Bledsoe: Christmas wishes, music boxes

Christmastime is boxed set time. Here are some of the top sets that a music lover would love to find under the tree:

"The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Edition," Billy Joel (Columbia/Legacy)

In 1977, the album "The Stranger" boosted Billy Joel from a beloved cult act to one of music's top sellers. While the jump was long overdue, "The Stranger" was an artistic triumph that deserved its success. This fine set includes the original album, a bonus disc of an excellent 1977 Carnegie Hall concert and DVD featuring another concert, a documentary on the album and vintage promotional videos. There's also a reproduction of Joel's notebook and a Carnegie Hall poster. It's a great package that should leave even casual fans impressed.

"Elvis: The Complete Comeback Special," Elvis Presley (RCA)

This pretty package contains four CDs - everything available from Elvis Presley's 1968 "comeback" TV special. The recordings from the special itself are spectacular - and it's loads of fun to have the complete studio concerts that were edited together in the TV special, but the rehearsal disc is strictly for fanatics.

"The Soul of Rock and Roll," Roy Orbison (Monument/Legacy)

During Roy Orbison's 30-year-plus career there was no one like him. From rockabilly cat to emotional balladeer to rock elder statesman, Orbison was a remarkable artist. This four-disc set gathers great tracks from his entire career and includes enough cool previously unreleased tracks (including some fun 1950s demos and a track from Orbison's final concert). A few essentials are missing (including a studio version of the Orbison-penned Everly Brothers hit "Claudette"), but overall, this is a great representation of one of rock's pioneers. The set also includes a good booklet with testimonials from fellow rock greats and postcard reproductions of illustrations Orbison did for his high school yearbooks.

"To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story," Nina Simone (RCA/Legacy)

Nina Simone's catalog has undergone a reappreciation over the past few years with music unavailable for decades now on CD. Simone's idiosyncratic style is well represented on this three CD/one DVD set. For the first time, all the essentials from every era of Simone's career are here, along with a handful of previously unreleased cuts. The DVD is a 1970 TV special on Simone that helps put the early work in perspective.

"Unreleased Recordings," Hank Williams (TimeLife)

The 10-CD set "The Complete Hank Williams," released in 1998, was named prematurely. This three-disc set collects Williams' performances on a radio show sponsored by Mother's Best flour and feeds. Considering the music is taken from radio transcriptions made in 1951, the sound of these recordings is great. This is Williams at his casual best and, in several cases, he's singing songs he never recorded elsewhere. For collectors, this is a treasure, but it's also a fine introduction for listeners just discovering the most important singer-songwriter in country music.

"The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides and Rarities," The Jesus and Mary Chain (Rhino)

It's amazing that there ARE four CDs worth of rarities from the noisy rock Scots the Jesus and Mary Chain . Collectors will swoon over this embarassment of riches. And, while some artists used B-sides and CD single bonus tracks as a dumping ground, the Reid brothers (the core of the group) took the tracks seriously. This set doesn't supplant owning a copy of the band's classic "Psychocandy," but hearing the demo for "Just Like Honey" and an acoustic version of "Cut Dead" certainly enrich it. Add in the two crazed covers of "Surfin' USA" mixed with fiery sermons and you get an idea of a band that was darker and more fun than you'd expected.

"Budokan," Cheap Trick (Epic/Legacy)

Cheap Trick's breakthrough live album "At Budokan" has been repackaged so many times that you'd think there was no way to do it again. This set, however, takes the expanded album, previously released as "At Budokan: The Complete Concert" and pairs it with a DVD of the Japanese TV special of the concert and a complete CD performance of that night's show (the "Complete" concert edited parts of two nights together).

The music is still great. There's a nice booklet and poster included. This should be the ultimate version of this event.

"Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition)," Johnny Cash (Columbia/Legacy)

Johnny Cash's concerts at Folsom Prison in 1968 were a defining moment in Cash's career. This set restores both concerts in their entirety (including the performances by Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers) and adds a new documentary that includes interviews with performers and prisoners who were there and insight for Cash friends and relatives. Cash's later concerts at San Quentin prison may have arguably resulted in a better album, but Folsom remains the most historic. A Cash fan may do just fine with the original disc, but a fanatic has to have this set.

"Jazz Icons, Vol. 2," Various Artists (Naxos)

Naxos continues its excellent DVD series of classic jazz concerts with this eight-DVD set featuring Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderly.

The performances are often stunning, rare chances to see jazz greats at work. It's essesntial stuff.

Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or bledsoe@knews.com. He is also the host of "All Over the Road" midnight Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays on WDVX-FM.

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