This is the time of year for giving, and as I always say what better gift than the gift of music? We know that Santa would never leave you off his list, especially if you’ve been very good this past year. But just in case he doesn’t have everything in his bag of goodies, I thought I could give you some helpful suggestions for the perfect stocking stuffers. For those of you who prefer their stocking stuffed with something on the larger side, here are a few great box sets and a 5-disc musical DVD set that are guaranteed to put a smile on your face and on the faces of the ones you love. For the shopper with many people on their lists, I’ve also made a list of single disc suggestions that may be a nicer fit into your budget this holiday season.
Billy Joel: My Lives (Box Set)
I have been a fan of Billy Joel since his 1976 album Turnstiles, and have bought every album since. But even I don’t own some of the gems that are on this 5-disc collection that includes one concert DVD. The first four audio discs are comprised of some of the greatest songs, alternate takes and demos of Billy’s five decades, including tracks from his early career as the lead vocalist of the Lost Souls and the Hassles, such as “My Journey’s End,” “Time And Time Again,” “Every Step I Take (Every Move I Make),” and “You’ve Got Me Hummin’.” Many tracks that Joel includes are heavy on his tributes to his heroes, such as the Beatles and Elvis, including his renditions of “All Shook Up,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hard Day’s Night.” In the early 70’s Joel went solo and created some of the greatest music that’s represented on this collection, such as never-before-released demos including “Oyster Bay,” “Miami 2017,” “These Rhinestone Days” (which later became “I’ve Loved These Days”), and a fantastic version of “The End Of The World” which would ultimately become “Elvis Presley Blvd.” I’ve never been a huge fan of live recordings, but Billy puts his entire heart and soul into the live takes of “I Go To Extremes,” he duets with Sir Elton John on “You May Be Right” and his early classic “Captain Jack.” Of the “hits,” the offerings aren’t as plentiful as your standard “best of” collection, but some favorites are included, such as “An Innocent Man,” “Movin’ Out,” “Big Shot” and his jewel in the crown “New York State Of Mind.” Disc 5 is a DVD comprised of 14 songs from the 1994 River Of Dreams Tour. The hits on this wonderful concert disc include “My Life,” “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” the underrated “Pressure,” and of course Billy’s signature song, “Piano Man.” If this is for the ultimate Billy Joel fan, this collection is certain to satisfy. If you’re looking for a true greatest hits collection, my recommendation would be to pick up Joel’s Greatest Hits collections, Volumes 1 3.
Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run The 30th Anniversary 3-Disc Collection (Box Set)
It’s hard to fathom, but before Bruce Springteen’s Born To Run was released in 1975, Columbia was pondering whether or not to keep Springsteen signed to their label. With the initial disappointing sales of his first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (both released in 1973), Born To Run was Springsteen’s make or break album for the narrow-sighted suits at the record label. As we now know, Born To Run exceeded all expectations and ultimately landed Springsteen on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously in the fall of ’75. In 1974, Jon Landau, (who would later become Springsteen’s co-producer on Born To Run and his manager), attended one of Springsteen’s concerts and said “I have seen the future of rock and roll and it’s Bruce Springsteen.” Never was a statement about “The Boss” so accurate. This new 3-disc collection is astounding in every aspect. The original disc is remastered to such perfection that your woofers and tweeters will be more than grateful. The second and third disc are comprised of a 1975 two hour plus concert filmed in London that easily shows us why Springsteen earned his status as one of the greatest musicians ever to grace a stage with his legendary performances. The Documentary disc is a fascinating view on the making of Born To Run, with new interviews and rare archival footage PLUS live performances from 1973. Accompanying this trio of treats is a 45-page book of rare and unpublished photographs. If you are a fan of Springsteen’s, or know of one, this box set IS the ultimate gift. This 3-disc collection easily earns a five star rating. Spectacular!
The Disco Box: Various Artists (Box Set)
Although this 4-disc, 80-song set was released a couple of years ago, there’s good reason that The Disco Box is out front and center on the display shelf for all Christmas shoppers to admire. One look at the silver packaging, reminiscent of the original disco balls that used to hang in our favorite dance clubs, and you’ll be pulled in like steel to a magnet. I was immediately impressed with the meticulous array of songs that are laid out in chronological order. The set begins with the birth of disco in 1974 with the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s infectious and stunning instrumental “Love’s Theme” and takes us all the way through to Kool & the Gangs’ #1 smash “Fresh.” Of the 78 other tracks, the ride through the 70’s and early 80’s gets even better with hits that include the original queen of disco Gloria Gaynor and her club anthem “Honeybee,” to her successor Donna Summer and the dawn of electronic dance, the brilliant “I Feel Love.” If you’re looking for rarities, this isn’t the set, but if it’s radio and club hits such as Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free,” Karen Young’s “Hot Shot,” Sister Sledge’s “He’s The Greatest Dancer,” McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” Chic’s “Good Times” and Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots,” you’ve come to the right place. And of course, there are the disco staples from Thelma Houston, The Weather Girls, Blondie, Sylvester, Village People, Cheryl Lynn and several more. Didn’t see your favorite? Chances are it’s on this set. But don’t take my word for it, dance on down to the record store and feast your eyes and ears on this exquisite time capsule and the era that we all hold near and dear to our hearts…and feet! Trust me, it’s “The Best Disco In Town.” Yes, that song is also included. When’s the last time you heard dance music this good? Artists are still delivering dance music, just check out Madonna’s latest ode to disco, but can you honestly say it’s as good as this golden era of music? Pass me a fan and a tambourine - this collection is worth its price in platform shoes.
Queen: A Night At The Opera 30th Anniversary
1975 was quite a year for Queen, and this is arguably their best album. The results of the remastered 5.1 stereo version of this set, along with a bonus DVD that contains the original videos to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “You’re My Best Friend,” make this set worth its weight in platinum. The entire twelve song set exposes the flamboyant brilliance of Freddie Mercury. It’s hard to explain why one’s vocals touch you the way they do, but the first time I heard Mercury was on FM radio in 1974 when their first hit record “Killer Queen” was in heavy rotation. Ever since then, his vocals have always resonated with me like few other male voices ever have. He was a showman in the vein of Elton, but had a unique style all his own. It’s clearly evident in the aforementioned headbanger “Bohemian Rhapsody” while their rendition of “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon” and the closer “God Save The Queen” kept me mesmerized for months at the time. I’m happy to say that this 30th anniversary collection has a sound so crisp and clear, it’s easy to see and hear why Freddie and the band were a commercial and critical hit. The bonus DVD also contains 10 new videos, all with archive and audio commentary by Queen. There’s only one thing better than hearing Freddie Mercury talking about this album, and that is actually listening to the album itself. For all the Queen fans, this is a wonderful treat. For those wanting to turn on a younger generation to anthem rock at its best, this is the perfect choice. Nothing pleased Freddie more than turning his fans on. Fourteen years after his untimely death, at age 45, the magic of Mercury endures.
Barbra Streisand: The Television Specials (Box Set)
What other singer/actress/producer/director/writer/composer do you know that’s been in show business for over forty years and is still at the top of her game? Okay, okay, I don’t mean to offend any Cher fans. But this new collection is astonishing. There are so many musical DVD’s available, it could make your head spin. But before you do any involuntary Linda Blair stunts at your local record retailer (don’t hurt yourself!), I suggest looking straight ahead at the new release shelf where you’ll find a brand new classic collection from Barbra Streisand. This is a 5- DVD set of her TV specials from 1965-1973. Yes, all five of her landmark television specials have just been released on November 22nd for the first time on DVD. In fact, two of them have never been released at all, so Streisand fans and gift-givers unite, this is your official alert to those who know of fans (and we all know many), and your heads up for one of the finest performers of our generation doing what she did best in the 1960’s - making beautiful music. Before Hollywood came-a-calling on this legend (with the exception of the 1973 TV special) and after winning a Tony nod and a few Grammy’s for her work on Broadway and her first four albums, respectively, the next step (naturally) was TV. Those first five specials, for which the young star, barely into her twenties, was so wisely given full creative control, were and remain a thrilling introduction to all of her varied talents. The set, aptly titled Barbra Streisand: The Television Specials, comprise five hours and a 65 page booklet that’ll knock you off your feet!
Her first television special, My Name Is Barbra, from 1965, is a classic and was praised by critics coast to coast. UPI proclaimed, “This is a pinnacle moment of American show business, in any form, in any period. She is so great, it is shocking…she may well be the most supremely talented and complete popular entertainer this country has ever produced.” My Name Is Barbra won five Emmy Awards and the prestigious Peabody Award for Distinguished Achievement in Television. Barbra separated the show into three segments; Act 1 was comprised of ten songs that include the title track, “Much More,” “Where Is The Wonder” and possibly the finest version of “People” ever laid down on celluloid. Act 2 included a comedic monologue and an eight song set titled “The Poverty Medley” with a spree through New York’s famed Bergdorf-Goodman’s trying on lavish clothing and jewelry while singing such songs as “Second Hand Rose,” “Give Me The Simple Life,” “I Got Plenty Of Nothing” and “The Best Things In Life Are Free.” It was brilliant! Just when you were bowled over from the first two thirds, Act 3 is a live concert that includes “When The Sun Comes Out.” “Why Did I Choose You?” and “Lover, Come Back To Me.” The closing moments were stupendous with a medley from her then-current Broadway show, Funny Girl, which included “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” “My Man” and closing the show was another song that would become one of her many signatures in years to come, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” If record buyers weren’t aware of Streisand’s stunning talents by the time this special aired on April 28, 1965, four days following her 23rd birthday, this television special was just a taste of what was to come over the next 40 years…and counting.
The second special, Color Me Barbra, aired eleven months later and was considered to bookend the first special. This time around, CBS spared no expense and shot this historic special in glorious color, hence the title. This event was comprised of three acts like its predecessor - after all, if it ain’t broke… Instead of a shopping spree through Bergdorf’s, we were treated to a run through the Philadelphia Museum, with Barbra recreating the famous paintings and becoming the subjects (literally) of works that included Picasso, Modigliani and Renoir. During the first act, Streisand sang seven songs that include “Yesterdays,” “The Minute Waltz,” a wild sign of the times (1966) while performing “Gotta Move” and closing the set with “Where Or When.” Act 2 was comprised of a three ring circus while Streisand sang her “Circus Medley” of 15 songs that included “Animal Crackers In My Soup,” “That Face,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed To That Face,” “I Stayed Too Long At The Fair,” Spring Again” and “Look At That Face.” Act 3 followed suit with a live concert of five songs including “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “It Had To Be You,” “C’est Si Bon,” a knockout version of “Where Am I Going?” and closed the set with the Streisand favorite “Starting Here, Starting Now.”
Disc Three is considered “the lost Streisand special” titled The Belle Of 14th Street. Released in 1967, this special has not been seen since. Streisand, unhappy with the end product (what else is new?) had this TV special collecting dust for the past 38 years. How fortunate that she had the sense to finally let everybody in on the act! It’s hardly a dud. As a matter of fact, there are many shining moments in this three-act, 16-song set. Some of the many highlights include “My Melancholy Baby,” an exquisite rendition of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and the superior medley that includes the sublime “How About Me?,” “My Buddy,” a Mae West take on “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” “Some Of These Days” and “Put Your Arms Around Me.” And believe me, this is one disc you will embrace warmly. The question of why she wasn’t satisfied with the end result will continue to linger, but our satisfaction is guaranteed.
Disc Four is Barbra’s famous open-air free concert that she gave on June 17, 1967, famously titled A Happening In Central Park in front of a crowd estimated at 150,000 of the luckiest people in the world! This would be Streisand’s last solo concert for twenty-seven years until she faced her stage fright, her fears, and the music again in her famous 1993-94 The Concert that finally ended her fans’ frustrations. The stage fright came from death threats she was receiving at the time. She was in the midst of making her first film, Funny Girl, and the threats were very real. The concert took place during the famous Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, and her famous co-star was Omar Sharif. The film was ultimately banned in Egypt. From the look of Miss Streisand and the sound of her spectacular vocals, one would’ve never known the anxiety she experienced through her two and a half hour concert. The footage is extraordinary, and Streisand, at 25 years old, was in tip-top form. My only qualm is that the DVD doesn’t include the entire two and a half hour concert, but sixty minutes of its highlights. Included in the 16-song set is “The Nearness Of You,” “Cry Me A River,” “I Can See It,” “Love Is A Bore,” “He Touched Me,” and a spectacular version of “Silent Night (Sleep In Heavenly Peace)” that only Streisand could pull off in the middle of June. The DVD viewers will be left as awestruck as the people who actually sat in on this concert and witnessed history in the making. There’s only one thing better than this DVD, and that would be to have actually been there.
By 1973, Streisand was so embroiled in Hollywood, having already made eight films, winning an Academy Award and a special Tony in 1970 to round out the highest rewards one could receive from their peers, she went back to close out her five TV special contract with Barbra Streisand…And Other Musical Instruments. What we get here is a savvy and sophisticated Streisand singing some of the most gorgeous songs of her vast catalogue. They include, “Sing/Make Your Own Kind Of Music,” a medley of “I Got Rhythm,” “Johnny One Note,” “One Note Samba,” Glad To Be Unhappy,” the ever-present “People,” “Second Hand Rose,” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” One of the most superb moments comes when she duets with “The Genius” Ray Charles on his staple “Crying Time,” followed by her rocking rendition of “Sweet Inspiration/Where You Lead.” The two highlights that close are her incomparable and heart-wrenching rendition of “I Never Has Seen Snow” and “The Sweetest Sounds.”
For anyone that appreciates the talents of Barbra Streisand, this five disc set proves to be the sweetest sights AND sounds you will ever witness by this living legend. On a scale of one to ten, this collection gets an eleven! Are you verklempt yet? Watch this superb collection, then discuss!
Bette Midler: Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook
In 2003, Bette Midler released the highly successful Grammy-nominated Bette Midler Sings The Rosemary Clooney Songbook. The ingredients for success are all integrated into this new CD and the results are staggering. Barry Manilow is back at the helm, joining forces with Midler for another successful outing. For those of you who have a long memory, Manilow produced Bette’s first two albums, The Divine Miss M in 1972, and Bette Midler in 1973. For you “Fanilows,” there’s also a superb duet on this new CD, “I Love Being Here With You,” that is one of the many highlights on this ten track feast. Other highlights include Lee’s signature Grammy-winning song “Fever” and a fabulous rendition of the 1969 hit “Is That All There Is?” with Bette’s indelible flair for the dramatic enhancing her quaint analysis. Other tracks include “Alright, Okay, You Win,” a stunning reading of “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe,” a vamped-up Midler-style version of “I’m A Woman,” along with “He’s A Tramp,” “The Folks That Live On The Hill,” a splashy version of “Big Spender,” that’ll take you back a decade to Midler’s “Gypsy” period, and the splendid closer “Mr. Wonderful.” Midler is clearly at her best under the direction of master arranger and producer Manilow - it’s no wonder they’re back doing what they do best, and we the fans reap the benefits of this winsome duo. As far as this album goes, the old adage certainly applies, If It Ain’t Broke…
Stevie Wonder: A Time 2 Love
For those of you who are regular readers of my column, you may recall my profile on Stevie Wonder last spring. The reason being that it was Motown’s second announcement in over a year of the release of his latest CD. Six months and three more announced dates later, I’m more than delighted to inform you Stevie Wonder has finally delivered his first album in over a decade, titled A Time 2 Love. When it was first announced, Wonder had a fifteen-track set that was (sorry for the pun) wonderful. Since that time, he has added three tracks that make this his longest opus since the 1976 landmark album Songs In The Key Of Life. Although this album may not be the knock-out of “Songs,” it certainly is his best collection since 1980’s Hotter Than July. The songs take on a mix of funk, to mid-tempo romps, to straight out ballads to jazz. The latter is a genre Wonder has touched upon, but never as clearly as the moody and spellbinding “Moon Blue.” Four of the fifteen tracks include three female vocalists; Kim Burrell, who is featured on the flawless opener “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved;” Aisha Morris, who some may remember as the crying baby on the 1976 Wonder staple “Isn’t She Lovely” (who also happens to be Wonder’s daughter and is 30 years-old now, proving that her fathers’ genes have been kind) exercises her golden throat muscles on the stunning love ballad “How Will I Know” and the funked-up “Positivity”; and India.Arie, who made her mark a few years ago with her own debut album and made her love for Wonder no secret, has the distinguished honor of closing out the album with the gorgeous title cut. Of course, in true Wonder form, the title track has a clear and political point of view on race and prejudice that unfortunately seems as prevalent as it was in his recording heyday of the 70’s. Other standout tracks include “Sweetest Somebody I Know,” “From The Bottom Of My Heart,” “Shelter In The Rain” and “Can’t Imagine Love Without You.” When I first wrote of this album, the title of the column was the title of the first single “So What The Fuss.” With one listen, and repeated listens as I have done, it’s clear to see that Wonder’s songwriting and his vocals are as resonant and clear as they were when he first hit the charts 42 years ago. If you’re a fan of this master musician, no answer will suffice for “What The Fuss” is all about - it’s more than apparent.
Eurythmics: Ultimate Collection
It’s been 24 years since the Eurythmics released their first album, In The Garden, and twenty-five years since Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart first formed the group in London. Over the years and eight studio albums later, the duo racked up two dozen hit singles around the world. On the newly released Ultimate Collection, we are treated to seventeen of their most popular tracks, as well as two brand new tracks recorded this past August after the duo reunited for “Live 8” in July. The new tracks bookend the collection with “I’ve Got A Life” opening the CD and “Was It Just Another Love Affair?” closing the set. Dave Stewart comments on the new recordings (their first in five years), “Annie and I didn’t plan to go into the studio, she was staying with me in Los Angeles and we seemed to spontaneously write and record some songs. It was just like the old days, songs coming at lightening speed and recorded and mixed in a week! I think they are Eurythmics classics.” In between the two new “classics” are their most beloved songs in chronological order, beginning with “Love Is A Stranger,” and the song that woke America up to this new synth pop band with Lennox’s unique vocals and Stewart’s innovative production and musicianship, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This.)” Other hits that follow include “Who’s That Girl?,” “Here Comes The Rain Again,” “Would I Lie To You?,” along with one of the greatest women’s anthems “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” with Annie and Aretha trading secrets while their vocals exploded out of your speakers. The raucous “Missionary Man” is followed by the splendiferous “You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart,” the raw sexual rebel yell of “I Need A Man,” “I Saved The World Today” and their last recording from a full release, 1999’s “17 Again.” If I missed your favorite “ultimate hit,” chances are it’s in this outstanding collection. Hey, would I lie to you?
Eurythmics: In The Garden (1981), Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (1983), Touch (1984), Be Yourself Tonight (1985), Revenge (1986), Savage (1987), We Too Are One (1989), Peace (1999).
One week following Eurythmics Ultimate Collection (November 8), another fantastic treat comes our way with the reissues of all eight of their studio albums on the 15th. Within the eight albums are 44 (yes, 44!) bonus tracks, including 11 previously unreleased tracks all digitally remastered by Dave Stewart himself. Detailed liner notes are written by Eurythmics fan and historian, Phill Savidge. Included in the eight CD reissues are gorgeous never-before-released photos, a 24-page booklet, original single sleeves, alternate and previously unseen archive photographs. Of the eight albums, and the 44 bonus tracks, the 11 previously unreleased tracks include the Eurythmics renditions of Lou Reed’s “Satellite Of Love,” on Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), David Bowie’s “Fame” on Touch, the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” on Be Yourself Tonight, Mary Wells’ “My Guy” off of the Revenge CD, their Beatles cover of “Come Together” appears on Savage, the Smith’s “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” on We Too Are One and Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air” from 1999’s Peace. Also included are various tracks, such as 12” single versions and live versions, as well as alternate takes, all round out the 44 bonus tracks. These eight reissued CD’s are not only the “ultimate collection” for fans, they are a must for all music aficionados. Other artists should take notes when they reissue their CD’s - this is what puts these re-releases far beyond any I have seen in the past. Bravo, Dave and Annie, your exceptional catalog just became even more exceptional!
For those who may not be able to dance on down to your local retailer, I suggest logging onto Amazon.com. They will ship an item within 24 hours of order and they are priced competitively.
Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas to all,