About 10 years or so ago the "sampler" became a valuable, and surprisingly popular, way for new-age record labels to pull together and spotlight the work of their sundry soloists and ensembles. Two new compilations, released just in time for holiday giving, demonstrate how pleasantly rewarding such instrumental collections can be.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Windham Hill: The First Ten Years" (Windham Hill). * * * 1/2

Producer-guitarist Will Ackerman and his pioneering Windham Hill label didn't invent the sampler, just as they didn't really invent what came to be called new age or contemporary adult instrumental music. But it sure seems like they did. In both cases.And if anything, "The First Ten Years" is the Windham Hill sampler to end all Windham Hill samplers. Clocking in at 2 hours and 20 or so minutes, the double CD set time-travels back to 1977 for Ackerman's guitar solo on "Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter" - his resonant style already a signature, if not yet perfected - and makes its way through a constellation of the genre's stars to 1987 and keyboard artist Tim Story's "Woman at the Well."

No performer gets more than two tracks, not even master guitarist Michael Hedges, crystalline pianist George Winston or ubiquitous synthesist-trumpeter Mark Isham. Variety is the name of the game, although a warm ambiance is the overall effect. The songs range from folk-like to minimalistic, and not all really deserve inclusion (Isham's "Pittsburgh 1901" and Liz Story's "Bradley's Dream" are examples). But once the collection gets rolling, after the artists have shaken off their early career tentativeness, we're caught up in the ride.

"Windham Hill: The First Ten Years" is not only a slice of one genre's musical history, it's a collection perfect for playing over and over and over again.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "The Narada Wilderness Collection" (Narada); executive producer Eric Lindert. * * * 1/2

One of my favorite images of Beethoven - contrary as it is to his cliche-portrayal as a scowling genius - is of the great composer strolling through the Austrian woods, pen and paper in hand, happily focused upon birdsongs and pastoral splendor.

Nature inspires the artist. That was the case long before Beethoven, and is still true. For proof you need only give a listen to the new "Wilderness" collection from Narada, featuring 16 contributions from the label's artists, including pianists David Lanz and Michael Jones, synthesist David Arkenstone, violinist Doug Cameron and the guitar-and-woodwinds duo of Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel. The compilation also has an environmental agenda, with sales benefitting the Sierra Club and the Audubon and Wilderness societies.

Few of the selections are "place specific," so to speak. Arkenstone's anticipatory and dreamily appropriate opener, "Yosemite," and German guitarist Ralf Illenberger's "Sahara Sunrise" being among the few exceptions. Mostly this is aural impressionism, with splashes of sonic color and mood describing a "Northern Morning" (by synthesist Peter Buffet) or "Wildflowers" (Michael Jones).

The mixed atmospheres of the individual pieces don't give the album a strong musical personality, as is the case with some of these artists' own nature-oriented albums - "Desert Vision" and "Natural States" by Lanz and Paul Speer and "Woodlands" by Tingstad, Rumbel and Lanz come to mind. But "Wilderness" presents no lowlights and certainly enough highlights to make it an ideal candidate for the soundtrack of any Sunday drive.