To commemorate the end of the century, Sony Music assembled the gargantuan 26-disc box set Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century. The title was imposing, as was the idea behind it -- to chronicle the life of the oldest record label in the music industry. To be clear, Sony Music has not existed for 100 years, but the heart of its catalog, Columbia Records, was founded early in the 20th century. Sony acquired Columbia and its various subsidiaries in the late '80s, purchasing one of the richest catalogs in pop history, as the box set proves again and again. Sony realized that most consumers wouldn't invest in a 26-disc box, no matter how impressive it was, so they simultaneously released a series of 12 genre-specific double-disc sets that culled highlights from the box. That left two discs exclusive to the box, which was appropriate, since anyone who spends over $300 on an album deserves a little bonus. As it turns out, the double-disc sets are every bit as impressive as the big box, perhaps more so, because they're easily digestible. Even so, the scope of the 50-track Pop Music: The Early Years 1890-1950 is impressive. Columbia was one of the biggest labels in the early days of the record industry, which is clear from the featured artists on this set. Many of the biggest names in pop and jazz recorded for Columbia at some point -- Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Kate Smith, Jack Teagarden, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, the Mills Brothers, Louis Prima, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Harry James, Ray Noble, Dinah Shore, Gene Autry, Frank Sinatra -- and they're all here, usually represented by their best-known songs. It's more than an effective collection -- it's educational, entertaining, and astounding, as it traces vaudeville through big band, jazz, and swing. Few other sets capture this period quite so well -- and it's all the more amazing when you realize that it all comes from the same label.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2