December 30, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

1994 Album of the year

1. Mellow Gold

Beck (DGC) From Elvis to Kurt Cobain, the greatest rockers have used music to reinvent themselves. Rock empowers them, and with it, they transcend their own roughshod upbringings and inspire us along the way — if they can beat the odds, maybe we can too. L.A. smart-ass Beck isn’t in their league, at least not yet, but that spirit exists in him as well. Beck’s ’90s twist is that he becomes a different person on every song, from sweet-and-naive folkie to sardonic white rapper to gnarled scuzz rocker. Sometimes he does it all within the same tune, as on his cheeky, impossibly hooky hit ”Loser.” The most sonically inventive album of the year, Mellow Gold (one of three albums he released in 1994!) perfectly captures the manic, channel-surfing essence of contemporary pop. And his attitude — ambivalent toward rock, toward fame, toward intimacy, toward his own McJob — is entirely ’90s too. I still don’t know what ”get crazy with the Cheese Whiz” means, and I don’t care.

2. Live Through This Hole (DGC) Put aside, for the moment, the now-ominous title or prescient lyrics like ”Someday you will ache like I ache.” This is Courtney Love’s musical judgment day, and she and her band don’t just deliver the goods; they hurl them in your face. Hole’s big-league debut is as complex as its leader: raw yet gentle, self-lacerating yet self-respecting, ravaged yet in control, and sung in a voice of power and heart-stopping phlegm. No one can, or should, ever call her a poseur again.

3. Superunknown Soundgarden (A&M) It took them a few records, but this now- veteran Seattle band finally nails the metal-grunge fusion they’ve been shooting for. They do it by paring down the excess without losing any of their riding-the-bull power or Chris Cornell’s wail-at-the-sky angst. A landmark both for Soundgarden and for hard rock.

4.Above the Rim, The Soundtrack (Death Row/ Interscope) Not only does it contain two terrific singles — Warren G and Nate Dogg’s insinuating ”Regulate” and SWV’s bump-and-grind ”Anything” — this score also touches on nearly every style of current R&B, from female rap sauciness to hip-hop doo-wop make-out anthems. It’s like listening to a first-rate urban-contemporary radio station — one that plays 18 straight good-to-great songs.

5. Bedtime Stories Madonna (Maverick/Sire) Another night, another party. But once again she goes home alone, and this is the music that comes of it: questioning, downbeat, vulnerable, warmer than that iceberg called Erotica, set to grooves that simmer rather than pound you into submission. If being ”over” results in music this subtly captivating, maybe Madonna should keep a lower profile.

6. Grace Jeff Buckley (Columbia) Overwrought and pained, his elastic voice spiraling into spasms of romantic despair, Buckley — son of the late ’60s-singer-songwriter Tim Buckley — is every cliché of the tortured bohemian artist. But his blend of choirboy cabaret and Zeppelin guitar is anything but secondhand. Buckley is aiming for a higher plane, musically and spiritually, than any other singer-songwriter right now, and he succeeds enough to matter.

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