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Flashback flashback: Box sets bottom out

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Don't blame Bob Dylan, but the CD box set gusher that arguably began back in 1985 with his Biograph release has still not dried up 15 years later. The major-label product-manager's life must be challenging, as he tries to conceive of fresh concepts and uncover catalog artists who remain viable commercial propositions for those expensive, expansive, multi-disc anthologies. This year brought fewer boxes than before, and many that came were by fringe acts, unlikely to appeal to more than the fanatic record collector.

Was anyone holding their breath, or wallet, for the three-disc America overview? A third 100-song set of doo-wop? How about four on Gordon Lightfoot, or Los Lobos or, God help us, the Doobie Brothers? And those were the pickings from Rhino, the king of reissues/ boxes. No matter how well these compilations are assembled -- and they're typically crafted with hefty, four-color booklets, scholarly liner notes, unreleased tracks and rare B sides -- there's a nagging suspicion that someone's scraping the bottom of a barrel.

Sure, some long overdue sets reared their high-ticket heads this year: Stevie Ray Vaughn, Etta James, the Supremes and the Eagles all got paraded across multiple discs for the first time in 2000. Nevermind that they all already have collections that compile the hits, near hits, should've-been-hits and rarities. Box sets, after all, are so much more definitive; they're a testimonial, a declaration of sorts, of an artist's status and endurance -- or at least an enduring fan base.

The year brought some exceedingly well-constructed, if not highly anticipated, packages: Jimi Hendrix (four discs, unbelievably, most of it previously unreleased), Little Feat, Rick Nelson, Sam Cooke (finally), Dion and one detailing the history of Memphis' prolific Stax label. But what to make of yet another three-disc ELO set to add to the single, double and triple compilations still in print? Or a primarily live set from the last, limp, 17 years of Genesis' career? It seems the future looks bleak for the box-set biz. To quote Bob Dylan, himself the subject of a fifth "hits" package this year, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."

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