Time was when a record company would only put together a boxed-set-collection if it was dealing with the work of a major artist.
Someone like Bob Dylan. Or Eric Clapton. Or Miles Davis. Or Muddy Waters. Or James Borwn.
Giants, one an all. Now, of course, we know that boxed sets aren't just a means of paying tribute to a means of paying tribute to a great musician--they're also a way to make money. Perhaps that's why it now seems as if any pop star with a big enought back catalog and relatively fervent fans has a boxed set of some sort in the stores.
How to sort the winner from the losers? Well, you could take the time (and financial risk) of poring over each set yourself.
Or you could just read on.
Nat "King" Cole
"Nat 'King' Cole"
(Capitol 82192, four CDs/cassettes)
Considering how many Cole collections have come along over the last couple of years, it's only fair to ask why this one merits attention. Three reasons spring to mind: One, because it shows how total his mastery of the pop song was; two, because it emphasizes the interesting over the familiar; and three, because it includes an unexpectedly hysterical live track, "Mr. Cole Don't Rock and Roll."
Total time: Four hours, 55 minutes. Rarities: One previously unreleased live track. Cost: $62. ***
"King of the Slide Guitar"
Mention the words "slide guitar" to most blues fans, and the first name to spring to mind is Elmore James. Inspired by Robert Johnson and, in turn, a model for J. B. Hutto, B. B. King and Brian Jones, James was one of the first to refit Delta slide techniques to the demands of the electric guitar. This set, compiling his final recordings, is sometimes spotty, with a few tracks marred by brassy, overblown arrangements. But when James is on -- as he is with "Dust My Broom" and "Something Inside of Me" -- the music burns like hellfire.
Total time: Two hours, 28 minutes. Rarities: Several alternate takes. Cost: $25. ***
"Queen of Soul:
The Atlantic Recordings"
Aretha Franklin wasn't merely soul-singing's reigning monarch; in the nine years she recorded for Atlantic, she redefined the sound and style of soul music. And "Queen of Soul" captures the full range of that achievement, from familiar favorites like "Think" and "Respect" to lesser-known (but no less impressive) numbers like "The House That Jack Built." It also painstakingly remasters each track to make it easier than ever to hear why her greatest work has a power few have equaled.
Total time: Five hours, two minutes. Rarities: Several non-LP singles. Cost: $55. ****
"A Coltrane Retrospective"
(GRP/Impulse 119, 3 CDs/cassettes)
One of the greatest improvisers of the post-bop era, John Coltrane was a true jazz trailblazer. Unfortunately, much of his later work is too demanding for novice jazz fans -- which is where this set comes in. Culling the most accessible efforts from his later recordings, this retrospective makes an ideal starting point for the curious, even if its avoidance of larger-scale works makes it less than representative.
Total time: Three hours, seven minutes. Rarities: None. Cost: $41. ** 1/2
Earth, Wind & Fire
"The Eternal Dance"
As hit makers, EWF were '70s soul stalwarts, thanks to singles like "Shining Star" and "After the Love Has Gone." But as a band, this adventurous ensemble was in a class by itself, as at home with jazz/funk jams as with sweet soul harmonies. And though this set shows off all sides of the EWF sound, its reliance on outtakes and unreleased live material underscores just how much instrumental sparkle this crew could muster.
Total time: Three hours, 51 minutes. Rarities: 12 previously unreleased recordings. Cost: $43. ***
"25 Years -- The Chain"
(Warner Bros. 45129,
Even though Fleetwood Mac's recorded history covers a full quarter-century, most listeners never heard the group before Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined up in 1975.
So it isn't hard to understand why this set eschews the usual chronological approach for one that favors the band's recent and more familiar work. That's particularly a plus for those interested in hearing again how Fleetwood Mac reinvented the sound of So-Cal rock, but this set won't do much for those fans who prefer the blues-drenched sound of the early days with Peter Green.
Total time: Four hours, 26 minutes. Rarities: Four new songs, five previously unreleased recordings. Cost: $73. ** 1/2
Billie Holiday "The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, 1945-1959" (Verve 314 513 859, 10 CDs): A spectacularly presented package, this set spans the length and breadth of Lady Day's strengths as a jazz singer, from steamy studio sessions to red-hot concert recordings. And though the sound sometimes succumbs to the scratchiness of 78s, the quality of the music never falters.
Total time: 12 hours, five minutes. Rarities: Four hours of previously unreleased material. Cost: $155. ****
Jefferson Airplane "Loves You"(RCA 61110, three CDs/cassettes): In its prime, the Jefferson Airplane's live show made it the leading light of the San Francisco acid rock scene. Apparently, though, you had to have been there, because based on the evidence compiled in this set, the Airplane's music rarely got off the ground, being too arty in the early days and too obtuse later on. As such, only the pop smarts of songs like "Somebody to Love" or the frenzied intensity of "Volunteers" remains worth hearing today.
Total time: Three hours, 44 minutes. Rarities: 22 previously unreleased tracks, most of them live recordings. Cost: $41. * 1/2
B. B. King "King of the Blues" (MCA 10677, four CDs/cassettes): Forget the usual boxed-set bell curve, wherein the set starts slow, plateaus early, and staggers into irrelevance through the last side; the wonder of this set is that King finds his stride early on and maintains it to the very end. That ensures there's no lapse in quality between "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss" or "The Thrill Is Gone" and recent work like "When Love Comes to Town" with U2 or "Since I Met You Baby" with Gary Moore. All told, it makes it easy to understand what makes B. B. King of the Blues.
Total time: Four hours, 55 minutes. Rarities: Seven previously unreleased performances. Cost: $63. ****
King Crimson "The Great Deceiver" (Discipline/Caroline 1597, four CDs/cassettes): If you think art rock only means overblown attempts at semi-classicism, this set should change your mind. Taken from concert recordings made between October '73 and June '74, it presents King Crimson at its finest -- edgy, inventive, and utterly unafraid of taking chances. A revelation.
Total time: Four hours, 55 minutes. Rarities: All material previously unreleased. Cost: $67. *** 1/2
Barry Manilow "The Complete Collection and Then Some . . .": (Arista 18714, four CDs/cassettes): As a bouquet to the fans, this is tough to beat, mixing rare live performances with familiar -- hits and revealing demo versions; there's even a 12-song video chronicling Manilow through the ages. Of course, none of this is likely to win over the unconvinced, but then, who but a fan would ever shell out for a Barry Manilow boxed set?
Total time: Four hours, 38 minutes. Rarities: Six new songs, six demos and 21 other previously unreleased recordings. Cost: $80. * 1/2
Bob Marley "Songs of Freedom" (Tuff Gong 314-512-280, four CDs/cassettes): As an overview of Marley's music, this is hard to beat. It opens with his first single, the raucous ska tune "Judge Not," ends with a version of "Redemption Song" cut during his final concert, and fills the space between with a judicious balance of the expected classics and lesser-known gems. Longtime fans will enjoy hearing Marley's rock-steady singles put in their proper context as well as the demo versions of "Guava Jelly" and "This Train." But novices will find even more to enjoy as they're awed by the scope and power of the music.
Total time: Four hours, 59 minutes. Rarities: Four previously unreleased performances, many new mixes. Cost: $47. ****
Buck Owens "The Buck Owens Collection" (Rhino 71013, three CDs/cassettes): Bakersfield, Calif., is quite a ways from Nashville, but that hardly kept Buck Owens from turning it into a bastion of country traditionalism. But the real surprise in this set isn't how fresh performances like "Act Naturally" or "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" still sound, but how easily Owens and his Buckaroos slip into rock and roll while playing at country (check out his take on "Johnny B. Goode").
Total time: Two hours, 35 minutes. Rarities: None. Cost: $49. ** 1/2
"Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection" (Motown 374 636 312, four CDs/cassettes): Think of this as a sort of instant jukebox: 104 memorable Motown hits, each in its original mono mix, and arranged chronologically. Even if you already have the best of the Temptations, Supremes or Four Tops elsewhere in your collection, it's still worth hearing the versions presented here, as well as such forgotten classics as Shorty Long's "Devil With the Blue Dress" or the Velvettes' "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'."
Total time: Five hours, four minutes. Rarities: None. Cost: $52. ****
"The Monterey International Pop Festival" (Rhino 70596, four CDs/cassettes): Before there was Woodstock, there was Monterey, an ambitious peace-and-love fest that brought together everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to the Who and Otis Redding. At the time, it made reputations and conferred cool, but now, though some performances still sizzle, -- especially those by Hendrix, Redding and the Who -- others seem hopelessly dated. Really, now, did anybody ever consider the Association cool?
Total time: Four hours, 37 minutes. Rarities: Most of the set is previously unreleased material. Cost: $56. **
"The Music of Disney: A Legacy in Song" (Walt Disney 60597, three CDs/cassettes): Music has always been a large part of what makes a Disney movie memorable, and this set shows why. From the "Steamboat Willie" version of "Turkey in the Straw" to "Be Our Guest" from "Beauty and the Beast," this set hits the highlights of the Disney era.
Total time: Three hours, two minutes. Rarities: None. Cost: $55. ** 1/2
Barry White "Just for You" (Mercury 314 514 441, three CDs/cassettes): If all you remember about Barry White are the cartoonish elements of his persona, prepare to have your perception changed. Not content to merely dust off half-forgotten hits like "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," it shows the full range of White's talents, from the soulful solo artist to studio mastermind.
Total time: Three hours, 43 minutes. Rarities: Duet version of "All Around the World" with Lisa Stansfield. Cost: $46. ** 1/2
Tammy Wynette "Tears of Fire" (Epic 52741, three CDs/cassettes): For 25 years now, nobody has cut better broken-hearted love songs than Tammy Wynette. Some of that stems from the quality of her songs -- Nashville standards like "Stand by Your Man," "Two Story House" and "D.I.V.O.R.C.E." -- and some from the chemistry of her duets (particularly with George Jones). But most of the credit for Wynette's success lies with her voice, which this set captures in all its catch-in-the-throat glory.
Total time: Three hours, 27 minutes. Rarities: Two previously unreleased recordings. Cost: $50. ***
(Under this star system, **** is excellent, *** is good, ** is average and * is poor.)