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Out of the Box 

Holiday 2010’s best reissues take an alternate look at history

Nothing says "happy holidays" like an overstuffed box set of music by an artist who peaked long before anybody ever heard of global warming. Gone are the days when record companies would gather a bunch of hit singles, a smattering of popular album tracks, and a handful of rarities, plop them onto four discs, and package them in a lavish set that would be the definitive word on its subject. These days, everybody is looking for new ways to make box sets (which are becoming as obsolete as CDs themselves) sexy again. The best boxes of this holiday season offer fans new perspectives of some old work. Here are our favorites.

Bruce Springsteen: The Promise — The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story

What It Is: Six discs (three CDs, three DVDs) featuring material and stories revolving around Springsteen's epic 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town.

What's on It: The DVDs are filled with previously unreleased stage footage from the era (including a full concert), a performance of Darkness from the Boss' last tour, and a documentary about the making of the original album. The CDs include a remastered Darkness, plus two discs packed with 21 terrific outtakes from the sessions.

Best Song You Know: "The Promised Land" sounds even more heroic with the sonic boost.

Best Song You Don't Know: "The Promise," one of Springsteen's greatest songs, a slow burner filled with lies, regrets, and a "Thunder Road" shout-out.

John Lennon: Gimme Some Truth

What It Is: Four discs of Lennon's solo material — 72 songs divided into theme CDs: Roots, Working Class Hero, Woman, and Borrowed Time.

What's on It: Lennon didn't leave much unreleased material that hasn't seen the light of day by now, so there's nothing new on the box (which is part of a series of reissues commemorating Lennon's 70th birthday). But many of the songs benefit from the theme setting, particularly Lennon's protest and love songs.

Best Song You Know: "Mind Games" launches the life-centered Borrowed Time disc like a rocket of enlightenment from the hazy '70s.

Best Song You Don't Know: Originally on 1970's John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, "God" features the former Beatle biting back — "The dream is over," he poignantly sings — at his former band's legend.

West Coast Seattle Boy:The Jimi Hendrix Anthology

What It Is: Five discs (four CDs, one DVD) documenting Hendrix's legacy — tracking his path from unsung session musician to the world's greatest guitarist.

What's on It: The first CD includes 15 songs Hendrix played on before he got Experienced, including a few Isley Brothers and Little Richard tracks. The other three music discs contain 43 previously unreleased alternate mixes and live cuts. So while you've heard most of the songs before, you haven't heard these versions of them.

Best Song You Know: "1983 (A Merman I Shall Turn to Be)," albeit in a solo acoustic take.

Best Song You Don't Know: Hendrix performs a stripped-down cover of Bob Dylan and the Band's "Tears of Rage" in a hotel room, before the song was even released.

Bob Dylan: The Original

Mono Recordings

What It Is: Dylan's first eight albums — 1962's Bob Dylan through 1967's John Wesley Harding — with their original mono sound, just like Grandpa used to listen to.

What's on It: Some of the greatest music of the 20th century. Much has been written about Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, but there are plenty of gems on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and John Wesley Harding too. And yes, the mono recordings sound warmer and fuller than their stereo versions.

Best Song You Know: "Like a Rolling Stone" gains fresh depth when all the instruments are working together, rather than fighting between two channels.

Best Song You Don't Know: You should know all of these songs. But "Desolation Row" sounds brand new in its sterling old mix.

Send feedback to mgallucci@clevescene.com.

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