Beautiful box sets for holiday gift-giving

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In this era of ephemeral music streaming, box sets (particularly vinyl ones) appear to be experiencing a comeback. Music fans and collectors appreciate the deluxe packaging, cover art and liner notes, as well as the tactile pleasure of putting a record on the turntable and the needle to the groove. (Turntable sales are up too.) Labels are producing artisanal, audiophile collections in beautiful box sets, but there are also affordable CD box sets of out-of-print music at very affordable prices. I’ve picked a selection of these audio treasure boxes for your holiday gift-giving consideration this year. A lot of care and work has gone into these collections, and each would make for a wonderful gift for the music lover in your life.

Chet Baker—The Legendary Riverside Albums (Craft Recordings) 

This fantastic box set features Chet Baker’s early Riverside Records albums—mostly from the late 50’s, a time when labels started recording in 2-channel stereo. As such, the five albums in this deluxe box are a mix of mono and early stereo. The performances of the young star reveal a gifted trumpet player at the start of a successful solo career, working with great rhythm sections and jazz heavyweights like pianist Bill Evans, Kenny Burrell, and others. The box includes Chet Baker Sings—It Could Happen to You, Chet, In New York, Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe, and a bonus LP of Outtakes and Alternates—all packaged in an elegant linen-wrapped outer box. Liner notes come courtesy of jazz historian Doug Ramsey. 

The deluxe set was mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio and pressed on audiophile 180 gram vinyl by RTI. A box set like this will make any Doubting Thomas (not this one of course) go out and buy a good turntable and quality hi-fi system. Craft Recordings really knocked this one out of the park. It’s a veritable treasure trove for Baker fans and audiophile geeks as well. Click HERE to purchase.

Bobo Yéyé: Belle Époque in Upper Volta (Numero Group)

I could not resist picking up a copy of Bobo Yéyé: Belle Époque in Upper Volta when I came across it at Amoeba Music. The set actually came out in 2016, but I only discovered it recently thanks to Viola Galloway—Amoeba’s world music veteran, expert, and import buyer—who always keeps the shelves stocked with amazing music. Mention the words “Upper Volta” and some people might think you were talking about an electrical phenomenon. But no, Upper Volta was a Central African nation which declared independence from French colonial rule in 1960 and became known as Burkina Faso. Since that time, Burkina Faso has endured four coups, a border war with much larger Mali, and a devastating six-year drought. This box set of pre-revolution recordings shows the brighter side of youth culture there amidst this tumultuous backdrop. It’s a treasure trove of historical recordings, with 26 tracks on three LP’s.

The accompanying 144-page coffee-table book sets the stage with an intimate look into the landlocked nation’s pop culture explosion of the 1970’s. We get a glimpse of the culture through photographer Sory Sanlé’s lens, both in his brightly-lit photo studio to the dimly-lit nightclubs of the era, featuring young bands like Echo Del Africa and Les Imbattable Léopards, as well as the hard-partying patrons dancing and enjoying the music and ambiance. The photos remind me of those by Malian photographers Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe.

Although I know African music pretty well, I had never seen any albums from Upper Volta, but this beautiful box set has more than made up for it. It’s a unique and priceless time capsule of the post-colonial period—a “lost world” in the words of Afropop Worldwide producer Banning Eyre. Click HERE to purchase in either CD or LP formats.

John Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings (Craft Recordings)

1958 was a watershed year for the great saxophonist, who recorded enough music to fill an astonishing eight album releases. Craft Recordings, the audiophile reissue wing of the Concord Music Group, reissued them on eight LP’s and five CD’s in celebration of the 60th anniversary of these recordings in 2018. As I wrote back in April in my review of the set, I love the retro presentation of the LP set. The vinyl is heavy cloth-bound, with each record getting its own brown cardboard sleeve, reminiscent of early 78 rpm album sets. The liner notes are written by jazz historian Ashley Kahn, who has penned two books about John Coltrane’s Impulse! yearsIt features photos from Francis Wolff and Prestige producer Esmond EdwardsFans will find much to learn and enjoy from reading the 40-page booklet that accompanies both versions. Click HERE to purchase in either CD or LP formats.

Jóhann Jóhannsson Retrospective I (Deutsche Grammophon)

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is no longer with us, but his star shined brightly over the course of a short career with amazing recordings like IBM 1401: A User’s Manual and Fordlandia. Jóhannsson composed music for multiple genres—theatre, film, television, and dance. He was an iconic composer of modern music, breaking down the walls separating classical, electronic, new age and other styles. This seven-CD box set showcases many of his earlier works such as Viroulegu Forsetar (2004), Dís (2004), And in the Endless Pause There Came of the Sound of Bees (2009), plus other lesser-known pieces and an unreleased soundtrack for a Danish documentary called White Black Boy. A limited edition hardcover version includes essays and photographs. Click HERE to purchase.

The Miles Davis Quintet—The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions (Craft Recordings)

This has been a banner year for big beautiful jazz box set reissues, and I have to recommend yet another beauty from Craft Recordings: The Miles Davis Quintet—The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions. The deluxe box set holds six 180 gram LP’s with a 20 page booklet, featuring 42 classic tracks from Davis’s quintet sessions—The New Miles Davis Quinet (1956), Cookin’ (1957), Relaxin’ (1958), Workin’ (1959) and Steamin’ (1961). John Coltrane played tenor on these sessions and a rhythm section of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones provided a rock solid backdrop. The set was reissued in CD format back in 2006, and now we have it in vinyl. Click HERE to purchase. (Miles Davis photo below: © Esmond Edwards/CTSIMAGES)

Calypso—Sounds of the Caribbean Islands (Documents)

I picked-up a very attractively-priced 10-CD box set at Amoeba Music a few weeks ago called Calypso - Sounds of the Caribbean Islands. I know calypsosocaspouge, and other Trinidadian/Tobago music because KCRW aired two different calypso shows back in the day. Calypso has been compared with hip-hop in that the lyrics address topical subjects of the day and puts them to music to “wind your waist,” i.e. shake your booty. There are songs from Mighty Sparrow about Laika, the Russian space dog, as well as a track from actor Robert Mitchum’s calypso album. Both Mitchum and Maya Angelou recorded calypso albums in the 1960’s, probably following Harry Belafonte’s lead, and you’ll find those classic tracks in this comprehensive anthology. Click HERE to purchase.