Box sets are clearly the big-ticket item in record stores this fall. But do they really offer consumers their money's worth? What follows is a basic buying guide, listing how much music each set offers, and what it's likely to cost, both on CD and cassette (where available). In addition, each collection has been rated -- Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor -- for historical value and listenability.
"Led Zeppelin" (Atlantic 82144)
This set has everything going for it. Not only is the sound, which was digitally remastered under the supervision of Led Zep guitarist Jimmy Page, absolutely first rate, but the package itself is nothing short of ravishing, from the fact-filled booklet to the exquisite art direction.
But what really makes this set worth owning is the way Page's programming offers new perspective on the group. Instead of taking the standard chronological course, he has arranged the selections to show off the band's versatility and vision. As a result, even the most dedicated fans will learn from it.
Total tracks: 54
Playing time: 4 hours, 50 minutes.
Average retail: $64.98 (CD),
"The Byrds" (Columbia/Legacy 46773)
One of the problems with career retrospectives is that most bands continue to record long after their initial inspiration has burned out. That's not a problem here, though. Not only does this set start off strong (no surprise, considering that the Byrds' early singles are among the most memorable of the '60s), but it closes with an equal show of strength, thanks to several 1990 recordings (including a live "Mr. Tambourine Man" featuring Bob Dylan) by a feisty and reunited version of the band.
But the real gold in this set can be found in the middle years, particularly when the set unearths long-lost country-rock sessions featuring Gram Parsons. A boon to collectors, and by and large a delight for casual fans.
Total tracks: 90
Playing time: 4 hours, 27 minutes.
Average retail: $44.98 (CD),
DEREK & THE DOMINOS
"The Layla Sessions" (Polydor 847 083)
Still acclaimed as one of the greatest albums of '70s, "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs" has never sounded better than it does here -- clean, crisp and full of fire, from "Bell Bottom Blues" to the title tune.
Still, that's only a third of this collection; the rest of this set is given over to outtakes, jams and lengthy instrumentals. And though that's great for guitar buffs (particularly given the incendiary interplay between Eric Clapton and the late Duane Allman), casual fans are less likely to be impressed.
Total tracks: 29
Playing time: 3 hours, 39 minutes.
Average retail: $42.98 (CD),
"The Complete Recordings" (Columbia 46222)
Robert Johnson never recorded as extensively as B. B. King or John Lee Hooker, nor did he ever achieve the sort of fame Muddy Waters or Leadbelly earned. Even so, he has influenced several generations of blues-based musicians, and may rightfully considered the grandfather of rock and roll.
"The Complete Robert Johnson" makes that much clear in the liner notes; what the music does goes well beyond mere historical influences. Easily some of the most moving music this country has produced, Johnson's recordings -- which have been painstakingly restored here -- are a must for any serious student of popular music.
Total tracks: 41
Playing time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Average retail: $19.98 (CD),
"The Marvin Gaye Collection" (Motown 6311)
Marvin Gaye was blessed with one of the greatest voices in the Motown roster. The full breadth of his talent has never really been done justice in a single collection. And that includes this one.
Despite a passel of previously unreleased tracks and a solid sampling of the hits, "The Marvin Gaye Collection" seriously skews its perspective by placing undue emphasis on obscurities and Gaye's unsuccessful experiments with singing standards. Casual fans are better off with the "Marvin Gaye Anthology."
Total tracks: 81
Playing time: 4 hours, 32 minutes.
Average retail: $55.98 (CD),
"Lennon" (Parlophone 795222)
Compiled by Beatle archivist Mark Lewisohn and available as a CD import only, this set offers a fairly straightforward portrait of this most straightforward former Beatle. Starting with "Give Peace a Chance" and reaching right up to his last sessions, it makes for a solid short tour of Lennon's post-Beatle output.
Total tracks: 73
Playing time: 4 hours, 33 minutes.
Average retail: $52.98 (CD only)
"The Capitol Years" (Capitol)
One of two Sinatra sets being released in celebration of the singer's 75th birthday this year ("The Reprise Collection" won't be in stores until Nov. 20), "The Capitol Years" offers very little Sinatra fans haven't already heard before -- an ad lib here, some studio chatter there.