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The Season: Bountiful boxes

Add to life's soundtrack with musical gifts
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  December 11, 2013

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HISTORY LESSON Jack White's compilation of Paramount Records material.

The modest renaissance of the record player has led to something of a golden age in the music-reissue industry. Not only do the standard artists of the holiday boxed set industry — your Beatles, your Dylans — have new cash cows to milk, but loads of the great albums of the post-LP era are getting well-deserved (and usually remastered) reissues of modern-day classics. (What’s more, most of these physical objects containing easy links for download to our electronic devices of heretical sound quality.) As often seems the case, Jack White overdoes this renaissance better than most, with The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932 , a set of six records housed in a “cabinet of wonders” that also contains a 250-page art book, a 360-page “field guide,” ads and photographs from the era, and a USB drive containing an innovative, interactive app to play with. The volume, which spans early jazz, gospel, swing, blues, and irrepressible outsiders, is of tremendous historical significance; it also costs nearly $500.

Fortunately, more modest objects of great import are abundant this season. We start with one that’s more than just LP-only; it’s 45-only. J Dilla ’s 2006 opus Donuts ($39.45) — a hip-hop album without raps, a break beat album of tremendous accessibility and vitality, recorded just before the artist’s untimely death — has recently been reissued as a set of eight seven-inch records, each designed to look like a different flavor of doughnut, complete with a couple of bonus tracks previously unavailable on vinyl.

Warp Records is one of a few who have mined their back-catalog in order to reissue modern classics. They outdid themselves this year with a rerelease of the entire, 25-plus-year back catalog of Boards of Canada , the gorgeously analog Scottish electronic duo. LPs run at or under $30, and are equally suitable for inexperienced young hipsters, hardcore production nerds, and girlfriends who need some new homework music.

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'PURPLE SNOW' Numero Group's look at what Minneapolis music sounded like before Prince.

Some of the most fruitful excavations in this era of reissues have been ethnographic: what is it like to compile the product of a single scene in a particular moment of time? This vein of thought has been ably mined by labels such as Numero Group and Sublime Frequencies for many years now, and they’ve both delivered again in 2013. The most intriguing box of the year seems universally acknowledged to be Numero Group ’s Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound ($31.79 CD, $79.99 vinyl), which charts the terrain of the Twin Cities in the age just before Prince, Jimmy Jam Harris, and Terry Lewis came to lead one of pop’s most unlikely geographical scenes. The set unearths some funk, R&B, early synth, and surprisingly astral experiments that helped conspire to make a legend come to be. The 2013 apex of Sublime Frequencies seems to be Pop Yeh Yeh: Psychedelic Rock from Singapore and Malaysia 1964-1970: Vol. 1 ($14.98 CD), which reveals a fascinating sonic smorgasbord in the wake of world wars and the encroachment of western culture. A quirkier project unbounded by geography is I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990 ($15 CD, $30 LP currently out of stock). This blessedly earnest release from Seattle’s Light in the Attic, which considers the genre a “reverberation of psychedelic music,” brings together tracks from self-released new age albums, before the format became both a massive industry and a universal punchline.

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