Whether you spend Christmas on a "Blue Bayou" with Linda Ronstadt or on "Higher Ground" with Stevie Wonder, this shopping season it's worth thinking inside the box

By EW Staff
December 17, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Stevie Wonder
At the Close of a Century

Four discs, 70 cuts, not a dud among them—boxed sets don’t get any better than this. Wonder’s signal contribution to Motown soul was a buoyant eclecticism that found its most exhilarating expression in upbeat anthems (from ”Uptight” to ”I Just Called to Say I Love You”) whose sentimentality was always redeemed by musical rigor. Even on the last disc, where the middle-aged former child star is supposed to falter, the selections are worthy, as are early semi-hits (1969’s ”I Don’t Know Why,” which peaked at No. 39 on the pop chart, is, in a word, magnificent). Billed as ”The 12 Year Old Genius” on his third album, he proves a genius for all time. A+ — Ken Tucker

Stan Freberg
Tip of the Freberg: The Stan Freberg Collection, 1951-1998
Rhino, $59.98

Stan Freberg’s ’50s skits and parodies are literally among the funniest moments ever recorded, especially his spoofs of early rock & roll (”Sh-Boom,” ”The Great Pretender,” etc). In 1961 he made his masterpiece: The United States of America, Vol. 1: The Early Years, probably the best-conceived, best-performed — why mince words? — the best comedy album ever made (Tip includes six tracks). At his peak, Freberg decamped for advertising. About 40 of his radio ads are here, plus a video with 17 TV ads. Many of them — in fact, most — crackle like Freberg’s best comedy. In 1996 came volume 2 of The United States of America. Sadly, it was flabby and punchless — he’d waited too long. The only other disconcerting element on this four-CD collection is the man’s almost pathetically self-congratulatory tone in his portions of the liner notes. A- — Tony Scherman

Various Artists
Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century
SONY/LEGACY, $329.99

Probably the most daunting millennial retrospective yet assembled, this behemoth attempts to distill a century of pop, rock, classical, jazz, blues, country, folk, show tunes, hip-hop, and more—onto 26 CDs. Since the selections were limited to Sony’s vaults, (admittedly voluminous, due in large part to its acquisition of the legendary Columbia catalog), the set is less than comprehensive (no Skip James, Beatles, or Hendrix). Still, there’s a wealth of engaging material on this impressively overstuffed sampler. You’ll need a week to absorb it all (if you parcel your listening time into four-CDs-per-day stretches), but it’s a fascinating journey. A hefty photo-and-essay-studded book is included to help armchair ethnomusicologists connect the dots between Roberts Johnson and Zimmerman—or find that elusive link between Bessie and Will Smith. B+ — Tom Sinclair

Wynton Marsalis
Live at the Village Vanguard

Is it extravagant or presumptuous for Wynton Marsalis to release a seven-CD package in a year already chockablock with new Marsalis titles? In this case, the answer is no, because this relaxed yet ambitious compendium, recorded between 1990 and 1994 and with various incarnations of his septet, illustrates Marsalis’ considerable stylistic breadth and acumen on trumpet in a concise and evocative context. Not incidentally, through Marsalis’ stage banter and the cozy (i.e., sweaty) acoustics, we also get a vibrant, you-are-there taste of the ambiance of New York City’s celebrated Village Vanguard. Marsalis’ restless invention, controlled aesthetics, and heated performance swagger are here in exploratory, extended suites, like ”Citi Movement” and ”In the Sweet Embrace of Life,” balanced by spicier, more compact charts, reworkings of Ellington and Monk tunes, and even a swinging take on ”Winter Wonderland.” The material coheres into a friendly, epic sprawl. Marsalis has fielded, and answered, accusations of conservatism over the years, but the history of the evolutionary revolution that is jazz breathes naturally through this music. A