Numero Group)