Pop: For completists only

Christmas comes but once a year, for which we should be thankful. Not least because the festive season heralds a flood of sumptuously packaged, must-have box-sets. Doh! Andy Gill tackles the best in pop...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The biggest album release of the year, quite literally, has to be Sinatra: The Capitol Years (Capitol). Collecting together all of Frankie's 21 albums for the label - from 1954's ground-breaking Songs For Young Lovers (arguably the first-ever concept album) to 1962's Sinatra Sings ... Of Love And Things - it captures the singer at his most definitive, riding the swell of his second wave of success that accompanied his Oscar for From Here To Eternity.

With the innovative string arrangements of Nelson Riddle and Billy May encouraging Sinatra to his finest interpretations, this is the sound of the American Dream in full expansion, bursting with post-war confidence, but not yet curdled into the arrogant swagger of rock'n'roll. Suave and slightly salty, there's a laconic confidence to his readings of even slightly dubious material, with Sinatra's reservations signalled by the occasional sly verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Few other singers have taken such huge risks, and made it all seem so effortless.

By comparison, most of the other boxes on offer seem slightly small- minded. All The Young Dudes: The Anthology (Columbia), for instance, takes three CDs to cover the career of Mott The Hoople, yet still manages to get it not quite right. Sandwiching one disc of hits between two featuring out-takes and "rarities" of questionable value, it rather neglects the band's Dylanesque origins, depicting them instead as just a proto-heavy- rock outfit who somehow made the timely leap to glam.

From the same era, The Vaudeville Years of Fleetwood Mac 1968 to 1970 (Receiver) offers two CDs of out-takes, live cuts and jams from the dog days of the first, great incarnation of the Mac: the period bounded by their first chart successes and the eventual departure of the guitar genius, Peter Green. They were, by a country-blues mile, the finest progressive blues band of their era, and this set captures them at their most innovative, as they put together the landmark Then Play On album that included Green's extraordinary "Oh Well" and "Green Manalishi".

In their blend of blues and prog-rock, The Black Crowes are probably the closest Nineties equivalent to Fleetwood Mac. Great psychedelic swamp- blues-rockers, they were at their best when most closely following the Exile On Main Street blueprint with 1992's The Southern Harmony And Bible Companion, and their poorest when straying into psychedelic excess. The five-CD box Sho' Nuff (American) simply brings together their four studio albums, each bolstered by the obligatory couple of bonus tracks, plus a live EP from 1995, in a box apparently designed to facilitate spillage.

The roots of the blues are handily dealt with in Beg, Borrow Or Steal (Catfish), a three-CD set purporting to cover "the origins, music and influence of Robert Johnson". It's a tidy idea, with a disc of 29 Johnson recordings book-ended by one disc each featuring his precursors (Son House, Charley Patton and Skip James) and those he influenced, such as Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Peter Green and Canned Heat.

More focused - though just as diverse - is In Progress & In Motion 1965- 1998 (Columbia), a three-CD set covering the career of Taj Mahal, who has almost single-handedly kept alive the notion of the country-blues as a living artform. Not just a bluesman, Taj has a broader range of reference than most of his peers, bringing into play such long-lost modes as the cakewalk, along with the musical styles of Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the wider African diaspora. Given his intelligence and his breadth, however, this set is slightly disappointing, neglecting as it does the rockier, more rhythmic end of his R&B.

The Transatlantic Story (Castle) is a four-CD retrospective of one of Britain's pre-eminent folk labels, though too much of it is wasted covering the label's early years, a mish-mash of opportunistic independence whose releases covered sex talk, comedy, poetry, satire, politics and the Portsmouth Sinfonia, who were all of the above. The set only gets going with the second CD, dedicated to the likes of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Ralph McTell.

Finally, XTC's Transistor Blast (Cooking Vinyl) collates together on four discs their in-concert and studio sessions recorded for the BBC through the late Seventies and Eighties. It's all high-quality work, presenting the Swindon combo as the clever-dick pop precursors of such as Mansun. "We didn't know what we were doing," explains Andy Partridge in the sleevenote, "but we did it loud."