To place it in the proper context, Barbra Streisand's Just for the Record is Use Your Illusion for the over-30 set. Like the Guns N' Roses opus, this sprawling work a four-CD or four-cassette boxed set tracing Streisand's 30-year recording career has been years in the making, and the ''musical autobiography'' is impossible to digest in one sitting. It also seems to be the work of an egomaniacal control freak: Its ornate 92-page booklet features 224 photos and drawings of the star, and the songs are interspersed with awards-show acceptance speeches and other displays of self-love. Next to Streisand, Axl Rose is merely a 3-year-old throwing a tantrum.
All of which would make Record intolerable except that at a time when everyone who ever made a record seems to be releasing a boxed set this one is more than just a passable Christmas gift. Streisand's voice throaty, pure, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound-is the envy of anyone who's ever tried to sing. But the downright weird twists and turns of her recorded output have never been captured on previous compilations. You almost need a box to make sense of a career that has lurched from Broadway and cabaret ditties to Laura Nyro and the Bee Gees a journey through the jungles of 20th-century pop.
Record is overly ambitious, bypassing studio versions of hits in favor of demos, live recordings, and unreleased tracks. To Streisand's credit, the rarities are such finds that you don't mind. The first half, for instance, focuses on the '60s, and while the Funny Girl material is historic, it's more of a treat to hear her bare-boned performances of standards like ''Cry Me a River'' cut live at a Greenwich Village club in 1962. Record also confirms that Streisand floundered as she tried to reconcile her brassy style with in-vogue genres like navel-staring singer-songwriter rock and disco. Yet when she latched onto an impeccable melody (''The Way We Were,'' ''Guilty''), Streisand could make mainstream adult pop that was strong, elegant, even passionate.
That last point is important, since it's easy to hold Streisand responsible for Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and other glass-shattering stars of the current diva scene. Emphasizing lung power over nuance, Streisand could steamroller lyrics with the best of them (witness her unreleased version of ''Close to You,'' which is prettier than the Carpenters' but has none of Karen's pathos). Yet, as strong as her voice could be, it rarely overpowered the songs as Record proves repeatedly, you never forget there was a human being behind the buttery soprano.
The collection itself isn't always subtle or perfect; even fans may cringe at the exclusion of hits like ''Woman in Love'' in favor of a 1969 Friars Club tribute in her honor. But those moments are rarely intrusive, and they don't detract from the fun of Just for the Record... namely hearing an old-fangled songstress grappling with the ever-changing definition of pop and often succeeding despite herself. Just don't tell her that. A-