Popular music was even more unusual than usual in 1994.

Some typical perversity was on hand:- Trends faded: Grunge dimmed with the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, gangsta rap lost steam, and country music failed to produce a breakaway leader along the lines of Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus.

- Superstars stumbled: The enigmatic Prince became a pop footnote with two bombs - releases of inferior material that had been warehoused; Michael Jackson fell from grace, usurped by his sister Janet, whose six-times platinum 1993 album produced hits through all of 1994.

- The hype machine went overboard: The Rolling Stones were written about ad nauseum, which was a boost to ticket sales for their tour, but their not-so-stellar album "Voodoo Lounge" only reached an unimpressive single-platinum status and produced zero Top 40 hits. And there was Woodstock '94, an Eagles reunion, another round of Lollapalooza and more Aerosmith than anyone could ever want. Oh, and another big hit soundtrack from Disney ("The Lion King"). Ho hum.

Yet there were some trends that couldn't have been imagined.

Those Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos doubled the Rolling Stones in record sales with "Chant." Pygmy vocals found their way into the Deep Forest hit "Sweet Lullaby." And other variations of "world music" rode in with the successes of Enigma, Dead Can Dance and others.

Despite her rude appearance on "Late Show With David Let-ter-man," Madonna was almost sweet. She kept her career alive by going for schmaltzy love songs rather than the controversial stuff of 1992's "Erotica." On the other hand, the previously sweet Cranberries ripped out a biting "Zombie," a provocative alternative smash.

Punk found unexpected new life in the '90s, repackaged by such provocative bands as Offspring, Green Day and Hole.

But the most amazing story was a little album put together in Sweden by a couple of sisters, their brother and a friend. The group Ace of Base assembled the album "The Sign" hoping some of the cuts might be played in Swedish nightclubs. The band members didn't have much to say, and they reportedly weren't trying to impress anyone.

However, they baited their hooks well.

According to Billboard magazine, "The Sign" was the year's top album, selling more than 7 million copies so far in the United States and millions more abroad. The magazine also names its title track as the top song of the year, and the group's hits "All That She Wants" and "Don't Turn Around" also made the year's Top 10.

What Ace of Base symbolized was a refreshing return to the happy escapism music can provide. The song "The Sign" is a perfect pop creation: Every note, every nuance, every syllable interracts to create one delicious infection. The kiss-off message of the lyrics, cleverly disguised in the sweet vocals, is just a bonus.

Those unfairly maligned young Swedes were the leaders in something bigger: a deliberate move away from heavy-handed, depressing music.

Vocal groups - especially Boyz II Men and All-4-One - filled the airwaves with mushy love songs. All a lot of people wanted to do was get away from Sheryl Crow's ubiquitous "All I Wanna Do" (though the song undoubtedly will be regarded fondly years from now), and dancehall reggae singer Ini Kamoze rounded out the year with a gleefully vacuous No. 1, "Here Comes the Hotstepper."

But every silver lining has a dark cloud, and nothing could have been darker - or more intriguing - than the sounds of such tormented souls as Courtney Love (Hole) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails). More mellow, but equally disturbing, sounds flowed from the likes of Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Mazzy Star and Everything But the Girl.