Almost as readily as a Dickens Christmas, New Year's Eve can summon spirits of holidays and other days past, and that's especially true when it comes to music. The swinging melodies of the big-band era in particular still seem tailored to last night/first night/'round midnight celebrations.

And so, what better occasion is there to point out that 1993 has been a wondrously bountiful year in the harvest of tunes from what might be called the pre-Presley era - i.e., before rock 'n' roll and the baby boom swamped radio and records?Indeed, the ongoing CD revolution has shown it is for lovers of popular music of every generation by resurrecting many a grand if hoary melody. Yes, Whitney Houston, Pearl Jam and Meat Loaf have sold a zillion of the silvery little platters - but several new compilations also spotlight their superstar and not-exactly-superstar predecessors, from Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller to Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra.

An especially attractive example is Rhino's "Sentimental Journey," a collection of four CDs, available individually, that explore the pop vocal classics waxed, as they used to say, between 1942 and 1959. The 71 songs chronicle the rise of the vocalist in the circa-World War II heyday of the bands and the post-war preeminence of the songbirds and crooners.

"Sentimental Journey" - the song that lends the series its title - is naturally a perfect example of this transition, with Les Brown and His Orchestra establishing the mood (already nostalgia-tinged 50 years ago) via an extended instrumental arrangement before a very young Doris Day takes the lead halfway through. Sinatra - he must've been Young Blue Eyes then - steps to the fore on a silken "Night and Day." Vaughn Monroe ("Riders in the Sky") and the Weavers ("Goodnight Irene"), among others, illustrate the growing influence of country and folk on pop. And then producer Mitch Miller takes the helm, unleashing the hyper-emotive Johnny Ray ("Cry") and many other hitmakers. That pop-operatic style would punctuate the vocal tradition even into the era of Elvis, on such big hits as Peggy Lee's "Lover," Vic Damone's "On the Street Where You Live" and, finally, Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" in 1959.

Plump with No. 1s and top 10 songs, the "Sentimental Journey" set is a treasure chest for those who enjoy the nonrock gems of the '40s and '50s.

An equally extensive survey remembers the three-decade reign of swing and dance bands, focusing more on the danceable rhythms and instrumental musicianship than the vocals. "Swing Time! The Fabulous Big Band Era: 1925-1955" (Columbia/Legacy), a three-CD boxed set, is a fascinating audio-documentary with brisk, insightful notes by Michael Brooks. Original 78s from the collections of Brooks and Robert Altshuler served as the source library for the recordings, which were then digitally remastered for this release. Not all of the snaps, crackles and pops are gone, but the quality of these mono tracks is infinitely better than anything to be found in your average attic or basement.

"Swing Time!" gives audiences of all ages a chance to hear venerable tunes like Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," with the Dorsey brothers leading a band that included Glenn Miller (on trombone and as arranger) and a soon-to-be-famous vocalist - Bing Crosby. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey also played on the opening "Sweet Georgia Brown," a 1925 recording by the California Ramblers, a combo whose members, Brooks comments, "were neither Californian nor nomads."

The collection traces the careers of an incredible variety of bands - black, white, integrated, American and English - and a host of baton-wavers, arrangers, songwriters and musicians both notable and just about forgotten. Among the greats: Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Count Basie, Paul Whiteman and on and on. As a result, "Swing Time!" presents a fascinating historical overview of the big-band phenomenon, from its syncopated beginnings to its brassy last days (at least, as a dominant style) in the '50s. Sprinkled among the 66 tracks are obscure, otherwise impossible-to-find songs, influential recordings and bona fide smashes like Miller's "In the Mood," Tommy Dorsey's "Marie," Goodman's "Let's Dance" and Ellington's "Take the `A' Train."

Rhino introduced another wonderful series in '93 that hails the "Great American Songwriters," with five volumes so far, separately sold, saluting George & Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin, and Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn. This is not, of course, a new idea. Ella Fitzgerald popularized "songbooks" of this sort years ago, and the liner notes included in these packages flag listeners to a similar multiartist series under way on Capitol Records ("Capitol Sings George Gershwin," "Capitol Sings Johnny Mercer," etc.), featuring recordings by that label's performers over the past half-century. But Rhino is an anthology specialist, an independent that dives into the vaults of older companies and hoarders to come up with often-remarkable collections.

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Rhino's Gershwin set, as an example, assembles 20 recordings dating from as far back as 1937 (Fred Astaire's swinging "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and wistful "They Can't Take That Away from Me") to as recently as a 1989 "Fascinating Rhythm" (by Susanna McCorkle with Ken Peplowski & His All Stars). The five decades in between produced a cornucopia of Gershwin interpretations - a collection like this only skims the surface. Peggy Lee's satiny voice floats over a lush arrangement of "The Man I Love." Nancy Wilson is exquisite on "Someone to Watch Over Me." Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong turn the clever "They All Laughed" into a bright and comparatively stripped down duet. Bing Crosby croons "Somebody Loves Me." Judy Garland is misty on "A Foggy Day," recorded live at Carnegie Hall.

Will Friedwald, who penned enlightening if rather performance-oriented notes for the package, observes, "No matter how omnipresent Gershwin's songs become, they never wear out their welcome." The delight-filled volume in Rhino's "Great American Songwriters" sequence vouchsafes the truth of that.

Columbia/Legacy time-travels even farther back in another handful of recent releases - a quirky batch of CDs bunched under a category the compilers choose to call "Art Deco," taking their cue from the movement in art and architecture. The introductory "This Is Art Deco," for instance, assembles 20 melodies (among them more than a few curiosities, again culled from the Brooks and Altshuler 78 collections), as diverse as Bert Williams' aurally ancient "Nobody" (from 1913); Al Jolson's "Swanee" (1920); Eddie Cantor's indignant "Look What You've Done" (1932); Marlene Dietrich's signature "Lili Marlene" (1954); Judy Holliday's take on Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" and even Jack Lemmon essaying "Let's Fall in Love" (both of the latter from 1958).

But wait! There's more. The "Art Deco" umbrella also shelters anthologies like the two-disc sets "The Crooners" (der Bingle and Sinatra, natch, but also multiple selections from the likes of Cliff Edwards, Jack Teagarden, Dick Haymes and many others) and "Sophisticated Ladies" (jazz, pop and blues vocalists such as Helen Morgan, Alice Faye, Ruth Etting and Ethel Waters). An 18-track retrospective recalls "The Cosmopolitan Marlene Dietrich." Oddest of all, "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" unearths 25 songs from the '20s and '30s sung by men . . . about men (probably because they didn't shift gender references in the lyrics, and didn't really consider the implications back then, says liner-note writer Michael Musto). Among the tracks are songs by Bing Crosby, Cliff Edwards, Paul Whiteman and Guy Lombardo.

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