"Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century."

The box is an impressive construction: 40 hours of music on 26 discs . . . 547 titles . . . 479 artists . . . a 308-page coffee-table book with loads of insightful essays.

The title is a rare display of humility. This is not the definitive soundtrack for the century. No one label could make, much less back up, such a claim.

On the other hand, Columbia is the only American label that has been around for the entire century. It began in 1887 as the District of Columbia Graphaphone Co. and over the decades went through a convoluted series of ownerships. Sony attached its name in 1988 when it purchased Columbia Records from CBS.

"100 Years" is expensive, of course, retailing for more than $300. (For those susceptible to sticker shock, the box's contents are available in a dozen separate genre-defined sets; three double CDs for pop; a four-CD set for classical; sets for country, R&B, jazz, etc.)

The collection kicks off with something familiar to Washingtonians: "The Washington Post March." Commemorating the winner of an essay contest, it comes from an 1890 wax-cylinder recording by its composer, John Philip Sousa, and the Marine Band (brass bands were among the few musical ensembles loud enough to overcome the limitations of the era's recording technology).

"The Washington Post" was Columbia's first hit, and made Sousa America's first musical recording star. And since it was recorded at 627 E St., the accompanying book makes a strong case for the Marine Band being the original E Street Band (Columbia would sign Bruce Springsteen's version in 1972--it gets two cuts here).

Though Sousa's is not among them, there are three dozen recordings here that have been inducted by the Grammy Hall of Fame as "performances of lasting, qualitative or historical significance." They include "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds, the first commercial recording of blues by a black artist, which in turn made Smith the first African American recording star; and "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" by Fiddlin' John Carson, an early cornerstone for what would become the country music industry.

There's also Al Jolson's "Swanee," which made George Gershwin famous, "West End Blues" by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, the Carter Family's "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," "God Bless the Child" by Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues," "So What" by the Miles Davis Sextet, Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Like a Rolling Stone," Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

Surely that's history.

Hearing these recordings, and hundreds that haven't earned a Grammy seal of approval but radiate in people's hearts and memories, you'd have to conclude that Sony/Columbia has a pretty impressive history along with its very deep catalogue. But the collections suggest that history is mixed at best, relying as they do on small labels like Okeh, Vocalion and Philadelphia International that were consumed by Columbia, or labels that briefly consumed Columbia (ARC/Brunswick). The corporate history, played out concurrently with a century's worth of technological advances, is recounted in the massive book and is often as intriguing as the music itself.

Case in point: The double CD "Rock: The Train Kept A Rolling" could have been subtitled "Once It Got Out of the Station." Columbia, like most of the major record labels in the '50s, ignored the emerging youth culture's enthusiasm for rock-and-roll, partly because it was perceived as a passing fad, partly because A&R chief Mitch Miller hated rock: "It's not music, it's a disease," he grumbled.

In addition, Columbia, which had introduced the long-playing album in 1948, had become an album-oriented company, disdaining singles, which ruled from the mid-'50s into the '60s and birthed dozens of small labels with bigger ears and wider tastes. Which is why Columbia's rock history only begins in 1965, with Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the Byrds' cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Dylan, of course, had been signed as a folk artist; the switch to electricity was his idea, not Columbia's.

Things improved after 1966 when Clive Davis began his reign at Columbia, signing up such acts as Janis Joplin, Santana and Sly & the Family Stone and, in the '70s, arena acts like Springsteen, Boston and Aerosmith. The rock set ends with Oasis, Rage Against the Machine, Korn--and Bob Dylan (the most represented artist, with five tracks).

There's a similar imbalance to "R&B: From Doo-Woop to Hip-Hop," which ranges from the Ravens' 1950 hit "My Baby's Gone" to Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)." There's plenty of stellar material by stellar acts--Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sly & the Family Stone, latter-day Marvin Gaye, Maxwell, divas like Minnie Riperton and Mariah Carey--but much of the best stuff comes from Columbia's long but troubled association with Philadelphia International in the '70s and with Def Jam in the late '80s and early '90s. Typically, Columbia had first crack at Aretha Franklin and mistook the Queen of Soul for a Dinah Washington wannabe.

"Jazz: The Definitive Performances" suggests a different problem. It ranges from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's 1917 recording of "(Back Home Again in) Indiana"--generally credited as the first commercial jazz recording--to "Freedom Is in the Trying," from Wynton Marsalis's Pulitzer Prize-winning composition "Blood on the Fields." The roster is a veritable Jazz Hall of Fame--besides Armstrong, Holiday and Davis, there's great material by Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.

But while Columbia was in the forefront of hot jazz in the '20s, big-band music in the '30s and '40s and the '70s jazz fusion movement with Davis, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, it's telling that the last two decades of jazz are represented only by two young lions (Wynton and Branford Marsalis), one aging one (crooner Tony Bennett) and saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who's been dead for almost a decade.

It's the same with "Country: The American Tradition," which goes from Fiddlin' John Carson's "Little Log Cabin in the Lane" to the Dixie Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces." You can chart the music's gradual transition from hillbilly, old-timey tradition to bluegrass and honky-tonk, the countrypolitan movement of the '50s, cowboy songs and western swing, the outlaw movement and a half-dozen subgenres in between. Again, there's no shortage of wattage--Patsy Montana, Roy Acuff, Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Lefty Frizzell, Flatt & Scruggs, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Washington's own Mary Chapin Carpenter. But looking at the lineup, one might conclude that Sony's innovations and advances are more historic than contemporary.

"Movie Music: The Definitive Performances" is something of a hit-and-miss affair, from Cliff Edwards's 1929 recording of "Singin' in the Rain" to Aerosmith's 1998 hit, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Far more revealing is "Broadway: The Great Original Cast Recordings." That's because Columbia (along with RCA) championed the musical from the modern genre's beginnings in 1927 with "Show Boat."

"Oklahoma!," which premiered in 1943, was the first popular original-cast recording, a set of 78s collected under one cover. The arrival of the LP in 1948 ushered in a golden era that included such classic Columbia cast recordings as "My Fair Lady," "South Pacific," "West Side Story," "Camelot" and "The Sound of Music." How golden an age? This collection includes some prime Sondheim but ends with selections from such '90s mediocrities as "The Will Rogers Follies" and "The Life."

Other double-CD sets include "Folk, Gospel & Blues: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?," "Classical: Masterworks," "International Music: Sony Music Around the World" and three devoted to "Pop Music" ("Early Years 1890-1950," "The Golden Era 1951-1975," "The Modern Era"). Pop proves big enough to embrace, among others, vaudeville stars Al Jolson, Bert Williams, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker; singers Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand; and dozens of acts who also show up on the rock and R&B packages. The "Modern Era" includes such platinum artists as James Taylor, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Sade, Celine Dion, Fiona Apple and Will Smith.

Despite its gargantuan proportions, "Sony Music 100 Years" is likely to provoke much debate over inclusions (Kansas's "Carry On, Wayward Son") and omissions (your choice here). Some single CD best-ofs do that, so this massive sonic Whitman's sampler will provide plenty of fodder. In the end, it's a fascinating time capsule for a departing century, best digested in small doses.