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ALL EARS

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LAST MINUTE? THERE'S A WHOLE WEEK LEFT!

Whether it's because of industry-wide shrinking CD sales or the fact that everyone from Abba to Zeppelin already has a set or three out, 2003 is a slim year for music box sets. Nevertheless, there are a few choice things out there for the music lover on your list:

True-blue Texans: Rhino's "Handmade" imprint has the natural choice, a Doug Sahm package called The Genuine Texas Groover. Collecting two early '70s albums for Atlantic with bonus tracks and interviews with Sahm and producer Jerry Wexler, the set's a must for San Antone collections. But pick this gift only for those who share Sahm's laid-back worldview: It's only available through www.rhinohandmade.com, and their cutoff for Christmas delivery has already passed. Better late than not at all.

Oldies fans: Since it was released by Rhino's main division, the Spinners' new Chrome Collection should be on the shelves of a record store within driving distance. Good thing, too, because this three-discer puts previous anthologies to shame, featuring both the group's Motown and Atlantic stints and singles for such smaller labels as V.I.P.

Real-Oldies fans: Yazoo's mammoth seven-disc Kentucky Mountain Music is the real deal - backwoods front-porch virtuosi and primal balladeers who make the O Brother soundtrack sound like glossy Nashville product. Not for the faint-of-heart or scared-of-hillbillies.

Blues sufferers: The "Year of the Blues" produced a string of new reissues, from the label-specific 50-year survey of Savoy Blues (featuring greats from Hot Lips Page to Memphis Slim) to Bluebird's ongoing When the Sun Goes Down series, which released great single-disc anthologies by Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Willie McTell, and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.

Folkies: Die-hard songwriter Joni Mitchell, who in recent years has gotten more press for her complaints about the record biz than for her new music, finally got her way with The Complete Geffen Recordings, a set that collects four '80s/'90s records that have languished out of print for some time, much to Mitchell's displeasure; reading her embittered introductory note in the box's booklet is a rare treat for those accustomed to box-set back-patting.

Men in Black: Back-patting abounds, and rightly so, in the exhaustive notes for Johnny Cash's posthumous Unearthed (American). Aside from the unnecessary "Best of the American Years" fifth disc, this is almost exclusively unheard stuff from the last decade of Cash's life; the man churned out scores of great, often impromptu performances, and there are more where these came from.

Audiophiles: When advances in audio technology make it necessary to buy the same record for the third or fourth time, it's better to receive than to buy for oneself. So Bob Dylan's Limited Edition set from Columbia - which upgrades 15 of his albums to the Super Audio format (also compatible with regular CD players) is a sure bet, albeit a wallet-busting one. Less of a financial commitment are the first wave of Super Audio releases from Fantasy records, almost every one a masterpiece or nearly so: John Coltrane's Lush Life and Wes Montgomery's Incredible Jazz Guitar showcase smart jazz's softer side, while Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane and Portrait in Jazz by Bill Evans hop headlong into genius. The new batch isn't all jazz; titles by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan begin the label's foray into high-end rock and blues recordings.

Jazzmen and -women: Fantasy hasn't put all their eggs in the SACD basket; their recent The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige & Pablo Recordings is on plain CDs, and is an odd batch pairing four '50s LPs with four from the '80s, all with the restrained sophistication that made the MJQ unique. The company's Oscar Peterson set, the 4-CD Dimensions, has an even stranger chronology, jumping from one decade to another and back on every disc; still, for a performer with such a daunting discography, this distills a large chunk into a digestible experience. If your jazz-loving loved ones are like mine, though, they may yearn for the comprehensiveness of Mosaic Records' box sets. In that case, The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions is a dream: jazz's favorite baritone-saxist and his valve-trombonist partner Bob Brookmeyer lead largish bands through standards and originals in sessions from 1960 to 1962. As with everything Mosaic, the package is dignified and scholarly, a limited edition, and sure to look great with a ribbon wrapped around it. •


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