1 Chop Suey CD-Rom of the Year (Magnet Interactive Studios, CD-ROM for PC and Mac, $34.98) It wasn't a good year for CD-ROM. Sales didn't live up to the hype, and the World Wide Web got all the press, but now that expectations have been lowered, multimedia publishers may experiment with what's on the disc instead of jamming out the next life-consuming adventure game. Which means we could end up with more titles like Chop Suey. Created by Monica Gesue and Theresa Duncan, Chop Suey is a story disc for girls, but that's okay -- Calvin and Hobbes is supposedly for kids, too. By clicking around a funky folk-art map of a Midwestern town, you can tap into the magic-realist lives of Aunt Vera, her slacker son, Dooner, and other dreamy souls. The plangent soundtrack is wonderful, and there's a surprise in every corner, but the reason Chop Suey heads this list is that it's one of only two CD-ROMs released this year to offer an honest-to-God sense of place.
2 The Residents' Bad Day on the Midway (Inscape, CD-ROM for PC and Mac, $49.95) And this is the other one. The Residents, anonymous heroes of avant-garde pop, reenlisted Freak Show designer Jim Ludtke to oversee the look of their new disc, a multi-stranded tale of dread and epiphany at a traveling carnival. The resulting computer graphics have an almost obscenely tactile feel imagine Toy Story as a voyage of the damned and the vibrant human tales reek of the best Southern gothic. If you're bored, you can check out Dixie's Kill-A-Commie shooting gallery.
3 The World Wide Web Three years ago, the Web didn't exist. Today it's impossible to ignore: Every shlub with something to say or sell has a home page; the stock for Netscape, the leading Web browser, debuted like a rocket last August; and Nielsen is starting to compile Web ratings. So why isn't the Web this year's No. 1? Because what it is now is nothing like what it will be in a couple of years. Cable modems will ease the aggravating download time, and audio, video, and software add-ons will goose the medium's capabilities. For now, the Web is a beautiful Babel. By century's end, it may be a necessity.
4 The Palace Online chat has become a great way to trade gossip or swap cyberspit, but so what? It's still just words on a screen. This year saw the debut of virtual chat, in which you construct a visual ''avatar'' of yourself and cruise through graphic party spaces. At least four outfits are offering software, including the Microsoft Network and the Steven Spielberg-backed Worlds Inc., but our money is on the Palace (http://www.thepalace.com), and not because it's owned (like this magazine) by Time Warner. It's easy to move around in, the graphics are deluxe, and the avatars creatively goofy.
5 Sonic Net, Firefly, and Rocktropolis Music sites on the Web are in an embryonic state but three offer tantalizing glimpses of what could be. The amusingly snide Sonic Net (http://www.sonicnet.com) features reviews, live chats with bands, concert info, and sound clips. Firefly (http://www.agents-inc.com) has a massive database that recommends albums you may like based on ones you do like. And the ambitious Rocktropolis (http://rocktropolis.com) spotlights new releases with full-bore Web gimmickryand sports Daryl Hannah as a guardian angel.