Music Boxes They might be pretty on the outside. As always, though, with boxed CD sets, it's what's inside that counts. Here's a peek.

December 03, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

At Christmas, everybody likes getting something special in a fancy box. It might be an expensive Swiss watch; maybe an exquisite piece of jewelry; perhaps an extravagant silk necktie or scarf.

Or it could be a bunch of CDs.

For their part, the record companies are hoping that this season's gift-buyers will bypass Rolex and Hermes and opt for that fourth choice. To that end, this year's boxed-set offerings have put a premium on packaging, appealing as much to the eye -- and to the collector's instinct -- as to the ear.

It hardly matters what's in the box. Whether you go for sounds as safely mainstream as Queen's pomp rock, or as adventurously avant-garde as John Coltrane's jazz, there's a gorgeous boxed set waiting for you.

But before you buy, maybe you ought to consider whether the music inside is as dazzling as the artwork outside. To help you decide, here's our look at some of the season's most significant boxed sets.

Burt Bacharach

"The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection" (Rhino 75339)

Between his cameo in "Austin Powers" and his collaboration with Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach is hipper than he's been in years. So what better time for a career retrospective?

Because he's more celebrated for his songs than for his singing, "The Look of Love" puts its emphasis on other people's interpretations of his hits. But the set also shows that there's more to Bacharach than the '60s singles everybody knows (such as Dionne Warwick's "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?"). Not only does it include early efforts in country music, R&B and novelty pop, but it has such recent hits as "That's What Friends Are For."

What you get: All the big hits by a galaxy of big stars.

What you miss: Alternate versions of the hits, like the Beatles' "Baby It's You" or Dusty Springfield's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself."

Packaging: Simple and elegant, with a fact-packed booklet.

Number of songs: 75

Number of CDs: 3

Typical retail price: $45

Sun score: ***

Booker T. & the MGs

"Time Is Tight" (Stax 4424)

Soul music may have been a singer's medium, but that didn't stop Booker T. & the MGs from pumping out some of the funkiest, most soulful singles ever cut at Stax. Working with just organ, guitar, bass and drums, the quartet cut some of the most memorable R&B hits of the '60s, from "Green Onions" and "Hip Hug-Her" to "Mrs. Robinson" and "Hang 'Em High."

"Time Is Tight" traces the the quartet's career from those early hits right up to its current status as a rock legend. It rounds that out with performances backing Albert King, Boz Scaggs and Neil Young (!), and even includes a couple of vocals by organist Booker T. Jones himself!

What you get: All the hits and a nice selection of rarities.

What you miss: Anything from the group's recent albums for Columbia.

Packaging: Lots of vintage pictures in the booklet, but generally junky design.

Number of songs: 65

Number of CDs: 3

Typical retail price: $45

Sun score: ***

Ray Charles

"The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986" (Rhino 75328)

In 1962, Ray Charles topped the pop charts with his album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." But as this set makes plain, his interest in country began before he made that album and continued long after.

Country is sometimes called "the white man's blues," and Charles' versions of "Born to Lose" and "You Are My Sunshine" vividly connect country and R&B. Nor did he miss the pop content implicit in such weepers as "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Crying Time." But the most telling tracks are his Nashville sessions from the '80s, in which Charles' bluesy vocals fit perfectly alongside drawling duet partners like George Jones. An essential slice of American history.

What you get: Every studio version of a country song Charles ever cut.

What you miss: Any live recordings he did.

Packaging: Minimal but informative.

Number of songs: 92

Number of CDs: 4

Typical retail price: $45

Sun score: ****

John Coltrane

The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (Impulse! IMPD8-280)

For some, the most inimitable quartet of the '60s wasn't John, Paul, George and Ringo, but John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. As the John Coltrane Quartet, they pushed jazz to new frontiers of harmony and rhythm, in the process influencing everybody from acid rock guitarists to avant-garde composers.

This set isn't strict in its definition of the Coltrane Quartet, and so includes sessions with Roy Haynes drumming instead of Jones. But it does a wonderful job both of restoring the visceral power of the recordings and unearthing outtakes that further illuminate the quartet's creative process.

What you get: Some of the most adventurous and unforgettable jazz ever recorded.

What you miss: The larger ensemble sessions, like "Kulu Se Mama."

Packaging: An exquisite, aluminum-braced, leather-like album for the CDs, plus a removable booklet.

Number of songs: 66

Number of CDs: 8

Typical retail price: $80

Sun score: ****

Miles Davis

"The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions" (Columbia 65570)

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