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CL's holiday guide to the best box sets and free music downloads

Nothing warms the holiday heart like a little mood music from that lovelorn crooner Roy Orbison, somber shoe-gazers the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Ms. "Mississippi Goddam" herself, Nina Simone. Besides the best bailout plan box sets of the season, CL's thrown in a few online sites to case for free music. Keep it on the download.

Nina Simone

To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story

Sony Legacy

$49.98

It's impossible to overstate the not-so-coincidental appearance of a long-delayed set from one of America's most outspoken Civil Rights musicians of the 1960s timed with the election of the country's first black president. Even with 50-plus tracks spread over three CDs and a DVD documentary, it's difficult to capture every facet of one of the most diverse performers whose catalog of jazz, blues, gospel, standards and world music defines the word eclectic. Simone's work crossed sociopolitical boundaries way before that was cool. The box presents a cherry-picking of her confusing, multi-label catalog, and mostly succeeds at painting a portrait of a talented and forthright artist who was as comfortable singing George Gershwin classics as she was songs by Bob Dylan. No style was off limits, and Simone's classic jazz phrasing made every tune her own. Voluminous and detailed track-specific liner notes by Simone biographer David Nathan help enormously, but the magic is in the music.

-- Hal Horowitz

Roy Orbison

The Best of the Soul of Rock and Roll

Legacy

$59.98

Emo is nothing new in the teen lexicon. It's incumbent upon the youth to act out and wallow in heartbreak. These hang-ups are as much an affliction today as they were when Roy Orbison walked into the studio in Odessa, Texas, in 1956 to record "Ooby Dooby." A new four-disc set follows Orbison's growth as a songwriter and icon from the 1950s to the last, poignant words he sang into a microphone with "It's Over," captured live in Akron, Ohio, in 1988.

Detailed liner notes, 107 songs, high school postcards, and essays penned by his family, friends and fans offer a wealth of insight into the Big O's life and times. Whether you just want to sing along to the classics or get into the nuts-and-bolts of what made Roy so cool, it's all here.

-- Chad Radford

The Jesus and Mary Chain

The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides &

Rarities

Rhino

$59.98

The Jesus and Mary Chain's morphine drip of feedback and fuzz emerged from the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, circa 1984. From the beginning, the group's founders, brothers Jim and William Reid, combined the best of many worlds: the sleaze of the Velvet Underground, the gloom of the Cure, the drum machine dirge of the Sisters of Mercy, and the wall of noise summoned during Phil Spector's halcyon days. Their proper albums are now lauded as luminaries of the shoe-gazer sound, and rightfully so. The Power of Negative Thinking showcases the mistakes, sacrifices and songs that didn't make the final cuts along the way, but are by no means throwaways. With a sound so dense and hypnotic, the scraps are just as important as the winners. Four discs of experiments in noisy, dreary pop unveil an entirely new dimension of sound from the Jesus and Mary Chain.

-- Chad Radford

Hank Williams

The Unreleased Recordings

Time Life

$39.98

The Lonesome Highway just got a bit more populated. These 54 songs spread over three discs are one of the major finds in any style of music, but for country and western fans, they are essential. Hank Williams recorded these tunes in 1951 on cheap acetates to be played on his morning WSM radio slot while he was on the road. They sat collecting dust for decades and were nearly destroyed. An alert station employee retrieved them from a Dumpster, setting the stage for this and future boxes, which will be released next year. The sound has been restored and is now as vibrant as nearly anything in the existing Williams catalog. The set features a 40-page book with detailed track-by-track notes, explaining where and when Williams was first exposed to some of the gospel and folk covers he performs here for the only time on disc. Indispensable.

-- Hal Horowitz

Honorable mentions

Genesis, 1970-1975; Shirley Bassey, Four Decades of Song; Various Artists, Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia; Cheap Trick, Budokan!

The holidays are coming, and surely there's someone you want to impress, or undress, with a mix CD. Forget about the dust-gathering discs on your shelf (Jamiroquai, seriously?); and in these recessionary times, you can also forget about buying new music or illegally downloading it (the RIAA plays for keeps). Instead, check out these (almost) entirely legal free download sites.

1) Aquarium Drunkard (www.aquariumdrunkard.com) and Passion of the Weiss (www.passionweiss.com) – Focused on indie/classic rock and hip-hop respectively, these L.A.-based sites showcase two of the smartest blog voices out there.

2) Cable & Tweed (cableandtweed.com) and Drive A Faster Car (www.driveafastercar.com) – Both excellent Atlanta blogs with a focus on both local and national acts, everything from rock to electronic to punk.

3) Gorilla Vs. Bear (gorillavsbear.blogspot.com). Long the king of its genre, the oft-imitated site has the latest tracks, and nostalgic faves, too.

-- Ben Westhoff



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