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POP : Do You Hear What We Hear? : Prick up your antlers: Calendar's annual recordings guide is here to help you sift through the year's notable pop, jazz, classical, children's and holiday music--and the best of the box sets. : Separating Best Bets From Lumps of Coal

November 27, 1994|Robert Hilburn and \f7

Calendar's pop staff surveys 40 of the nation's most popular or critically acclaimed albums :

** THE CRANBERRIES, "No Need to Argue," Island. The Irish band sheds youthful innocence in favor of weightier themes, but the lyrics are mostly obvious and the production touches have become largely anonymous.

**** NINE INCH NAILS, "The Downward Spiral," Nothing/TVT/Interscope. Combining seductive songwriting craft, gear-grinding industrial howl and raw, unsettling language, Trent Reznor leads us on a nightmarish journey through an emptiness of the modern spirit.

*** NIRVANA, "MTV Unplugged in New York," Geffen. The stripped-down setting offers a valuable glimpse into the soul of an artist, but Nirvana's studio collections remain the essential expressions of Kurt Cobain's art.

*** OFFSPRING, "Smash," Epitaph. In a remarkable small-label success story, this Orange County band brings a winning enthusiasm and conviction to tales of youthful concerns.

**** PEARL JAM, "Vitalogy," Epic. A major advance over the group's first two albums--the playing is spontaneous and fresh, Eddie Vedder demonstrates equal growth as a writer, and there is a triumphant sense of daring.

**** R.E.M., "Monster," Warner Bros. A spirited celebration of rock history and imagination, with a rock assault as radical as U2's "Achtung Baby."

*** ROLLING STONES, "Voodoo Lounge," Virgin. Nothing here is likely to give the lasting emotional rush as their definitive recordings, but the band sounds more comfortable than it has in years.

*** THE TRACTORS, "The Tractors," Arista. One of the surprise finds of the year in country music--workingman's blues influenced by everyone from Bob Wills to Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley to Woody Guthrie.

**** NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE, "Sleeps With Angels," Reprise. This is music about social concerns and private thoughts that is as soul-baring as anything the singer-songwriter has done since 1975's "Tonight's the Night."

*** THE EAGLES, "Hell Freezes Over," Geffen. Of the four new studio tracks in this otherwise live collection, the best is "Learn to Be Still," which carries much of the soft, philosophical resonance of "The Last Resort."

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good, recommended) and four stars (excellent). A rating of five stars is reserved for reissues or retrospectives.

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