ROCK / Albums: Feel the quality, mind the width: Andy Gill on the best of the box-set compilations hoping to make an impression this Christmas

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The Independent Culture
THOSE box sets that come thudding into record shops in the months running up to Christmas can seem a little like tombstones, especially when they attempt some sort of definitive career summary: can B B King ever expect to sell another record after we've all bought the four-CD King of the Blues (MCA MCAD4-10677) set, for instance? Any further purchase would surely spoil the satisfying wholeness of the boxed-set experience.

Admittedly, the King set is as decent a summary as could be reasonably hoped for, stretching from the days when he attempted a passable T-Bone Walker imitation to the more recent cabaret era, the latter studded by duets with Bonnie Raitt, Gary Moore, U2 and the like. But it's weighted too heavily towards his later career - the first disc covers the years 1949 to 1965, which flatters some of the later material shared out between the other three.

If BB is the Cadillac of the blues, Muddy Waters is the Buick - still stylish, but a more blue-collar kind of stylish. The Complete Muddy Waters 1947-1967 (Charly CD RED BOX 3) draws together on nine CDs virtually everything this giant of Chicago blues recorded for Chess. As such it wields a massive, dark authority. The earliest tracks were recorded with minimal backing, only a few years after he made the journey north from Mississippi to Chicago; but by 1951 all the elements of the famous Muddy sound were there, from Little Walter's piercing harmonica to the slide-guitar style that inspired a generation of English blues musicians. This was blues as hard as it came, and if it sounded shocking to white audiences more used to the genteel country blues of Leadbelly or Big Bill Broonzy, it offered Dylan, for one, a tough new edge.

If some box sets seem like tombstones, the eight-album Pink Floyd retrospective Shine On (EMI 0777 7 80557 2 3) seems to imitate the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Huge, enigmatic and imponderable, it's lovingly packaged, with a hardback book of background detail and photos, plus a handful of cover-art postcards and a free CD of early Floyd singles (this last as a sop to the memory of 'Crazy Diamond' Syd Barrett, who is otherwise all but airbrushed out of this history).

Shine On traces the Floyd's progress from the sonic explorations of Saucerful of Secrets and Meddle to Roger Waters' pompous would-be meisterwerk, The Wall, and beyond. But the inclusion of the post-Waters album A Momentary Lapse of Reason at the expense of earlier albums like Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother and the debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn is tendentious, to put it mildly.

The kind of astounding, alien experience for which Pink Floyd aimed was more nearly achieved by Elvis Presley, who came out of the unknown and changed music irrevocably. The Complete '50s Masters (RCA PL 90689) is a six-album retrospective that gathers together everything he recorded up until his entry into the army - which John Lennon cited as the real date of Elvis's death. The best work here is from the Lieber-Stoller soundtracks for Jailhouse Rock and King Creole; but the curtain discreetly drawn over Elvis's later life makes this collection seem rather like an opera with the second and third acts missing.

Bob Marley's burgeoning iconic significance can be gauged from the way that his face has become as hip a motif for T-shirts as Jimi Hendrix's or Jim Morrison's. The four-disc Songs of Freedom (Tuff Gong TGCBX 1) shows that his standing is far easier to justify musically than Morrison's, certainly. The selection ranges from his first songs, recorded in the early Sixties for Jamaican producers like Leslie Kong and Clement Dodd, through the early vocal harmony style of the original Wailers trio of Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, to the sophisticated arrangements of the albums that effected reggae's crossover into the mainstream. What's striking is the consistency of his twin themes of love and rebellious emancipation. Among several previously unreleased highlights is an acoustic medley recorded in a hotel bedroom in 1971 - two years before he achieved international stardom - which shows that Marley had the Dylanesque ability to animate his own compositions with the simplest of guitar accompaniments.

Except for the utterly besotted, Lou Reed's pretentiously titled triple-disc retrospective Between Thought and Expression (RCA PD90621) may prove rather thin fare - especially in the later stages, which don't take us up to his recent resurgence. Even if you're besotted, you'd be better advised to seek out a decent Velvet Underground compilation before submitting yourself to this immersion in Reed's ponderous ego. Having always regarded writing as the true creative act, Reed is infuriatingly apathetic about the recording process, ceding production responsibility to a series of outside producers. This destroys any sense of coherence between successive albums - the only constant is his trademark deadpan nonchalance. The best tracks here are all on the first disc, covering early classic albums like Transformer and Berlin; even then, Reed's choices are quixotic: what kind of Lou Reed compilation omits 'Perfect Day'?

At the side of these heavyweights, The Stranglers' four-disc set The Old Testament - The UA Studio Recordings 1977-1982 (EMI 0777 7 99924 2 3) seems as hubristic as its title. While Reed, King and Marley can have entire careers summed up in four CDs or under, this treats the band's early years - admittedly, their most creative period - with a slavish track-by-track attention that it simply doesn't merit. It's particularly embarrassing next to Fleetwood Mac's concise slip-case set Selections from 25 Years - The Chain (Warner Bros 9362-45188-2), which crams both the bluesy Peter Green-era Mac and the adult pop Buckingham / Nicks-era Mac on to two discs. The more substantial four-CD set, 25 Years - The Chain (945129-2) is for once justified.

Finally, a couple of multi-artist compilation sets, both better worth your money than most of the above: The SugarHill Story: Old School Rap - To The Beat Y'all (Sequel NXT CD 217) is a three-disc set representing the roots of rap, from the original SugarHill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five releases to the latter's eventual dissolution into their five doubtless still furious constituent parts. Even then, extreme length was a significant part of the genre's appeal: the SugarHill Gang's original 'Rapper's Delight' clocks in here at almost 15 minutes. These tracks recall a time when disco sophistication ceded dancefloor dominance to the sparer, skeletal funk of Chic and the otherworldly thrill of Flash's original scratching on those fabled Wheels Of Steel: this man invented several entire industries with his fingertips.

The Beat Generation (Rhino Word Beat R2 70281) is a three-disc import collating aural beatnik ephemera - readings by Ginsberg, Burroughs, Rexroth and Kerouac, humour from Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, contemporary jazz from Dizz, Bird, Mulligan, Mingus and Slim Gaillard, plus background material featuring actual beatniks actually talking beat. And, prize of prizes, 'Kookie's Mad Pad' by Edd 'Kookie' Byrnes of 77 Sunset Strip fame. What cat could possibly resist?

(Photograph omitted)