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BOXING DAY

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Three holiday seasons ago, we conducted our first roundup of boxed sets. We thought it would be the last. Alas, no. Each fall since, a slew of multi-disc cardboard boxes are plopped onto our sagging desks, most of them chronicling classic rock or pop stars we hadn’t thought about in years. This year is no different. Some boxes offer pleasant surprises, and others make us ponder what would really happen if we wailed a CD against a concrete wall.

The trend isn’t anywhere near over, either. In the works for ’94 are collections from the Moody Blues, the Velvet Underground, Emmylou Harris, Alice Cooper, and Black Sabbath. We’re feeling boxed in already.

Paul Simon 1964/1993 (Warner Bros.)
There is no question that Simon’s work, from his days with Art Garfunkel to the musical sojourns of his own career, has maintained a level of quality and innovation unequaled by his ’60s peers. There is also no question that this three-disc set (which retails for an unusually high $59.98) is both worthy and frustrating. It skimps on S&G, repackages Simon’s ’70s hits for the third time, and includes only a couple of rarities. Even more disappointing, the bulk of the third disc is devoted to tracks from his last two albums, ”Graceland” and ”The Rhythm of the Saints.” It’s a boxed set for those who don’t own any Simon or S&G records at all — and how many of those people are left? The extras included here — among others, Simon’s pre-Art demo version of ”Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which sounds like white gospel — hint at what this set could have been. Why didn’t you spring for another disc, Paul? B+ — David Browne

Diana Ross Forever: Musical Memoirs (Motown)
With this four-disc set, you know you’re in trouble when you finish listening to all the Supremes’ hits, then realize you have three whole CDs to go — all of them devoted to Ross’ mostly forgettable post-group tunes. She’s had her moments as a solo act — the reach-for-the-sky pop of ”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the buoyant disco of ”Upside Down” and ”Love Hangover,” her surprisingly soulful versions of Billie Holiday songs from ”Lady Sings the Blues,” all of which are included here. But she and her producers have more often concocted the lamest sort of music for strip-mall lingerie boutiques. And even when the music itself achieves a solid groove, Ross’ voice, so thin it would embarrass the guy in the Charmin commercials, sabotages the results. Like most boxed sets, ”Forever” is at least one disc too long — if not two. C- — DB

Waylon Jennings Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line: The RCA Years (RCA)
One of country’s true originals, Jennings will forever be remembered for creating the Outlaw movement with Texas compatriot Willie Nelson in the 1970s. Actually, RCA’s promotion department deserves the blame for that — it was an RCA exec who came up with the term as a sales device. But Jennings should be heralded for other things: helping move Music City away from the pop-tinged Nashville sound in the early ’70s, when he ushered in starker, stripped-down production values; designing his guitar-and-bass-beat sound (”Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”); and promoting the poetic, progressive songs of Billy Joe Shaver (”Honky Tonk Heroes”) and Kris Kristofferson. You can hear the entire evolution on this 40-song, two-CD collection, as Jennings struggles to figure out who he is, becomes it, then revels in his found style. Eventually, he began to settle for mediocre material and false posturing, but this set, covering his glory years of 1965-1985, keeps the image-and integrity-intact. B+ — Alanna Nash

Elvis Costello & the Attractions 21/2 Years (Rykodisc)
And what a 30 months they were. A bit different from the standard career-encompassing box, this four-disc set collects Costello’s first three albums — ”My Aim Is True,” ”This Years Model,” and ”Armed Forces,” all from 1977-79 — with a rare bonus disc, ”Live at El Mocambo,” that captures El and his stalwart backup band at their pent-up best. The number of terrific songs strewn throughout — from ”Alison” and ”Less Than Zero” to ”Pump It Up” and ”Oliver’s Army” — is staggering. Cumulatively, they recapture the new-wave era in all its rambunctious glory; your thirtysomething friends will feel as if they are back in college. ”21/2 Years” will also delight record-collecting dweebs: Each of the three albums includes a handful of bonus tracks and the original British cover art. A — DB

Emerson, Lake & Palmer The Return of the Manticore (Victory/PLG)
Somehow a bloated four-CD boxed set seems right for the elaborate classic-rock pomp that ELP continue to crank out: What better format for synthesized arrangements of classical melodies that often break the 20-minute barrier? On the other hand, this collection doesn’t even begin to define the term overkill. Last year Atlantic released a two-disc set of these art-rock warhorses, ”The Atlantic Years,” that crisply made a case for their musical chops and Greg Lake’s songwriting craft. This needlessly expanded box adds newly recorded remakes (which mostly show that Lake is turning into Julio Iglesias of the classic-rock world) and a few unreleased outtakes for the diehards. The rest of us will probably get a headache somewhere into disc two. C- — DB

Metallica Live Shit: Binge & Purge (Elektra)
For bringing uncompromising and often thoughtful speed metal to the masses, Metallica should be applauded. And they applaud themselves plenty on this megabox, a daunting testament to their success that will take up all the space beneath your Christmas tree. Packaged in a miniature equipment case (complete with metal hinges!), ”Live Shit” includes not only a complete audio concert (on three CDs) but also a 70-page booklet with trifles like copies of their tour contracts. Plus, you get three videotapes of live shows, with footage from backstage, the studio, and even the pressing plant. (See the manufacturing of the Metallica CD!) In other words, this absurdly overindulgent set (suggested retail price $89.95) is intended purely for those who live and breathe Metallica. Have they become pompous, ponderous stadium rockers? At times, this box makes it seem that way. But it also shows that they, and their Metalliheads, could care less if you think so. B — DB

Joan Baez Rare, Live & Classic (Vanguard) Targeting both the Baez faithful and newcomers who wondered what that middle-aged woman was doing on stage at Live Aid, this is the model of a well-constructed box. As its title states up front, it offers equal parts familiar album cuts, never-released live recordings, and studio outtakes. The nobility of her voice is apparent whether she’s singing songs by Dylan or odes to wayward sailors and Joe Hill. On the down-side, Baez’s record-making skills have always been clunky, and three whole CDs of her humorless delivery can be awfully wearing. Dylan collectors, though, should check out the three previously unavailable duets with the bard, including a 1964 concert duet on ”Mama, You Been on My Mind” that finds them both forgetting the words and sounding wonderfully human. B- — DB

Various Artists Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1972-1992, Volume Two (Motown)
You bought the first ”Hitsville” collection because Motown might be the most memorable record company ever, the label that defined not just a sound but an era. Somehow, though, you’re not rushing to the store for ”Volume Two.” And why should you? The four CDs document Motown’s decline into a label that no longer defined any trends, but meekly followed them instead. Favorites by Stevie Wonder (”I Just Called to Say I Love You”) and the Commodores (”Easy”) stand out, but they don’t sound like Motown. They sound, in fact, like songs any record company smart enough to have signed those artists would have released. By the end of the ’80s, Motown did find a crisp, new sound of its own, with at least one No. 1 smash — Boyz II Men’s ”End of the Road” — that jumps out with the same force as classics by the Temptations or the Supremes. But ”Hitsville Volume Two” will have lost you long before that. C+ — Greg Sandow

Elvis Presley From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60’s Masters I (RCA)
Elvis may have been ”the greatest recording artist of all time,” as RCA’s exhaustive booklet says. But you wouldn’t guess it from the music collected here, beginning with tunes recorded after he emerged from the Army in 1960, full of unfocused vitality, and continuing as he drifted toward a maturity largely spent on automatic pilot. Worse, the set leaves out gospel songs, the crucial 1968 Singer special that reestablished him as a rocker, and movie soundtracks, making the King in his decline seem even more limited than he was. Yes, Elvis could seduce you even when he sang fluff, and the box does end with his 1969 Memphis tracks, easily the most substantial music he ever touched. But, unless you’re a complete fanatic, much of this five-CD set is pretty hard to get through. B- — GS

Otis Redding Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding (Rhino) Too much, as the old rock & roll saying goes, is never enough. That’s especially true on this four-disc monster, which eclipses an earlier box, 1987’s three-CD ”Otis Redding Story.” Besides the hits (”I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” ”Dock of the Bay,” etc.), there’s a full disc of various live performances, which — with their rough, almost crushing sincerity — show what an unaffected country boy this most passionate of all soul singers really was. We also get a Coke commercial, which never aired but might have tripled the soda’s sales within a 10-mile radius of every gospel church. A few very early cuts, on which Redding sounds like a hundred other forgettable R&B belters, are mainly of historical interest. But even when he’s marking time, with retreads like ”The Happy Song (Dum-Dum)” that recapitulate overused formulas, he’s still intense enough to disarm any critics. A- — GS

Various Artists The Brill Building Sound: Singers & Songwriters Who Rocked the 60’s (Era)
The Brill Building, an otherwise undistinguished New York edifice, was the Emerald City of early-’60s rock & roll. Now-legendary songwriters toiled there, some of them barely out of their teens then, cranking out such delicious slices of Top 40 heaven as the Shangri-Las’ ”Leader of the Pack,” and Neil Sedaka’s ”Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” or standards like Ben E. King’s ”Stand by Me.” What the box makes clear, even if it is missing Phil Spector’s best stuff (which couldn’t be licensed), is that this really was a new sound, fabulously smart-ass and breathtakingly produced. The liner notes explain that the songs weren’t really created at the Brill Building at all; they were written across the street. But that only makes the legend better: What kind of fable would it be if everything were true? A — GS

Various Artists Songs of the West (Rhino)
With its colorful painting of a determined galoot riding a bucking bronc, Rhino’s four-CD set of 73 Western songs looks like the real deal — an authentic and handsomely packaged collection of cowboy lore and music. But a more representative cover would have sported Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, since much of the material is from their movie soundtracks, as well as from TV themes (like Bill Hayes’ ”The Ballad of Davey Crockett,” the Gunsmoke theme, or Rex Allen’s ”Don’t Go Near the Indians”). Even the ”Cowboy Classics” disc mixes Tex Ritter, Walter Brennan, and Frankie Laine in with the more viable Ian Tyson, Marty Robbins, and Patsy Montana. Those tracking a truer portrait of cowboy culture are advised to mosey elsewhere. C — AN

Various Artists Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music (Mango)
Reggae has always had a knack for spiraling ahead and looking back in the same groove. Fittingly, Tougher opens with ”Oh Carolina,” recorded by the Folkes Brothers in 1960, and closes — four CDs and 94 cuts later — with ”Oh Carolina,” recorded by Shaggy in 1992. In between, this instantly essential set touches on all the major movements, from effervescent ska through darker rock-steady, classic reggae, spacey dub, silken ”lover’s rock,” and on into the pinball machine of modern dancehall. So what if it only has one Marley cut — you already own ”Legend,” right? And where else are you going to find Millie’s ”My Boy Lollipop,” Desmond Dekker’s ”Israelites,” and Chaka Demus & Pliers’ ”Murder She Wrote” in one place — not to mention an essay the size of a small phonebook that makes clear the connection between all three? Even if dancehall’s boastful chatter leaves you cold, ”Tougher”’s fourth CD at least shows you how and why it grew. A — Ty Burr

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