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'The Very Best of the Eagles' renders earlier collections obsolete with all the hits plus a handful of excellent album cuts from the group's hugely successful career.

Bumper crop of boxed sets makes a good holiday season for music lovers

With a bumper crop of box sets and double-disc anthologies, this should be a good holiday season for music lovers.

Here are my picks for the best releases that have arrived in stores in time for the shopping season.

"Once In A Lifetime"

Talking Heads

Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino Records

"Once In A Lifetime" does a good job chronicling the many faces of the Talking Heads — one of the most enduring and innovative bands of the original punk/new wave movement.

The three discs cover it all, from the offbeat guitar pop of the group's first two CDs, to the genre-blurring world beat/pop of the "Fear of Music"/"Remain in Light"/"Speaking in Tongues" period and through the catchy pop of the "Little Creatures" CD.

Rating: 4 stars of 5 stars.

"Chrome, Smoke & BBQ: the ZZ Top Box"

ZZ Top

Warner Bros. Records

Few American bands have matched ZZ Top for consistently cranking out entertaining, unpretentious rock 'n' roll.

This four-disc set traces ZZ Top's career from its earthy blues-rock beginnings through the slicker, video-friendly band featured on the 1983 CD, "Eliminator," 1985's "Afterburner" and 1990's "Recycler."

Unfortunately, material from ZZ Top's four most recent CDs — all on RCA Records — isn't included. Neverthe-less, "Chrome, Smoke & BBQ" is a solid summation of ZZ Top's first two decades as a band.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars.

"The Essential Bruce Springsteen"

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records

"The Essential Bruce Springsteen" is a big improvement over "the Boss'" single-disc "Greatest Hits" CD. Still, this collection mostly proves Springsteen needs a full-blown box set to adequately represent his achievements.

That said, the songs that did make the two discs devoted to Springsteen's studio albums are almost universally outstanding.

But the real selling point is a third disc of unreleased tunes, which includes several gems — such as "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)" and "None But the Brave."

That's what makes this set "essential."

Rating: 4 stars out of 5 stars.

"Martin Scorsese Presents

the Blues: a Musical Journey"

Various Artists

HipO Records

This five-CD set — a companion to Martin Scorsese's public television series — traces the evolution of blues through nine decades, giving equal weight to pre-World War II and post-war artists, while also touching along the way on the impact blues has had on jazz and rock.

Yes, a few worthy artists are omitted — Lightin' Hopkins perhaps is the most glaring absentee — but it's hard to imagine a better tribute to the blues than this box set.

Rating: 4 stars of 5 stars.

"The Columbia Years: America's No. 1 Band and His Orchestra"

Count Basie

Columbia Legacy Records

Count Basie is an undisputed giant of big-band swing and jazz. And these tracks, recorded from 1936 to 1951, spotlight Basie and his musicians at their very peak.

Along with 68 prime studio tracks, the set boasts a real trump card — a full disc of live performances, most of them unreleased, from 1937 to 1941.

Overall, "America's No. 1 Band and His Orchestra" serves both as terrific introduction to Basie and a worthy addition to collections of fans already acquainted with Basie's music.

Rating: 5 stars of 5 stars.

Other worthy box sets:

"Stages: Performances 1970-2002," Neil Diamond (Columbia Records) — Five CDs and a live DVD allow "Stages" to offer all the live Neil Diamand a fan could want.

"The Chrome Collection," the Spinners (Rhino/Atlantic Records) — With album cuts that are as strong as their hits, this three-CD set shows why the Spinners stand alongside the O'Jays as the best vocal group of the '70s Philly soul scene.

"The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions," Miles Davis (Columbia Legacy Records) — This five-disc set shines new light on Davis' often overlooked followup to the "Bitches Brew" album, complete with plenty of alternate takes and previously unreleased tracks.

"Chicago," Chicago (Rhino Records) — Five CDs give a generous airing to the original group's fresh-sounding, horn-blaring blend of rock, pop and jazz, as well as the far less compelling balladry of the post-1980 editions of Chicago.

"Stone Deaf Forever," Motorhead (Castle Music/Sanctuary Records) — Five discs cover nearly all of the best of Motorhead — one of metal's most underrated bands — supplemented by a healthy number of unreleased performances from BBC radio.

For those who don't want to splurge on box sets, 2003 also produced some fine two-disc releases that will make excellent gifts.

Here are a few choice picks:

"The Very Best of the Eagles," the Eagles (Warner Music Group) — The two Eagles single-album greatest hits — one issued in 1976 and "Volume 2" from 1982 — are both mega-million sellers. But this 33-song two-CD set renders the earlier collections obsolete with all the hits plus a handful of excellent album cuts from the group's hugely successful career.

"The Essential George Gershwin," Various Artists (Sony Legacy) — George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira created some of the most indelible music of the 20th century. These two CDs present some of his best songs as performed by such stars as Billie Holiday, Tony Bennet, Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson and Aretha Franklin.

Other worthy two-disc sets: "Must I Paint You a Picture?: the Essential Billy Bragg," Billy Bragg (Elektra/Rhino Records); "The Essential Sly and the Family Stone," Sly and the Family Stone (Epic Legacy Records); "The Essential Byrds,'' the Byrds (Columbia Legacy Records); "The Electric Joe Satriani: an Anthology," Joe Satriani (Epic Legacy Records); "The Very Best of War," War (Avenue Records/Rhino Records); "The Infinite Steve Vai: an Anthology," Steve Vai (Epic/Rhino Records); "The Essential Clash," the Clash (Epic Legacy Records); and "The Essential Simon and Garfunkel (Columbia Legacy Records).

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