A look at "Best Of" sets for everyone from the Supremes to Richard Pryor

By Ty Burr and Chris Willman
Updated December 01, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
Ten years after his untimely death, Vaughan remains as electrifying as ever-a natural musician whose playing, with its unbelievably fat, liquid tone, flowed effortlessly from his blues-drenched heart to his forgers. These four CDs (the fourth is a wonderful, if brief, DVD of an unreleased ’89 Austin City Limits segment) are strewn with chestnuts like ”Pride and Joy,” ”Texas Flood,” and ”Wall of Denial” (many in previously unissued live versions) as well as welcome rarities. Hottest pyrotechnics: Vaughan and Jeff Beck playing ”Going Down” live in ’89. Saddest song ”Leave My Girl Alone,” from the last concert, on which Vaughan’s incendiary playing rubs in just what we lost when that chopper crashed. But so does this entire box. A-
Tony Scherman

Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music
The producers were asking for it when they proclaimed this five-CD box (a companion to Ken Burns’ PBS special) ”the definitive collection” of jazz. With no recordings by Benny Carter, Illinois Jacquet, Anita O’Day, Sun Ra, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, missing favorites are inevitable in an attempt to cover eight decades of music, and release-date annotation is often vague. But such shortcomings must not obscure the central fact: This set gathers many of the 20th century’s greatest recordings — shimmering, pace setting masterworks from Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke to Charles Mingus and John Coltrane — that belong in any library. Though remastering quality is uneven (Bessie Smith and James P. Johnson are rendered with vivid presence, while Coleman Hawkins’ full-bodied tone feels thin), this package provides as richly rewarding an overview of jazz — its power, poignance, and enduring sense of immediacy — as any available. A-
Chip Deffaa

The Supremes
The Supremes
During her time in this girl group, Diana Ross gave birth to the modern female pop voice: a yearning, racially ambiguous coo that continues to be utilized by driven young women from Madonna to Britney Spears. This remastered four-CD set (which comes with a limited edition live disc) vividly traces the evolution of that voice from ferocious early hits like ”When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” to the fierce yet controlled ecstasy of later tunes like ”Forever Came Today,” a rare flop that ranks with their most heralded chart-toppers. The box also chronicles the trio’s wonderfully trippy, if not as important, post-Ross excursions into hippie soul and disco-hued space funk. Less a nostalgic ”Return to Love” (à la 2000’s ill-fated reunion tour) than an argument for their enduring relevance. A
Craig Seymour

Genesis Archive #2 (1976-1992)
In their post-Peter Gabriel period, Genesis’ output veered from expansive prog instrumentals (”Do the Neurotic”) to tidy, vacuous smashes (”Invisible Touch”). Somehow, both incarnations managed to be equally offensive. One can’t deny the group’s firstrate musicianship, but it’s a pity their considerable skill went toward creating such antiseptic sounds. For Phil Collins-era completists, though, this triple-disc box is a well-packaged set (rife with previously unreleased live cuts, 12-inch single remixes, and non-album tracks) that faithfully chronicles the band’s surprising evolution from artrock geeks to geek-fronted hit factory. C
Laura Morgan

Richard Pryor
…And It’s Deep Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings
Like much of the material in this box, the joke preceding the titular punchline is unprintable. All the more reason to dig into this nine-disc bounty, which compiles Pryor’s Warner catalog on CD for the first time (and includes generous liner notes-cum-tribute from the likes of Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy). Though there’s nary a wasted moment (the requisite ”rarities” disc actually uncovers new ground), it’s still hard not to be blown away by That Nigger’s Crazy (1974), Is It Something I Said? (1975), and Wanted: Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1978). From there, Deep grows into a fascinating character study, as age and a series of calamities — cocaine addiction, two heart attacks, self-immolation, and a 1986 diagnosis of MS — saw Pryor evolve from outrageous ghetto jester to humbled elder statesman. luckily, his profanity and purpose remain thrillingly intact. A
Mike Flaherty

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein LIVE!
You don’t dive into a package like this — 10 CDs stitched together from unreleased archival recordings from the ’50s to the ’80s — for the fidelity or the seamless flow of the program: The sound quality is often scratchy, the repertoire all over the map. But the set does afford us a grand, vibrant portrait of what Bernstein meant to the New York Philharmonic and to music at large. It opens with Stravinsky’s ”Song of the Nightingale” and closes with scenes from Wagner’s ”Gotterdammerung,” stopping along the way at Bach, Boulez, Copland, Beethoven, Ives, and more. The set also bursts with educational value, a matter close to Bernstein’s heart: One disc, of all contemporary music, is interlaced with comments revealing Bernstein’s engaging lectern manner. Here was a conductor who made ”serious” music a living part of the cultural fabric. Where is he when we need him? A-
Josef Woodard

Los Lobos
El Cancionero: Mas Y Mas
Few bands have the cones to leap from boleros and smokehouse blues to Johnny Thunders and Marvin Gaye without being cheeky. But as this fourdisc package proves, Los Lobos have been taking the high road to eclecticism for a quarter century. Encompassing group albums as well as offshoots like the clanking Latin Playboys and the Tex-Mex-steeped Los Super Seven, El Cancionero traces their transition from ’70s folkies to ’90s border-music-noir purveyors, with only a few missteps along the way. They may be the only combo to inherit the legacy and grandeur of The Band, whose music Lobos’ recalls in mood and scope. The collection’s hodgepodge of extraneous cuts from soundtracks. tribute albums, and concerts makes it the definition of a fan package; the ’93 double disc Just Another Band From East L.A. remains the best intro. But for the adventurous, El Cancionero feels and sounds as big as America itself. B+
David Browne

Charlie Parker
The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings 1944-1948
The revolutionary style of sax genius Charlie Parker is too fast, obtuse, and harsh for casual listening — he’s an acquired taste. But for the attuned jazz connoisseur, this is the boxed set to acquire, bringing together for the first time the sessions Bird recorded for the competing Savoy and Dial labels during his explosive prime in the ’40s. The heart of these eight discs (which include numerous outtakes and false starts primarily of interest to buffs and historians) is a group of records made in 1945 and ’46 that stand as nothing less than the founding documents of bebop. The bands include Parker’s co-innovator Dizzy Gillespie, as well as Miles Davis, John Lewis, Max Roach, Al Haig, and non-boppers Slim and Slam. Too bad the booklet is so badly designed; the type is too light and the pictures too dark. Why make Parker even harder to appreciate? A-
David Hajdu

The Best of Broadside 1962-1988
With the Vietnam War brewing, the Civil Rights movement in full swing, and the threat of nuclear war hovering, the singer-son writers of the early-’60s folk era had plenty of reasons to raise their voices. In the thick of it all was Broadside, a modest New York City magazine that published, recorded, and released the protest songs of Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phil Ochs, and others. This five-CD set collects 89 representative performances, including Dylan’s devastating antiwar ballad ”John Brown,” Bonnie Dobson’s nuclear nightmare ”Morning Dew,” Pete Seeger’s Vietnam saga ”Knee Deep in the Big Muddy,” and an embryonic folk version of Janis Ian’s ”Society’s Child.” The straightforward and earnest nature of much of the music only highlights the singers’ unflinching courage, focus, and refreshing lack of cynicism. A
Steve Futterman

The Stax Story
It took three box sets — 28 discs! — to document Stax’s massive output between 1959 and 1975, and that was just the singles. So if distilling that mass down to just three CDs (plus one live disc) seems like a hopeless goal, well… it is. This new collection does about as good a job as one could hope for. Disc one features staples such as ”Green Onions,” ”Soul Man,” and the theme from Shaft; discs two and three cram in 53 other notable tunes from the likes of William Bell, Sam and Dave, and the Staples Singers; and disc four highlights vintage concert recordings, several of them previously unreleased. While there’s nothing wrong with this well-picked assortment, it’s only a small fraction of Stax’s influential and endlessly rewarding catalog. No soul-music fan should deny himself at least the first two Complete Stax/Volt Singles boxes; get a second job if you must. B+
Rob Brunner

Electric Light Orchestra
In the late ’70s, Randy Newman wrote a song mocking Electric Light Orchestra; by the late ’80s, he was employing Jeff Lynne as a producer. Rock fans who once dismissed ELO as highfalutin bubblegum may harbor similarly revisionist second thoughts. Lynne’s insistence that Newman’s tune was intended as a compliment might suggest he’s no genius, yet this three-CD box points toward just such flattering conclusions. At their relatively minimalist, cello-heavy beginning, ELO seemed designed to recreate ”I Am the Walrus”; later, gleefully overproduced years had the Bee Gees as a closer reference, distilled through rockabilly and Prokofiev. Lynne’s pretense paid off in the most packed power-pop ouevre of the ’70s, full of stark stacking effects whose sonic wit is still unsurpassed. Who cares if the box’s half-dozen unreleased tracks derive mostly from the less inspired ’80s? Roll over Phil Spector, and tell Puff Daddy the news. A-

King of the New York Streets
Dion DiMucci’s pilgrimage from collar-upturned doowopper to bespectacled folkie to drug-free, born-again rocker mirrors the journey of his generation. That story lends genuine psychological drama to these three discs, the first CD-era collection to track his 40-year career. Even more remarkably, he created terrific music during each phase. The hits — ”Runaround Sue,” ”The Wanderer,” ”Abraham, Martin & John” — are here, but so are obscure pleasures like ”My Girl the Month of May” (a resplendent ’66 single that’s part Arabia, part Wall of Sound) and the dark Bronx blues ”Daddy Rollin’.” Start to finish, Dion’s voice retains its mix of streetcorner toughness and rueful vulnerability; he truly was rock’s first, and perhaps best, saloon singer. Material and arrangements are sometimes beneath that voice, yet tracks like his warm ’92 doo-wop version of Springsteen’s ”If I Should Fall Behind” make the title of this box still ring true. A-

Brain in a Box: The Science Fiction Collection
It could be five discs of Emo Philips reading the Starr Report and you’d still want to buy this puppy for the packaging alone: a shiny, faux-metal box with wraparound 3-D photos of a plugged-in brain, so that very small children or your credulous friends might actually believe there’s a hunk o’ hypothalamus cooking away inside. Instead, you’ll find within a meticulous overview of sci-fi music through the decades, sliced and diced by movies (disc one, from 1956’s Forbidden Planet to 1999’s The Matrix), TV (disc two, from Twilight Zone to X-Files), pop (disc three, from ”Telstar” on), heavy-on-the-theremin ’50s space lounge (disc four), and useless but hilarious novelty crap (disc five, from ”The Purple People Eater” to ”Planet Claire”). there’s even a wee, gorgeously illustrated hardcover companion book — just the thing for the Incredible Shrinking Man’s coffee table. A
Ty Burr

Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: The Journey of Chris Strachwitz
German-born Strachwitz has turned a lifelong affair with regional music into a distinguished record label, letting America know about Clifton Chenier and zydeco, Flaco Jimenez and norteno, Michael Doucet and modern Cajun music, and New Orleans brass bands. To pop-fed ears, much of this music is downright listener-unfriendly, but take the time to feel your way into it and your life will change for the better. Best stuff. blues greats Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell, and Bukka White, and the oceans of beautiful zydeco and norteno. No purist, Strachwitz has wandered into jazz (the fine, unsung guitarist Jerry Hahn) and blues-rock (a 16-year-old Robben Ford, already killing on guitar), yet he’s apt to deem authentic the merely eccentric: The box has its share of justly obscure blues singers, mediocre folkies, and out-and-out lunatics. B+
Tony Scherman

The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
If the aggressive excavation of the Hendrix archive and the resultant glut of product feels unseemly, if not risible — ol’ Jimi’s pretty prolific for a dead dude, huh? — a session with this latest four-CD grab bag of outtakes and live recordings (most of them previously unreleased) just may change your derisive sneer to a grin of pleasure. Granted, almost everything here, from ”Purple Haze” to ”The Star-Spangled Banner,” is available elsewhere in one incarnation or another. Yet these songs are so durable, and the differences between these and preexistent versions so irresistible (dig that snarling, punky solo on ”Little Wing”!), that before long you’ve fallen under their spell once more. Naysayers may carp that this is just one more instance of cynical corporate marketeering, but… what the hell: It’s a Jimi thing — you wouldn’t understand. B+
Tom Sinclair