A holiday music gift guide -- Led Zeppelin, Frank Sinatra, and Elton John are some of our picks for the coming season

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.

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin
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.

The Byrds
The Byrds
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.

Frank Sinatra
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.

John Lennon
A compilation of the ex-Beatle’s 1970-80 work, Lennon looks like a last-minute toss-off. The packaging is minimal (the booklet contains only song lyrics and a few photos), and there are no liner notes, no musician credits, nothing previously unreleased (as in The Lost Lennon Tapes radio series). Then again, the raw power and honesty of Lennon’s best post-Fab Four music over the course of this 74-song compilation speaks for itself. Arranged chronologically, the set features tracks from nine albums, ranging from Live Peace in Toronto to the John-sung tracks from his last two albums with Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy and the unfinished Milk and Honey. It’s clear that Lennon’s music grew more bloated and less caustic by the late ’70s. Taken together, though, these songs tell the story of one man’s grappling with fame and fortune — a tale that the recently reissued single-disc John Lennon Collection could never convey.

Hank Williams
The Original Singles Collection…Plus
The father of honky-tonk country is amply represented in record stores with the two-album or two-CD 40 Greatest Hits. This 84-track collection does that essential compilation one better by adding plenty of unreleased tracks, some posthumously released singles, his wacked-out pseudonymous ”Luke the Drifter” singles, and the unveiling of his very first recording, ”I’m Not Coming Home Anymore,” made in 1942. This new compilation lends a depth to Williams’ work that isn’t immediately evident in the earlier collection. Roughly 40 years after his death, Williams’ songs still set the high-and-lonesome standard for barroom country music.

Elton John
to be continued…
Although he has experienced dips in popularity and musical quality, the former Reginald Dwight remains a professional showman — a mechanical hit machine. That sense of consistency makes this career-spanning 67-track set hold together better than you might think, despite its share of clinkers. It’s certainly fun to retrace his career from 1970’s gentle ”Your Song,” his first U.S. hit, through his kicky mid-’70s singles. The set makes it obvious that Elton’s music lost much of its tang after 1976, and fans who gave up on him soon thereafter might want to stick with the two separate volumes of Greatest Hits. But in doing so, they’d miss a slew of infectious later numbers like ”I’m Still Standing,” ”I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That,” and ”Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” all of which are included here. Extra points for packaging: In addition to a jam-packed booklet, to be continued… is one of the few boxes with complete musician credits for each song.

Bo Diddley
The Chess Box
With past efforts, the Chess Box series has gone a little overboard, as in the three-CD Chuck Berry set. This two-CD (or two-cassette) distillation of the original Bo, however, hits it just right. Tracing his career from 1955 to 1969, it includes all the hits (”Bo Diddley,” ”Mona,” ”Who Do You Love?”) along with more variations on Diddley’s throbbing-pulse guitar rhythms than one could ever imagine. Newcomers might want to stick with Chess’ single-album His Greatest Sides, Vol. 1, but The Chess Box paints a fine portrait of an often-underappreciated founding father of rock.

Electric Light Orchestra
With their homogenized, string-heavy singles, ELO — led by current Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne — consistently landed in the Top 40 during the ’70s. Whether that qualifies the group for a 47-track boxed set depends on whether you believe, as the back cover asserts, that they ”substantially expanded music’s boundaries.” Maybe, maybe not. Still, everything ELO fans need is here: the early art-rock recordings with original coleader Roy Wood, sugarcoated hits like ”Sweet Talkin’ Woman” and ”Evil Woman,” and the group’s less successful ’80s attempts to streamline and modernize.

Bee Gees
Tales From the Brothers Gibb/A History in Song 1967-1990
The brothers Gibb may never recover from the lingering ’70s disco backlash. But as this box unexpectedly proves, the Bee Gees’ sharpest singles — from ”Massachusetts” to ”Lonely Days” to ”Stayin’ Alive” to 1987’s overlooked ”You Win Again” — are superb pop singles, as luminous and well-crafted as they come. At 80 tracks, though, it’s a whole lotta Gibb — too much, in fact. Padded with forgotten album cuts and flop singles (some of which are trashed by the brothers in their liner notes), Tales could have easily been trimmed from four to three discs. For fans, this box is essential, but initiates could easily make do with two older PolyGram releases, Gold, Vol. 1 (the early years) and Bee Gees Greatest (the ’70s singles), for all the Gibb they need.

Marvin Gaye
The Marvin Gaye Collection
Starting with its dull cover portrait, this is one of the season’s most disappointing sets. Everything you’d want is here, from Gaye’s early Motown hits (including his sizzling duets with Tammi Terrell) to his politicized early-’70s treatises and his later, angst-ridden work. The problem lies in the setup. Rather than being chronological, the four CDs (or cassettes) are arranged into four gimmicky sections: solo hits, duets, rarities, and ballads. (The latter, subtitled ”The Balladeer,” includes cuts from Gaye’s never-released album Vulnerable, which amounts to supper-club versions of ”Mack the Knife,” ”Happy Days Are Here Again,” and others.) Instead of shedding new light on Gaye’s music, such organization merely trivializes the man’s legacy. The quality of Gaye’s music guarantees that the 81-track Collection isn’t a washout, but one still gets the gnawing feeling that the singer deserved better.

Roy Orbison
The Legendary Roy Orbison
Or, everything you always wanted to know about Roy Orbison but were afraid to ask. This four-CD set tracks the king of the operatic pop sob over 30 years, starting with his obscure early singles and ending with abortive comeback attempts recorded before the Traveling Wilburys clinched his return. ”Oh, Pretty Woman,” ”Running Scared,” ”Crying,” and the rest of the hits are here, but you have to wade through 75 songs to find them. The booklet contains a respectable essay on Orbison’s life and career but doesn’t list any recording or release dates for the songs — a serious omission for a supposedly comprehensive boxed set. All but Orbison nuts are better off with Rhino’s For the Lonely reissue.

Jimi Hendrix
Lifelines: The Jimi Hendrix Story
Given the mountains of Hendrix tracks on the market — from the originals to unauthorized and posthumous releases of varying quality — here is one artist who merits a career-spanning box to put things in perspective. Alas, Lifelines isn’t it. Taken from the radio series Jimi Hendrix — Live and Unreleased, the set has a wealth of music, from Hendrix’s early-’60s work backing up the likes of Little Richard to familiar radio favorites, and live and studio rarities. However, listeners also have to put up with an annoying ongoing narrative and constant interview snippets from Hendrix, family members, and fellow musicians. For diehards only.

Unbeatable Jazz Anthologies

Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88
Eleven CDs of new music, recorded live at a historic festival: solos, duets, trios, and orchestras — Taylor’s best work.

Rahsaan: The Complete Mercury Recordings of Roland Kirk
Reissue of the year: These 10 CDs collect most of Kirk’s best work (1961-65), including such classic LPs as We Free Kings and Rip, Rig and Panic, and are bound to kick off a major reevaluation of an underrated master.

The Smithsonian collection of Classic Jazz
A perennial mail-order best-seller, this is critic Martin Williams’ history of jazz from the ’20s through the ’70s: education the way it ought to be.

Charles Mingus: The Complete Debut Recordings
The spectacle of the ’50s as filtered through Mingus’ hallucinogenic imagination, from beat attitudinizing to the celebrated concert at Massey Hall (complete in two differently mixed versions) to the perimeter of the avant-garde.

Art Tatum: The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces
The great pianist’s encounters with Ben Webster and Roy Eldridge are the standouts, but with Tatum you want it all.

The Jack Kerouac Collection
As a reader of poetry, Kerouac was more Lenny Bruce than Dylan Thomas. Is it jazz? His subject often is, and so is the obbligato by Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. So is Kerouac’s voice, recorded in 1959.

Some Classical Collectibles

Puccini: Turandot
Joan Sutherland, Turandot; Luciano Pavarotti, Calaf; Montserrat Caballe, Liu; Zubin Mehta conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta has never been better than in this high-powered 1972 version of Puccini’s swan song. Blessed with an electric cast, Mehta raised his game several notches and produced the best recording of Turandot ever. He never came close to this level again. A taste of what might have been.

John Adams: Nixon in China
James Maddalena, Richard Nixon; Sanford Sylvan, Chou En-Lai; Carolann Page, Pat Nixon; Edo De Waart conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s
This 1987 recording proves that great ”classical” music can still be written today. John Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have created a modern American masterpiece.

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina
Soloists, with Emil Tchakarov conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Sofia National Opera
Mussorgsky’s other great opera is not half as famous as Boris Godunov, but it is easily half as good and deserves a ranking near the top of the Russian operatic literature. The all-Bulgarian cast, chorus, and orchestra deliver a rip-snorting reading of this tale of political intrigue and religious fanaticism in Mother Russia.

Bartok: Six String Quartets
Emerson String Quartet
Like the Beethoven quartets, the Bartok cycle has become a test of mettle for any string quartet. Emerson passes it with flying colors.

The Isaac Stern Collection: The Early Concerto Recordings, Vols. 1 and 2
Isaac Stern is the Eugene Ormandy of violinists, blessed with formidable technique and ravishing tone, yet somehow never quite one’s first choice in any particular repertoire. Still, his legion of fans will want this collection of (mostly) chestnuts — several of them with Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in the mid-’50s.