Anthologies: Boxes, Bests and Bonuses

By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Swaddled in lush packaging, packed with obscure live tracks and detailed liner notes no one will ever finish, CD compilations have never been more elaborate. (And, thanks to the advent of online downloading, less necessary.) What follows is a peek at some of the season's notable boxed-set and best-of collections, from the terrific to the moderately embarrassing.

Until now, Led Zeppelin was one of the few classic rock acts not anthologized to death. But the double CD "Mothership," produced by Jimmy Page with what seems like minimal effort, is the opening salvo in a campaign that will see digital release of the band's catalogue and an all-but-certain reunion tour. Its 24 previously released tracks make for a practical, if hardly thrilling, starter collection; the deluxe version includes footage from the (also previously released) live DVD "Led Zeppelin."

Hip-hop acts usually get less reissuing love than their rock and jazz counterparts, which may explain why the 20th anniversary re-reissue of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton," the swaggering, cinematic, hand grenade of an album that launched a thousand gangsta rap imitators, is low on frills. There's a handful of live and cover versions, most notably Snoop Dogg and C-Murder's blaxploitation-style remake of "Gangsta Gangsta," which mines the unlikely humor of the original.

Emmylou Harris's "Songbird" serves up four CDs' worth of rarities, including live tracks, excerpts from her underrated collaborations with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, and duets with Mark Knopfler and an oddly dignified Beck. Lovingly packaged, with exhaustive commentary and an obligatory performance DVD, it's a sublime offering that, as rock critics like to say, is for completists only.

The legendary Southern soul-and-blues label Stax has been anthologized almost as much as Harris has. Its latest offering, the crazy great two-disc set "Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration," focuses mostly on in-house superstars like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes, making it an excellent primer for anyone who avoided the behemoth, paycheck-testing 2000 box "The Stax Story."

"The Ike & Tina Turner Story: 1960-1975" also offers decades' worth of hits with little flotsam. A three-disc collection of the vaunted R&B duo's greatest tracks, it documents in the final disc a particularly scorching 1969 concert. There are tidier compendiums (2006's "The Soul Anthology" among them), though none that so perfectly crystallize the Turners' funked-up, sexed-up, rivetingly dysfunctional hybrid of rock and soul.

For those who prefer their icons even hairier, "Heavy Metal Box" is a steroidal romp through the land of mullets, unflattering leather pants and halfhearted devil worship. With 70 artists spread over four discs, this is Wikipedia-style hard rock. The bad news: You don't have to be a headbanger to quibble with its choices (Stryper? Really?) and omissions (AC/DC, Guns N' Roses). The good news: The box itself is, quite awesomely, shaped like a guitar amp, with a knob that goes to 11.

At his peak in the early '90s, Garth Brooks was Jon Bon Jovi, James Taylor and George Strait all wrapped into one and tucked under a very large hat. Brooks's three-disc "The Ultimate Hits" is a chronological retrospective of, well, his hits (which are mostly remarkable), with some entirely decent new songs thrown in. Also included: bonus tracks of questionable merit (looking for Brooks's duet with Huey Lewis on "Workin' for a Livin' "? No? It's here anyway) and an accompanying DVD with videos of every song.

Though they could never match Brooks's tyrannical grip on America's affections, the Spice Girls are poised to give pop culture another great thumping with their upcoming reunion tour. Their new "Greatest Hits" will serve as a timely reminder of why you liked them -- or not -- in the first place. Available only through the Victoria's Secret Web site and stores until mid-January (purchasers will find an online link to bonus remixes that sound like longer versions of the songs they already paid for), it's breezy, likable and daffy enough to make Gwen Stefani seem like Susan Sontag.

DOWNLOAD THESE: Led Zeppelin: "When the Levee Breaks"; N.W.A.: "Gangsta Gangsta"; Emmylou Harris: "The Angels Rejoiced Last Night" (with Gram Parsons); Stax: Otis Redding, "I've Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now)"; Ike & Tina: "It's Gonna Work Out Fine"; Metal Box: Hanoi Rocks, "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams"; Garth Brooks: "The Thunder Rolls"; Spice Girls: "Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)"

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