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Music Boxes They might be pretty on the outside. As always, though, with boxed CD sets, it's what's inside that counts. Here's a peek.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At Christmas, everybody likes getting something special in a fancy box. It might be an expensive Swiss watch; maybe an exquisite piece of jewelry; perhaps an extravagant silk necktie or scarf.

Or it could be a bunch of CDs.

For their part, the record companies are hoping that this season's gift-buyers will bypass Rolex and Hermes and opt for that fourth choice. To that end, this year's boxed-set offerings have put a premium on packaging, appealing as much to the eye -- and to the collector's instinct -- as to the ear.

It hardly matters what's in the box. Whether you go for sounds as safely mainstream as Queen's pomp rock, or as adventurously avant-garde as John Coltrane's jazz, there's a gorgeous boxed set waiting for you.

But before you buy, maybe you ought to consider whether the music inside is as dazzling as the artwork outside. To help you decide, here's our look at some of the season's most significant boxed sets.

Burt Bacharach

"The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection" (Rhino 75339)

Between his cameo in "Austin Powers" and his collaboration with Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach is hipper than he's been in years. So what better time for a career retrospective?

Because he's more celebrated for his songs than for his singing, "The Look of Love" puts its emphasis on other people's interpretations of his hits. But the set also shows that there's more to Bacharach than the '60s singles everybody knows (such as Dionne Warwick's "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?"). Not only does it include early efforts in country music, R&B; and novelty pop, but it has such recent hits as "That's What Friends Are For."

What you get: All the big hits by a galaxy of big stars.

What you miss: Alternate versions of the hits, like the Beatles' "Baby It's You" or Dusty Springfield's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself."

Packaging: Simple and elegant, with a fact-packed booklet.

Number of songs: 75

Number of CDs: 3

Typical retail price: $45

Sun score: ***

Booker T. & the MGs

"Time Is Tight" (Stax 4424)

Soul music may have been a singer's medium, but that didn't stop Booker T. & the MGs from pumping out some of the funkiest, most soulful singles ever cut at Stax. Working with just organ, guitar, bass and drums, the quartet cut some of the most memorable R&B; hits of the '60s, from "Green Onions" and "Hip Hug-Her" to "Mrs. Robinson" and "Hang 'Em High."

"Time Is Tight" traces the the quartet's career from those early hits right up to its current status as a rock legend. It rounds that out with performances backing Albert King, Boz Scaggs and Neil Young (!), and even includes a couple of vocals by organist Booker T. Jones himself!

What you get: All the hits and a nice selection of rarities.

What you miss: Anything from the group's recent albums for Columbia.

Packaging: Lots of vintage pictures in the booklet, but generally junky design.

Number of songs: 65

Number of CDs: 3

Typical retail price: $45

Sun score: ***

Ray Charles

"The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986" (Rhino 75328)

In 1962, Ray Charles topped the pop charts with his album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." But as this set makes plain, his interest in country began before he made that album and continued long after.

Country is sometimes called "the white man's blues," and Charles' versions of "Born to Lose" and "You Are My Sunshine" vividly connect country and R&B.; Nor did he miss the pop content implicit in such weepers as "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Crying Time." But the most telling tracks are his Nashville sessions from the '80s, in which Charles' bluesy vocals fit perfectly alongside drawling duet partners like George Jones. An essential slice of American history.

What you get: Every studio version of a country song Charles ever cut.

What you miss: Any live recordings he did.

Packaging: Minimal but informative.

Number of songs: 92

Number of CDs: 4

Typical retail price: $45

Sun score: ****

John Coltrane

The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (Impulse! IMPD8-280)

For some, the most inimitable quartet of the '60s wasn't John, Paul, George and Ringo, but John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. As the John Coltrane Quartet, they pushed jazz to new frontiers of harmony and rhythm, in the process influencing everybody from acid rock guitarists to avant-garde composers.

This set isn't strict in its definition of the Coltrane Quartet, and so includes sessions with Roy Haynes drumming instead of Jones. But it does a wonderful job both of restoring the visceral power of the recordings and unearthing outtakes that further illuminate the quartet's creative process.

What you get: Some of the most adventurous and unforgettable jazz ever recorded.

What you miss: The larger ensemble sessions, like "Kulu Se Mama."

Packaging: An exquisite, aluminum-braced, leather-like album for the CDs, plus a removable booklet.

Number of songs: 66

Number of CDs: 8

Typical retail price: $80

Sun score: ****

Miles Davis

"The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions" (Columbia 65570)

Miles Davis may have invented jazz rock with "Bitches Brew," but what people heard on that 1969 album wasn't quite what Davis laid down in the studio. As an album, "Bitches Brew" was a cut-and-paste job, the result of judicious editing by producer Teo Macero, who boiled hours of improvisation down into four sides of classic jazz.

This set reveals for the first time what Macero had to work with, offering almost five hours of ground-breaking jazz/rock. With a band that included Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Wayne Shorter, it's a fusion fan's treasure trove.

What you get: Full-length versions of jams jazz that fans have loved for years.

What you miss: Getting to watch them play.

Packaging: A gorgeous slipcover housing a lavish booklet/CD album.

Number of songs: 21

Number of CDs: Four

Typical retail price: $60

Sun score: ****

Judy Garland

"Judy" (32 Records 2900)

All many people know about Judy Garland's career are the extremes -- the heights she reached in such musicals as "The Wizard of Oz" and the depths she sank to as her personal life fell apart. What often gets missed is the astonishing artistry that made her such a marvel.

"Judy" gives a remarkably well-rounded accounting of Garland's strengths and successes. Unlike previous sets, which kept their focus on her recording career, this set draws heavily from her work in movies and television, including generous excerpts from the weekly variety show she did for CBS in the early '60s.

What you get: A ton of music, plus an additional 10 selections on video.

What you miss: Full selections from "The Wizard of Oz."

Packaging: Stylish but fussy, with a slightly too complicated slipcase.

Number of songs: 66 (not counting the video)

Number of CDs: Four

Typical retail price: $70

Sun score: ***

John Lennon

Anthology (Capitol 30614)

Just as the Beatles' "Anthology" series used outtakes and unreleased material to let us peek behind the scenes, so too does this lavishly designed set use work tapes, demos and home recordings to help fans understand how Lennon made music.

If what you want are hits, dig out the 1990 "Lennon" box. What makes this set worth owning are rarities, such as the first take of "Imagine," and such non-musical moments as Lennon sparring in the studio with Phil Spector or coaxing young Sean Lennon to sing his favorite Beatles song.

What you get: The musical equivalent of a family album.

What you miss: All the hit singles (which you should have anyway).

Packaging: Based on Lennon's artwork, it's as beautiful as it is elegant.

Number of songs: 94

Number of CDs: Four

Typical retail price: $64

Sun score: *** 1/2

Randy Newman

"Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman" (Rhino 92895)

Randy Newman was never one of rock and roll's strongest singers -- his soft, bluesy drawl often just grazed the notes he sought to hit -- but he's definitely one of its greatest singer/songwriters. So even though there are only a few actual hits scattered through this collection, pop aficionados will count most of its selections as classics.

While the first two discs neatly condense his album output for beginners, longtime fans will be wowed by the rarities on the third disc, which includes a host of unreleased gems. And everyone should appreciate the fourth disc, which compiles the best of his writing for the movies.

What you get: Several dozen good reasons to become a Randy Newman fan.

What you miss: Selections from his musical, "Faust."

Packaging: Appropriately cheesy.

Number of songs: 105

Number of CDs: Four

Typical retail price: $50

Sun score: *** 1/2

Queen

"The Crown Jewels" (Hollywood 62200)

As anybody who grew up with LPs will attest, the trouble with CD reissues is that you lose all the neat stuff that went into the original packaging.

Well, Queen fans, this is where you get yours back. "The Crown Jewels" offers the first eight Queen albums in miniaturized versions of the original LP sleeves, all packed into a gorgeous, velvet-covered box. Needlessly extravagant? Of course. But then, so was Queen, right?

What you get: The first eight albums, plus a booklet.

What you miss: Any new music.

Packaging: Excessive, but alluringly so.

Number of songs: 91

Number of CDs: Eight

Typical retail price: $125

Sun score: ***

Various Artists

"Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box" (Rhino 72919)

Even if you think you've already had more than enough '70s stuff in your life, you'll still be fascinated by this lovingly assembled tribute to the Polyester Era.

Deftly blending classic rock with kitschy pop, daring funk with dreary disco, it gives an accurate-though-affectionate overview of the decade's strengths and weaknesses.

Granted, some songs may clear the room, but others are sure to start a party.

What you get: Plenty of cause for nostalgia.

What you miss: Actually having to wear polyester.

Packaging: Sheer perfection, from the smiley-face shag carpeting beneath the cover to the time-line-style design of the booklet.

Number of songs: 150

Number of CDs: Seven

Typical retail price: $95

Sun score: *** 1/2

Also available

Other boxed sets this season include:

Genesis, "Genesis Archives 1967-75" (Atlantic 82858, four CDs)

Herbie Hancock, "The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions" (Blue Note 95569, six CDs)

Stevie Nicks, "Enchanted" (Atlantic 83093, three CDs)

Elvis Presley, "Platinum: A Life In Music" (RCA 67469, four CDs)

Bruce Springsteen, "Tracks" (Columbia 69475, four CDs)

The Zombies, "Zombie Heaven" (Big Beat ZOMBOX7, four CDs)

Various Artists, "Warner Bros. 75 Years of Film Music" (Rhino 75287, four CDs)

Various Artists, "The Blue Note Years" (Blue Note 96427, 14 CDs)

Listen before you buy

To hear excerpts from these boxed sets, call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6174. For other local numbers, see the directory on Page 2C

* == poor; ** = fair; *** = good; **** = excellent

Pub Date: 12/03/98

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