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A holiday gift guide to musical boxed sets

Good luck finding a record store to buy them, but there is no shortage of new musical boxed sets available this season. And considering how long labels have been raiding their vaults, it's surprising how many big-name artists are the subjects of ...

Good luck finding a record store to buy them, but there is no shortage of new musical boxed sets available this season. And considering how long labels have been raiding their vaults, it's surprising how many big-name artists are the subjects of new mega-compilations designed for that special Dolly Parton or Rod Stewart fan in your life.

Here's a roundup of new boxes:


"Backtracks" (Legacy, 3 stars) A rarities box designed for the hardcore fan that provides a decent overview of the iconic Aussie hard-rock band. The first CD collects studio odds and ends from throughout the Angus Young-led outfit's 3½-decade career, and a DVD gathers videos and live performance footage.

The middle disc, which pulls together dependably blistering live cuts, is the keeper, covering the early era when Bon Scott fronted the band and later decades when Brian Johnson has been doing the screaming.


Big Star

"Keep an Eye on the Sky" (Rhino, 4 stars) The long-awaited Big Star box does justice to the greatest of Southern rock bands that

didn't play Southern rock. Instead, the 1970s foursome led by Alex Chilton concocted their own transcendent Memphis power-pop blend of Beatles and Beach Boys influence, overlaid with Velvet Underground alienation and Chilton's and Chris Bell's own acute sensitivities. "Keep an Eye on the Sky," with superb liner notes from fellow Memphian Robert Gordon, includes the three studio albums, many illuminating unreleased tracks, and a 1974 live hometown concert before an unappreciative audience.

Bing Crosby

"The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings, 1954-1956" (Mosaic, 4 stars) Has there ever been a more relaxed singer than Bing Crosby? Listening to this jazzy 160-song set, which features Der Bingle effortlessly swinging through the Great American Songbook with energetic and inventive keyboard whiz Buddy Cole and his trio, leads one to conclude that the answer is no. The great majority of these sides have never been released, and the sound quality and quality of Crosby's performances, from "The Nearness of You" to "Try a Little Tenderness," are impressively high throughout. Outstanding.

The Doors

"Live in New York" (Rhino, 3 stars) After Val Kilmer's fey Lizard King impersonation, it's time to salvage the Doors' reputation for putting on a ferocious live show. This package from their final N.Y.C. shows with Jim Morrison in January 1970 does the trick. The gigs find Morrison confidently caressing each dark sentiment with his duskiest baritone on the freak-flying blues original ("Roadhouse Blues") and covers (of Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley).

Ella Fitzgerald


"Twelve Nights in Hollywood" (Hip-o Select.com/Verve, 3½ stars) You get the gift of Ella Fitzgerald live on these four discs caught at the Crescendo club in Hollywood in 1961 and 1962. Despite the less than perfect recording -- guitarist Herb Ellis is often hard to hear -- the 77 cuts provide a sonic torrent of Fitzgerald's peerless scatting, musicianship, and humor. Her imitations of singers from Louis Armstrong to Dinah Washington are funny and fabulous. And she works so hard, singing melodies and solos for hour after hour. Fitzgerald, then 44 and 45, often sounds world-weary. But the set captures an amazing artist in the moment.

Elvis Presley

"Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight" (Legacy, 3½ stars) "I don't sing like nobody," an 18-year-old Elvis Presley famously told Sam Phillips' secretary Marion Keisker when he showed up at Sun Studios in Memphis to record the version of "My Happiness" in 1953. Billy Altman retells that story at the start of his liner notes for "Elvis 75," whose title refers to the King's 75th birthday, which is coming on Jan. 8. The box, which will be released next Tuesday, has 100 songs on four CDs. None are unreleased or alternate takes. Instead, "Elvis 75" sticks to the basics, from the incandescent early Sun sessions to the late swagger of "Suspicious Minds" and "Burning Love."

Frank Sinatra

"Sinatra: New York" (Reprise, 3½ stars) This year's Ol' Blue Eyes box follows the same blueprint as 2006's "Sinatra: Vegas" in compiling series of live performances from one of Sinatra's favored locales, ranging from a 1955 Manhattan Center appearance at a Tommy Dorsey tribute to a 1990 show from Carnegie Hall. There, the 74-year-old Chairman was in fine form: "I'm so glad that I had 4 cents to leave Jersey and come over here, many years ago." The treasures: a 1963 concert at the United Nations accompanied only by a pianist, and a DVD of a 1980 Carnegie Hall show with a stirring saloon-song interlude. The music is great but the booklet is wanting, despite a good Nat Hentoff essay.

Rolling Stones

"Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out" (ABKCO, 3 stars) Sure, "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out," which catches the Stones of the "Beggars Banquet"-"Let It Bleed" era at Madison Square Garden at the height of their powers, just might be the greatest live album of all time. That holds true from the wicked rip through "Stray Cat Blues" to the between-song plea of a female fan for Jagger to "Paint it black, you devil!" This 3 CD, 1 DVD set, however, hardly justifies its price tag with a mere five extra songs, a disc devoted to opening acts B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner, and a DVD of 29 minutes of outtakes from the Mayles Brothers Altamont documentary "Gimme Shelter"

Tom Petty & The Hearbreakers


"The Live Anthology" (Reprise, 3 stars) This vivacious collection, spanning the years 1980 to 2007, was recorded at venues from Los Angeles to London. Over four discs and nearly four dozen songs, you get the big hits ("American Girl," "Free Fallin'"), some obscurities (the opening track "Nightwatchman," which sounds like Jane's Addiction), and some surprising covers (a Dick Dale-like romp through 007's "Goldfinger" theme; a spirited version of the early Fleetwood Mac gem "Oh Well"). What stands out in the pure Americana of "Anthology" is the consistent discipline and modest virtuosity of Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell, drummer Stan Lynch and keyboardist extraordinaire Benmont Tench. These guys are like clockwork, always in the pocket, keeping meticulous time for more than three decades. (4 CDs, $24.99.)

Yo-Yo Ma

"30 Years Outside the Box" (Sony Classical, 3 1/2 stars) No questions about quality here: Cellist Ma thoroughly deserves his superstar status and few have recorded so much great music with such fine collaborators. However, those most likely to appreciate Ma's complete recordings in this highly attractive box will already have many of them. And will any single consumer embrace Ma's excursions into film soundtracks and ethnic music (that also fill the two bonus discs)? Also, no Ma discography is truly complete without his very first commercial recording -- Finzi's splendid "Cello Concerto for Lyrita," which is missing here.

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