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There's More to Boxed Sets Than the Beatles

Presidential speeches, global divas, and European blues come alive on some of the most imaginative CD collections

THE popularity of anthologies and the cachet of "previously unreleased material" come into full play at holiday gift-giving time.

In stores, boxed sets of compact discs proliferate, partly because they fulfill the listener's yearning for more stuff from familiar artists, and partly because such sets are relatively simple for record companies to produce. This year, there are a number of imaginative collections, some of which are noted here.

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History buffs will rejoice at The Library of Congress Presents: Historic Presidential Speeches (1908-1993), a six-CD set recorded by Rhino Records and containing 23 important speeches from every chief executive of the 20th century, from William Howard Taft to Bill Clinton. The first collection of its kind to be assembled, it comes with a 60-page booklet with photos and liner notes written by presidential scholars.

Also by Rhino, But Seriously ... The American Comedy Box (1915-1994) is one of the most comprehensive comedy collections ever assembled. Its 48 tracks feature classic routines by the likes of Lenny Bruce, Abbott & Costello (you guessed it, "Who's on First"), Bob & Ray, Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Bill Cosby, Second City, Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks, and Richard Pryor.

Rhino recently signed a deal with Ted Turner, who owns the rights to the MGM vaults; the result is a series of reissues of wonderful music from the golden age of Hollywood. Two of the best releases are Mickey & Judy, which collects the soundtracks to such films as "Babes in Arms," "Strike Up the Band," "Babes on Broadway," and "Girl Crazy," and includes previously unheard extended versions, outtakes, and demos.

That's Entertainment! is a huge anthology of great performances from classic MGM musicals (128 tracks in all), featuring stars like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby. Newly remastered, many of these performances have never been released in any audio format, and some selections, cut from original films, have never been heard. A 100-page booklet details the history of the studio.

International music is well represented. Brasil: A Century of Song (Blue Jacket) details the history of the country's music in four CDs. Separated by period and genre, it presents examples of folk and traditional music, carnaval, bossa nova, and modern pop. Most of these tracks have been unavailable in the United States.

A more unusual set is Planet Squeezebox (Ellipsis Arts), a collection of accordion music from around the world. Although this musical instrument has been much maligned, this three-disc set makes the case for its importance, with examples of its use in classical, zydeco, blues, jazz, avant garde, polka, Tex-Mex, South American, Caribbean, African, Arab, and Russian music.

Global Divas: Voices From Women of the World (Rounder) collects 41 selections from female singers representing more than 30 nations, from the legendary (Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Patsy Cline) to current international stars like Celia Cruz and Miriam Makeba.

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One of the most important jazz releases of the year is the long awaited Miles Davis - Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (Columbia), an eight-CD set documenting the legendary live recordings of Davis's 1965 performances at a Chicago club. These shows came at a critical phase in his artistic development, and document his shift from classic to more free-form jazz.

Other important reissues include The Complete Capitol Recordings of Duke Ellington (Mosaic, mail-order only, (203) 327-7111), although the years covered (1953-55) were among his least inspired, and Clifford Brown: The Complete Blue Note and Pacific Jazz Recordings (Blue Note), documenting the too-short career of a superb trumpeter.

The blues are represented with American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1965 (Evidence), which features recordings from a famous European blues festival at which such amazing artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, T-Bone Walker, and Willie Dixon performed. It contains six hours of music, most of it previously unavailable.

Country fans can enjoy not one but two collections devoted to the "Red Headed Stranger," Willie Nelson. A Classic & Unreleased Collection (Rhino) spans his entire career and features mostly rare, unreleased tracks, including demos, alternate takes, and live performances. Legacy's Revolution of Time ... The Journey 1975-1993 chronicles Nelson's career with Columbia records and is composed of three sections, which document his songwriting, his duets and crossover collaborations with other artists, and his final recordings for the label.

The varied career of a Country Music Hall of Famer is remembered in King of the Road: The Genius of Roger Miller (Mercury). Best known for the collection's title song, Miller had a gift for absurdist wordplay that made him one of country's hippest composers. This three-disc set spans his entire career, which included everything from honky-tonk to hard country to Broadway ("Big River").

Country traditionalist George Strait gets the deluxe treatment with Strait Out of the Box (MCA), covering his career (which has included 31 No. 1 singles) from 1976 to the present, in 72 tracks, selected by the singer himself. Two new studio recordings sweeten the package.

One of our best independent labels for American music is celebrated in the eight-CD set The Real Music Box: 25 Years of Rounder Records. Two discs each are devoted to four branches of music that constitute much of the label's stock in trade: Louisiana music, folk, blues, and bluegrass. A bonus disc is devoted to rarities and oddities from the label's history.

Pop music legends Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, no strangers to box sets, have new entries. Sinatra: The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952 (Legacy) contains 97 songs from the singer's early career, during which he formulated his essential style and became a superstar. Elvis's Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Essential '70s Masters (RCA) completes the label's massive series of retrospectives devoted to the singer's career, with 120 tracks containing every '70s single (including the B sides), album cuts, and live performances.

Santana: Dance of the Rainbow Serpent (Legacy) chronicles the career of guitar virtuoso Carlos Santana and his eponymous band. Fusing Latin rhythms with blues and rock, Santana forged a distinct place for himself in rock history, and these 34 recordings, spanning three decades, demonstrate why.

Singer Carly Simon has released many fine albums that failed commercially, so her collection Clouds in My Coffee 1965-1995 (Arista) is a fine way to catch up with one of our most incisive singer-songwriters. Along with the expected hits ("You're So Vain," "Anticipation," "Haven't Got Time for the Pain") are three discs of album cuts, rare tracks, live cuts, demos, and five new recordings.

The music of the late composer Henry Mancini is spotlighted in The Days of Wine and Roses (RCA), which contains the best of his work from 1958 to 1977. Included are film themes you've come to know and love: "Moon River," "Peter Gunn," "The Pink Panther," "Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet," and many others.

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