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The Joy of Box Sets 

A look at 2004's best collections for the music fanatic

Nothing says "I love you" --or "please put your headphones on and leave me alone" -- to a music fan like a comprehensive box set from a favorite musician or band. Multitudes of shiny platters offering up rare b-sides, out-of-print classics, alternate takes, live cuts, demo versions and more, along with copious photos and liner notes for that full-body experience. CL's swag, er, music department has collected some of the best box sets released this year in our attempt to share what we consider some of the cream of the crop...

Faces/Five Guys Walk Into a Bar... (Rhino) -- The perfect box set is a rare animal. Even the best omit something vital, while others often bury the best material with redundant alternate takes and cell phone-quality live bits that only OCD completists could possibly see merit in.

But Five Guys Walk Into A Bar... is quite literally without flaw, a perfect document from an imperfectly beautiful and grossly under-appreciated band who were arguably the best straight-up rock & roll act on the planet in the early 70s. This 67-song, four-disc collection was produced by the band's keyboardist, Ian McLagan, who in putting together this box eschewed any rigid sequencing chronology or thematic order to simply do it the Faces' way: Because it sounded right.

Despite the fact that these are rare studio recordings, cassette tapes from rehearsals, mobile recordings made at Mick Jagger's country house, live performances, unreleased tracks and BBC radio shows, they are as vital -- sometimes more so -- than the Faces' recorded output, and the sound quality is unanimously top-notch. You'll hear alternate versions of the tracks you know -- "Had Me A Real Good Time," "Ooh La La" and "Stay With Me," -- and rarities galore (43 tracks are non-LP cuts, including 31 previously unreleased), riveting covers and Ronnie (Lane and Wood)-sung tunes, and a handful of Rod Stewart's best solo songs (a much better version of "Maggie May," for instance).

It's often written that the always well-lubricated Faces were a sloppy band, both in-studio and live (first act to keep a bartender on stage?). But what you hear on Five Guys... is a collection of musicians so tight -- in both senses of the word -- the music always seems effortless. What's loose sounds great loose, and going to the pub in the middle of a studio session or grabbing a gin & tonic between solos is purely inspirational if these were the results. Don't eat for a week; utterly recommended. ($59.99)
-- John Schacht

Various Artists/Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the '80s Underground (Rhino) -- Writing about this box set is tricky, as the rise of college rock documented herein also brought with it an unfortunate pox: that of college rock snobbery. And who am I to break with tradition? Suffice it to say, if you like most of the bands on this box set -- REM, Joy Division, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Black Flag, Mission of Burma, The Replacements, Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, and dozens more -- you'll probably think it worth picking up. However, at one song apiece, you're not necessarily even getting the song you like (sure, they're the obvious choices, but do we need "Radio Free Europe" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" for the 97 gajillionth time?), and in addition -- thanks to the democratic method of picking bands -- also-rans and period pieces like Aztec Camera and Wall of Voodoo get equal billing with, say, Dinosaur Jr. That said, the album works well downloaded into a portable MP3 player, whereupon you can hit random and occasionally hear a nice little 80s nugget you'd forgotten about in the midst of listening to all the "hits of today." Listen a little too long, however, and you've got an only-slightly-cooler version of those cheesy 80s music stations that seem to be sprouting up everywhere. However, the moderately priced set should make a great gift for those who came of age on the stuff, as well as those kids of today who'll have you believe that the world begins and ends with Franz Ferdinand. ($64.95)
-- Timothy C. Davis

Various Artists/Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans (Shout! Factory) -- Over the years, record companies have released numerous collections of New Orleans jazz, or New Orleans zydeco, or New Orleans funk, R&B, Cajun, blues or whatnot, but this is the first big collection to showcase all of those genres jointly as a tribute to America's most musical city. Even better, the various musical forms are presented together on all four CDs, creating a riotous, expect-anything feel that comes close to matching the New Orleans scene's powerful vitality and joyous, street-smart vibe. The word "diversity" could have been invented for New Orleans, and the Crescent City's music scene has long been the archetype for American culture's glorious hybrid nature. As one of the compilers puts it, "It's a real mess, and we like it like that." The box set includes the likes of Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Jellyroll Morton, Ellis Marsalis, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Radiators, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Zachary Richard, Lloyd Price, Kid Ory, Earl King, Allen Toussaint, Johnny Addams, and on and on. The set includes a terrific 84-page book that, along with a thorough parsing of the box set's music, actually gives a good facsimile of what New Orleans is really like. ($59.99)
-- John Grooms

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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