With the death of Ray Charles, the mantle of greatest living soul singer falls to Al Green, who is saluted in "The Immortal Soul of Al Green." The dazzling package highlights Calendar's annual salute to some of the year's highest-profile boxed sets. Green's set heads a group of offerings rated "essential" because they belong in any comprehensive pop library. Prices are typical figures at various retail outlets.
"The Immortal Soul of Al Green"
(Hi/The Right Stuff, four discs, $60)
Some pop connoisseurs would argue that Green deserved the title of greatest soul singer even while Charles was alive, though this probably isn't the most diplomatic time to argue that point.
Suffice it to say that Green will never replace Charles as soul's most influential singer. Charles' recordings in the '50s on Atlantic largely defined one of the richest strains in American pop by mixing gospel passion with secular R&B themes. Yet Green's work over the last three decades has been consistently superior.
Thirty-three years after first entering the pop and R&B Top 10 charts with "Tired of Being Alone," one of the most infectious singles ever to come out of Memphis, Green remains as captivating as ever -- as he showed, stealing the show from Stevie Wonder and others, at the recent Ray Charles tribute at Staples Center.
Like Charles, Green has had musical instincts stretching far beyond R&B and soul. In "The Immortal Soul," he turns to tunes by Lennon and McCartney, the Bee Gees, the Doors, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson to supplement his own compositions, which include "Let's Stay Together" and "I'm Still In Love With You."
Working with producer and sometimes co-writer Willie Mitchell, Green injected almost every recording with an underlying tension because you never know quite where he is going vocally with a song. At times, you can almost picture him thinking about how to surprise us in the next line. Sometimes it's with a sudden falsetto burst or a teasing growl or just a whisper. This includes 14 more selections than "Anthology," a 1997 set from the same labels.
"The Capitol Albums Vol. 1"
(Capitol, four discs, $50)
The lure here is listening to the Beatles' first four U.S. albums on Capitol for the first time on CD. Until now, we've had to settle for the British versions of Beatles albums -- frustrating for anyone who grew up here with the old vinyl albums, because the song selection was dramatically different. From the opening "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on "Meet the Beatles" to "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," the closing track on "Beatles '65," this absolutely captivating music still feels fine.
"The Studio Recordings 1972-2000"
(Warner Bros., nine discs, $135)
Simon is at the crossroads of modern songwriting, someone who has shown the discipline and pure craft to have stood alongside the Great American Songbook composers as well as the intimacy and depth of the post-Dylan singer-songwriters. Not all these nine solo albums were created equal, so you could just buy the best of the individual albums. Yet Simon is such a major artist that the entire set feels justified. You'll be surprised how good "Graceland" still sounds, and you will probably be puzzled over why an album as well crafted as "Hearts & Bones" was so overlooked in the '80s.
"With the Lights Out"
(Geffen, three CDs and one DVD, $50)
Rather than a repackaging of the original Nirvana recordings, this set consists of 81 tracks, chiefly from home demos or studio rehearsal sessions. It also features more than an hour of previously unavailable video footage, including scenes of the band playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time in a club. It's easy to accuse record companies of exploitation when putting together posthumous sets, but this is a treasure. In the best moments, it serves as a raw, revealing portrait of the evolution of Kurt Cobain's sweet but tortured musical vision.
"This Is Reggae Music:
The Golden Era 1960-1975"
(Trojan/Sanctuary, four discs, $50)
There are lots of familiar names in this exquisite collection, including Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Toots & the Maytals, but part of its strength is in introducing casual reggae fans to a whole other world of artists. The early tracks, especially, offer a fascinating portrait of how Jamaican artists mixed R&B with their own musical instincts to create a sound that is now part of any healthy international diet.
"50 Years of Hits"
(Bandit, three discs, $25)
This Texas honky-tonk veteran hasn't enjoyed the mainstream pop exposure of Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard, but some consider him the greatest male country singer since Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. Among the classic hits: "She Thinks I Still Care" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
"Can't You Hear Me Callin'/Bluegrass:
80 Years of American Music" (Columbia/Legacy, four discs, $42)
After long being considered too hillbilly for mainstream tastes, bluegrass is now a much-respected part of the nation's musical landscape. This tasteful showcase offers music from Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and the rock group the Byrds to today's most enticing bluegrass ambassadors, Alison Krauss and Union Station. As fresh as a high-mountain stream.