The gift of music never fails and you can fill plenty of stockings with these re-releases, compilations and holiday music, handpicked by the JT music elves Tom Bojko, Philip Brasor, Jeff Hammond, Jason Jenkins, Michael Pronko and Suzannah Tartan


Celia Cruz “La Irresistible” (Astro)

Celia Cruz lived large and lived young. Had it not been for a brain tumor, the undisputed “Queen of Salsa” would surely have kept belting them out to packed houses well into her 80s. Her death in July closed one of the most colorful chapters in Latin music, one that encompassed the golden years of salsa, mambo, rumba, son and other branches of the Afro-Cuban rhythmic tree. The re-release of “La Irresistible” offers a chance to sample all of the above. Spice up your New Year’s festivities with 15 of her most popular numbers from the late ’40s. The sound quality on some tracks isn’t so impressive, but if your feet don’t start moving to the horns on “El Cumbanchero,” you’re not drinking enough Champagne. (J.J.)

Elmore James “King of the Slide Guitar” (Charly)

The title of this three-disc re-mastering is no exaggeration. Every electric guitarist with a slide from Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan copped James’ licks. Compared to the mushy, lumped-together sound quality of earlier recordings, the tight ensemble interplay is much better defined here. These three discs cover James’ most fertile period (1957-63), bringing together his most influential sessions on small blues labels. James simply could not play filler; each cut burns with his raw technique. In addition to providing a veritable encyclopedia of slide guitar, James also reworked the group format with hard-rocking rhythms and an urban style ahead of its times. This is classic electric blues at its finest. The liner notes and careful documentation make this the definitive collection of his work. (M.P.)

Elvis Costello “Singles, Vols. 1-3” (MSI)

Elvis Costello’s catalog has been re-released on CD not once, but twice, and all in double-disc packages that, collectively, dredge up every burp and blue joke he ever committed to tape. This exhaustive three-volume singles collection may sound redundant, but it gets to the essence of Costello’s genius more directly than any other anthology. The first half of Costello’s career dovetailed with the last great 7-inch vinyl single era, and his signature brand of excitable pop was perfectly suited to the format. These three collections contain every single he recorded, from his 1977 Stiff debut, “Less Than Zero,” to 1987’s “A Town Called Big Nothing,” which he wrote for Alex Cox’s film “Straight to Hell.” The singles are re-created as separate CDs in smaller reproductions of the original cover art, and quite a few contain bonus tracks. The collection also contains liner notes that discuss every release in detail. Each volume contains 11 or 12 discs and will set you back 6,000, so you might want to consider which Elvis Era (’77-’79, ’80-’83, ’84-’87) the person you’re buying it for likes best. Hint: You can’t go wrong with Vol. 1. (P.B.)

Nina Simone “Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Recordings” (Verve/Universal)

Anthologies for people as prolific and versatile as the late Nina Simone are the most frustrating kind. Verve, which has already released several less-than-satisfying greatest-hits packages, wisely decided to go the whole nine yards with “Four Women.” All seven of the albums that Simone made for Philips from 1964 to 1966 are included in the box, complete on four CDs. It sounds like too much, but at that point in her career Simone was more than a singer and a pianist. She was a unique musical institution. Starting with “Nina Simone in Concert,” one of the greatest live albums of all time, Simone became the musical beacon of the U.S. civil rights movement while branching out from jazz to folk, show tunes, chanson, pop and gospel. On the next six albums she experimented with odd arrangements, hired huge orchestras, browbeat collaborators and stretched boundaries vocally, instrumentally and lyrically. Though she could stomp a raunchy blues and give Dave Brubeck a run for his money, she was most stirring as a ballad singer, and her impressionistic songwriting during this time had no peer. There’s nothing here that isn’t astonishing. (P.B.)

Miles Davis “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions” (Columbia/Legacy)

The single most complete fusion of jazz with rock, Miles Davis’ “A Tribute to Jack Johnson,” released in 1970, changed the course of jazz forever. Using an arsenal of electric guitars and keyboard synthesizers, Davis ripped apart earlier notions of smoothly channeled energy and musical expression. In the spirit of Johnson, Davis’ boxing hero, the trumpeter and his cohorts which included John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette provoked the jazz establishment by taking a more emotional and unrestrained approach. Those 50 influential minutes, two LPs of single tunes, have now been expanded to five 70-minute CDs. While a portion of the new material could be seen as merely interesting outtakes, the quality of almost all them is as impressive as the original two. Despite the length of each reworking, the successive takes reveal the rotating cast of musicians hard at work. The solos grow more intense, the drumming more “out there” and the anger more constructive in each version. Not only for hardcore jazz or Davis-heads, these sessions should appeal to anyone interested in spontaneous creativity. (M.P.)

The Allman Brothers Band “Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival July 3 and 5, 1970” (Epic Legacy Sony)

The classic double LP “At Fillmore East” has long been considered the definitive Allman Brothers Band recording and one of the greatest live rock recordings of all time. The new CD of previously unreleased concert material from the Atlanta Pop Festival, a year before that concert, is its equal. Both capture the Allman’s distinctive blend of blues, rock and jazz spun out into intense, extended jams, but the Atlanta performances show a more youthful clarity and focus to the band’s power. The classic Allman Bros. tunes “Whipping Post,” “Mountain Jam” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” rocket along explosively beside the gutsy, electric updating of classic blues numbers. Gregg Allman’s Hammond B3 organ propels Duane Allman and Dickey Betts’ twin lead guitars over one of rock’s best rhythm sections. (M.P.)


Various artists “!K7150” (!K7)

At a time when much electronica can be greeted with a yawn, the !K7 label continues to issue wake-up calls. “!K7150,” a compilation celebrating the New York/Berlin label’s 150th release, confirms !K7’s status as one of the most crucial labels around. Both historical and forward-looking, the album covers the label’s evolution from a small studio in Berlin to its current incarnation as a home for a wide range of dance-friendly, but slightly eccentric, artists. The album kicks off with “No Government,” from an early solo record by Nicolette, the throaty vocalist that defined early Massive Attack. It’s pure voodoo, dark and scintillating. Kruder and Dormeister’s “Black Baby,” still dark but more danceable, is another bit of !K7 history, from K&D’s ground-breaking DJ Kicks mix record. Poet/hip-hop artist Ursula Rucker leavens the somewhat somber mood with several contributions (including a video on the special edition DVD compilation). A frequent collaborator with The Roots, Rucker gives an organic, sincere feel to her music, proving just how elastic the term electronica can be. (S.T.)

Various artists “A Beginner’s Guide to Arabia” (Nascente)

The West obviously has much to learn about the Arab world. Perhaps the easiest introduction to the Middle East would be through its rich musical traditions. “Beginner’s Guide to Arabia” offers a crash course, with three discs covering Arabian classics, Arabian pop and Arabian “lounge.” The liner notes, although brief, offer insight into the song selections with short translations of lyrics, historical footnotes and interesting tidbits about the artists, which include everyone from legends (Egypt’s Oum Kalthoum) to rising stars (Lebanon’s Nancy Ajram). Through the collection, traditional rhythms move from scratchy records to ambient club beats, giving us a taste of what’s coming out of speakers in countries like Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Listen and learn. (J.J.)

Various artists “New York Noise” (Soul Jazz)

When Jean-Michel Basquiat was busy setting the New York art scene on fire and Vincent Gallo was making his plans for world domination, sounds of this kind formed the soundtrack to their downtown lifestyles. Savage disco and mutant postpunk collides with funk, early hip hop and electro and the discordant experiments of the arty crowd. Included here are some of the key players of the time, including DNA (featuring the young Arto Lindsay), ESG and Rahmelzee. “Optimo” by Liquid Liquid (four white boys tripping on “black”‘ music) stands out for its tribal, rolling groove and infectious percussion. Despite the distinct New York-ness and the distance across the ocean it’s surprising how similar some of these excursions are to the output of British postpunk bands of the ’80s, such as The Slits, 23 Skidoo, Pigbag and A Certain Ratio. Recommended for anyone interested in the downtown scene, new wave in general or the origins of today’s dance music. (J.H.)

Various artists “Pillows and Prayers” (Cherry Red)

Along with Rough Trade et al, Cherry Red was a key institution in the U.K. independent scene of the early ’80s, and “Pillows and Prayers” was its benchmark release. Highlights include an early incarnation of Everything But The Girl. In retrospect, the label’s support of floaty acoustic performers (a genre known in Japan, but nowhere else, as “neo-acoustic” ) could make it a forerunner of the “shoe-gazing” style a formula later given a fuzzbox and more decibels by British groups Chapterhouse, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, etc. But this is just one part of the puzzle, for the early electronic pop of The Passage and the comedy-ranting of Attila The Stockbroker also make an appearance. This double-CD package pairs the original 1982 Vol. 1 with the Japan-only Vol. 2 from 1984, with a DVD freebie. This CD reissue will cost you a little more than the “pay no more than 99 pence” sticker (from the original vinyl-only release) claims, but what price nostalgia? (J.H.)

Various artists “Relaxin’ With Lovers” (Soytzer Music)

Christmas for the rest of the world means family, but in Japan it’s more a time for a hot date than a hot mince pie, and the last thing on a boy’s mind when he thinks of stockings is Santa Claus. For young romantics needing a suitable soundtrack, what could be better than this collection of odes to the joy and pain of love? Lover’s Rock started in mid-’70s England when some producers, most notably Dennis Bovell, noticed that although young black girls liked to buy records, they weren’t into the then in-vogue heavy roots reggae. Putting together all-girl vocal groups like Brown Sugar and 15, 16, 17, backed with lighter rhythms and sweet melodies, Lover’s Rock was born. The tracks on this series of compilations are culled from old and hard-to-find singles (many on CD for the first time) and give a rare glimpse of one of reggae’s lesser known off-shoots. (J.H.)

Various artists “Trojan Ganja Reggae” (Trojan)

For those who prefer a different sort of stocking stuffer, there is Trojan’s “Ganja Reggae” box set. And three CDs for 2,200 is a deal hard to pass up even if you don’t inhale. Unlike the music on the Christmas set, “Ganja Reggae” has a more consistently analog feel the instruments are nicely frayed around the edges, often echoing into the distance. Among the many gems in this collection are two 1971 versions of Bob Marley’s “Kaya,” which show the singer’s strange and experimental side. As you float happily through the pleasant mishmash of instrumentals, spoken-word appreciations of the fine collie weed and even the occasional “normal” song, it’s worth pondering a weed-based musical and social history of Jamaica. As Peter Tosh sang, “Legalize It.” (T.B.)

Various artists “You Are Here” (Accidental)

Matthew Herbert has proved that genres are no barrier to curious, creative musicians. Gracefully skating from big-band swing to house to techno, Herbert has no peer. As the compilation “You Are Here” proves, his label Accidental is just as iconoclastic. Electrofolk? Check out the Mugison cut. Retro disco? There’s The Soft Pink Truth, a side project from Drew of Matmos fame. Jazz? Phil Parnell, Herbert’s big-band collaborator, offers a lovely, gently swinging song. And the man himself is amply represented in all of his manifestations. A cut from Herbert, his house moniker, is all about the dance floor. Dr. Rockit, his techno guise, is pure beats. And “Everything’s Changed,” from the Herbert Big Band, has classic written all over it. (S.T.)

Holiday music

The Blind Boys of Alabama “Go Tell It On the Mountain” (Real World/Toshiba EMI)

Eclecticism is the bane of Christmas albums. If this collection by the Blind Boys of Alabama proves an exception it’s because their gospel convictions make every one of these songs, augmented by special guests, a standard in its own right. After hearing the septet rip through rollicking versions of “Born in Bethlehem” with Mavis Staples and “I Pray on Christmas” with Solomon Burke, you may want to rethink your definition of “standard.” The Boys can do straight standards, too, as they do with Shelby Lynne on “The Christmas Song” and Les McCann on “White Christmas.” I’m not too sure they make much of a dent on more experimental cuts like Me’shell Ndegeocello’s “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and Michael Franti’s “Little Drummer Boy,” but without them, George Clinton’s Delta blues version of “Away in the Manger” would be sacrilege. (P.B.)

Various artists “Trojan Christmas” (Trojan)

Who needs an old guy with an elf fetish wiggling down the chimney when you can conjure up Lee “Scratch” Perry in his magical Black Ark? Unlike most seasonal music, this collection is useful year-round. With three discs of music, spanning 1964 to 1988, it provides a handy cross-section of artists, producers and genres of Jamaican music. While some of it is as dull as any pop garbage manufactured elsewhere (The Tamlins’ “Last Christmas” is just as awful as the original by Wham!), there’s no harm in sitting through the odd clunker when you can get gems like “Breadfruit Roasting in an Open Fire,” “Santa Claus is Ska-ing to Town” or “Santa Claus Dub.” (T.B.)

Various artists “Silent Night” (Tritone Records)

On this CD, “Silent Night” is put through the postrock wringer and comes out the other side, sometimes barely recognizable but usually in one piece. Why bother with nine versions of a song you hear enough of during the holiday season, and all by artists you’ve probably never heard of? Because your perseverance will be rewarded with radical reworkings, ranging from the music-box pretty to the playfully deconstructed. And thankfully, they are all instrumental so no annoying children’s choirs. Not really one for granny, but it could be useful to put on after dinner to bewilder the rest of the family, or to pop into one of the more discerning stockings in the household. (J.H.)

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