Holiday Gifts for Popular-Music Lovers

Take your pick from this annotated listing of the year’s best CDs, box sets, books, and videos.

If you’re shopping for fans of popular music this year, you have lots of great choices. Here’s a look at some of the year’s best CD box sets, as well as a book and a Blu-ray release. We also offer a selection of stocking stuffers.

Blockbusters for Beatles Buffs

Revolver, the Beatles’ first major leap into truly experimental territory, is the latest Fab Four album to be rereleased in a “super deluxe” edition. The 1966 recording—which features “Taxman,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and 10 more classics—has been expanded to include five CDs and a 100-page hardcover book. The set embraces a new stereo mix as well as the original mono version of the album and a contemporaneous single (“Paperback Writer”/“Rain”) plus 31 demos, work tapes, and other early versions that show how the LP came together.

Get Back, which aired in 2021 on the Disney channel and is now available on Blu-ray, is a must-buy item for any Beatles aficionado on your holiday list. The film carries the same title as a 1970 documentary about the creation of the group’s Let It Be LP but digs much deeper. Here’s a chance to peek in as the Fab Four clown around, try out ideas, and alternate between arguing and working harmoniously. Though the three-part film runs nearly eight hours, it delivers enough revelations and great music to keep viewers engrossed.

ABBA’s Hit Machine

ABBA was a hit factory in the 1970s and early 1980s, selling more than 150 million copies of such pop confections as “Honey, Honey,” “I Do, I Do I Do, I Do, I Do,” “Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen,” “Chiquitita,” “Fernando,” and “Take a Chance on Me.” Its music isn’t exactly revolutionary and its lyrics are often trite, but the group’s production values are sky-high, its vocals are excellent, and its hook-laden recordings are addictive. Some listeners may be satisfied with single-disc hits collections, but the quartet’s many serious fans will welcome the  CD Album Box Set, which includes all eight of the LPs ABBA issued between 1973 and 1981 plus a bonus disc with non-album tracks and 2021’s Voyage, the group’s first new record in 40 years.

L.A.’s Late-sixties Music Explosion

The three-CD, 90-song Heroes and Villains: The Sound of Los Angeles 1965–68 spotlights the same time and place covered by Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965–1968, a four-disc anthology that arrived in 2009. That two collections would share this focus—and with almost no overlapping material—is understandable. There was as much happening musically at the time in Southern California as there was in London or San Francisco. Heroes and Villains, which comes with an informative 78-page booklet, contains some hits, such as the Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live for Today” and the Mamas & the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty,” but what most distinguishes the set are its many interesting obscurities, including “New Hard Times,” by Linda Ronstadt’s first group, the Stone Poneys, and composer Ruth Ann Friedman’s original version of “Windy,” which became a huge hit for the Association.

Blondie’s Big Box

Four decades after Blondie’s peak era, the group has finally issued a big box set that shows why it became the most successful punk/new wave act. Called Against the Odds 1974–1982, the box includes all six of its albums from the period plus two discs with bonus tracks and a hardcover book. It finds the group effortlessly shifting gears to draw on everything from disco, rock, and pop to doo-wop, reggae, and rap. The creativity flags on 1982’s The Hunter, but by then, Blondie has topped U.S. charts with songs like “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “Rapture,” and “The Tide Is High.”

Grateful Dead at a Peak

The four-CD Lyceum Theatre London, England 5/26/72 ranks among the most indispensable of the Grateful Dead’s umpteen live albums. It finds the band at an artistic peak and touches all the important bases in its repertoire, with folk-spiced numbers like “Morning Dew,” country material such as Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” and rock and roll jams like “One More Saturday Night,” by the Dead’s Bob Weir. Throughout, Jerry Garcia’s guitar work is awe-inspiring.

Beach Boys Offer ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’

Sail on Sailor, a six-CD Beach Boys box, features remasters of 1972’s Carl & the Passions—“So Tough” and 1973’s Holland, both of which contain some gems, plus a hit-filled, nearly two-hour 1972 Carnegie Hall concert; many alternate versions and other previously unreleased tracks; and a 48-page book. 

The three-CD Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys, meanwhile, expands a 2003 hits collection from 30 tracks to 80 (including 24 with new mixes) and offers upgraded sound and new liner notes. Some deep cuts supplement the dozens of hits, which include “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Surfer Girl,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Sloop John B,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Even a collection this big isn’t nearly enough to capture all the Beach Boys’ essential material, but it’s a great place to start.

Joni Mitchell Moves Beyond Traditional Folk

Options abound for the Joni Mitchell fans on your gift list. Last year witnessed the release of two anthologies of previously unavailable material plus a boxed set of her first four albums. Now comes The Asylum Albums 1972–1975, which collects remasters of her next four LPs and finds her stretching beyond her folk roots: For the Roses, which includes the lyrically deft hit “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio”; Court and Spark, which features such standouts as “Free Man in Paris” and Help Me”; the adventurous The Hissing of Summer Lawns; and Miles of Aisles, an 18-track live album that embraces many of Mitchell’s best-known songs up to that point.

A Bob Dylan Book

The Philosophy of Modern SongBob Dylan’s first book since 2004’s Chronicles, Volume One, is as engrossing as it is unconventional. The volume includes his take on more than five dozen popular songs, some relatively recent, some old, from a wide range of genres—everything from the Who’s “My Generation” and the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” to Vic Damone’s “On the Street Where You Live” and Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-a My House.” About half the essays are accompanied by what the publisher calls “dreamlike riffs,” where Dylan attempts to describe the plight of the songs’ protagonists. Like his Theme Time Radio Hour, the book finds Dylan offering a wild and colorful mix of trivia, insights, and rants that sometimes bear little relation to the songs at hand. He’s never less than entertaining, and the book’s more than 100 photographs are alone almost worth the price of admission.

A Massive Box from Guns n’ Roses

Guns n’ Roses achieved gigantic success with Use Your Illusion I and II—a pair of single-disc albums released on the same day in 1991, so it’s no surprise that a new eight-disc “super deluxe” edition is huge as well: it includes a remaster of the original album, two complete long concerts (one of them on both CD and surround-sound Blu-ray), a hardcover book, and more. This is the Guns n’ Roses you’ve probably already come to love or hate: loud, wild, excessive, ostentatious, sometimes tasteless, and borderline crazy, but also—on standouts like Axl Rose’s magnificently anthemic “November Rain” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”—downright irresistible.

Stocking Stuffers

  • Only the Strong Survive—which is just the second all-covers collection Bruce Springsteen has issued during his half-century career—offers heartfelt, high-energy versions of 15 of his favorite R&B, Motown, and soul classics. 
  • Pink Floyd’s excellent Orwellian 1977 album, Animals, has been remixed and reissued in multiple versions, including CD, LP, and audio Blu-ray and SACD. Opt for one of the latter two formats, which deliver enveloping 5.1 surround-sound versions.
  • Alan Freed: A Hundred Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll will transport you to the early and mid-1950s via excerpts from the radio shows of a pioneering DJ, complete with commercials, seminal rock and R&B, and Freed’s monologues, including his apology for a riot at a concert he hosted.
  • John Sebastian and Arlen Roth Explore the Spoonful Songbook finds Lovin’ Spoonful leader Sebastian and a guitarist friend winningly revisiting such hits as “Rain on the Roof,” “Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?,” and “Younger Girl.” 
  • Frank Sinatra’s Watertown sold poorly and attracted lukewarm reviews in 1970 but decades later, this concept record about a man whose wife leaves him sounds like a career high point, which is why it has been remastered and released with bonus tracks.
  • The first four albums by the Animals, one of the most important groups of the 1960s’ British Invasion, have recently been reissued: The AnimalsAnimal Tracks, the misleadingly titled The Animals on Tour (a studio LP), and Animalization, all with bonus material, include such blues-based classics as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “It’s My Life,” and the chart-topping “The House of the Rising Sun.”
  • The Brother Brothers (twins Adam and David Moss) sound redolent of the Everly Brothers on the excellent Cover to Cover, which includes such well-chosen numbers as Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” and the Beatles’ “I Will.”
  • Six individually issued volumes of Lu’s Jukebox find the great Lucinda Williams interpreting her favorite tunes from Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones as well as Christmas songs and Southern soul and country classics.
  • Back on the Road to You features 10 addictively hooked pop-rock numbers by singer/songwriter Freedy Johnston, whose backup includes such guests as the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs.
  • Jonathan Richman’s quirky catalog—which embraces Velvet Underground–influenced rock as well as material that would fit in on Sesame Street—isn’t for everyone, but fans will cheer the reissue of five of his early LPs: Jonathan Richman & the Modern LoversRock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern LoversModern Lovers LiveBack in Your Life, and Jonathan Sings!
  • El Mocambo 1977 finds the Rolling Stones at the top of their game in an atypically intimate setting, performing not only big hits but also a half dozen of the vintage blues-rockers that inspired them.
  • Live in Bilbao preserves a sold-out Spanish concert that taps consistently fine material from throughout rocker Elliott Murphy’s long career.
  • On Ain’t Nobody Worried, blues singer Rory Block winningly covers such pop, Motown, and folk classics as Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Has No Pride,” and Mary Wells’s “My Guy.”
  • The latest posthumous Jimi Hendrix concert album, Los Angeles Forum: April 26, 1969, features electrifying versions of early guitar tours de force like “Spanish Castle Magic” and “Purple Haze.”
  • The revelatory Words & Music, May 1965 includes Lou Reed’s recently unearthed early versions of Velvet Underground classics and seven other originals from as far back as 1958, plus covers of a Bob Dylan song and two traditional numbers, including—believe it or not—“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”

BJT editor Jeff Burger has covered popular music throughout his career. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and EncountersLennon on Lennon: Conversations with John LennonLeonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.