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Rock box sets for Christmas: The non-Lady Gaga choice

Mark Beech
(c) 2013, Bloomberg News


The holiday sales headlines have focused on Eminem's rivalry with Lady Gaga.

In the background another fight is looming: In 2013, the record companies are ratcheting up reissues. Demo tracks, outtakes, remasters, live shows, souvenirs, high-quality vinyl pressings and hardback books are all being used to lure fans.

Here's a look at the best sets priced at $100 or less.

For about $96 there is "Paul Simon — The Complete Albums Collection," on 15 discs. This is pretty good value for a smart box of remastered material, which includes "The Paul Simon Songbook" and 37 bonus tracks not on the original albums.

"American Radical Patriot" is by Bob Dylan's inspiration Woody Guthrie. The $90 box pulls together the Library of Congress CDs — now getting hard to find — with interviews and much more. It's not as impressive as last year's "Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection" ($50), which contains almost every Guthrie song that matters.

A strong pick, at about $85, is "The RCA Albums Collection" by one of the most intriguing singer-songwriters, Harry Nilsson. The 17 discs reflect why his friends John Lennon and Paul McCartney called him "the Beatle across the water." While Nilsson is known for "Without You" and "Everybody's Talkin'," he wrote even finer songs (such as "Jump Into the Fire") and did impressive cover versions (Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross".)

"Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective" is $82. Allman's short six-year output is scattered across discs by the Allman Brothers, Derek and the Dominos and more. This box lovingly pulls it together. He was only 24 when he died in 1971.

Aficionados of The Band will already have the live album "Rock of Ages" from 1972, and its expanded 2001 edition with the Bob Dylan encores. Now some are shelling out again for many more tracks from the concerts and a DVD in a $60 box simply called "Live at the Academy of Music 1971." It's worth it though, because this is the best Band live album, beating "The Last Waltz," and with a horn section adding to the power.

For $45, Sly and the Family Stone's "Higher!" is a well- done compilation. On the plus side, there are plenty of rarities. On the minus, this has mono versions of some hits, and it's possible to get all his albums bundled together for less than $30; "Stand!" and "There's a Riot Goin' On" or a greatest hits disc will satisfy the curious.

The Grateful Dead's Venetra, Oregon show of 1972 is captured properly for the first time on "Sunshine Daydream." Deadheads have been waiting decades for this $33 set. The film of the show is hilarious: the concert was on a boiling hot day, with supplies of water running low and clothing being declared optional.

There are plenty of new titles that put the magnifying glass on artists at about the peak of their careers — often a good way to go, because there's less redundant extras.

At $40, Steve Earle's "The Warner Bros. Years" captures the folk-rock star at his best with LPs such as "Train a Comin'," "I Feel Alright" and "El Corazon."

"Scott Walker — The Collection 1967-70" is a 5-disc collection for $100 or less which includes his early solo albums with "'Til The Band Comes In" from 1970.

Admirers of British rockers may be lured to two compilations. For $70, Eric Clapton's "Give Me Strength" pulls together his 1974-75 recordings that show that "461 Ocean Boulevard" might have been quieter and bluesier.

At $16, Rod Stewart's "Rarities" has material from his early career, with rough takes of "Maggie May" and more.

If you haven't got any Eagles, "The Studio Albums 1972-79" isn't a bad alternative to the greatest hits collections. The neat box is $32 though it has no bonus tracks.

At the lower end of the scale are the continuing flow of classic albums reissued with perhaps just one extra disc or more of extra material. Most of these can be judged by the quality of the original album: if it is good, they probably are too.

By that measure, it's hard to fault the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" 45th anniversary 3-CD set for $60.

Nirvana's final album "In Utero" can be had as a $98 set, though it is also available in a serviceable 2 CD collection for $22. Dylan's "Another Self Portrait" comes in various options from $100 down to $19 and Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" has prices from $78 to $9, all depending how much extra material you want to pay for.

Roy Orbison is well catered for with two releases: "The Last Concert, 25th Anniversary Edition" ($12), recorded two days before his death, and the "Black and White Night" CD/DVD ($15) where Orbison was joined by his friends Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, T. Bone Burnett, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang and Jackson Browne.

Van Morrison's "Moondance" from 1970 ($56) is back in a remastered, expanded form that includes outtakes of "I Shall Sing" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

"Last Splash" by the Breeders was one of the surprises of 1993, selling more than a million copies. Kim Deal, the Pixies bassist, had founded the band with Tanya Donelly, the singer-guitarist in Throwing Muses, who later left. Deal opted to continue with a drummer from an Ohio band she liked, a British bassist she met at a concert and her twin sister whom she taught to play. The 20th anniversary version ($40) supplements the hit "Cannonball" with songs such as "Lord of the Thighs," its original B side.

The late lamented R.E.M. continues to bring out deluxe editions of its albums. "Green," the band's major-label debut, isn't its best but gets nicely repackaged for $19 in a 25th- anniversary edition. Alongside the singles such as "Orange Crush" and "Pop Song 89," there's a fierce live show that makes its intentions all the more obvious on "World Leader Pretend."

For $42, Beatles fans get the holy grail of new material. "Live at the BBC: The Collection" includes the new 2CD "On Air" with a remastered 2CD of the first volume in a slipcase.

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