"R-E-S-P-E-C-T: A Century of Women in Music."

Close to a century, actually. The oldest recording here--Ada Jones's "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," which rhymes "spoon," "June" and "honeymoon"--is from 1909. The most recent--Liz Phair's caustic blast of sexual politics, "Polyester Bride"--dates to 1998. They bookend a Rhino collection that features 114 tracks on five CDs, with an 80-page booklet tracing the social and musical challenges, breakthroughs and triumphs of women in a field that remains male-dominated both on the business and creative sides.

For instance, it's worth noting that every one of those 114 tracks is built around a singer. There were, over the years, some anomalies--1920s blues guitarist Memphis Minnie and '60s pianist-writers Carole King, Laura Nyro and Nina Simone as well as guitar-wielding folkies Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell (who declined to be included, but is represented by Judy Collins's cover of "Both Sides Now"). But things didn't really change until well into the century with the late-'70s and early-'80s triumphs of all-female rock bands like the Runaways, Slits, Go-Gos and Bangles (all included here).

Also, as the credits confirm, women as writers were a rarity until the singer-songwriter phenomenon of the mid-'60s. The exceptions early on tended to inhabit the mainstream's margins: Ma Rainey's blues in the '20s, Aunt Molly Jackson and Patsy Montana's folk and country recordings in the '30s. However, by the middle of Disc 3, "Shoop-Shoop, Motown, Get Down Sister," it's rare that the singer is not also credited as the writer.

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T" covers most of the bases, from blues and gospel pioneers like Rainey, Bessie Smith and Marian Anderson and big-voiced vaudevillians Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice and Kate Smith to jazz legends Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan; from country pioneers Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn to R&B legends Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker and Aretha Franklin, whose 1967 classic (written by Otis Redding) gives this collection its title and purpose.

The set is most problematic with contemporary music. Not that the selections from the past 15 years aren't good, but the omissions (mostly due to licensing problems) are notable: There's nothing by Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Melissa Etheridge, Annie Lennox, Lauryn Hill or the aforementioned Mitchell. As a result, the final disc is divided between hip-hop (Roxanne Shante, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah), Lilith Fair veterans (Phair, Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole) and feisty feministas (Patti Smith, P.J. Harvey, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco).

Over the course of the set, you'll hear topical material (Anna Chandler's 1916 suffragette ditty, "She's Good Enough to Be Your Baby's Mother and She's Good Enough to Vote With You"), rebellious broadsides (Loretta Lynn's "The Pill," Simone's "To Be Young, Gifted and Black"), demands for respect (Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money"), numerous ruminations on romance and even a few raunchy romps (Mae West's "I Like a Man Who Takes His Time").

'Testify! The Gospel Box'

Gospel--"the word of God in song"--is given a smart, comprehensive overview in this three-CD Rhino collection that traces the music's history from 1942 to 1996 through 50 tracks featuring key soloists, groups and choirs. They range from genre pioneers like Thomas A. Dorsey and James Cleveland to contemporary pop stars like Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men.

Always clever in its box set packaging, Rhino has outdone itself this time around: "Testify!"-- which includes an excellent 68-page booklet--looks like a small Bible, complete with gilt-edged pages and bookmark tassel. Though hardly definitive--another two or three discs would have helped--the collection's contents reflect the rich panoply of bedrock faith, encouragement and commitment at the heart of gospel, which grew out of the melding of Negro spirituals, Protestant hymns, African tradition and European worship customs to become yet another uniquely American music.

The first disc covers the '40s, '50s and '60s, from such great groups as the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, the Original Five Blind Boys, Dixie Hummingbirds and Fairfield Four (whose 1947 hit, "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around," later became an anthem of the civil rights movement) to grand vocalists like Mahalia Jackson (a spirited "Didn't It Rain") and Sallie Martin (the inspiring "Just a Closer Walk With Thee"). The set actually starts off with a pair of World War II novelties, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and "Stalin Wasn't Stallin'," before introducing the Rev. Maceo Woods's ethereal organ ruminations on "Amazing Grace" and the gritty majesty of "Good Enough for Me," the first of several tracks featuring the Rev. James Cleveland, one of gospel music's crucial developers of talent and repertoire.

The middle disc includes Edwin Hawkins's crossover breakthrough in 1969 with "Oh Happy Day," and charts the growing influence of particular families in gospel--those of Hawkins and Andrae Crouch in the '70s, the Winans in the '80s. Classics include Clara Ward with a rousing "How I Got Over," Shirley Caesar's moving story-song "No Charge" and Aretha Franklin's powerhouse 1972 performance of "Mary, Don't You Weep." There's also a fascinating track featuring Dorsey, the father of gospel, telling the tragic family story that inspired his composition "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," which is then performed by the legendary Marion Williams.

The last disc details the complex vocalizing of Take 6 ("Spread Love") and Boyz II Men ("Dear God") and the power of such contemporary gospel divas as Yolanda Adams ("The Battle Is the Lord's") and the mother-daughter team of Cissy Houston ("Deep River/Campground") and Whitney Houston ("I Love the Lord" with the Georgia Mass Choir), while also charting the rise of contemporary-sounding ensembles such as John P. Kee's New Life Community Choir, Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers and Sounds of Blackness.

'Spirituals to Swing'

In December of 1938, producer John Hammond rented Carnegie Hall to showcase the evolution of African American music from its roots in ragtime, blues and gospel to the jazz of that era, swing. "American Negro music has thrived in an atmosphere of detraction, oppression, distortion and unreflective enthusiasm," Hammond wrote in the program's liner notes, and the stellar lineup not only lent critical weight to the debate, but introduced many key figures from the South and Southwest to Northern audiences.

Among them: gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, playing for the first time outside of churches; Mitchell's Christian Singers, the first gospel group to perform in concert in New York; blues harmonica virtuoso Sonny Terry and Big Bill Broonzy, playing before his first integrated audience (they substituted for Robert Johnson, who was murdered a week before the concert). There were also the great boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, meeting onstage for the first time. Among the better-known performers: Kansas City belters Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing, New Orleans jazz legend Sidney Bechet, the Benny Goodman Sextet and Count Basie with both his Kansas City Six and his Orchestra.

The first concert focused on the blues as a connecting thread, while a follow-up event the next year was more jazz-focused. Hammond recorded both but it wasn't until 1959 that this seminal concert was released on vinyl on a double album titled "Spirituals to Swing." Forty years later, Vanguard has released a vastly improved "Spirituals to Swing," now a three-CD set with 23 previously unreleased tracks.

Highlights include Bechet's fiery soprano saxophone spurring on the New Orleans Feetwarmers on "Weary Blues" and "Milenburg Joys," the classic blues of Ida Cox (backed by James P. Johnson) on "Low Down Dirty Shame" and "Four Day Creep," Tharpe's insistent "Rock Me," the fervent three-star "Cavalcade of Boogie," Benny Goodman's sextet and the Kansas City Six, the only recorded meeting of jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, a member of Benny Goodman's Sextet, and such Basie Band satlwarts as saxophonist Lester Young and trumpeter Buck Clayton. It's a high-flying triumph.