IN A TIME of pretty packages, record labels make it easy for shoppers by fashioning deluxe packages of favorite artists.
Responding to the surprising popularity of past boxed sets by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, the 1990 Christmas crop offers an even wider array of similarly lavish retrospectives of artists -- with remixed and remastered sounds for the compact disc age, glossy picture books, extensive session notes and lengthy critical reassessments.
The mammoth boxed sets (with their similarly mammoth price tags of around $50) take center stage over the recording industry's usual holiday issue of more modest greatest-hits compilations, which this year come from Madonna, Elvis Costello, NRBQ, Rush, Poco, the Alarm, the Go-Gos, Kathy Mattea and Merle Haggard, among others. Other notable end-of-the-year repackages include live albums (from Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Slaughter, Roxy Music, Ringo Starr and Jimmy Buffett) and that new upstart in the repackaging world, the remix album (with new titles from New Kids on the Block, the Cure, Technotronic, Fine Young Cannibals, 3rd Bass and Shreikback).
But at a time when consumers are getting used to the smaller dimension of individual CDs, the boxed sets bring back vinyl's symmetrical 12-by-12-inch format (even if, as in the case of last summer's Bo Diddley boxed set, there are only two CDs inside).
There is experimentation with the 12-by-12 size of boxed sets this season, however. Four-disc sets chronicling the Byrds and Roy Orbison have been issued in 6-by-12 configurations that are able to fit in shelves with the rest of the CDs, packaged in their long-box sleeves.
Gifts come in many shapes, though, and here is an overview of those packaged for you this season by the recording industry (with many priced up to $10 less at local stores).
* The long-anticipated "Led Zeppelin" (Atlantic, $45.98 list price for cassette; $64.99 CD) is already the biggest-selling boxed set since Springsteen's box of live material debuted at No. 1 four years ago.
Led Zep has a big rep; it is a band more beloved, and probably more played on the radio now, 10 years after it broke up, than when it was together. And this four-CD set, remastered and programmed by guitarist Jimmy Page, will please most fans. Certainly the digital treatment delivers the sonic crunch of the highly regarded band, even if it presents just a couple of previously unreleased tracks.
Along with the thoughtful essays in the book, the music builds a credible case for the band, which may well re-form for a tour next year on the strength of the set (as did the Allman Brothers for their boxed set last year).
You could not find a better gift for the classic rock addict on your list.
* Equally handsome is the four-disc collection from Elton John, "To Be Continued . . ." (MCA, $39.95 cassette; $59.95 CD), a title that indicates that this box is not his tombstone. Yet the artist, who compiled the set himself, says in the booklet, "my old life stops with the release of the history."
As with most good packages, John includes enough big hits to make the box appealing to casual fans, but to attract die-hards he sprinkles in a number of historical goodies as well as four new songs produced this year by Don Was.
* The four new songs on "The Byrds" (Columbia-Legacy, $29.95 cassette; $51.99 CD) are a bit more significant: They represent the first new material from the groundbreaking California folk-rockers turned country-rockers in more than a decade.
Not that the new material by Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman (Gene Clark and Michael Clarke sat out) is great (included is yet another version of the chart hit "From a Distance"). But it is refreshing to hear again the band that emerged full-blown on its first single, "Mr. Tambourine Man," and later forged country-rock just as surely as it had forged folk-rock.
* "Lifelines: The Jimi Hendrix Story" (Reprise, $40.99 cassette; $50.99 CD) includes 70 songs on its four CDs, including 18 that were previously unreleased. Taken from an extensive radio special, it includes the spoken introductions between the rare live and vintage tracks.
* "Lennon" (Capitol, $59.99 CD) includes 74 solo tracks from John Lennon, spanning 1969 to 1980 on four discs. The 96-page booklet includes lyrics. But there is no Beatles material here and nothing previously unreleased, despite the wealth of outtakes and unreleased material that have been broadcast on "The Lost Lennon Tapes" radio series, which so far have been unavailable for sale, except on bootlegs.
* "The Marvin Gaye Collection" (Motown, $39.95 cassette; $63.99 CD) is one of the first important boxed sets from a soul great. It depends not on chronology but on subject -- 20 of his greatest hits, a collection of his duets (including some not previously released), a whole disc of rare or unreleased material, and a final disc chronicling his unsuccessful effort to become a balladeer. In all, more than a third of the album has never been released before.
* Only cultists will be interested in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show: 15th Anniversary Collection" (Rhino, $39.99 cassette; $59.99 CD). Of course, when it comes to "Rocky Horror," cult is the name of the game.
This four-CD collection includes the sound-track albums from the movie, the London stage version, one disc of "Rocky Horror tracks from around the world" and another full disc of rarities, including commercials.