Everyone gets into the act: CD sets run the scales from cowboy to jazz to rock BOXED IN


It used to be that the boxed set was the safest bet for musical gift giving. For one thing, its elaborate packaging made the average box a much more impressive present than standard CDs; for another, only the most established and important artists were deemed worthy of the boxed set approach.

Not anymore. These days, it seems as if almost anyone is deserving of the deluxe treatment, and that makes it harder for the average buyer to know what is or is not worth the money. What follows, then, is a buyer's guide to this season's biggest boxed sets, with comments on the quality of each release, plus data on how much music you get and what you're likely to pay.


Otis Redding

(Four CDs; Rhino 71439)

He may not have invented Southern soul, but Otis Redding defined its gritty, gospel-based sound better than any singer of his generation. This set traces the whole of his career, from early singles like "Shout Bamalama" (recorded with the Pinetoppers) to later classics like "Respect" and "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay." There's also a full disc of live stuff, plus a detailed, lovingly compiled booklet. A soul-fan's dream.

Total playing time: Four hours, 42 minutes

Number of tracks: 96

Number of rarities: Five

Average price: $59.98

$ Overall rating: ****


Various Artists

(Four CDs; Era 5025)

The Brill Building may have been one of the most famous addresses in rock history, but the real action was across the street at Don Kirshner's Aldon Music, where tunesmiths like Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill and Neil Sedaka cranked out the early Sixties' most memorable hits. Because it omits Phil Spector's productions for Philles (the Crystals, Ronettes, etc.), this doesn't paint as full a picture as it should. But what is here is first-rate, from Bobby Darin's "Dream Lover" to the Shangri-La's "Leader of the Pack."

Total playing time: Three hours, 10 minutes

Number of tracks: 74

Number of rarities: None

Average price: $54.99

# Overall rating: ** 1/2


Janis Joplin

(Three CDs; Columbia/Legacy 48845)

Some sets merely do an artist justice; "Janis" does better than that. Drawing extensively from concert recordings, demo tapes and other arcana, it presents the fullest picture possible of Joplin's development. And while much of what she recorded seems overwrought at this distance, there's plenty of passion and poignancy to these recordings -- particularly on rarities like "Hesitation Blues" (an early recording with Jorma Kaukonen), or Joplin's heartbreaking demo version of "Me and Bobby McGee."

Total playing time: Three hours, 16 minutes

Number of tracks: 49

Number of rarities: 15

Average price: $47.98

# Overall rating: ** 1/2


Various Artists

(Four CDs; Mango 162 539 935)

A complete history of reggae might seem too long or complicated to fit onto a four-CD set, but somehow "Tougher Than Tough" does it anyway. It isn't long on superstars -- Bob Marley & the Wailers appear exactly once -- but it does represent every significant style or fashion in Jamaican pop's 35-year history, from Laurel Aitken's 1958 "Boogie in My Bones" to contemporary dance hall hits like Buju Banton's "Bogle Dance." A great history lesson, and even better listening.

Total playing time: Five hours, eight minutes

Number of tracks: 93

Number of rarities: None

Average price: $61.99

$ Overall rating: ****


Ella Fitzgerald

(16 CDs; Verve 314 519 832)

It would be hard to imagine a simpler concept than the one applied here: Get a great singer, hand her a great songbook, and record the results. And that's pretty much what Norman Granz did with Ella Fitzgerald's songbook series. His taste in writers was unassailable -- Porter, Kern, Berlin, Arlen, Ellington, Mercer, the Gershwin Brothers, and Rodgers and Hart -- and her performances are rarely less than exquisite, whether singing 'em straight or playing it jazzy. And the packaging, with its exhaustive liner notes and period art, is appropriately lavish. A true work of art.

Total playing time: 15 hours, 30 minutes

Number of tracks: 253

Number of rarities: 12

Average price: $296.99

$ Overall rating: ****



Various Artists

(Four CDs; Motown 374 636 358)

Tempting as it is to think that the Motown Era ended with the early '70s, the fact is that Berry Gordy's hit machine has been cranking out winning singles for 34 years now, and shows no sign of slowing. "Hitsville Volume Two" isn't a totally accurate representation of modern Motown -- it shortchanges Stevie Wonder while overplaying Smokey Robinson, and shouldn't waste space on the likes of the Good Girls -- but even so, it ought to open more than a few eyes.

Total playing time: Four hours, 59 minutes

Number of tracks: 76

Number of rarities: None

Average price: $55.74

# Overall rating: ** 1/2


Bing Crosby

(Four CDs; MCA 10887)

Apart from "White Christmas," Bing Crosby is better remembered today for his road picture comedies than for his numerous pop hits. Too bad. In his prime, he was a phenomenal song stylist, one who blended the mellifluous tone of the Irish tenor and the lithe phrasing of the jazz singer into a sound that is at once soothing and exciting. And this exquisitely remastered set shows exactly how he honed that approach, singing everything from jazz numbers to show tunes to Hawaiian novelties.

Total playing time: Four hours, 58 minutes

Number of tracks: 101

Number of rarities: Six

Average price: $63.98

$ Overall rating: ****


Led Zeppelin

(10 CDs; Atlantic 82526)

On the face of it, this would seem the season's most pointless set. What we get are remastered versions of every Led Zeppelin album except "The Song Remains the Same" -- songs that can be had with the same fine sound for less money (though in different order) on the boxed "Led Zeppelin" and "Boxed Set 2." So why bother? In part because the packaging, with its well-annotated book and slip-cover albums, is so cool, but mostly because once you've heard the catalog in this format, the old CDs just can't compare.

Total playing time: Seven hours, 20 minutes

Number of tracks: 85

Number of rarities: Four

Average price: $129.99

$ Overall rating: ****


Various Artists

(Four CDs; Rhino 71263)

One result of the country boom has been the decline of Western music -- cowboy songs, that is. This set is out to right that wrong, and put Gene Autry and Roy Rogers -- not to mention Tex Ritter, Marty Robbins and the Sons of the Pioneers -- back in the saddle again. It nearly does, too, thanks to well-chosen cowboy classics plus a wittily written, beautifully illustrated booklet. If only the TV themes were all original versions, it would be perfect.

Total playing time: Three hours, 12 minutes

Number of tracks: 73

Number of rarities: One

Average price: $59.65

# Overall rating: ** 1/2


Brian Eno

(Three CDs; Virgin 39114)

He may be a major deity in art rock circles, but if pop fans know Brian Eno at all, it's as the brainiac producer behind U2's last few albums. This anthology of his vocal music won't entirely change that, but it's a good start, since the best tracks are textbook examples of how to turn quirky sounds into ear-catching hooks. And as for the ambient-oriented "I," that's due next spring.

Total playing time: Three hours, 43 minutes

Number of tracks: 55

Number of rarities: Nine

Average price: $47.49

# Overall rating: ***


Various Artists

(Nine CDs; Stax 4411)

When Stax/Volt was the home of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, its output rivaled even the mighty Motown machine. But by 1968, Redding was dead, Sam & Dave had defected to Atlantic, Carla Thomas was past her prime, and Booker T. & the MG's were in decline. So though this boasts occasional nuggets like Isaac Hayes' "Theme from 'Shaft' " or the Staples Singers' "Respect Yourself," expect to sift through a lot of silt to find them.

Total playing time: 11 hours, 15 minutes

Number of tracks: 216

Number of rarities: None

Average price: $126.97

' Overall rating: **


Diana Ross

(Four CDs; Motown 374 636 357)

If being a diva demands equal parts genius and self-obsession, then Diana Ross defines the term. Maybe that's why this set seems such a perfect tribute, stretching as it does from her solid-gold days with the Supremes, through the disco sizzle of "Love Hangover" and "Upside Down," and into the stylistic excess of the present. Still, the hits are hard to top, and the insipid prattle of her liner notes will keep you from wasting money on her book.

Total playing time: Four hours, 45 minutes

Number of tracks: 78

Number of rarities: Four, plus five new songs

Average price: $58.66

# Overall rating: ** 1/2


The Police

(Four CDs; A&M; 314 540 150)

Like the Led Zeppelin set, this was compiled with completists in mind: Every album track, obscure single, B-side or soundtrack number the Police ever recorded, all in one neat, chronologically arranged package. It's great in terms of sound and economy (try buying all the original albums this cheaply), but longtime fans will wish they had ransacked the vaults for real rarities.

Total playing time: Four hours, 45 minutes

Number of tracks: 77

Number of rarities: None

Average price: $53.19

# Overall rating: ***


The Weavers

(Four CDs; Vanguard 147-50)

The Weavers were folk musicians in the truest sense of the term, keeping old tunes vital by making them accessible to a mass audience. Their biggest hits -- "Goodnight Irene," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," "Wimoweh" and "Wreck of the 'John B.' " -- influenced a generation of pop stars, but as with most landmark groups, their history stretched well past the point of greatest impact. And so, unfortunately, does this set.

Total playing time: Four hours, one minute

Number of tracks: 87

Number of rarities: Two

Average price: $55.49

' Overall rating: **


Emerson, Lake & Palmer

(Four CDs; Victory 383 484 004)

Where "The Atlantic Years," ELP's last stab at boxed-set glory, put the emphasis on pop content, this stresses the band's serious side. And oddly enough, that adds to the band's appeal. It helps that ELP's most egregious oldie, "Pictures at an Exhibition," has been remade, and their brief stab at disco is mercifully forgotten. Even so, this is still one disc too many, and some of the new stuff (like the version of Arthur Brown's "Fire") verges on laughable.

Total playing time: Four hours, 55 minutes

Number of tracks: 40

Number of rarities: Three, plus six new tracks

Average price: $61.98

# Overall rating: ** 1/2


Various Artists

(Two CDs; Capricorn 42012)

Chess may have been the biggest of the Chicago blues labels, but it by no means had a corner on the market. Between 1956 and 1958, Cobra cranked out some of the era's most raucous recordings, thanks to songwriter/producer/co-owner Willie Dix

on and a roster that included Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Magic Sam. This set includes Cobra's best tracks, like Rush's "Double Trouble" and "I Can't Quit You Baby," but many appear only as alternate takes.

Total playing time: Two hours, 25 minutes

Number of tracks: 54

Number of rarities: Two

Average price: $25.49

' Overall rating: **


Frank Sinatra

(12 CDs; Columbia 48673)

His Capitol years may have the best material, but Frank Sinatra's strongest singing is found here. True, the sessions rarely swing, and the producers served him more corn than they should have, but his exquisite tone and light, Crosby-esque phrasing made even the worst dross listenable (if not lovable). Add intelligent, informed liner notes and an impressively solid package, and this makes an appropriate monument to a magnificent voice.

Total playing time: 14 hours, 34 minutes

Number of tracks: 285

Number of rarities: 35

Average price: $249.99

$ Overall rating: *** 1/2


Paul Simon

(Three CDs; Warner Bros. 45394)

Rather than simply recount the hits, "1964-1993" puts its emphasis on Simon's songwriting. It isn't quite an "and then I wrote" recollection, but it is awfully easy to trace the paths he took from "Hey Little Schoolgirl" to "The Obvious Child." And while students of songwriting will love the demo version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," longtime Simon & Garfunkel fans will howl at the dry wit of "The Breakup."

Total playing time: Three hours, 22 minutes

Number of tracks: 52

Number of rarities: Two, plus one new song

Average price: $60.74

# Overall rating: ***


Rahsaan Roland Kirk

(Two CDs; Rhino/Atlantic Jazz 71406)

"Multi-instrumentalist" doesn't begin to describe Kirk's talents, for not only did this jazzman play three saxophones simultaneously, he somehow kept that trick from turning his performances into a novelty act. Even so, there's a fair amount of jiggery-pokery going on here, as many of these tracks find Kirk fleshing out the playing with Stevie Wonder-ish aural collages. It's interesting stuff, but not necessarily his best.

Total playing time: Two hours, 19 minutes

Number of tracks: 31

Number of rarities: One

Average price: $30.98

# Overall rating: ** 1/2


Professor Longhair

(Two CDs; Rhino 71502)

If only for "Tipitina," Professor Longhair would deserve a place in rock history, because with that he invented New Orleans piano as we know it. This traces his career from "Bald Head," his earliest R&B; hit, to his final days on the festival circuit. And while much of what's here doesn't add to what he did with "Tipitina," somehow 'Fess ensures we never mind.

Total playing time: Two hours, 12 minutes

Number of tracks: 40

Number of rarities: Three

Average price: $30.98

# Overall rating: ***


Astor Piazzolla

(Three CDs; American Clave 102)

Upon hearing that he was Argentina's greatest tango composer, most Americans focus on the word "tango." But as this makes plain, the more important term is "composer," for what Piazzolla did for the tango was what Bach did with the toccata -- he transformed it into a compositional form of enormous power and range. And though his instrumentation was more of the dance hall than the concert stage, that hardly diminishes the music's impact.

Total playing time: Two hours, 15 minutes

Number of tracks: 28

Number of rarities: None

Average price: $48.99

# Overall rating: ***


Don Cherry

(Two CDs; Mosaic 145)

Don Cherry may be best-known as Ornette Coleman's favorite foil, but the trumpeter is also a composer in his own right. And it's his writing -- particularly his gift for balancing written ensemble passages with improvised interplay -- that carries these early '60s albums, particularly given the occasional excesses of his sidemen.

Total playing time: Two hours, two minutes

Number of tracks: Nine

Number of rarities: None

Price: $30 (Mail order only)

Address: 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn. 06902

# Overall rating: ** 1/2


Joan Baez

(Three CDs; Vanguard 125/27)

If it seems that Baez is better known for her activism than her musicianship, this ought to set the record straight. Unlike many of her peers, her most compelling work, like "Diamonds and bTC Rust," was recorded well after her days on the folk circuit. Still, the real draw here are the rarities, in which Baez clowns with Dylan, gets down with Odetta, and rocks out with the Dead. Good fun.

Total playing time: Three hours, 35 minutes

Number of tracks: 60

Number of rarities: 24

Average price: $49.99

Overall rating: ***

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