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Multimedia Gift Guide - Music 

by Joel Smith & r & With Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of the Man in Black soliciting Oscar whispers and wowing audiences (even one Cash's daughters did a double-take when she saw a trailer for the movie on TV), Johnny Cash is all the rage right now. And rightly so. Loved by angels and Hell's Angels alike, Cash was one of those rare artists who seemed to transcend time, genre and "demographic." Old fans have known this all along; newbies are just coming to understand it. But neither should fall for the Walk the Line film soundtrack. Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon really do sound like Johnny and June, but why buy the imitation when you can have the original? The Legend is the real deal. With four discs and 104 tracks, this handsome box set spans Cash's career from 1955 to 2002 (that's most of it), from his early recordings at Sun Records in Memphis to his latest work on American recordings. (Is it just us or might his version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" be the best cover ever recorded?) This may be the authoritative Cash collection. It's expected to ride high on the wake of the film this Christmas.


Even with Walk the Line getting Oscar buzz, though, it remains unclear whether the movie (and the Legend box set) will net Cash as much cultural currency as Ray Charles won with his portrayal in last year's Ray, which netted Jamie Foxx an Oscar. Released in September, Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings continues to ride high on that wave. Over 189 tracks on eight discs, the collection covers the years 1952 through 1959, offering an in-depth glimpse at Charles' early progression from his boogie piano work on "Mess Around" to his construction of the sound that would make careers for Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Stevie Wonder and others. And though the musical collection is good (even the many demos and rehearsal takes), and the packaging -- designed to look like a suitcase phonograph -- is pretty clever, the best part of the set might be the included DVD, with footage of Charles and the Raelettes appearing at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. The collection doesn't offer the chronological breadth of Cash's Legend, but the depth of the Atlantic-years study is tail-shaking good. (Fans of Ray might also want to take a chance on Unpredictable, Jamie Foxx's first solo shot at making music.)


Even with Walk the Line getting Oscar buzz, though, it remains unclear whether the movie (and the Legend box set) will net Cash as much cultural currency as Ray Charles won with his portrayal in last year's Ray, which netted Jamie Foxx an Oscar. Released in September, Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings continues to ride high on that wave. Over 189 tracks on eight discs, the collection covers the years 1952 through 1959, offering an in-depth glimpse at Charles' early progression from his boogie piano work on "Mess Around" to his construction of the sound that would make careers for Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Stevie Wonder and others. And though the musical collection is good (even the many demos and rehearsal takes), and the packaging -- designed to look like a suitcase phonograph -- is pretty clever, the best part of the set might be the included DVD, with footage of Charles and the Raelettes appearing at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. The collection doesn't offer the chronological breadth of Cash's Legend, but the depth of the Atlantic-years study is tail-shaking good. (Fans of Ray might also want to take a chance on Unpredictable, Jamie Foxx's first solo shot at making music.)


We'll be the first to admit that not everybody is interested in listening to eight CDs of early piano jazz and dirty stories. We'll admit it, but we don't understand it. The great Jelly Roll Morton was one of the progenitors of jazz in early-20th-century New Orleans. A nimble and quick-witted piano player, he was also something of a card. And all of that shines in The Complete Library of Congress Recordings, made by legendary folklorist Alan Lomax in 1938. The beauty of this box set is twofold. First, it's a pleasure to listen to. When he's not dancing across the keys on numbers like "King Porter Stomp" and "Ain't Misbehavin'," he tells stories, old whiskey-slurred stories -- about the New Orleans riot in 1900, about jazz giants Sidney Bechet and Buddy Bolden, about honky tonks and jazz funerals, about how he got his name. And second, these recordings make up an important historical document. Morton's tales may not always be true, and he may be prone to self-aggrandizement, but his reflections on a lost time are invaluable, as are his skills on the piano. And although different versions of the recordings have surfaced in the 67 years since Lomax made them, this is the first time they've come together all at once. Never mind that their so-called "restoration" isn't nearly so pleasing to the ear as those released by Rounder Records several years ago. This is still a gem.


Then there are examples of historical documents that should probably stay buried a little while longer. Such may be the case with Whatever: The '90s Pop and Culture Box, seven discs that half-heartedly hearken back to the lazy, uninspired Clinton years, when flannel was high-fashion and being a girl was just starting to be cool again. (Whatever happened to Lilith Fair, by the way?) The collection begins with the decade's penchant for abusing the English language -- "U Can't Touch This," "Nothing Compares 2 U" -- and ends with Moby's "Natural Blues." Some of the stuff -- Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity," the Flaming Lips' "She Don't Use Jelly" -- works well as a reminder of the excitement of the dot-com era. I mean, who didn't download King Missile's "Detachable Penis" off of Napster? And some of the selections -- probably one disc's worth -- remain solid, relevant and/or catchy: Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis," Wilco's "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." But too many of the rest are too representative of the decade's zeitgeist. Songs like "I'm Too Sexy," "MmmBop" and the Crash Test Dummies' "Mmm mmm mmm mmm" deserve to be buried in a time capsule deep below Mongolia and left there for 30 years. Only then will we really know if we are indeed too sexy for our shirts.


Or you can get even more recent than the '90s. This isn't a box set or a special release. Plain and simple, it's Lindsay Lohan's latest, A Little More Personal (Raw). We recommend this for one very good reason -- not because we find her inexplicably and annoyingly hot, not because the cover image of Lohan with what looks like a powerful sunburn makes for good coffee table discussions, not because her singing is so laughable (all of which are true), but rather because this writer's sister has a CD of calypso music that she blasts at unreasonably loud volumes every Christmas morning to wake up and annoy everyone in the family. It's so bad, so offensive, that you can't help but feel merry. Every family needs a CD like this; we suspect A Little More Personal might do the trick for yours.


Eminem's new greatest hits collection, Curtain Call, while actually good, might have a similarly jarring effect, what with all the delicious profanity.


Finally, there's Our New Orleans, easily the best musical offering to come from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. I mean, all those celebrity-powered televised benefit concerts back in August were nice, but what they lacked was the voice of personal experience. This collection features Crescent City's own. Piano genius Eddie Bo belts out a thoroughly original version of "When the Saints Go Marching In," Beausoleil whips up a frenetic stomp called "L'ouragon" ("The Hurricane"), and Davell Crawford delivers what may be the highlight of the album on the eerie piano gospel tune "Gather by the River." These are the musicians who make New Orleans what it used to be, and what it someday could be again. With all proceeds going towards the reconstruction of the city -- a significant portion allotted specifically to provide housing for local musicians left homeless by the hurricane -- this is a twofold gift: for the music-lover in your family, and for the families on the Gulf Coast who most need the help this Christmas. (Also worth checking out: Tab Benoit's ensemble tribute, Voice of the Wetlands, and A Celebration of New Orleans, proceeds from which also benefit hurricane relief.)

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