By EW Staff
Updated February 18, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY: THE EARLY YEARS Major Bowes was right. He gave a 19-year-old singer from Hoboken his first professional break on the Amateur Hour radio show in 1935, the kid won first place, and look-he’s still on the top of the charts. In between, Frank Sinatra had two other career peaks-the first, commercially, when he released dozens of hit singles for Columbia during the ’40s. Then his artistic high point: 16 Capitol LPs that remain the epitome of ’50s cool. *TOMMY DORSEY AND FRANK SINATRA: STARDUST (1992, Bluebird/RCA) Could that coot barking quarter notes on Duets really be the same kid oozing long, syrupy lines on this compilation of early-’40s 78s? A sensation as the new ”boy singer” in the Tommy Dorsey band, Frankie ”the Voice” Sinatra clearly cribbed + most of his early musical identity from his boss: He sounds like a trombone with a New Jersey accent. B+

*SINATRA: THE COLUMBIA YEARS: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS 1943-1952 (1993, Columbia/Legacy) Bing Crosby may have pioneered the natural, conversational singing style of the microphone age, but it was ”Swoonatra” who took advantage of its sexual possibilities. While able-bodied males were away at war (Sinatra, after two induction exams, was rated 4F for-go figure-a hearing problem), their girlfriends at home sought comfort in his murmurs. Did the crooner astutely recognize the power of electronic intimacy, or did he really want to sleep with every one of those millions of bobby-soxers? Perhaps both had to be true. After the war, Sinatra’s momentum stalled-thanks not only to a changing audience but to a producer (Mitch Miller) who saddled him with increasingly ridiculous material. This 12-CD boxed set catalogs it all, including humiliations like ”One-Finger Melody” and ”Bim Bam Baby.” Also included are some of the most enduring of Sinatra’s ultraromantic ’40s material, such as ”Body and Soul” and ”Time After Time.” B

*SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ LOVERS! (1956, Capitol) America wallowed in having won the Big One, and Sinatra reveled in a return to chart prominence, thanks to a new record company (the artist-oriented Capitol), a new arranger (the gifted young Nelson Riddle), and even a new voice (after a vocal-cord hemorrhage, Sinatra’s tone took on a mature gruffness). For its title alone, let’s call Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! the coolest of the Capitol gems. Crowing snappy, clever tunes like ”I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Sinatra captured the romantic ego of a whole nation high on its own postwar solipsism. A+

*FRANK SINATRA CONDUCTS THE MUSIC OF ALEC WILDER (1956, Sony Music Special Products) FRANK SINATRA CONDUCTS TONE POEMS OF COLOR (1956, Capitol) These two Charlie the Tuna-esque attempts to demonstrate Sinatra’s good taste are actually surprisingly evocative albums of mildly ambitious mood music. Okay, he’s no Stokowski, but he’s no Bugs Bunny either. Both: B+

*FRANK SINATRA SINGS FOR ONLY THE LONELY (1958, Capitol) Ignore the impossible conception-Frank Sinatra has never, ever sat alone at a bar, crying in his shot glass-and you’ll find a masterpiece of sublime melancholy. The only thing more depressing than the wrenching version of ”One for My Baby” is the fact that the Duets remake is despoiled by Kenny G. A

*FRANK SINATRA: A TOUR DE FORCE (1990, Bravura) Educated as a big-band singer, Sinatra has rarely performed or recorded with a small jazz combo. The enormity of that loss seethes from this rare document of a live 1959 date with the Red Norvo Quintet in Melbourne, Australia. Low on opportunities for the ego- flushing grandstanding that has always been Sinatra’s worst weakness, this charming set shows a self-proclaimed ”saloon singer” at an intimate crest. A -David Hajdu

A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY: THE LATER YEARS Most Sinatra scholars agree: Once he began his own record company, Reprise, in 1961, Ol’ Blue Eyes slowly became Ol’ Bored Eyes in the recording studio, tossing off a string of increasingly indifferent or shabbily produced albums as his voice grew increasingly ravaged by time and excess. That doesn’t mean Sinatra threw it all away. The following albums-pruned from roughly three dozen released between 1961 and 1990 -show that he could still deliver when necessary. Mick Jagger should be so lucky in his 50s and 60s.

*SINATRA-BASIE (Reprise, 1963) One of Sinatra’s earliest Reprise albums, and one of his best: The pairing of Count Basie’s big band (with uncredited charts courtesy of Neal Hefti) and Sinatra’s superconfident phrasing makes for a snappy, brassy swing session. As much a showcase for Basie as it is for Sinatra-but when collaborations work this well, who cares? A

*SEPTEMBER OF MY YEARS (Re-prise, 1965) Pure middle-aged, where-did-the-time- go angst, set to elegant Gordon Jenkins strings and enunciated by a man just beginning to show his age. A worthy sequel to moody ’50s concept albums like Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. A-

*FRANCIS ALBERT SINATRA & ANTONIO CARLOS JOBIM (Re-prise, 1967) Could it be? Sinatra, at the height of his cocktail-spilling ”That’s Life” era, singing the gently swaying songs of bossa nova composer and guitarist Jobim? Including ”The Girl From Ipanema”? Yes, and the experiment works. The relaxed, mood- music arrangements let Sinatra sing more quietly, and with more depth, than ever. A

*GREATEST HITS VOL.2 (Re-prise, 1972) From standards like ”My Way” to a swinging ”Goin’ Out of My Head”-not to mention a few moody Rod McKuen ballads- a perfect, junk-free introduction to late-period Frank. (Skip the first Reprise Greatest Hits, which has little to offer beyond ”Summer Wind” and ”It Was a Very Good Year.”) A-

*OL’ BLUE EYES IS BACK (Re-prise, 1973) Sinatra ends a two-year retirement with another collection rooted in contemporary pop songcraft, but this time he and producer-arrangers Don Costa and Gordon Jenkins get it right. Sinatra’s slightly tattered voice is ideal for world-weary songs by Kris Kristofferson and Joe Raposo, not to mention an elegant ”Send in the Clowns.” B+

*TRILOGY: PAST,PRESENT & FUTURE (Reprise, 1980) A three-record set (now on two CDs) divided into renditions of standards Sinatra had never previously tackled (pretty terrific), versions of contemporary pop songs like ”Just the Way You Are” (good singing, iffy arrangements), and, lastly, Gordon Jenkins’ orchestrated, choir-heavy ”suite” about the future (subtitled ”Reflections on the Future in Three Tenses”)-unquestionably the strangest piece of music Sinatra has ever sung. Sprawling and uneven, but with flashes of the old genius. B-

*SHE SHOT ME DOWN (Reprise, 1981) His voice sagging, straining to hit notes that once came so easily, Sinatra pulls off one last masterpiece-a dark, resilient set of saloon-song laments and aches. His Wagnerian version of the old Cher hit ”Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” is the furthest thing from a novelty song. A

*THE REPRISE COLLECTION (Re-prise, 1990) Four CDs chronicling his ups and downs between 1960 and ’86, with some questionable inclusions (a live ’70s ”The Lady Is a Tramp”) and exclusions (no ”Cycles” or ”Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”). Still, there are enough live and studio outtakes to please collectors, and all the hits, from ”It Was a Very Good Year” through ”Theme From New York, New York.” All in all, a better set than you might expect. (A one-disc distillation, The Very Good Years, is a budget-conscious option.) B+ -DB