Compact Collections

November 29, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Time was when a record company would only put together a boxed-set-collection if it was dealing with the work of a major artist.

Someone like Bob Dylan. Or Eric Clapton. Or Miles Davis. Or Muddy Waters. Or James Borwn.

Giants, one an all. Now, of course, we know that boxed sets aren't just a means of paying tribute to a means of paying tribute to a great musician--they're also a way to make money. Perhaps that's why it now seems as if any pop star with a big enought back catalog and relatively fervent fans has a boxed set of some sort in the stores.

How to sort the winner from the losers? Well, you could take the time (and financial risk) of poring over each set yourself.

Or you could just read on.

Nat "King" Cole

"Nat 'King' Cole"

(Capitol 82192, four CDs/cassettes)

Considering how many Cole collections have come along over the last couple of years, it's only fair to ask why this one merits attention. Three reasons spring to mind: One, because it shows how total his mastery of the pop song was; two, because it emphasizes the interesting over the familiar; and three, because it includes an unexpectedly hysterical live track, "Mr. Cole Don't Rock and Roll."

Total time: Four hours, 55 minutes. Rarities: One previously unreleased live track. Cost: $62. ***

Elmore James

"King of the Slide Guitar"

(Capricorn 42006,

two CDs/cassettes)

Mention the words "slide guitar" to most blues fans, and the first name to spring to mind is Elmore James. Inspired by Robert Johnson and, in turn, a model for J. B. Hutto, B. B. King and Brian Jones, James was one of the first to refit Delta slide techniques to the demands of the electric guitar. This set, compiling his final recordings, is sometimes spotty, with a few tracks marred by brassy, overblown arrangements. But when James is on -- as he is with "Dust My Broom" and "Something Inside of Me" -- the music burns like hellfire.

Total time: Two hours, 28 minutes. Rarities: Several alternate takes. Cost: $25. ***

Aretha Franklin

"Queen of Soul:

The Atlantic Recordings"

(Rhino/Atlantic 71063,

four CDs/cassettes)

Aretha Franklin wasn't merely soul-singing's reigning monarch; in the nine years she recorded for Atlantic, she redefined the sound and style of soul music. And "Queen of Soul" captures the full range of that achievement, from familiar favorites like "Think" and "Respect" to lesser-known (but no less impressive) numbers like "The House That Jack Built." It also painstakingly remasters each track to make it easier than ever to hear why her greatest work has a power few have equaled.

Total time: Five hours, two minutes. Rarities: Several non-LP singles. Cost: $55. ****

John Coltrane

"A Coltrane Retrospective"

(GRP/Impulse 119, 3 CDs/cassettes)

One of the greatest improvisers of the post-bop era, John Coltrane was a true jazz trailblazer. Unfortunately, much of his later work is too demanding for novice jazz fans -- which is where this set comes in. Culling the most accessible efforts from his later recordings, this retrospective makes an ideal starting point for the curious, even if its avoidance of larger-scale works makes it less than representative.

Total time: Three hours, seven minutes. Rarities: None. Cost: $41. ** 1/2

Earth, Wind & Fire

"The Eternal Dance"

(Columbia/Legacy 52439,

three CDs/cassettes)

As hit makers, EWF were '70s soul stalwarts, thanks to singles like "Shining Star" and "After the Love Has Gone." But as a band, this adventurous ensemble was in a class by itself, as at home with jazz/funk jams as with sweet soul harmonies. And though this set shows off all sides of the EWF sound, its reliance on outtakes and unreleased live material underscores just how much instrumental sparkle this crew could muster.

Total time: Three hours, 51 minutes. Rarities: 12 previously unreleased recordings. Cost: $43. ***

Fleetwood Mac

"25 Years -- The Chain"

(Warner Bros. 45129,

four CDs/cassettes)

Even though Fleetwood Mac's recorded history covers a full quarter-century, most listeners never heard the group before Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined up in 1975.

So it isn't hard to understand why this set eschews the usual chronological approach for one that favors the band's recent and more familiar work. That's particularly a plus for those interested in hearing again how Fleetwood Mac reinvented the sound of So-Cal rock, but this set won't do much for those fans who prefer the blues-drenched sound of the early days with Peter Green.

Total time: Four hours, 26 minutes. Rarities: Four new songs, five previously unreleased recordings. Cost: $73. ** 1/2

Billie Holiday "The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, 1945-1959" (Verve 314 513 859, 10 CDs): A spectacularly presented package, this set spans the length and breadth of Lady Day's strengths as a jazz singer, from steamy studio sessions to red-hot concert recordings. And though the sound sometimes succumbs to the scratchiness of 78s, the quality of the music never falters.

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