Music Boxes With Rhythm and Soul

This year's boxed sets can appeal to everyone from rock fans to Riverdance enthusiasts

The boxed set continues to be one of the music industry's most valuable forms, both artistically and commercially. It often provides much-needed historical context to a recording artist's career, or a musical genre's evolution, and it's a handy way to collect multiple recordings.

It also, needless to say, makes for one handy gift item, which accounts for their proliferation in the holiday season. Following is a brief description of some of the more notable collections released in the past year. This year's batch reflects the fact that the flood of box sets released in the last decade have left new pickings to be a bit slim.

Rhino Records, the premier reissue label, doesn't just throw together hit collections; it imaginatively repackages classic music that would otherwise go unheard. The six-CD set Beg, Scream & Shout! documents soul music of the 1960s and is probably the best of the year. Sure, you'll find perennials like James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder, but what makes this set of 144 songs so special is its inclusion of music so rare that it has previously been available only on 45s, such as unsung heroes Lee Rogers and Bobby Patterson. The best part is the packaging: The discs are housed in a replica of a 45-singles case, complete with handle.

The definitive collection of one of rock's most influential, if short-lived, groups is Cream: Those Were the Days (Polydor). Here you'll find every studio recording that the band (Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker) ever released: two entire CDs of live recordings, extensive rarities, demo versions, and alternate takes.

The five-CD set Ray Charles: Genius & Soul - The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino) is, believe it or not, the first to fully document the multifaceted career of one of the giants of American music. Charles has always experimented with diverse musical forms; he's the only artist besides Elvis to have more than 10 records on the R&B, pop, country, and easy-listening charts. But what unifies the material is his endlessly soulful voice, which effortlessly segues from youthful exuberance to world weariness. All the classic hits are here in their original full-length album versions. An essential collection.

Irish music and dance has become a cultural phenomenon, and The Roots of Riverdance (Universal) featuring the Celtic music of composer Bill Whelan is the first to capitalize on it. The four-CD set includes the bestselling companion album to the dance extravaganza "Riverdance"; the soundtrack to the 1996 film "Some Mother's Son"; "The Seville Suite," Whelan's first orchestral composition; and "The Roots of Riverdance," his most recent release.

Although Whelan's blending of traditional Celtic music with more modern influences is not without merit, this set may be overkill for anyone but the most rabid "Riverdance" fan.

More a convenient packaging than a reappraisal, Billy Joel: The Complete Hits Collection 1973-1997 Limited Edition (Columbia) may be redundant for anyone who already owns "Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1973-1985)." This edition adds the recently released "Vol. III," which is available separately, plus a bonus disc of interesting but unrevelatory rarities. Completing the package is a handsome booklet containing new photographs and Joel's handwritten lyrics.

Peter Tosh: Honorary Citizen (Legacy) is the first career-spanning retrospective of the artist who, along with the other two original Wailers (Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer), revolutionized reggae music and brought it to the masses. Tosh's music was less slick and melodic than Marley's, and his voice was less smooth than Wailer's, but his tough vocals, aggressive rhythms, and political insurgency was enormously influential.

Documenting his career from his first self-produced solo cuts to the album released just before his death in 1987, the package includes many rare Jamaican singles, an entire disc of previously unreleased live recordings, and all his American hits and classic album cuts.

The Doors are famous for being the biggest posthumous band in rock history, with endless repackagings far exceeding their original output. The Doors Box Set (Elektra) should finally put a cap on it and is for the serious Doors fan only. Besides the hits, which are readily available in myriad other forms, the four-CD set includes many rare live, demo, and alternate tracks, as well as such oddities as the group's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." A notable, if ghoulish, inclusion is a new release, "Orange County Suite," in which the surviving members join in on a 1970 solo vocal and piano recording by Jim Morrison.

Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse) documents a series of live shows that changed jazz history. For four nights, the legendary sax player and composer, playing with such notables as McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Roy Haynes, demonstrated his shift to modal improvisation that would prove so incredibly influential; his 15-minute solo on "Impressions" is unforgettable. This is the first time that all the recordings of these performances have been grouped together.

The Smithsonian has been putting out thoughtful and comprehensive music collections for several years now, and the Star Spangled Rhythm: Voices of Broadway and Hollywood (Smithsonian Collection), a salute to the American musical, is no exception. Containing 81 tracks, dating from 1906 (Bert Williams performing "Nobody") to 1994 (Lonette McKee in "Show Boat"), it offers both familiar classics and rediscovered rarities. Of special interest are two previously unreleased Judy Garland recordings and a 1933 Bing Crosby radio appearance.

Time Life is billing Gold & Platinum as "the ultimate rock collection," and they may have a point. Spanning 1964 to 1995, this six-CD set includes 111 songs, every single a smash hit, ranging from the Beatles to the Smashing Pumpkins. Proceeds from this set benefit the record industry's antipiracy fund, which accounts for the amazing cooperation the compilers received; many of these recordings have never previously been available in anthology form. It offers a terrific introduction to the budding young rock fan.

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