The emphasis this year: nostalgia
As is usual this time of year, publishers of books and CDs want you to run to stores and purchase plenty of music-related items for Christmas. That usually involves greatest-hits collections from washed-up artists or new releases from the best-selling acts.
While the industry has pinned its hopes on the new Eminem and Destiny's Child releases, they're also looking at an older audience, one easily lured by the idea of nostalgia. That's why many of the holiday-related items involve acts that have long since left the charts, the earth or both.
Here's a look at some of them.
Capitol Records: all is forgiven
The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1
For near-universal nostalgia appeal, surely no gift shines more brightly this year than The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1, which brings the Beatles' American albums to CD for the first time. The quick backstory, for non-Beatlephiles: The Beatles' earliest music was chopped and pressed, literally, into collections quite different than the rest of the world received.
When the Beatles released their albums on CD in 1987, they chose to issue the more universally recognized British album releases, which contained more songs and expressed the artistic control the Beatles had in England in 1964-'66 - but not yet in America.
So what this set does is bring together the track selection and album covers which two generations of Americans purchased and studied, and which a third and fourth have examined in dusty record bins and on eBay, priced exorbitantly.
The albums are Meet The Beatles! (misleadingly subtitled "The First Album by England's Phenomenal Pop Combo"), The Beatles' Second Album, the deceptively titled Something New and Beatles '65 ("Great New Hits by John! Paul! George! Ringo!"). The discs are presented in individual cardboard sleeves meant to evoke the 12-inch vinyl records of the era and even the disc labels feature the distinctive Capitol Records rainbow pattern and domed logo.
If that's all that this set had, it wouldn't be worth whatever Capitol wants you to pay for it at your favorite retail outlet. But, for Beatles fans and scholars, the discs are not only repackages of old songs and albums but a massive artistic recontextualization, offering long-lost mixes of essential Beatles songs the way they were heard - and embraced - in America.
Besides offering different album titles and song selections, Capitol Records, owner of Beatles recordings in the U.S., decided to process the Beatles music in a manner they believed would ensure success on AM radio.
They didn't know they were doing the equivalent of drawing smiley faces on Picasso paintings, but Capitol was merciless in the way it treated the Beatles' early work. They added shit tons of reverb, compressed already very heavily compressed music and added echo-chamber effects to the relatively flat-sounding British master tapes.
This apparently pissed off the Beatles, especially John Lennon, it is said, but they lacked the power to counteract it until 1967 and Sgt. Pepper's unbutcherable mastery arrived. Beatles aficionados have criticized Capitol's treatment of the early music for several decades now, for daring to mess with alleged perfection.
The detractors are right: The songs on The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 are entirely different representations of the Beatles' artistry. But in one of the odd quirks which history sometimes throws at us, time has been kind to the tamperers and adulterers at Capitol Records in Hollywood.
Many of the songs, when compared with the currently available CDs, sound much brighter and punchier. The American mixes not only added reverb, they added a unique trick of the time. They took tapes recorded in two channels of mono, then equalized, compressed and ever-so-slightly delayed one of the channels, creating a "mock stereo" Capitol called "Duophonic," an endearingly Space Age-y term.
"I Want to Hold Your Hand," as released in England, was a jolly good rocking number meant to moisten British auditorium seats. But the stereo version that the Capitol Records team remixed and reprocessed is an entirely different artistic achievement, a statement for the ages.
The opening guitar chords crash and boom like a supersonic jet. The vocals come in trebly and forceful, the sound of winners establishing themselves on the scene. The background handclaps cut through the mix. The harmonies shimmer with the reverb and echo Capitol added, even in the mono mix, thoughtfully also included in the box set.
"I Saw Her Standing There" and "Little Child" benefit from this treatment, in a way that gives the listener an indication of just how and why the Beatles became the American phenomenon they did. It wasn't all just moptops and falsetto "wooos," it was solid rock and roll based equally in rockabilly and what they believed to be American R&B music.
Part of the fun of the American albums is to recognize the artistic struggle that was going on between the Beatles and Capitol. Were the Fab Four in favor of a Stateside release of their German-language version of "Hand," "Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand"? And, accidentally or not, the Capitol versions fill in historic gaps in the Beatles catalogue. "I'll Cry Instead," as presented here on Something New, adds an extra verse, for example. Great non-British LP songs such as "Any Time at All," "I'll Get You" and "I Call Your Name," Beatles classics rivaling any others, are rescued from the odd-lots CD issued in 1987 and restored to their proper spot.
There's also a 48-page booklet that explains some of the backstory and contains plenty of unspectacular pictures along with dull text and quotes.
This is apparently the first in a series that will end with the 1966 butcherization of Revolver, arguably the Beatles greatest album. It's also the latest in a series of moves from 21st century EMI and Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney to extract every last cent from current-day Beatles fans, who number in the tens of millions worldwide.
For perhaps the first time in their 40-year association with the label, the Beatles have finally been well-served by Capitol Records. It's not quite in the realm of an apology for slavery from the Bush Administration, but this set is, in its own way, as startling and baffling as such a statement would be.
Ready for history
The Notorious B.I.G.
Ready To Die (The Remaster)
Bad Boy/BMG Records
It is said the truest test of whether an album is worth the money is whether a professional music writer would take his or her own $15 and purchase it. Truthfully, none of the writers I know actually buy much music; if it's not sent to them for free, the theory goes, they don't need to hear it.
But this is an album I gladly paid $13.99 plus tax to re-obtain. It's perhaps the singularly most influential rap album in existence. Released to gasps of disbelief in 1993, it established Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, and Puff Daddy as household names.
After nearly a dozen years, it still holds up and, in fact, has increased in stature. No MC before or since quite captured the rapid-fire wordplay, striking metaphors and passionate delivery as Big. Puff's reputation as a superstar producer was earned here and the disc remains his greatest achievement as a producer.
For those unfamiliar with it, the album begins to the sounds of a woman giving birth and ends with Biggie pulling the trigger on his own head. In between, there's plenty of gangsta posturing - quaint by 2004 standards - but enough humor, energy, verve and ambition to fill several box sets of lesser MCs' work.
The couplets here were almost immediately memorized and imitated by an entire generation of rappers on both coasts. Here's an example of a prime verse (from "Gimme The Loot"):
I'm slamming ni**az like Shaquille, shit is real
When it's time to eat a meal I rob and steal
cause Mom Duke ain't giving me shit
so for the bread and butter I leave ni**az
in the gutter
Huh, word to mother, I'm dangerous
Crazier than a bag of fucking Angel Dust
The hooks on the album are as troubled and pensive as anything created by Kurt Cobain and Marvin Gaye. "I don't wanna live no mo' / Sometimes I feel death knocking on my front do'." But there's also glimpses of redemption and spirited wordplay. Even when he's talking about gats and bitches, the essential warmth and humanity shines through. He's not a misogynist or a killer here, just an insanely talented and ambitious MC looking to make his mark.
The package comes with a bonus DVD containing five videos, the most noteworthy of which is "Warning," which shows Big lounging in bed with three or four women, counting double-digit thousand stacks and taking out haters with two gats, Vice City style.
In the history of rap, only a few albums stand out as unchallenged masterpieces. This is one.
All those years ago
The Dark Horse Years 1976-1992
EMI Music DVDs
Artistic productivity was not the hallmark of George Harrison's post-Beatles career. He released six albums during the 16 years this DVD covers. So the buyer receives eight music videos, four live cuts and a few obscurities, as well as plenty of talk from Olivia Harrison, George's widow.
While it may appear to be a haphazardly packaged collection, The Dark Horse Years DVD is actually a testament to the essential humanity and character of a soft-spoken, deeply spiritual man who sought to harm no one.
Collectors can quibble whether his 1987 "comeback" album, Cloud Nine, was worth the plastic on which it was pressed; but the fact remains that it provided him inspiration and strength he carried into the 1990s and the Beatles "reunion" of that decade.
Sorely missing is "All Those Years Ago," Harrison's tribute to John Lennon, the lovable eccentricity of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" and more in-depth interviews with the man himself. Also omitted was material from his deathbed album Brainwashed.
Despite those drawbacks, any person who is captivated by the quiet, brooding, contemplative Beatle named George would do well to watch this DVD.
Art of Modern Rock
Edited by Paul Grushin & Dennis King
Chronicle Books; $60
Here's a holiday gift for someone you really love. It's a $60, 20-pound book which traces the progress of the modern art rock poster. With work from more than 200 artists, Art Of Modern Rock is nothing if not complete.
Devotees will recognize the names of Frank Kozik, Lindsey Kuhm, Mark Arminski and the many other artists; others will only recognize the style.
Selected from 8,000 submissions, the posters in the book capture an era (1989-2004) where rock poster art went through a transformation and once again became fine art.
There's entire pages devoted to psychedelic jam band posters; String Cheese Incident receives its own section, in fact. But non-hippie bands are well-represented too. There's a lovely Tori Amos poster in which John Lennon, from beyond the grave, endorses the red-haired singer. Graphic designers go nuts over this sort of thing; and it's easy to see why.
Non-artists can appreciate the varying styles of poster art and how Nirvana, Pearl Jam and others help resurrect it as an artform in the 1990s.
You'll need two hands to carry it and a ton of paper to wrap it, but any lover of art and popular music, especially jam band music, will love this book. More info at www.artofmodernrock.com.
The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, 4th Edition
Edited by Nathan Brackett with Christian Hoard
Fireside Books; $29.99
Rock and roll album guides are usually a waste of time, especially those issued under the Rolling Stone name. The magazine itself has been the spokesperson for mediocrity for many years now and its reviews universally reviled.
That being said, the editors of this collection have done an unusually good job with this guide. Hundreds of entries have been added and the book now covers more than 2,000 artists.
Their sections on Hall of Fame artists - James Brown, the Beatles, Beck, the Stones - are especially on point, written for both fanatics and casual browsers. If you love browsing used CD bins for neglected treasures, this book will be your friend and shower you with love.
Its sections on '90s bands such as Oasis, Wilco, Jeff Buckley and Biggie Smalls are far more comprehensive than anything Rolling Stone magazine did at the time and comprises a valuable addition to rock literature and criticism.
At $29.95, it's a costly gift, but one that will provide bathroom reading for years or bedside reference for decades. If this is the first step in the rehabilitation of the Rolling Stone brand, it is a positive one.