Frank Sinatra’s The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings may be the most stupefying boxed set of this or any season until the millennium. It compiles everything Sinatra recorded for his own company between 1960 and 1988 — 454 songs, spread over 20 CDs, all for just $499.98. Of course, simply bothering to reissue his entire Reprise catalog is itself fairly ridiculous. The frayed Voice recorded many milestones during his Reprise years, including September of My Years. In vain attempts to get with the times, he was also reduced to recording the likes of ”Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” — tunes not even Nancy would touch.
But there is an even more important reason why this set makes us fall to our knees in twisted admiration. Holiday gift albums arrive in three varieties: new superstar releases, hits packages, or boxed sets. The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings goes one step beyond. It is luggage.
Yes, the CDs come housed in a miniature trunk that stands a foot high, weighs 10 pounds, and is covered by a smooth brown vinyl resembling actual leather. The travel motif represents Sinatra’s ”journey to success, from Hoboken to Hollywood,” according to Jim Ladwig of AGI, which conceived the idea. The journey of the trunks was similarly bumpy: After they were handmade in China, the Oct. 17 release date was delayed a month when the first (of 20,000) trunks left, by boat, during typhoon season.
Could the package endure weather conditions in the West? To find out, we lugged our copy to Innovation Luggage in Manhattan. Manager Gabrielle Hayden instantly cooed over its ”very traditional, very European-looking” design, its ”antiqued trim,” and its padded handle. ”The color’s really handsome,” she said admiringly. ”It’s like an old Louis Vuitton trunk. Only the best-quality luggage is built like this now.” Plus, she added, sniffing the covering, ”it has a quality smell.”
Ladwig says you can pull the CD tray out of the trunk and store other items inside. For instance? ”Your Stolichnaya bottles,” he cracks. Now, there’s something that could help Frank forget he ever recorded ”Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” —David Browne
BEST OF THE SETS
Tom Petty Playback With his aw-shucks persona and cartoon-character voice, Tom Petty is an unlikely object of worship. Yet Playback, a six-CD set, constitutes a strong argument for his canonization as the patron saint of unpretentiously hook-happy rockers. After all, it takes some doing to make a box that devotes three entire CDs to outtakes, B sides, and other esoterica sound like anything other than sheer self-indulgence. Petty pulls it off. Not everything here is as stellar as ”American Girl,” ”The Waiting,” or the Heartbreakers’ other hits (all present and accounted for). Even so, the set has a loose-limbed cohesiveness that extends from the earliest tracks by Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band up to spirited throwaways like 1993’s ”Come on Down to My House.” A box this size from almost any artist would feel preposterous. It’s a testament to Petty’s prodigious talent that Playback plays well to the end. A- —Tom Sinclair
George Strait Strait out of the Box Often referred to as a savior of country traditionalism, George Strait is in reality a far more varied artist, courting lush country-pop and contrived Hollywood soundtrack filler even while his heart belongs to Western swing and honky-tonk. This four-CD set covers it all, including three style-searching sides he cut for an indie label in the late ’70s, respectable duets with Hank Thompson and Asleep at the Wheel, and his 42 hits from 1981 to 1995. It also boasts two winning new songs and four previously unreleased tracks, including a Pluto-meets-Mars rendition of ”Fly Me to the Moon” with Frank Sinatra. A- —Alanna Nash
Roger Miller King of the Road: The Genius of Roger Miller Miller, who died in 1992 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October, is best remembered for ”King of the Road,” his starkly original 1964 hobo anthem, and loopy novelty tunes (”Dang Me”). But while Miller’s more fanciful songs (dependent on his amphetamine-induced wordplay) made country hip to Beatles fans, he also had a morose side that naturally led to great honky-tonk, or ”depressive jazz,” as he called it. This collection, on three CDs, offers 70 songs dating from 1957 to 1986, including his honky-tonk years (”Lock, Stock and Teardrops,” later revived by k.d. lang), his wackier period of fame, his burn-out years in the ’70s, and his last hurrah, writing the much-lauded score for Broadway’s Big River. A strange but thoroughly enjoyable trip. B —Alanna Nash
Willie Nelson Revolutions of Time…The Journey 1975-1993 When Willie Nelson went to Columbia in 1975 with a minimalist concept album, Red-Headed Stranger, he accidentally altered the course of modern country music. Many in Nashville viewed him as a loose cannon, launching as he did into Stardust, an album of pop standards, just when his ”outlaw” bit with Waylon Jennings was in full force. Turns out, it all fit Nelson’s plan of How to Transcend Categories. In time, as this 60-song, three-CD set shows, Nelson’s songwriting slipped, his judgment on outside material grew erratic, and his instrumentation got annoyingly busy. But through it all he remained a stunning performer. When it comes to Nelson, even the mundane (or the embarrassingly oddball, in the case of one entire disc of duets) is interesting. B+ —Alanna Nash
Various Artists Def Jam Music Group: Ten Year Anniversary It’s incongruous to package rap, the most streetwise pop of the last decade, in a lavish box. But if any company deserves such treatment, it’s Def Jam, the label that turned the music into a suburban-household name. The season’s most exciting box, this booming four-disc feast of B-boys, rhymes, boasts, and black nationalism takes you from the old-school beats of the first L.L. Cool J and Beastie Boys singles through the denser, manic work of Public Enemy and EPMD. It’s ironic that the New York label’s recent hits are by West Coasters like Domino and Montell Jordan. But any set that includes ”Don’t Believe the Hype,” ”(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” ”Regulate,” ”Bring tha Noize,” ”I Need Love,” and ”Slam” isn’t merely an impressive singles collection; it’s indispensable. A —David Browne
Joe Cocker The Long Voyage Home: The Silver Anniversary Collection Who would have thought that the Woodstock performer with the most staying power would be that spastic screecher? And that he’d do it by becoming a balladeer? Such are the twists and turns of Cocker’s career. At a time when it was de rigueur for rock bands to write their own songs, Cocker chose to become a covers act. But what an interpreter: He took everything from ”The Letter” to ”Wake Up Little Susie” (one of many unreleased tracks) and made each his tortured own. Those early, booze-soaked recordings have aged well, but this set didn’t need to be four CDs long, especially since the last disc documents his slide into a Club Classic Rock lounge act. Get this man some contemporary songs! B —David Browne
Bobby Darin As Long as I’m Singing: The Bobby Darin Collection The eager young rock & roller of ”Splish Splash” grew into the most rhythmically assured of Sinatra-style swingers after Sinatra himself (”Beyond the Sea”), then mutated again with Zelig-like ease into a huskier-voiced, contemplative Dylanesque troubadour (”If I Were a Carpenter”). Though many songs he recorded weren’t worthy of him, the best performances on this four-CD set make clear what a loss the music world suffered with his death, at just 37, in 1973. B+ —Chip Deffaa
The Velvet Underground Peel Slowly and See Upcoming induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, adoration from the modern-rock scene, now this five-CD retrospective — my, how institutionalized the Velvets have become. This box treats them reverentially too: It presents their first four albums in their entirety, as if including portions from each would be disrespectful. Still, if you haven’t heard The Velvet Underground & Nico or White Light/White Heat, you should. The fuzz-blast guitars, sardonic lyrics, and noise improvisations truly were the Erector set for today’s alternative rock. If you already own the individual CDs, consider the sharp booklet and tape-reel packaging, the disc devoted to a 1965 rehearsal tape of the embryonic band (imagine ”Venus in Furs” as a madrigal!), and the 25 previously unreleased tracks, including an early version of ”Satellite of Love.” And oh, yeah — the banana on the cover actually peels off. A —David Browne
‘Troubadours of British Folk’
Don’t be intimidated by the three-volume set Troubadours of British Folk. The subtitle of vol. 2, ”Folk into Rock,” says it all: This was an era when a generation of young Brits, including Fairport Convention, Donovan, the Incredible String Band, and Fairport guitarist Richard Thompson, took the ballads and bagpipe licks of Stonehenge music and updated them with electric guitars and rock beats. Those acts are here, as well as Fairport’s Sandy Denny, clearly an influence on Natalie Merchant. If the names don’t ring a bell, don’t worry: Tracks by Billy Bragg and the Proclaimers bring the genre into the ’90s. —David Browne