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The 2016 Holiday Gift Guide

Nov. 29, 2016
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The Gift of Music

Music makes a great gift and has become more than a stocking stuffer, given the bulk of the career-spanning LP-CD box sets being released. And for some background on the people behind the music—something deeper than the average Wikipedia entry—check out the shelf of recently published books on everything from blues to Bowie. 

ALBUM BOX SETS

David Bowie

Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) (Parlophone)

In the 1970s, David Bowie’s image and music were inseparable—and kept changing. He believed that rock still had new places to go and took that music across the line with almost every album he released. 

The aptly titled Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) gathers the recordings from his “American period.” The box set (12 CDs or 13 LPs) includes reproductions in their original covers of the three studio albums released during those years (Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station to Station), two live albums (David Live, Live Nassau Coliseum ’76) plus several remixed versions of those LPs, a collection of B-sides and single edits and something called The Gouster. The latter was an aborted 1974 album, pieces of which were scattered across other releases and compilations. It includes the recording that became Young Americans’ title track: a lengthy disco version of “John, I’m Only Dancing” and other initial forays into “plastic soul.” 

The enduring masterpiece of Bowie’s American period, Station to Station (1976), was a darkly romantic album that somehow straddled European progressive rock and American soul. As with everything he did in the ’70s, Station to Station surprised his fans and left many puzzled. But like the great modern artists he admired, the Picassos and the Braques, he was not content to sit still but was determined to move on.

Freeing himself from the cocaine-fueled celebrity trap of Los Angeles shortly after Station’s release, Bowie disappeared into an obscure district of West Berlin where he reinvented himself again with Low (1977)—but that belongs to his “Berlin period,” Bowie’s next phase.

Who Can I Be Now? includes a hardcover book with photographs, press clippings and other memorabilia.

—David Luhrssen

Lou Reed

The RCA & Arista Album Collection (Legacy)

The Velvet Underground was recognized in hindsight as one of the most innovative and influential rock bands, but by the time Lou Reed’s solo career began with his eponymous 1972 debut, few outside New York had heard of them. Also little known at the time of its release, Reed’s solo debut continued along the Velvet’s trajectory and inaugurates the period represented by this box set.

The RCA & Arista Album Collection is comprised of all 16 albums Lou Reed issued from 1972 through 1986. The classics are here, especially his breakthrough, Transformer (1972), and the heart-rending story album, Berlin (1973). Also accounted for is Metal Machine Music (1975), an album of electronic frequency distortion baffling to almost everyone at the time but setting precedents for the industrial rock to come. The Collection includes two live albums and several gems from his middle period—especially the remarkably vulnerable Coney Island Baby (1975) and the street-smart Rock and Roll Heart (1976).

The remaining years compiled in the Collection were a mixed bag, but every album contained something worthwhile. The box set includes a hardcover book with photographs, press clippings and other memorabilia from the period.

—David Luhrssen 

BOOKS ON MUSIC: 

Blue Rhythm Fantasy: Big Band Jazz Arranging in the Swing Era (University of Illinois Press), by John Wriggle

Composers and performers command the attention of music historians while arrangers usually get short shrift. Musicologist John Wriggle sheds some light on Swing Era arrangers by focusing on a particular African American “music clinic” in Manhattan directed by Francis “Chappie” Willet. Although forgotten nowadays, Willet wrote arrangements for prominent black and white performers and was a nexus in a cultural network spanning jazz, pop and Broadway.

Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys (DaCapo Press), by Lol Tolhurst

The Cure epitomized post-punk, but as drummer Lol Tolhurst stresses in Cured, they began as punks in small-town England where their non-conformity was hard fought. While Robert Smith became the face of The Cure, Tolhurst co-founded the band. His memoir is suffused with the grayness of growing up in provincial Britain and shows how that bleak vision, leavened with a dab of rock star glamor, became integral to The Cure.

John Lennon (The History Press), by Robert Webb

Robert Webb assembled a brisk biography from John Lennon’s most essential accomplishments. He polishes off The Beatles in 50 pages, summarizes Lennon’s discography with critical acumen and surveys his life with a fan’s love but with clear eyes. Webb’s Lennon “could be a monstrous egotist” as well as “one of the giants of the 20th century.”

Life on Tour with Bowie: A Genius Remembered (Music Press Books), by Sean Mayes

Despite the Ziggy Stardust photo on the cover, Life on Tour chronicles David Bowie’s 1978 U.S. tour behind the recently released Low and Heroes. Sean Mayes, Bowie’s pianist on the road, is an observant writer who found the star to be friendly but shy, directing the band “by process of inspiration,” offering suggestions and quick to pick up ideas. The Milwaukee concert receives two pages. 

Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero (Chicago Review Press), by Ed Ward

Although overshadowed by Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield’s extraordinary playing pushed the limits for guitar in the ’60s. Drawing from many interviews and an understanding of the times, Ed Ward brings to life the Jewish kid from Chicago’s North Shore who ventured into the city’s South Side and learned the blues through total immersion. 

Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield (Chicago Review Press), by Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria

An articulate spokesman for civil rights and an influence on hip-hop, Curtis Mayfield was among the most meaningful R&B artists of his generation. His son Todd chronicles the singer’s life and reflects on his many paradoxes: He recalls dad as cool but temperamental, shrewd but foolish, humane but abusive, and also “both present and absent as a father.”

Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge (Louisiana State University Press), by Martin Hawkins

Slim Harpo’s best-known song, the much covered “I’m a King Bee,” suggests a sly, cheeky character. But although he penetrated the R&B charts three times before his death in 1970, he was seldom interviewed and left behind little beyond his music. Martin Hawkins diligently tracks surviving sources and establishes the context for Harpo—the often-overlooked blues scene of upcountry Louisiana.

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