Who Needs Boxes 2005

That's not counting Johnny Cash, of course, but New Orleans finds are worth seeking out

THE SOUND OF THE CITY: NEW ORLEANS
(EMI)

Surely some exploiter will step forward, or wouldn't it be nice if the Smithsonian strong-armed licensors into sluicing royalties right to the Ninth Ward? But with Rhino's three-LP canon long ago put under and Shout! Factory's four-CD Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queenstourist-board hype, this Charlie Gillett creation is easily the finest available overview of the lost city's rock and roll heritage even if you have to e-mail England to get one. On what is essentially a rock-era survey, the New Orleans tinge sustains a perilous segue from "Let the Good Times Roll" to "West End Blues" to (Bobby Bland's) "St. James' Infirmary." No Mardi Gras krewes, but Gillett does remember every major artist as well as irreplaceable one-shots from Jessie Hill's high-principled "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" to the Animals' carpetbagging "House of the Rising Sun." And though he deals a few sixes and sevens, ace finds start with Archibald's boogie-woogieing "Stack O Lee," Jerry Byrne's frenetic "Lights Out," Willie Tee's pimping "Thank You John," and two very different Bobby Charles songs—one young, dumb, and itching to be free, the other disabused, disabusing, and longing to make love work. A

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HANK WILLIAMS

The Essential Hank Williams Collection: Turn Back the Years
(Mercury)

Musically as well as lyrically, Williams was so simple he was profound—Irving Berlin was Brecht-Weill by comparison. Without benefit of drums, his pulse was livelier than that of any competing country singer even when he was very sad, which whatever the tempo was most of the time. But he was also mawkish and austere, and his best-known titles have been played to death. So truth to tell, I generally pull out Lefty Frizzell when I want me some honky-tonk. Now maybe I won't. Although this triple has room for more than the 60 titles it gives up, and the 10 CDs of his box set include major performances it passes by, its size feels just right. First it breaks up the classics with beguiling semi- obscurities. Then it breaks up the semi-obscurities with classics. A

JOHNNY CASH
The Legend
(Columbia/Legacy)

Cash recorded almost as much as Elvis and has been reissued more than God, but this quadruple will satisfy most of us, in part because we can think of things we miss—"Next in Line"! "Come In Stranger"! "Singin' in Viet Nam Talking Blues"! "The Mystery of Life"! We all have our own Johnny Cash, that's one of his strengths, which means we learn a little something from other people's, as in the previously unreleased Billy Joe Shaver duet "You Can't Beat Jesus Christ." The box omits the stark Rick Rubin stuff of his old age, which made him a "legend" if anything did. But when I test-drove the confusingly titled single-disc The Legend of Johnny Cash, topped off with a few renowned Rubin songs, the sudden dropoff reinforced my reservations about his late-life need to let his charisma stand in for his voice. A

ROSANNE CASH
The Very Best of Rosanne Cash
(Columbia/Legacy)

Rosanne's Nashville-to-Manhattan career bifurcates so cleanly that you'd think skipping around between the halves would be a bad idea. But it's the opposite. She could always be formulaically chipper early and painstakingly cerebral late, only not here. Carefully folded together, nine pre-Interiors songs and seven post -Interiors songs feed off each other. Chipper-vs.-cerebral softens to chin-up-vs.-pensive; country soul proves no deeper than classic-pop warmth. A

FINGER POPPIN' AND STOMPIN' FEET
(EMI/Capitol)

This 1960–1962 Allen Toussaint comp starts with two essentials Charlie Gillett failed to bag: the Showmen's "It Will Stand," a show-then-tell improvement on Danny & the Juniors' "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay," and Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-Law," ranked with "The Star-Spangled Banner" by the artist himself. Beyond those and "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," however, it's longer on delicacy than impact. The obscurities are trifles, and as gifted as the young Irma Thomas and Aaron Neville were, the young Toussaint was right to slot them pop. The man is the definitive producer of New Orleans rock and roll. He gave us Lee Dorsey, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, striking solo work. But his signature is a genial accommodation that presaged the tourist mecca the town became. A MINUS

JOHN FOGERTY
The Long Road Home
(Fantasy)

Every 60-year-old rocker wants to prove he can still bring it with a chronology-defying overview. Juxtaposing gritty youth and spiritual maturity, early songs you can't forget and late ones you think you remember, the clumsy group he came to hate and the crusty self he can't live without, John Fogerty reels in that dream. His formal compass is so narrow and the Creedence sound so replicable that whatever a track's provenance—some classics get the live-in-aught-five treatment, including a second "Fortunate Son"—he's always the original roots-rocker displaying the modest facets of his less than glittering personality. Nostalgists may gripe that he sacrifices "Grapevine" and "Suzie Q" to his creativity and royalty statements. But face it, the covers went on too long. They were the band and the band warn't him. Get it? A

THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS
Gold
(Geffen)

Influenced by the Beatles, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Hi-Los, and invisible demons who crept up on them when they didn't score the right drugs, the M&Ps were as sick as they were slick, and although this could accommodate more dark secrets, it proves how sharply their nonhits stick. Their elaborate harmonies and lattice-of-sound arrangements sound super- innocuous until you notice the love bad love of "Got a Feelin' " and "Go Where You Wanna Go," the plastic-hippie savvy of "Creeque Alley" and "Twelve-Thirty," the junkie come-on of "Straight Shooter" and the narco tips of "Free Advice" ("Vice, vice"). They play "Do You Wanna Dance" as sweet romance, "Twist and Shout" as lubricious slow jam, "The 'In' Crowd" as vicious elitism. They do show tunes. They do Shirley Temple and ersatz Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. They do one of the greatest Beatles covers ever. A

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