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POP MUSIC : Howlin’ : for Those Box Sets

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The concept of the box set has turned into a dream of a deal for record companies.

Rather than risk millions of dollars on finding and developing new artists, label executives simply go to the vaults and pull out dozens of old tunes by proven hit-makers. They then tuck the songs neatly into a fancy box set, throw in an illustrated booklet and tack on a hefty price--anywhere from $35 to $125.

It’s such a sure-fire formula that you wonder why it took all these years for record companies to recognize the moneymaking potential. There were a few attempts over the years at these career histories with selected, top-name artists, but it wasn’t until the compact disc revolution of the late ‘80s that the executives realized that they could put together sets by dozens of artists.

The reason for the upswing in demand: Millions of record buyers began converting their collections from vinyl or cassette to compact disc and found the box sets--which usually included both the best-known works and previously unreleased material--an attractive alternative to buying all of the artists’ original albums again on CD.

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While there has been a steady trickle of box sets over the last three years, there is an avalanche of them this holiday season. Among the artists saluted with sets containing three or more discs: Aerosmith, Jeff Beck, the Carpenters, Chicago, the Clash, Patsy Cline, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Fats Domino, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, King Crimson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Monkees, Les Paul, record producer Phil Spector, Barbra Streisand, T. Rex and Yes.

Consumer advice: Unless you are a big fan of the artist, you may be satisfied with a single-disc, 12- to 15-song greatest-hits package, which may cost as little as $10 to $12. If, however, you want a more comprehensive summary of an artist, you’ll probably want the box set. Most of them are intelligently assembled, and the booklets are usually entertaining and informative.

Here’s my guide to the 10 most musically appealing and historically important of the new sets. The sets offer about 2,500 minutes of music and should cost, if you shop carefully, about $525. That’s 20 cents a minute.

The sets are listed in order of preference:

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1. Phil Spector’s “Back to Mono (1958-1969).” As close a parallel to the fiercely ambitious and visionary Orson Welles as the pop world has produced, record producer and songwriter Spector didn’t just make records. He created, in his own words, “pop symphonies for teens.”

In his 1989 book “The Heart of Rock & Soul,” critic Dave Marsh offered his list of the 1,001 greatest singles ever made. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones all earned one spot in Marsh’s Top 25. Spector landed four.

From the disarming innocence of “To Know Him Is to Love Him” in 1958 to the multilayered “Wall of Sound” foundation of “Be My Baby” in 1963, Spector injected his best records with a sense of the mystery and wonder of the most personal teen-age romantic fantasies. But his greatest accomplishment in the studio was taking the pulse-quickening anticipation of the early pop extravaganzas and adding the complexities and doubts of adult experience. That’s what made the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” in 1964 and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep-Mountain High” in 1966 Spector’s pop masterpieces.

The four-disc set from ABKCO Records contains 73 selections, including Spector’s celebrated 1963 Christmas album as well as 11 previously unreleased tunes, including Darlene Love’s version of “Chapel of Love.” Best price found around town: $55.

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2. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Howlin’ Wolf.” All the motivation you should need to check out this three-disc set from MCA are the words of Sam Phillips, the Memphis record producer whose other discoveries included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. “I just thought he was the most different singer in the world,” Phillips once said, describing the Wolf. “His voice was so ‘extremely bad’ that it fascinated me. Had (Wolf not left me for Chess Records), there’s no telling how many hit records I would have cut with this man. He should have been a pop smash.”

Wolf, whose real name was Chester Burnett, was a large, beefy man who sang about hard times and desire with a raw growl that suggested something both dangerous and exotic. A farmer and part-time musician, Wolf was in his late 30s by the time he went into the studio in 1951 with Phillips, who recorded him briefly before Wolf signed with Chicago-based Chess.

The West Point, Miss., native had five Top 40 R&B; singles, including 1956’s “Smokestack Lightning,” but he didn’t enjoy the success with the young pop-rock crowd of such other Chess artists as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Wolf’s distinctive sound, however, was picked up by many rockers in the ‘60s, and tunes associated with him were later recorded by the Rolling Stones (“The Red Rooster”), the Doors (“Back Door Man”) and Cream (“Spoonful”). The three-disc set contains 75 songs, including 19 rare or previously unreleased recordings. $35.

3. Ray Charles’ “The Birth of Soul.” Don’t turn away when you notice that this three-disc set includes only one of Charles’ 11 Top 10 pop hits, “What’d I Say.” The 53 songs were recorded by the singer-pianist for Atlantic Records between 1952 and 1959, a time when he was experimenting with the gospel and blues strains that he would eventually combine to create contemporary soul music.

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On Disc 1, you can hear Charles experimenting with the styles of some of his own vocal favorites, including Nat King Cole, Charles Brown and even Big Joe Turner. By Disc 2, however, you can sense him gaining more confidence and authority. Among the standouts: “I Got a Woman,” a No. 1 R&B; single in 1955, and “This Little Girl of Mine.”

Although both records gained him some attention in the developing rock market, Charles was more interested in pursuing his own soul music path than leaping onto the commercial bandwagon. Indeed, it was during that period that he recorded some of his most compelling works for Atlantic, including the ballads “What Would I Do Without You” and “I Want to Know.” Classic moments. $35.

4. The Clash’s “Clash on Broadway.” The Sex Pistols may have ignited the punk revolution in Britain in the late ‘70s, but the Clash is the band that broke through the stylistic limitations of punk, expanding the musical textures and writing songs that moved beyond mere sloganeering. Defying the initial punk thesis that success can only ruin you, the Clash grew as a creative force in the ‘80s as it expanded its popularity, and such later albums as “London Calling,” “Sandinista!” and even “Combat Rock” stand proudly alongside the band’s greatest ‘70s work. This three-disc set from Epic contains more than 60 songs. $40.

5. Fats Domino’s “They Call Me the Fat Man.” Domino had more pop and R&B; hits in the ‘50s than Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis combined. So it may seem strange that he is probably less known to today’s young rock audience than almost any other member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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The reason for his relative lack of fame is that neither his inviting, sing-along style nor his cuddly demeanor quite fit the youthful stereotype of ‘50s rock. Yet Domino was one of the most prolific and consistently appealing figures of rock’s first decade. Among his most-prized hits: “Ain’t That a Shame,” “My Blue Heaven” and “Walking to New Orleans.” $45.

6. Patsy Cline’s “The Patsy Cline Collection.” Though the native of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley registered only six Top 10 country hits before she was killed at age 30 in a 1963 plane crash, her influence is felt in the work of countless singers, from Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris to Linda Ronstadt amd k.d. lang.

Cline, the subject of the 1985 film “Sweet Dreams,” could sing with both a haunting, torch-like intensity and an affecting wistfulness. Her best-known hits included “Walkin’ After Midnight,” 'Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces.” This four-disc MCA box was produced by the Country Music Foundation. $45.

7. Barbra Streisand’s “Just for the Record.” It’s hard not to have strong feelings about Streisand--and the verdict here is that she’s a spectacularly gifted singer whose inability to master the dominant rock and soul currents of the last 30 years has left her talent underdeveloped. Yet it’s hard to go through this richly detailed, four-disc set from Columbia--which has the informality of a family scrapbook--without being moved by much of her ambition and talent. Among the imaginative touches: versions of “You’ll Never Know” in 1955 when Streisand was in her early teens and in 1988 when she was in her mid-40s. $60.

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8. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Lynyrd Skynyrd.” This Florida outfit spent much of the ‘70s in the shadow of the Allman Brothers, but the band had its own, valuable honky-tonk rock vision--a sort of Southern rock equivalent of Merle Haggard’s working-man independence. The three-disc MCA set includes “Sweet Home Alabama,” the classic retort to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” and the FM rock staple “Free Bird.” But much of the fun is in the dozen or so rare and previously unreleased tracks that explore the group’s earliest days in the studio. Among them, an especially soulful vocal by Ronnie Van Zandt on “Mr. Banker.” Sample lines: “Ain’t Got no house / Ain’t got no car / All I got is a 1950 Les Paul guitar / Won’t you take it, Mr. Banker / Won’t you bury my papa for me.” $40.

9. Crosby Stills & Nash’s “CSN.” It’s hard to argue with consumer watchdogs who’ll maintain that you get virtually everything of lasting interest on this four-disc set by buying just the group’s first two albums. Yet there’s still enough magic in the harmonies--both in the early years, which defined a time and place as much as, say, Cream did in its ‘60s blues-rock excursions, and even in the later pairings--to warrant its place on the list. $60.

10. “The History of British Rock.” Except for the absence of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Who classics (because of licensing problems), you’ll find find everything from the ABCs to the WYZs of ‘60s British pop-rock in this nine-disc set from Rhino. That means a lot of things you’ll want and probably a lot that you couldn’t care less about. But it’s the spirit of democratic overview that makes the set so winning. The lineup ranges from the Action, Argent and the Bachelors to Wild Uncertainty, the Yardbirds and the Zombies. $110.


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