Used to be, we'd have dozens of major box sets to choose from around holiday shopping time. The music biz recognizes the economic slump as well as anyone, though, so we only have a few to write about this year, and none are all that big (we already covered the $200-$300 Beatles box sets that came out in September; loved 'em, by the way). So we're throwing in other holiday gift ideas for music fans, all on the lower end of the budget.

CD SETS

Nirvana, "Live at Reading" (DGC, $14-$35) and "Bleach: Deluxe Edition" (Sub Pop, $16). The posthumous merchandising of Kurt Cobain's music has been relatively low-key, so it's a surprise to get two noteworthy sets in one season. "Live at Reading" is available in a CD/DVD combo or individual sets. This is one case where the visual offering is worth it, as Cobain comes out in a hospital gown and wheelchair and proceeds to give a truly sick performance. Musically, the remastered 20th anniversary edition of the band's debut is the bigger revelation to fans, thanks mostly to the bonus disc of an early live show. (C.R.)

Dolly Parton, "Dolly" (RCA Legacy, $50) -- This four-CD, 99-song compilation contains nothing after 1993, but this is the best survey of Dolly's unsinkable music career. There wasn't much vibrato on her 1959 recordings of "Puppy Love" and other tunes. She forged a personality on her 11 duets here with Porter Wagoner before going on to deliver 21 No. 1 country tunes. (J.B.)

AC/DC, "Backtracks" (Columbia, $40) -- Even when it called its previous box set "Bonfire," AC/DC was careful to throw in tracks by both the late Bon Scott and the still-shrieking Brian Johnson. This two-CD, one-DVD set favors Johnson a little more, and that's a good thing. The Scott-sung rarities on Disc 1 are mostly dirty duds (no surprise, or we'd have heard them before). Both singers are in top form on the live CD, this collection's top draw. The DVD of music videos seems pointless in the YouTube era, but it has enough raunchy material to suit more explicit sites. (C.R.)

Big Star, "Keep an Eye on the Sky" (Rhino, $70) -- To paraphrase Paul Westerberg, you'll never have to travel any farther than this for a little more Big Star. The influential Memphis band's first-ever box has an air of finality to it. The three CDs of demos and outtakes include killer alternate versions of classic songs, and there's pure magic on the live CD from a recently unearthed 1973 hometown show. Whether or not by the millions, fans should still come running. (C.R.)

U2, "The Unforgettable Fire (Deluxe Edition)" (Island, $35 or $65) -- More than the previous U2 reissues, this silver anniversary edition merits the bloated packaging, at least for the cheaper edition. It pulls in the "Wide Awake in America" EP, B-sides such as "11 O'Clock Tick Tock," plus an unreleased song, "Disappearing Act," which the band only finished last year. There's also a DVD with videos and a "making of" documentary that's not so unforgettable. (C.R.)

BOOKS

"Michael," by the editors of Rolling Stone (Harper, $30) -- Of all the Michael Jackson books that have come out since his death, this is it. The 224-page coffee-table book features reprints from Rolling Stone dating back to 1971, photos throughout the years (love the shot of Michael and his first-born baby in '97), new essays, album reviews by former City Pages critic Jon Dolan, and comments from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Brooke Shields. A well-rounded keepsake. (J.B.)

"Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times," by Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean (Gotham, $27.50) -- In his unvarnished vernacular, the 82-year-old bluegrass patriarch tells his story: "I was always taken with the mournful sound of a whip-poorwill. It made me feel like I wasn't the only one feeling lonesome." The movie that reinvigorated Stanley's career, "O Brother, Where Art Thou," gets short shrift, but he recounts the old days of the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers with vivid detail and great relish. (J.B.)

"Trust: Photographs of Jim Marshall" (Omnibus, $35) -- One of music's greatest photographers delves into his color archives for priceless shots of Brian Wilson, Miles Davis, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Otis Redding and many others. (J.B.)

ELECTRONIC

Lala.com e-card ($1-$50) -- For fans who do most of their listening off the Internet, this burgeoning site sells "virtual ownership" of songs (a permanent stream) for 10 cents, or 89 cents for a download. The site is newly aligned with Google and MySpace to compete with iTunes, and it's turning into a music-geek haven with its playlist options and other fun extras. Send an invite to join, and you will get your own five-song credit. (C.R.)

eMusic.com membership ($30/three months) -- This older iTunes competitor failed to dent Apple's dominance, but it remains a choice site for music nuts looking to download harder-to-find indie-rock, classical or jazz albums. The standard membership gets you 20 credits a month (about 50 cents per song). Its catalog has expanded out of obscurity in recent years, from Bob Dylan's whole collection to Usher's latest. (C.R.)

GAMES

Grateful Dead-opoly (Discovery Bay, $35) -- When the band started back in the 1960s, capitalism probably wasn't part of the vision. But these once-trippy hippies learned how to market themselves. In the Deadhead version of Monopoly, Park Place is "American Beauty" ($400) while the underrated "Terrapin Station," goes for $60. Karma cards and a VIP all-access pass give you special powers, especially if you land on "off the bus." Better to land on "parking lot," where you can just chill. (J.B.)

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658