This season's gift-set offerings include collections of the legendary, the pioneering, the sacred and the profane. Never before have TV series gotten so much of the wrapped-up treatment. Here is the cream of the crop ...
Michael Jackson – Visionary: The Video Singles (Legacy/MJJ Greatest Hits), $149.98
Most of Michael Jackson's best video singles, including rare remixes and alternate takes, and a couple of frankly odd choices make up the 20 DVD DualDiscs (audio on one side, DVD on the other) in this classy collection. Each sleeve bears lots of tiny Jacko pictures and collectively forms the singular image of him from the outside box if put together correctly. Michael Jackson has always been puzzling, but never in such an extremely cool way.
– Tamara Palmer
Various artists – American Music: The Hightone Records Story, $59.98
Delivered in a rather unassuming package featuring the label's beige-and-red logo, American Music won't stand out too much on your shelf, but the variety of music and the booklet within make up for it. Label heads Bruce Bromberg and Larry Sloven gave dozens of great artists, such as Dave Alvin and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a creative forum. The four enclosed CDs are divided into loose categories – blues, rock, country, and singer/songwriters and other folk. Great stuff, and the DVD of rare video clips is the icing on a very delicious musical cake.
– James Kelly
The Premiere Frank Capra Collection (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), $59.95
In an age when everyone seemed obsessed with deciding what a "real American" is, Hollywood director Frank Capra made films focused on the best virtues of the nation: respect for one's neighbors, unpretentiousness, honesty. The beauty of his films is their subversive, cynical suggestion that corruption underpins capitalism and government – even though, by the end of his initially dark portraits of American life, a happy ending is virtually assured.
This set, loaded with bonus features and a 96-page movie scrapbook, includes the film that should be required viewing for every congressman: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Also featured: You Can't Take it With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and It Happened One Night (featuring a charisma-drenched Clark Gable). Also included is American Madness, an early Capra post-New Deal drama, starring Walter Huston as a bank president, with some distinct similarities to It's a Wonderful Life.
– Felicia Feaster
Various artists – Girl Monster (Chicks on Speed), $29.98
Managed by the Berlin-based group of the same name, Chicks on Speed Records supports artists as varied as Ana da Silva (from post-punk icon the Raincoats) and IDM trio DAT Politics and indescribable auteur Kevin Blechdom. Girl Monster, a new three-disc compilation, links Chicks on Speed with seminal tracks from Le Tigre, Erase Errata, Björk, the Slits and many others. Liner notes by rock critics Jason Gross and Lucy O'Brien are included amid punk-styled collages and tributes to post-feminist sexuality. Though Girl Monster mostly lacks contributions from women of color, it is a necessary summary of female-driven experimental pop from the past four decades.
– Mosi Reeves
Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Three Season Pack (Showtime Entertainment), $89.98
If you're shopping for a right-leaning friend with a high tolerance for salty language, consider the three-season pack of "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" Watching the complete run of the Showtime series reveals how gonzo illusionists and hosts Penn Jillette and Teller initially focused on exposing hoaxers and charlatans, such as afterlife psychics on the debut episode. Deeper into the show, however, you'll notice that "Bullshit!" more overtly reveals its Libertarian politics to slaughter such sacred cows as the Endangered Species Act with a surprisingly compelling argument. Incidentally, Penn's liberal use of profanity provides lawsuit protection: a label like "lying fraud" is more slanderous than "bullshit-slinging asshole."
– Curt Holman
Various artists – What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves (1967-1977) (Rhino), $64.98
What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves arrives decades after hip-hop culture popularized the art of searching for obscure '70s funk and soul records. "Diggin' in the crates" is a time-consuming discipline, however, which makes this compendium of rare grooves from the Warner Bros. Records library a treat. Included on the four-disc set are cuts by Aretha Franklin, the Bar-Kays, and Earth, Wind & Fire as well as dozens of lesser-known but equally great artists such as the Houseguests and Eugene McDaniels.
– Mosi Reeves
South Park: The Hits, Volume 1 (Paramount Home Video), $26.99
After 10 years, "South Park" has yet to jump the shark, and in fact, appears to be better and more satirically relevant than ever. This collection of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's favorite episodes draws heavily from recent years. "South Park" can be disgustingly vulgar while showing increasingly brilliant levels of comedic writing, such as "Awesom-O," in which nasty Cartman pretends to be a robot, only to have his prank backfire hilariously. The new set features the Emmy-winning take on the Terry Schiavo case, "Best Friends Forever," and the recent, cause celebre spoof of Scientology and Tom Cruise, "Trapped in the Closet." Alas, the Mel Gibson spoof "The Passion of the Jew" is a no-show, so they must be saving it for Volume 2. You bastards!
– Curt Holman
TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume One (Warner Home Video), $39.92
Naive types who suffer from the delusion that the past was more innocent and virtuous than our own grim times are advised to check out the randy, shocking early Hollywood films in Forbidden Hollywood, a never-before-released raunch trifecta produced in collaboration with Atlanta's own Turner Classic Movies. Made between 1929-1934 before Hollywood's Production Code clamped down on cinematic representations of sex and sleaze, the collection highlight is surely Baby Face, with Barbara Stanwyck as a determined poor girl who travels to New York and sleeps her way up the corporate ladder. It's available in both the censored and uncensored versions. A lascivious Jean Harlow trades her trademark platinum for saucy red and gives Stanwyck a run for her money as another calculating gold digger in Red Headed Woman (1932). Waterloo Bridge (1931) stars Mae Clarke as a prostitute in London during World War I and was directed by Frankenstein's James Whale. (Available Dec. 5.)
– Felicia Feaster
The Doors – Perception (Rhino Records), $149.98
Psychedelic '60s offbeat poets Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore nicked their band's name from Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, a 1954 mescaline journal. Now Perception offers an appropriately spatial experience. The set includes the Doors' integral full-lengths as CD/DVD combos; everything is remastered, expanded with audio/video, and advanced resolution surround sound. Oddly, considering the confrontational compositions, this is one of Rhino's simplest packages – a solid peephole-marked, door-shaped block that folds out to six digipaks with producer notes/essays.
– Tony Ware
Rome: Season One (HBO Home Video, $99.98)
HBO's Rome: Season One may be the year's handsomest boxed set, extending the show's lavish art direction to glossy menus, elegant packaging and a handy, crucial guide to telling the characters apart. DVD is the perfect way to explore HBO's dense, exciting and hugely expensive 12-episode series, which follows Julius Caesar (Ciarin Hinds) from the conquest of the Gauls to the Ides of March, which we watch primarily through the eyes of an idealistic Roman officer and an earthy enlisted man (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson, who deserve to be movie stars). Be warned that "Rome" earns its reputation for sex and violence, and the 11th episode features some gladiator combat that's some of the most intense and violent action scenes in TV history. The DVD also primes the pump for "Rome's" second and final season, to debut in early 2007.
– Curt Holman
Waylon Jennings – Nashville Rebel (RCA); CD box set: $49.98; DVD: $14.98
Ol' Waylon had a universal trademark: the black, etched-leather casing on his Telecaster. Nashville Rebel gets it right by packaging the four CDs in a reproduction of the casing, and the rest is all Waylon as well. With 92 songs ranging from 1958-1995, this is a truly comprehensive collection of the man's work. Sold separately (dammit), the DVD contains 18 rare performances that capture Jennings' onstage charisma, and serves as a perfect companion to the CD.
– James Kelly
Survival of the Hippest
CL's Holiday Guide 2006