In retro-heaven

It's that time of year when stockings start crying out for good things to fill them. And what better than a box set, the aural feast? Andy Gill, Phil Johnson and Nick Coleman sample recent offerings
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The Independent Culture
Bill Evans: The Secret Sessions - Recorded live at the Village Vanguard 1966-75

(Milestone 8MCD 4421-2)

Private live recordings - in another context these would, of course, be deemed pirate recordings - of the great jazz pianist doing his post- impressionistic thing at the famous Greenwich Village nightspot. Extraordinarily, this 8-CD set was put together by one devoted fan operating over the best part of a decade from a favoured stage-front berth while the club-owner generously averted his gaze. The recordings were made with a small machine concealed in a bag, so the sound quality is less than perfect; but it's adequate and so affords the committed Evansophile an opportunity to eavesdrop on a troubled talent roiling in the deeps of his creativity. Two bassists and seven drummers, including Philly Joe Jones and Jack DeJohnette, contribute variously. The hard-core Evans nut will see spots. The rest of us will stand in respectful awe and consider the deeper meaning of box-set culture from a safe distance.

Various Artists: The New Electric Muse

(Castle ESB CD416)

A meaningful rehearsal of the story of how folk turned into rock, and back again. In fact, this jaunty account of British popular music's most exciting outbreak of indigenous originality is an update on what was once, in the mid-Seventies, an entertaining quadruple-album and book package - the last time, indeed, that folk-rock moved purposefully through the marketplace.

The third of three discs is devoted to an account of developments over the intervening couple of decades, including the works of such bright sparks as Richard Thompson, June Tabor and Eliza Carthy. It also highlights how punk and "world" musics have continued to inform contemporary British folk in the way that American R&B did in the Sixties. Those who fell for Norma Waterson this year might well fall for The New Electric Muse.

The Crusaders: Way Back Home

(GRP BTD 4700)

Gorgeous boil-down of the Texan jazz-funksters' four-decade career onto four CDs, sumptuously packaged and annotated and with the obligatory image of a 14th-century European warlord on the box to confuse krautrock fans. Cookin' grooves lightly fricaseed for discerning tastes.

Emmylou Harris: Portraits

(Reprise Archives 9362-45308-2)

There is a shimmering gravity about Emmylou Harris's best music that finds no easy precedent in American country music, except, of course, in the fractured country-rock of late-colleague and fellow-romantic Gram Parsons. Parsons and Harris went together like bourbon and water, for which there is four tracks-worth of evidence on this 3-CD, 61-song account of the singer's long career in US pop's western transept. Annotation is a trifle hazy (though the biography is excellent), chronology loose, and you occasionally feel that a celebrity duet has been included at the expense of more interesting material from dustier shelves. But this is a respectful collection, long overdue as a testament to the peculiar strength and staying power of this most gravely attenuated of voices. A worthwhile diversion for those who penetrated no further into "long-hair country" than Grievous Angel and Elite Hotel.

Dexter Gordon: The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions

(Blue Note 7243 8 34200 2 5)

Of all the heroic tenormen of the great bop years, Dexter Gordon stands out for the complete ease and comfort with which he seemed to inhabit his sound, a sensuous, mellow yet robustly masculine tone which fitted him like the proverbial glove. An unfussy player whose strong, relatively uninflected, saxophone-voice and bluesy metre made him (almost uniquely) equally adept at up-tempo swingers and crying-in-your-beer ballads, Gordon is revealed in this collection of the eight classic Blue Note albums from 1961-1965 as a true master.

Relatively free of alternate takes, but with the addition of four killer audio-interviews, and complete with the requisite beautifully annotated booklet (including a cool correspondence between the usually European- exiled Gordon and Blue Note's Francis Wolff), this set is, unlike most of its peers, a total pleasure: you can quite happily listen to the whole thing from first to last, and then start again.

Pere Ubu: Datapanik in the Year Zero

(Geffen DGCD5-24969)

Demanding but rewarding stuff, this five-disc compilation of the early (1975-82) works of Cleveland's legendary proto-art-punks stands as a salutary reminder of how rock managed to drag itself out from under the malign influence of mid-Seventies progressive bands and American AOR outfits. Blending dark industrial portents with cartoonish bathos, Ubu wielded the exhilarating power of a runaway truck, loud, unstoppable and surprisingly emotional. Their debut single "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" ushered in a new age of expressionist rock music in which hissing synthesiser noise, spindly guitar lines, muscular rhythms, and the helium squeak of David Thomas's extraordinary voice brought a whole new sound vocabulary to art-rock.

Sun Ra: The Singles

(Evidence ECD 22164-2)

While the completest tendencies of many box-sets end up making the listener wish for an old-style "Best Of" collection instead, this generous double- CD's 150-minutes-worth of vintage Chicago nutter-bandleader Ra (Herman P Blount as was) is genuinely revelatory. It's also a mystery story. Why on earth did Ra bother to release singles at all, given that his audience was so small? One answer is that throughout the Fifties the self-proclaimed man from Mars was a jobbing arranger who superintended R&B sessions by sundry vocal groups. The evidence - in deep doo-wop ballads, wavery vocal versions of show-tunes, as well as swing band work-outs and more identifiable outerspace jazz weirdness - is incontrovertible: the proto avant-garde shared the same social context as snake-dancers and vaudeville shouters. This is an unbelievable collection and probably the year's most outre re-release, equally essential for all R&B devotees, out-there jazz beatniks and connoisseurs of historical cheese.

Sonny Rollins: Silver City

(Milestone 2MCD-2501.2)

Though his landmark recordings were made for Prestige / Riverside, Blue Note and Contemporary in the Fifties and Sixties, and by the time he signed to the West Coast's Milestone he was more vital in performance than on record, this collection of mainly Eighties and Nineties recordings includes many overlooked gems. The rollicking calypso "Duke of Iron" from 1987 is marvellously uplifting, and the live solo improvisation on "Autumn Nocturne" is just about worth the price of admission alone. But too often the recordings make Rollins sound ordinary, which, emphatically, he is not.

Black Sabbath: Under Wheels of Confusion 1970-1987

(Castle ESF CD 419)

The one you've been waiting for. Four CDs, 52 tracks, Miltonesque biography, Pete Frame family tree, graveyard graphics, heavy-duty cardboard box - definitive evidence that if the Devil has the best tunes, then Birmingham has the bludgeoning riffs. And song titles. "Hand of Doom", "War Pigs", "Symptom of the Universe", "Killing Yourself to Live", "Dirty Women", they're all here with their ghastly siblings, executed with pizzazz and facility by the spawn of Beelzebub. Buy it for your children now.