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Sets to please the discriminating listener 

Boxed Gold

This year, it'll be difficult to choose the perfect gift for the music fan on your list. The problem isn't a shortage of viable options. It's exactly the opposite dilemma. Record companies seemed to be running short on worthy box-set ideas in recent years, but 2001 has brought a bumper crop of boxed sets, headlined by the mammoth collections devoted to Billie Holiday and the Grateful Dead.

To help guide you through the many choices, some suggestions for giving the gift of music.

Genre Collections

"Say It Loud! A Celebration of Black Music in America" Various Artists (Rhino Records) $89.97

This six-disc set is the most ambitious box-set subject of the year. Actually, this set could just as easily be called "A Celebration of American Contemporary Music," considering that with the exception of country, virtually every style of American popular music was pioneered by African-Americans.

The genres are all represented here — ragtime, jazz, blues, gospel, doo-wop, Motown, soul, rock and rap. In fact, this package could have easily accommodated additional CDs. As it is, the compilers have done a commendable job of presenting a cross-section of important artists in just six discs. Only the hip-hop of the '90s gets the short shrift in this set. As it is, "Say It Loud" is a highly entertaining and instructive collection that demonstrates the enormous impact African-Americans have had on modern music.

"Can You Dig It? The '70s Soul Experience" Various Artists (Rhino Records) $99.97

If you thought soul music died out at the end of the 1960s as stars like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett hit their peaks, this six-CD set will make you rethink that notion.

Not only does this collection assemble such enduring classics of the period — "War" by Edwin Starr, "Respect Yourself" by the Staple Singers, "Let's Stay Together" by Al Green, "I'll Be Around" by the Spinners and "Love Rollercoaster" by the Ohio Players, along with many other chart-topping hits — it features dozens of lesser known tunes.

Eventually '70s soul gave way to the formulaic dreck that was disco, but this is a stellar collection that showcases the tightly crafted, emotionally charged and frequently socially relevant music that typified the best of '70s soul. Can you dig it? Sho' 'nuff!

Also worthy:

"Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From The British Empire & Beyond" Various Artists (Rhino Records) $64.98 — This four-CD set highlights the music of overlooked 1960s British pop bands.

Rock & Pop

"The Golden Road (1965-1973)" The Grateful Dead (Warner Bros./Rhino Records) $149.97

The crown jewel of this year's boxed sets has to be the Grateful Dead's "The Golden Road (1965-1973)." Weighing in with 12 discs — over 15 hours of music — it includes all nine of the band's Warner Bros. albums (each augmented by live tracks and studio outtakes), plus two discs of material recorded as the Warlocks and a third disc of live tracks.

The price tag on the set is hefty but justified. For starters, the Warner Bros. albums capture the Dead at the band's musical peak. What's more, each original CD is supplemented by a generous helping of unissued live tracks. The icing on the cake is the two-disc "Birth of the Dead," which features one disc of studio tracks and one disc of live material recorded in 1965 and 1966 when the Dead were known as the Warlocks.

Put simply, "The Golden Road" is a must-own collection for any serious or even near-serious Grateful Dead fan.

"Buffalo Springfield Box Set" The Buffalo Springfield (Atco/Elektra/Rhino Records) $59.97

For years, Buffalo Springfield fans have clamored for a complete document of the band's career, and with "Buffalo Springfield Box Set," they get it. As its size suggests — four CDs packed with material — the vaults were teeming with unreleased songs waiting to see the light of day. In fact, half of "Box Set" is devoted to unreleased finished songs, demos and alternate takes.

Gems abound, including Neil Young's tender solo demo of "One More Sign," a superior alternate take of the early Stephen Stills-written single "Baby Don't Scold Me," Richie Furay's unreleased chunky pop-rocker "My Kind Of Love," and a rawer unreleased alternate version of "Mr. Soul."

The Buffalo Springfield's original albums were vital enough. Their diverse mix of rootsy country-tinged rock, soul and pop influenced a legion of bands. But "Box Set," with its treasure trove of unreleased material, shows just how little of the Buffalo Springfield story had been told before now.

"Music Box" The Monkees (Rhino Records) $ 59.97

The Monkees may seem like an odd group to deserve boxed set treatment, if only because they were brought together as much to act on TV as for their ability to sing and perform as a musical group.

What made the Monkees different — and better — than any latter-day assembled bands (think New Kids on the Block, 'N Sync) was the music. So, in a great sense, this boxed set pays tribute to Tommy Boyce and Richard Hart, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and the other songwriters who supplied the Monkees with hits.

The songs of the Monkees were rarely innovative or deep, and their attempts at more substantial music, such as the experimental album "Head," were hit and miss.

But the songs were catchy and fun. And "Music Box" does a good job in providing a comprehensive overview of the music and the phenomenon that was the Monkees.

Also worthy:

"The Columbia Studio Recordings (1964-1970)," Simon & Garfunkel (Columbia/Legacy Records) $ 49.97 — This set collects expanded editions of all five Simon & Garfunkel studio records.

"Q: The Musical Biography Of Quincy Jones," Various Artists (Rhino Records) $59.98 — This four-CD set collects the amazingly diverse music produced and/or written by Jones over his career.

JAZZ

"Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday On Columbia (1933-1944)" Billie Holiday (Columbia/Legacy Records) $169.97

One of the preeminent vocalists in jazz, Billie Holiday was at her best during a prolific 11-year stint with Columbia Records. Now that period gets a comprehensive airing. At 10 discs and 230 tracks — including 35 that haven't been released in the United States — this lavish set may be more music than anyone but the most devoted Holiday fans will want.

But Holiday is certainly worthy of this in-depth treatment. Although she wasn't blessed with the natural talent of some vocalists — her vocal range was actually fairly limited — Holiday, as this set proves, had an uncanny ability to use vocal nuance and the sheer honesty to convey the emotions and meanings of a lyric.

The expansive book that accompanies the package provides great insight into Holiday's artistry and each song included on the 10 discs. "Lady Day" offers the best portrait yet of one of music's greatest singers as she reached the peak of her powers.

"The Complete 'In a Silent Way' Sessions" Miles Davis (Columbia/Legacy Records) $49.97

This new 3-CD set is the latest addition to the stellar Miles Davis reissue series by Columbia's Legacy Records division. The 1969 album "In a Silent Way" marked a major transition in the great jazz trumpeter's career, as he began to shift from acoustic to electric instrumentation and embrace elements of rock music.

Not only does this package include the original "In a Silent Way" CD, but eight tracks that had not been issued, including the meditative 26-minute "The Ghetto Walk" and several tracks that later surfaced on other Davis albums.

The compositions on "In a Silent Way" — with their sparse instrumentation, deep grooves and inventive solos — found Davis once again putting a whole new imprint on jazz. By including all of the music recorded in the six months of sessions that produced "In a Silent Way," this set offers important — and enjoyable — insights into Davis' creative methods at a crucial point in his career.

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