Give the Gift of UniMoth

So UniMoth MegaCorp flooded the market with "millennium collection" cheapos that drove richer product off the racks. There were confusing-at-best best-ofs on album artists Laurie Anderson, the Band, PM Dawn, Richard & Linda Thompson (reinstate their catalog!), and Marshall Crenshaw (go for the reinstated debut and demand Field Day!). Yet for all that, I had no trouble locating sure-shot gifts for the last Christmas of the current prosperity. Including a record three boxes, three two-CD sets, and a bunch that retail for 10 or 11 bucks if you know where to look.

The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology) (Warner Archives/Rhino)
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The proof of his avant-gardism isn't the rejects and weirdness of Grow Fins. It's that the music (if not the poetry) on his finest albums—Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Killer) (1978), Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), and Doc at the Radar Station (1980), with the insufficiently fluent Trout Mask Replica (1969) a distinct fifth behind Ice Cream for Crow (1982)—is more gripping and coruscating than ever. But only Trout Mask is in print domestically. And while this double-CD lifts heavily from all while pulling him as far out of shape avantwise (blame Frank Zappa) as popwise (blame Ted Templeman), it also documents, more songfully than he ever cared to, the progress of blues that were progressive to begin with. That's right, blues, no matter what he says, from Skip James and Elmore James to Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer, who Don Van Vliet may never have heard and who should only be so dense and nutty. Another referent: the Band at their careening best. Another: Pavement. Repressive tension, explosive release; sprung rhythm, fugueing melody. All that. A

Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Columbia/Legacy)
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Although the Carters' selling point is repertoire, their craft is Mother Maybelle's deceptively simple bedrock guitar and vocals that shade matter-of-fact mountain ballad convention. These mostly 1935 recordings are slower and more forceful than the classic 1927-1929 RCAs, substituting audible confidence for sprightly charm and repeating only three tunes from Anchored in Love and My Clinch Mountain Home. If this "Keep on the Sunny Side" could be sunnier, that "Lulu Walls" could be droller. Especially for nonfolkies who haven't suffered through too many fools clunking them up, a great bunch of songs. A

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Praise UniMoth from whom all blessings flow. Thanks to the corporate consolidation that unifies MCA's and PolyGram's holdings, as well as the corporate cooperation that frees WEA to share Aretha and AWB, here's the rare box that makes sense (and music) of tracks you could never hear (or stand) rather than diminishing ones you cherish into generic or hero-mongering oblivion. Roy Ayers? Patrice Rushen? Billy Preston? The Fatback Band? Fatback? With their basslines pumped and their best tricks set off by the deeper tricks of betters from JB on down, all jam like jam bands oughta and Uncle Jam said they should. Stretching over four CDs as expansive as the world music they encapsulate, these 55 tracks are worth your 50 bucks no matter how many you already own. Scrooge option: the same label's 12-track Love Funk. A

Greatest Hits: The Evidence (Coroner/Atomic Pop)
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I missed "Cop Killer" (at least "KKK Bitch," or—remember, Eminem?—"Momma's Gotta Die Tonight") until I accepted Ice-T for what he here chooses to be: not an outrageous ironist but a cold-eyed truth peddler, a man who knows from well-remembered, -observed, and -imagined experience that crime sometimes pays and usually doesn't. Not only does no G get trepanned here, no woman gets misused; the violence is almost all suffered or recalled. Thus contextualized, the clarity, economy, and devastating detail of the man's rapping and rhyming are a benison, turning the spare beats he favors into an ascetic aesthetic. A

The Chess Box (MCA)
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More is more. Time and again, especially when this early bloomer is still in her twenties, she defeats ordinary songwriting and production far more decisively than Aretha did at Columbia. Aretha's her competition, too—even today, James's voice is a wonder, so gritty it's filthy and so sweet it's filthier than that. Only 22 when this 1960-76 span began, she was possessed of a shrewd intelligence that understood standards like "Lover Man" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" just fine—r&b singers had been changing pace with the stuff since the '40s. She only stumbled artistically when she learned how meaningful she was. Graded leniently for deep-sixing Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On." A

The Very Best of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers (Rhino)
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