BOXING YOUR EARS

IF YOU'VE GOT CASH IN YOUR WALLET AND TIME ON YOUR HANDS, BOXED SETS ARE FOR YOU

Good things come in small packages, as the saying goes, but at Christmastime, big packages look a whole lot better under a tree than little ones do. Back in the old days, when Santa left a 12x12 LP, it was a mouth-watering sight the next morning. Sure, CDs may sound better, but even swathed in the gaudiest wrapping paper, they still look more like something to place a drink on than the appropriately bodacious offering an American Christmas demands.

The answer? We have two words for you: boxed sets. And there are plenty to choose from; more than 150 of the things have been released this year by more than 30 labels. All contain multiple discs, good-to-excellent liner notes (well, books, in some cases) and eye-catching graphics that make for an impressive gift that'll keep on giving.

Looking for the recorded oeuvre of Annette Funicello? Maybe Ted Nugent or Wes Montgomery? Personal taste is no shopping hindrance; this season, you can find collections of artists of virtually all styles. The boxes don't come cheap, however, but just remember--the amount you spend on a gift is always indicative of the amount of love you have for the person you're giving it to. Especially if it's yourself.

There is a simple rule of thumb attached to these reviews: They're all favorable. Though anal collectors may quibble about a track or two, the material in each box is excellent, and representative of the artist. In other words, if you don't like Mexican food, don't eat at a Mexican-food restaurant. So, if you don't like Tammy Wynette . . .

@rule:
@body:"What he is doing in music is of the same caliber as what any of the great composers has ever done," writes Ornette Coleman sideman Don Cherry in the liner notes of the mind-blowing package Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino). Cherry also states that on the day he and Coleman met, "it was about 90 degrees, and he had on an overcoat. I was scared of him."

Cherry's statements could be a metaphor for the way many people have perceived Coleman's avant-garde jazz; when new ground is broken, lesser souls run for the hills. If you're among that crowd, start running. All others are in for a rare treat. Spread over six CDs is everything Coleman recorded for Atlantic from 1959 to 1975, a chunk of music that did and does inspire many players, and can rightfully be termed "important."

The package itself is also a thing of beauty--simply an aesthetically pleasurable thing to own. Beyond the 68-page booklet, the jewel boxes feature a portrait of the saxophonist on a blood-red background, and fit so snuggly into the box that a strip of black ribbon is attached to pull them free. The design team at Rhino has created a vessel worthy of Coleman's music.

You might hear a grunt now and then, maybe a scream or two. What you will definitely hear are 36 of the greatest lyric-free tunes ever on James Brown's Soul Pride--The Instrumentals 1960-1969 (Polydor/Chronicles). Make no mistake, the Godfather is in there plenty on organ and drums (his first instrument), but this is a chance for the band to step out. And I'm just a simple white boy, but I can tell you that this is some bad shit. The song names say it all: "The Scratch," "Limbo Jimbo," "Soul Food, Pts. 1 & 2," "Lowdown Popcorn (Buttered Version)," "Devil's Den." The sax playing of Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis, Jimmy Nolen's guitar, Bobby Byrd's organ--uh, playing; these were the unsung men behind J.B. who gave the Man something to move to.

The Columbia Legacy series brings us Janis Joplin's Janis. Forty-nine tracks on three CDs that travel from a tape made in Jorma Kaukonen's living room (with someone typing in the background) through the albums Cheap Thrills, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and the posthumous Pearl, to name a few. Plus, there's plenty of previously unreleased stuff, live cuts from the Avalon Ballroom, the 67 Monterey Pop Festival, TV appearances and studio outtakes. The box showcases Joplin in every setting you'd want, and though the groovy, San Francisco blues-rock sounds can seem sadly dated, Janis' voice never fails to impress--if not downright boggle. It's easy to forget just how good she was when the only song that's ever played on the radio is "Piece of My Heart." Her trademark wall-of-rawness vocals are all here, along with a swank triptych package and a poignant photo of a topless, bead-wearing Janis, eyes fixed on the camera, wary and scared.

The Weavers' Wasn't That a Time (Vanguard) is a must for the fledgling rabble-rouser or the up-and-coming folkie. The history of Pete Seeger's old group is well-represented in this 87-song, four-CD set, and it's one hell of a history. The quartet of singers befriended Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly in the 40s and early 50s, and then, in 52, the Weavers' career took a big, left turn. Commies! Reds! Unionizers! Un-Americans!, they were branded; the group even raised the ire of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and suffered blacklisting for years. All that for singing songs like "The Midnight Special," "This Land Is Your Land," "Rock Island Line" and "Tenza Tenza." There is an undeniable power and spirituality in these recordings, and the chorus alone on "Goodnight Irene" is enough to make you want to get off your complacent butt and go demonstrate against something rich and evil.

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