Music Boxes with Rhythm and Soul This Year's Boxed Sets Can Appeal to Everyone from Rock Fans to Riverdance Enthusiasts

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The boxed set continues to be one of the music industry's most valuable forms, both artistically and commercially. It often provides much-needed historical context to a recording artist's career, or a musical genre's evolution, and it's a handy way to collect multiple recordings.

It also, needless to say, makes for one handy gift item, which accounts for their proliferation in the holiday season. Following is a brief description of some of the more notable collections released in the past year. This year's batch reflects the fact that the flood of box sets released in the last decade have left new pickings to be a bit slim.

Rhino Records, the premier reissue label, doesn't just throw together hit collections; it imaginatively repackages classic music that would otherwise go unheard. The six-CD set Beg, Scream & Shout! documents soul music of the 1960s and is probably the best of the year. Sure, you'll find perennials like James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder, but what makes this set of 144 songs so special is its inclusion of music so rare that it has previously been available only on 45s, such as unsung heroes Lee Rogers and Bobby Patterson. The best part is the packaging: The discs are housed in a replica of a 45-singles case, complete with handle. The definitive collection of one of rock's most influential, if short-lived, groups is Cream: Those Were the Days (Polydor). Here you'll find every studio recording that the band (Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker) ever released: two entire CDs of live recordings, extensive rarities, demo versions, and alternate takes. The five-CD set Ray Charles: Genius & Soul - The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino) is, believe it or not, the first to fully document the multifaceted career of one of the giants of American music. Charles has always experimented with diverse musical forms; he's the only artist besides Elvis to have more than 10 records on the R&B, pop, country, and easy-listening charts. But what unifies the material is his endlessly soulful voice, which effortlessly segues from youthful exuberance to world weariness. All the classic hits are here in their original full-length album versions. An essential collection. Irish music and dance has become a cultural phenomenon, and The Roots of Riverdance (Universal) featuring the Celtic music of composer Bill Whelan is the first to capitalize on it. The four-CD set includes the bestselling companion album to the dance extravaganza "Riverdance"; the soundtrack to the 1996 film "Some Mother's Son"; "The Seville Suite," Whelan's first orchestral composition; and "The Roots of Riverdance," his most recent release. Although Whelan's blending of traditional Celtic music with more modern influences is not without merit, this set may be overkill for anyone but the most rabid "Riverdance" fan. More a convenient packaging than a reappraisal, Billy Joel: The Complete Hits Collection 1973-1997 Limited Edition (Columbia) may be redundant for anyone who already owns "Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1973-1985)." This edition adds the recently released "Vol. …


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