By Ira Robbins
August 10, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

Sufficiently removed from their oppressive cultural environment, disco records can now be judged on musical merit rather than social significance. These two albums of ’70s standards — compiled and articulately annotated by music writer Ken Barnes — make a strong if unpersuasive case for the era’s artistic worth. To the relentless rhythmic hiss of high-hat cymbals, both discs offer a sampling of exemplary recordings, from Van McCoy’s ”The Hustle,” the Trammps’ ”Disco Inferno,” and Thelma Houston’s ”Don’t Leave Me This Way” (on Volume One) to Kool and the Gang’s ”Celebration,” the Village People’s ”Y.M.C.A.,” and Blondie’s ”Heart of Glass” (on The Disco Years: Volume Two).

Old prejudices to the contrary, there’s some fine pop here. Good songs delivered by soulful singers like Gloria Gaynor and Jackie Moore hold up nicely, even over the unvarying tempo. But dregs like ”Boogie Oogie Oogie” (A Taste of Honey) and ”Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life” (Indeep) still sound crass and inept — dull background noise with a beat. The selection of songs is intelligent and nicely varied, but notable absences — Donna Summer, Hues Corporation, Sister Sledge, for a start — prevent this from being the definitive retrospective of mirror-ball music. B-