BOXING YOUR EARSA GUIDE TO THE BEST OF THIS YEAR'S CD SETS

Although every record label wants to claim it was the first, no one really knows who invented the boxed set. Usually comprising a cardboard box, a handful of CDs and a book full of pictures, boxed sets focus on the music of a single artist, time period or genre.

A marketing concept bordering on genius, the boxed set has provided record labels with a profitable way to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, boxed sets give labels a newfangled way to reissue their back catalogues on CD. And because they're newfangled, boxed sets are--yes, Veg-A-Matic fans--a great gift idea.

The boxed set can also be credited with giving new life to labels specializing in classical music and jazz. This year's Mozart bicentennial celebration, for example, has spawned innumerable boxes collecting the composer's symphonies, operas and chamber music.

Since that first boxed set appeared four Decembers ago, every autumn is now marked by the pitter-patter of record-store clerks piling up the season's new crop of Christmas-ready product. The quality of these cardboard-encased wonders varies greatly. Some are rush jobs--bad sound, useless booklets, little if any intelligence at work. Others are massive labors of love, their warm sound and meticulously annotated books worth far more than the asking price.

In the past year, boxed sets have attracted the interest of nearly every segment of the record-buying public. For the majority of listeners--casual fans whose old Lynyrd Skynyrd records look like the lunar surface and have the fidelity of an eight-track tape exposed to direct sunlight--boxed sets are a great way to catch up on old favorites. Boxed sets can also serve as the ultimate greatest hits collection. And to entice the serious music fan who has all the individual records, the well-done box now includes enough out-of-print and unreleased cuts to convince even the most complete collector to come up with the cash.

Coming up with the cash--that's the only drawback to boxed sets. They ain't cheap. Most are in the $25-to-$50 range. This Christmas, $50 seems to be the most popular price for the best of them. Whether a box is worth that much depends on the number of CDs it contains. The new Patsy Cline box--easily the classiest of this year's crop--has four CDs. Purchased individually, the CDs would cost more than $50--and wouldn't include the set's outstanding book. This Christmas, the avalanche of boxed sets is more voluminous than ever. Artists whose boxed sets are out already or will be soon include Aerosmith, Jeff Beck, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Chicago, the Clash, Patsy Cline, Natalie Cole, Albert Collins, Crosby, StillsģMDSUĮ & Nash, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, Howlin' Wolf, Kris Kristofferson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Monkees, Queensryche, Bessie Smith, Phil Spector, Steppenwolf, Barbra Streisand, Traffic, T-Bone Walker and Frank Zappa. Classical and jazz boxes are too numerous to list. Three boxes that came out earlier this year deserve special mention. Except for the Patsy Cline set, nothing in this year's Christmas rush comes close to equaling James Brown's Star Time box, The Byrds or what is probably the finest of the boxed sets, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968.

These sets are treasures. The music they contain is some of the richest and most soulful ever cut into petroleum. James Brown will always be one of the most electric performers to slip into a patent leather jumpsuit. The Byrds are the first and still the best "alternative" band. And Stax/Volt artists--Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, Otis Redding--are responsible for the most moving and influential body of popular music yet recorded. Without Otis Redding to show them the way, there wouldn't be an M.C. Hammer or a Michael "Did the masturbation scene offend you?" Jackson.

Of course, if that were true, there would be no MTV and life would be . . . oh, well, on to the boxes. PATSY CLINE

The Patsy Cline Collection
(MCA)

The first of her two chart-topping singles didn't hit until 1961, and she died just two years later at age 30. Contemporaries Brenda Lee and Connie Francis both left her in the dust when it came to sales.

But Patsy Cline's too-brief eight-year career lasted long enough and produced classics enough to shine bright among country-western music's top-wattage luminaries. A warm combination of great talent and only-the-good-die-young mystique has turned Cline into a rare bridge spanning the ever-widening gap between the old and new generations of country-music lovers. Got a mom who measures music by the twang quotient? How about a sister who's too sophisticated to move? Keeping a kid who is considering country? Patsy Cline fills all needs, and here's an opportunity to get them all in one fell swoop.

With The Patsy Cline Collection boxed set, MCA has flat plucked out all the stops. Four sweet CDs account for all of Cline's 102 vocal efforts, including standard recordings, radio transcriptions, live takes and previously unreleased gems.

The Patsy Cline Collection has, most considerately, gathered the singer's life work into a comfortable chronological order. From her first, seldom-spun single "A Church, a Courtroom, and Then Goodbye" (1955) through, ironically, her final recording "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," the set is given a pristine production, with all details thoroughly mastered. Many cuts meet stereophonics for the first time, and radio recordings are cleansed of noise without harming Cline's torchy sounds a solitary scintilla. The Country Music Foundation took the point in producing this set and deserves great credit.

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