Who cares about bonus tracks? How many times are you going to buy the same songs? Every year, increasingly desperate record companies assemble lavish multi-disc box sets for holiday purchase, throwing together songs you already own with ones you -- or your beloved gift recipient -- never wanted. Out of this year's crop, I can't recommend the $280 new Bob Dylan complete collection (no one needs another copy of Street-Legal), the $150 Nirvana In Utero reissue (nothing's wrong with your old CD), or the $60 Sly Stone Higher box (unless you love mono mixes). Save your money, and buy your loved ones something they'll actually play.
Single-Disc Stocking Stuffers:
Who Is William Onyeabor ($12.99 via Amazon), the year's most exciting reissue, is a perfect stocking stuffer. It took years for the elusive Nigerian bandleader, a born-again Christian who has renounced his old music, to authorize this first US release: nine '70s and '80s electro-funk jams in 73 minutes. The new Christmas album by schlock scholar and pub rock mainstay Nick Lowe, Quality Street ($10.00 on Amazon), sprinkles originals like "Christmas at the Airport" and "A Dollar Short of Happy" in with traditional carols.
Bang for Your Buck:
The best rock Christmas song, the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping," got reissued this year, along with the rest of that new wave outfit's output (the masterfully titled albums Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?, I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts, and Bruiseology) on the two-disc Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses ($16.50 at Amazon). You might know the tart "I Know What Boys Like" and the off-kilter "Square Pegs" (theme to the '80s sitcom): even better are the self-mocking hipster caricature "No Guilt" and the spastic rave-up "Bruiseology."
Completists and cheapskates can agree on the economical new multi-album boxes from rock's most consistent primitives: the Ramones' The Sire Years 1976-1981 ($32.28 at Amazon) collects the booger-flinging bruddahs' first six long-players, the first four of which are essential to any music fan; ZZ Top's Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990 ($34.64 at Amazon) compiles no fewer than 10 carefully remixed albums by the boogie-singing Buddhas.
Has rock 'n' roll seen more literate smartasses than Donald Fagen, Morrissey, Questlove, and Richard Hell? Maybe Patti Smith and Bob Dylan, but we already have their memoirs. Fagen's Eminent Hipsters ($13.47 at Amazon) mixes the Steely Dan founder's personal history with appreciations of kitsch geniuses like Henry Mancini and Ike Turner, while Morrissey's morass of an Autobiography ($19.48 at Amazon) amid its petulant obscurity hides bon mots to rival the Smiths singer's '80s lyrics: "Somewhere deep within, my only pleasure was to out-endure people's patience." Written with the New Yorker's Ben Greenman, Roots drummer and pop encyclopedia Questlove's Mo' Meta Blues ($16.63 at Amazon) is a monument of musical obsessiveness. Hell's clear-eyed I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp ($25.99 at Powell's; $18.92 at Amazon) counterbalances Smith's lyrical depiction of '70s New York bohemia and the rise of CBGB, whose stage was ruled by these two spiky-haired punk poets.
Change the Beat: The Celluloid Records Story 1980-1987 ($15.98 at Amazon) gives a sense of Hell's multifarious musical milieu: the two-disc package surrounds his "Destiny Street" with early hip-hop by graffiti artists Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000 (the latter backed up by the Clash!) as well as exotic funk by Manu Dibango and deranged blues by Last Exit, all once released on the defunct Paris label.
Chasing the Bird:
Thirty years in the offing, Stanley Crouch's Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker ($17.90 at Amazon) is less a biography of of the ill-fated bebop prophet than it is a cultural history of black America in the early twentieth century: it even leaves out the second half of Parker's life. While you wait for the sequel, you'd better pick up the newly revised Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker ($17.95 at Powell's) by Crouch's onetime Village Voice colleague Gary Giddins, who summarizes the alto saxophonist's story while making the case for his eminence among jazz musicians, and artists of any stripe.
Deck the Halls:
As the cassette revival continues, your giftee probably needs something on which to unspool her new tapes. Look on eBay for a good deal on tape decks; if your budget's really limited, check out this Walkman-style portable cassette player from Jensen ($10.99 at AmazonBurger Records' The Wiener Dog Comp II: The Ghoulie Tape ($6 at Burger Records) surveys the garage rockers on that West Coast tape label; there's also the new Burger Tribute to Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat ($6 at Burger Records).
Which brings us to the one lavish box set on my wish list, the White Light/White Heat 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition ($56.15 at Amazon), bundling the founding document of noise rock with alternate mixes, unreleased takes, a remastered version of the 1967 Live at the Gymnasium bootleg, and a fancy booklet. It's excessive, but so was the original album, and so was the late Lou Reed.