It used to be simple. Around Christmastime, record companies released greatest-hits albums, with maybe one or two new tracks to tempt the obstinate. Bob Dylan's 1985 Biograph, the first boxed set to be certified gold, changed the rules. Its success, and that of similar Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton collections, proved that a sizable market exists for hefty career overviews of pop legends. Thus was born the era of the boxed set the musical equivalent of the sumptuous coffee-table book.
This holiday season marks the ascendancy of the box as yuletide gift. Record-store bins are clogged with more than a dozen such packages, from classic rock to country. As gifts, they're perfect hits and rarities, all in a bookshelf-ready box, priced from $25 on up and they can be worthwhile additions to any music library. But does this year's crop measure up in quality as well as ubiquity? Does anyone really want to wake up Christmas morning to find 80 Bee Gees songs under the tree? With both music and packaging in mind, let's traipse through the season's offerings, arranged roughly in order of gift-giving merit.
The god of '70s FM radio has been so overplayed that the thought of owning this 54-track monster might give you pause. Yet there are at least four good reasons to buy. First, this is the only Zeppelin anthology available. Second, the sonic quality is impressive: The original CD reissues of the Zep catalog were roundly trashed by audio publications for their flat sound. For this box, the band's former lead guitarist-producer, Jimmy Page, supervised the digital remixing of the tracks, resulting in a generally brighter sound and an added kick to Page's guitars and John Bonham's drums. Third, the set includes three previously unissued tracks, including a live medley of ''White Summer/Black Mountain Side'' and a version of Robert Johnson's ''Traveling Riverside Blues.'' (Too bad they couldn't have included a few more unreleased live cuts.) Fourth, and most important, the Zeppelin collection is worth owning simply for pleasure: Despite radio overexposure, this pioneering rock & roll is still a blast to hear.
Although most of the Byrds' albums (and assorted compilations) are still available, the breadth of their music has never been captured by any previous anthology. Hence the value of The Byrds, one of the most impressive boxes yet assembled. Arranged chronologically, the 90-track set gives shape to the band's long and winding career, from the early ''Mr. Tambourine Man'' folk-rock days to forays into electronic space-pop, Nashville twang, and everything in between. The set also improves on the mediocre quality of Columbia's original CDs of the band's catalog, with leader Roger McGuinn's sparkling 12-string guitar and the group's fabled harmonies now sounding particularly vibrant. For collectors, there are the newly discovered ''lost'' tapes from 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The packaging is drab (especially the all-black cover box), but the smart song selection and the music itself including four new tracks recorded this summer by founders McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman are lavish compensation.
The Capitol Years
The Reprise Collection
Ol' Blue Eyes can now have his own boxed-set section in record stores. Four years ago, Columbia released The Voice, a collection of his '40s recordings. Now, to commemorate his 75th birthday, come two packages focusing on distinct eras of his career. The Capitol Years, the better of the pair, compiles 75 tracks from his 1953-62 post-matinee-idol years. Working with arrangers Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins, Sinatra recorded sharp, swaggering pop and devastatingly somber saloon songs. The Capitol Years is an overabundance of riches; but taken one disc at a time, it's a breathtaking survey of some of the best pop in the style that predates rock & roll. The first 75,000 copies are packaged in a nifty photo album-like box with voluminous liner notes and comprehensive recording and release dates.
By comparison, The Reprise Collection, 80 tracks spanning 1960 to 1984, can't help suffering. During those years, Sinatra's voice gradually deteriorated, his attitude turned increasingly arrogant, and his choice of songs and producers drifted toward the pop headcheese of ''That's Life.'' Still, once you get past the weak material and the dips into self-parody, you'll discover enough memorable songs and performances (''Send in the Clowns,'' ''September Song'') to justify this box. Not essential Sinatra, but still emblematic of his power as an interpreter and the music's elegiac, career-finale mood is intriguing.