Everyone gets into the act: CD sets run the scales from cowboy to jazz to rock BOXED IN

November 28, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

It used to be that the boxed set was the safest bet for musical gift giving. For one thing, its elaborate packaging made the average box a much more impressive present than standard CDs; for another, only the most established and important artists were deemed worthy of the boxed set approach.

Not anymore. These days, it seems as if almost anyone is deserving of the deluxe treatment, and that makes it harder for the average buyer to know what is or is not worth the money. What follows, then, is a buyer's guide to this season's biggest boxed sets, with comments on the quality of each release, plus data on how much music you get and what you're likely to pay.

OTIS!

Otis Redding

(Four CDs; Rhino 71439)

He may not have invented Southern soul, but Otis Redding defined its gritty, gospel-based sound better than any singer of his generation. This set traces the whole of his career, from early singles like "Shout Bamalama" (recorded with the Pinetoppers) to later classics like "Respect" and "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay." There's also a full disc of live stuff, plus a detailed, lovingly compiled booklet. A soul-fan's dream.

Total playing time: Four hours, 42 minutes

Number of tracks: 96

Number of rarities: Five

Average price: $59.98

$ Overall rating: ****

THE BRILL BUILDING SOUND

Various Artists

(Four CDs; Era 5025)

The Brill Building may have been one of the most famous addresses in rock history, but the real action was across the street at Don Kirshner's Aldon Music, where tunesmiths like Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill and Neil Sedaka cranked out the early Sixties' most memorable hits. Because it omits Phil Spector's productions for Philles (the Crystals, Ronettes, etc.), this doesn't paint as full a picture as it should. But what is here is first-rate, from Bobby Darin's "Dream Lover" to the Shangri-La's "Leader of the Pack."

Total playing time: Three hours, 10 minutes

Number of tracks: 74

Number of rarities: None

Average price: $54.99

# Overall rating: ** 1/2

JANIS

Janis Joplin

(Three CDs; Columbia/Legacy 48845)

Some sets merely do an artist justice; "Janis" does better than that. Drawing extensively from concert recordings, demo tapes and other arcana, it presents the fullest picture possible of Joplin's development. And while much of what she recorded seems overwrought at this distance, there's plenty of passion and poignancy to these recordings -- particularly on rarities like "Hesitation Blues" (an early recording with Jorma Kaukonen), or Joplin's heartbreaking demo version of "Me and Bobby McGee."

Total playing time: Three hours, 16 minutes

Number of tracks: 49

Number of rarities: 15

Average price: $47.98

# Overall rating: ** 1/2

TOUGHER THAN TOUGH

Various Artists

(Four CDs; Mango 162 539 935)

A complete history of reggae might seem too long or complicated to fit onto a four-CD set, but somehow "Tougher Than Tough" does it anyway. It isn't long on superstars -- Bob Marley & the Wailers appear exactly once -- but it does represent every significant style or fashion in Jamaican pop's 35-year history, from Laurel Aitken's 1958 "Boogie in My Bones" to contemporary dance hall hits like Buju Banton's "Bogle Dance." A great history lesson, and even better listening.

Total playing time: Five hours, eight minutes

Number of tracks: 93

Number of rarities: None

Average price: $61.99

$ Overall rating: ****

THE COMPLETE ELLA FITZGERALD SONGBOOKS

Ella Fitzgerald

(16 CDs; Verve 314 519 832)

It would be hard to imagine a simpler concept than the one applied here: Get a great singer, hand her a great songbook, and record the results. And that's pretty much what Norman Granz did with Ella Fitzgerald's songbook series. His taste in writers was unassailable -- Porter, Kern, Berlin, Arlen, Ellington, Mercer, the Gershwin Brothers, and Rodgers and Hart -- and her performances are rarely less than exquisite, whether singing 'em straight or playing it jazzy. And the packaging, with its exhaustive liner notes and period art, is appropriately lavish. A true work of art.

Total playing time: 15 hours, 30 minutes

Number of tracks: 253

Number of rarities: 12

Average price: $296.99

$ Overall rating: ****

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HITSVILLE VOLUME TWO: THE MOTOWN SINGLES COLLECTION 1972-1992

Various Artists

(Four CDs; Motown 374 636 358)

Tempting as it is to think that the Motown Era ended with the early '70s, the fact is that Berry Gordy's hit machine has been cranking out winning singles for 34 years now, and shows no sign of slowing. "Hitsville Volume Two" isn't a totally accurate representation of modern Motown -- it shortchanges Stevie Wonder while overplaying Smokey Robinson, and shouldn't waste space on the likes of the Good Girls -- but even so, it ought to open more than a few eyes.

Total playing time: Four hours, 59 minutes

Number of tracks: 76

Number of rarities: None

Average price: $55.74

# Overall rating: ** 1/2

BING CROSBY: HIS LEGENDARY YEARS 1931-1957

Bing Crosby

(Four CDs; MCA 10887)

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