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Box-set highlights: Paramount Records, William Onyeabor, Joni Mitchell

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
'The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 2' the ultimate box set of American music

The best box sets are their own worlds, aural encapsulations so fully imagined that five or six hours becomes something to get lost in, like a Brontë sisters bender or a Martin Scorsese weekend.

These are gifts that can help opinionated folkie dads sway daughters away from Luke Bryan toward Hank Williams or connect siblings trying to out-geek each other with resurrections from Numero Group and Now-Again. Whether it's parents conspiring with kids to get "The Beatles in Mono" box or Bob Dylan's "The Basement Tapes Complete" for some lucky grandpa or mom and daughter bonding over George Harrison's "The Apple Years: 1968-1975," the reflex is the same: to meet in that realm where shared, unspoken joy supplants family dynamics and generation gaps.

Below, a selection of miraculous universes to explore:

Various Artists, "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 2" (Revenant/Third Man, $400). Like last year's Grammy-nominated first volume, the second installment of "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records" gathers the great work of the Grafton, Wis., furniture company Paramount, whose record-everything philosophy, started in 1917, captured important early folk, blues, jazz and country music and helped shape the 20th century American sound. Like that first volume, this one comes in a briefcase and weighs a ton physically, historically and thematically.

Like the first volume, the set was released by Jack White's Third Man Records and the excellent archival label Revenant. The latter's Dean Blackwood oversaw the production of both sets and said that the company unwittingly brought into focus artists that otherwise wouldn't have stood a chance. "Paramount certainly did much more comprehensive job as a repository, as an archive of that than any preservationist body," said Blackwood. "The Library of Congress didn't even start their field recording operation in any kind of significant scale until the '30s. Well, a lot of these sounds were no longer being made then. It was left to operations like Paramount."

The great irony, adds Blackwood: "It's kind of the old American story. This company that had no interest in anything other than turning a buck this week ends up being the single greatest archivist — unintentional archivist — when it comes to preservation of sounds that are otherwise completely lost to time."

Volume 2 stretches from 1928 to the company's closing in 1932 and is even better than the first. It features 800 recordings stored on an exquisitely crafted thumb-drive, two thick books, a six-LP set and various advertising ephemera, all contained in a stainless steel case designed in the look of the era. That drive is a miracle — 800 sides originally released on 78 rpm, some of the world's rarest records, to mix and match, cross-reference and curate into playlists. The heft is equaled by the set's design and execution, to say nothing of the dead voices gathered within.

It includes influential work by Skip James, Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, but the glory is in the lesser-known marches, rags, waltzes, ballads and blues from artists screaming through the dust and decades. It's as deep and all-consuming a document as a set of scriptures, one filled with nearly as many hallowed stories, ancient truisms and snapshot revelations.

William Onyeabor, "Collected Works" (Luaka Bop, $69.99). One of the great reissue campaigns of recent years is Luaka Bop's work bringing Onyeabor's music into ears that would have otherwise missed out. In 2013, the mysterious Nigerian artist was the subject of a loving collection, "Who Is William Onyeabor?" Featuring mesmerizing rhythms and a curious way with melody, Onyeabor in those nine tracks seemed to burst out of the past sounding as fresh as when he quit music for Christianity in the mid-1980s.

Luaka Bop, founded by David Byrne, has just gone all-in, compiling Onyeabor's strange handmade West African synth-rock released from 1977 to '85. It's a thrilling collection of the artist's eight self-released albums, filled with Onyeabor's eternally optimistic demeanor and a magnetism sure to prompt cocked-ear curiosity from trainspotting friends gathered around the decks.

Various Artists, "When I Reach that Heavenly Shore" (Tompkins Square, $32). A haunting journey into sanctuaries of nearly a century ago, this three-volume collection features recordings from the stacks of noted archivist and music historian Christopher King. In the liner notes, King calls this work, which stretches from 1926 to 1936, "humble prayers directly placed before God." That's an understatement.

Many of the included sides are impassioned sermons with musical and chorale accompaniment. King in notes cites the Bible verse that each track references, connecting written and sung messages into a sublime, often-ethereal whole. Best, some of this seems so strange as to boggle the imagination.

Joni Mitchell, "Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced" (Rhino/Warner Bros., $64.99). A gift from the heavens: A favorite artist has curated a four-CD set of her work over the decades, one that jumps years, styles, sounds and themes. The collection "Love Has Many Faces" gathers Mitchell's seminal music into four thematically-linked compilations.

Untethered from the artist's albums, the songs cascade from one to another with mystical grace, only to be abruptly interrupted with her more aggressive works. Also wonderful are Mitchell's liner notes, which offer blow-by-blow memories of the sessions and interactions. She gets grumpy about Bob Dylan and David Geffen and calls out her own songs for new critique. "Some of my songs bug people. They hate them," she writes. "'Moon at the Window' was one. Sarah Vaughan said, 'That's a strange form.'" Indeed it is, one of many strange forms that, woven into new fabrics on "Many Faces," create mesmerizing comfort.

Daft Punk, "Alive 2007" (Rhino/Warner Bros., $129.99). Looking for a surprise box for the twentysomething daughter who last year slid home for Christmas morning just as the sun was rising? Paris house kings Daft Punk have reissued a pair of live sets from their wildly infectious first decade, when tracks like "Da Funk," "Robot Rock" and "One More Time" were storming rave culture, carving through the electronica movement and into living room dance floors. The 2007 set is available for the first time on its own on double vinyl, but the version that'll win over your giftee is the limited edition box. It features the 2007 album pressed on white vinyl, a bonus record of the show's encore, a silver vinyl edition of Daft Punk's first live album, "Alive 1997," a photo book, a turntable slip mat and a download card. Best, this work sounds as vital as when it was first released, exuberant dance music built to last.

Here is a sampling of jazz box sets also released this year:

Bill Evans, "The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961" (Riverside, $89.99): Previously released as two now-classic albums in "Waltz for Debby" and "Sunday at the Village Vanguard," this four-LP set from the piano master compiles the now-legendary performances from a trio that would never perform again after the death just days later of 25-year-old bassist Scott LaFaro in a car accident. Released on CD in 2005, this remastered collection draws from existing tapes from both sets on June 25, 1961 (including an interrupted run through "Gloria's Step") with sparse crowd noise intact, offering a warmly revealing simulation of the live moments a small contingent of jazz fans — particularly a sparse afternoon crowd — couldn't imagine their good fortune to witness.

Miles Davis, "Miles at the Fillmore 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3" (Sony Legacy, $28.99): Drawing from Miles Davis archive has become an annual industry tradition, and the latest installment runs head-long into Davis' creation of a new kind of music that even today defies categorization. A four-CD collection drawn from nights at the Fillmore East where Davis and his band were paired with Laura Nyro and the Grateful Dead, these unedited performances feature both Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on keyboards along with Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira and Steve Grossman.

Previously released in abridged form as the two-disc "Miles Davis at Fillmore," this set boasts more than two hours of previously unheard music, including tracks from the Fillmore West taking on "Paraphernalia" and "Footprints." The sound Davis was creating in-the-moment arrives with such force and furious invention it's hard to imagine the courage it took to follow him, then or now.

Various Artists, "Uncompromising Expression: Singles Collection" (Blue Note, $56.05 CDs; $49.81 book; $649.99 40-album, 75th anniversary box set): Many have tried to summarize jazz in a single compilation, from Ken Burns to the Smithsonian, and they've all fallen short. While this attempt naturally falls short as well, it remains a strong summary of the genre's most celebrated label with music that begins with Sidney Bechet, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and continues through Art Blakey, Hank Mobley and Herbie Hancock on up today with Gregory Porter and Robert Glasper.

While complaints on track and artist choices are inevitable as Blue Note tries to summarize 75 years with five meager CDs, the set makes for a decent introductory point for the right person, particularly when paired with its sumptuously packaged companion book or, for shoppers without budget or space constraints, a mammoth 40-piece vinyl set of reissued classics. And even then you've only just begun.

Twitter: @LilEdit; @chrisbarton

The Los Angeles Times' Chris Barton also contributed to this story.

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