Beatles Ensure No Silent Night, Cash Battles Presley

The Beatles
"The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set." It contains 14 LPs in 180-gram vinyl, with details including posters, cutouts and special inner bags. There is also a 252-page hardbound book, limited to 50,000 copies worldwide. Source: PRNewsFoto/EMI/Apple Corps Ltd. via Bloomberg

Fans of Johnny Cash, the Beatles and Elvis Presley have their presents all taken care of -- at a price.

The battle of the Christmas box sets is back, with each providing enough listening to last the holiday season.

“The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set” does just what it says on the handsome case. Inside are 14 old-fashioned albums and a hardback book.

It’s the first time the Fabs’ first four albums and “Past Masters” recordings have come in this stereo 180-gram vinyl form. Play it chronologically and marvel at the progression in just six years from the schoolboy rhymes of “Love Me Do” to the studio mastery on “Abbey Road.” Expect to pay about $320. Rating: *****.

For those on smaller budgets, the Beatles reissued “Yellow Submarine” and “Magical Mystery Tour” this year for the group’s 50th anniversary, priced about $17. Not their finest moments, though lovingly restored. Rating: ***.

“The Complete Columbia Album Collection” by Cash has more than 900 songs spread out over some 60 discs. While not all of the tracks are great, the hit rate is pretty good, and there’s a lot of material never before issued on CD. $160. Rating: ****.

The year has seen a lot of British artists fit their oeuvre into neat boxes.

“Studio Albums” by the Who has the exceptional “My Generation” and “Who’s Next.” It’s a shame that it includes the dispensable “It’s Hard” and “Endless Wire.” Who fans might prefer the newly released “Live at Hull,” a companion piece to “Live at Leeds.” $360. Rating: ***½.

“Blur 21” covers 21 discs. That’s a lot of listening, and you might prefer one of the Britpop band’s compilations, which cherry-pick the best. $170. Rating: ***½.

“The Complete Studio Recordings” by Roxy Music is more concise and still finds space for outtakes and single edits.

One can only wonder what the group might have done if Brian Eno had stayed. Bryan Ferry’s conventional song “For Your Pleasure” gradually gets more distorted over seven minutes as Eno introduces echo, feedback, and finally Judi Dench’s words: “You don’t ask why.” $80. Rating: *****.

The English Beat has a five-CD set “The Complete Beat.” It’s a more than comprehensive picture of an act whose hits include the likeable, lightweight “Mirror in the Bathroom.” $140. Rating: **.

Those seeking heavier fare might prefer “The Complete Columbia Albums Collection” by Blue Oyster Cult. This is for truly dedicated fans of the maniacs that brought the world “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” “On Your Feet or On Your Knees” is a thunderous live album that won’t make for a quiet Christmas. $120. Rating: *.

“Studio Albums 1968-1979” by Joni Mitchell is an altogether different affair. “I Had a King,” with its wonderful high pitch, evolves quickly into the assured songwriting of “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now.” Then come the breathtaking “Blue” and the increasingly sophisticated and jazzy sounds of “Hejira.” I love these albums so much. $62 on import. Rating: *****.

“Prince From Another Planet” by Presley is a definitive take on his sellout shows at Madison Square Garden in 1972. There’s also an interview in which Elvis says he’d like to perform abroad. “I’d like to, very much, I’ve never been out of this country except in service.” $26. Rating: ****.

“The Velvet Underground & Nico” now comes in a 45th anniversary, six-disc version. The Scepter studio sessions and Factory rehearsals in 1966 are added to that album with the Andy Warhol banana cover. Four versions of “Heroin” is a bit much, though there is a spine-chilling take on “European Son” and a new remaster of Nico’s “Chelsea Girl.” $90. Rating: *****.

This year has seen a bumper crop of classic rock albums being reissued in deluxe editions.

My favorites include Sugar’s “Copper Blue,” Peter Gabriel’s “So,” the Prodigy’s “The Fat of the Land,” Interpol’s “Turn on the Bright Lights,” “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” by Smashing Pumpkins and “XX” by Rage Against the Machine. Rating: ***** for the original albums, *** for the extras.

I’ve already reviewed “Grrr!” by the Rolling Stones, “Loveless” by My Bloody Valentine, Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Amy Winehouse’s “At the BBC,” “L.A. Woman” by the Doors and David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” All fine boxes for Christmas.

Those wishing to remember the late Dave Brubeck have his “Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1955-1966”; Woody Guthrie fans will enjoy “The Centennial Collection” and Frank Zappa aficionados can pick from more than 60 of his reissued albums.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts, Richard Vines on food and Lewis Lapham on history.