Crazy eights


February 5, 2006


When it comes to the Grammys shaking their notorious conservatism and breaking free of their tendency to honor commercial success rather than the stated "musical excellence and innovation," it is often two steps forward and one step back.

In 2004, the sometimes staid voters of the Recording Academy surprised many music lovers and veteran Grammy handicappers by honoring Chicago producer and rapper Kanye West with a nearly unprecedented 10 nominations for his debut album, "The College Dropout."

Alas, when the awards were handed out, West claimed only three of those golden gramophones, and he lost the major prizes for best new artist and song, and album of the year. Two steps forward, one back.

Among the 2005 contenders, West and John Legend, the R&B singer he produced, are two of the top three multiple nominees, with eight Grammy nods each. But industry insiders say the Recording Academy seems poised to ignore the Crazy 8s and give many of its top honors to longtime Grammy favorite Mariah Carey for her much ballyhooed comeback album.

Overproduced, formulaic and riddled with cliches, it's difficult to hear the musical excellence and innovation in "The Emancipation of Mimi" -- I gave it 1-1/2 stars upon its release last April -- but for reasons beyond my comprehension, it has sold phenomenally well, standing at more than 5 million copies in the United States.

It would be nothing short of a travesty for the Grammys to heap honors on Carey's disc while ignoring West's "Late Registration," an even more inventive and challenging effort than his debut. But as I point out every year around this time, the Grammys have given us plenty of travesties since the awards were established in 1957 by the music industry's old guard as a reaction to that horrible new scourge of rock 'n' roll.

Examples? How about the academy dumping Grammys on the likes of Perry Como and Doris Day through the late '50s while shutting out those rock hooligans Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, or ignoring Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones when they were at the height of the talents in the '60s, or taking nearly a decade to recognize the importance of hip-hop?

For these reasons, Grammy-bashing is a tried and true pursuit for hard-core music fans. But for all their flaws, the awards remain the most credible in popular music. So every year, we hope that the more than 10,000 musicians, educators and music-industry professionals who comprise the voting members of the Recording Academy will remember the organization's ideals, and maybe get things right.

Predicting the final decision of this large and diverse group is famously difficult, and probably a fool's errand. But I've never let that stop me before. Here, then, is my annual look at some of the key categories for the 48th annual Grammy Awards, which will be presented Wednesday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Record of the year (awarded to the performer and producer of a single track)

The nominees: Mariah Carey, "We Belong Together"; Gorillaz featuring De La Soul, "Feel Good Inc."; Green Day, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"; Gwen Stefani, "Hollaback Girl"; Kanye West, "Gold Digger."

Predicted winner: Carey, for commercial rather than artistic accomplishments, for the reasons stated above.

Most worthy: In terms of its sheer creativity, the playfulness of its lyrics and its irresistible hooks, West had the record of the year.

Sadly overlooked: LCD Soundsystem, "Daft Punk Is Playing in My House."

Album of the Year

The nominees: Mariah Carey, "The Emancipation of Mimi"; Paul McCartney, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard"; Gwen Stefani, "Love. Angel. Music. Baby."; U2, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb"; Kanye West, "Late Registration."

Predicted winner: Conservative voters may be split here between Carey and paying homage to those old warhorses McCartney and U2. I'll go out on a limb and say that will clear the way for West to claim a prize he clearly deserves.

Most worthy: Hometown hero West.

Sadly overlooked: Our other Chicago superstar rapper, Common for "Be."

Song of the Year

(awarded to the songwriter)

The nominees: Rascal Flatts, "Bless the Broken Road" (Bobby Boyd, Jeff Hanna & Marcus Hummon, songwriters); Bruce Springsteen, "Devils & Dust"; John Legend, "Ordinary People" (W. Adams & J. Stephens, songwriters); U2, "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own"; Mariah Carey, "We Belong Together" (J. Austin, M. Carey, J. Dupri & M. Seal, songwriters).

Predicted winner: This is the saddest of the major categories this year: We have U2 and Springsteen going through the motions, a token nod to a country act and Carey raking in the cash. She will probably win.

Most worthy: Red-hot R&B comer Legend.

Sadly overlooked: The Black Eyed Peas, "My Humps." Yes, it was a guilty pleasure, but the emphasis is on the pleasure.

Best new artist

The nominees: Ciara, Fall Out Boy, Keane, John Legend, SugarLand.

Predicted winner: Another rather pathetic slate. In this company, there's no question that Legend is the most significant artist -- and that's no slight to suburban Chicago pop-punks Fall Out Boy, who were shocked themselves at this nominations.

Most worthy: Legend.

Sadly overlooked: The English New Wave of New Wave dance band, the Go! Team.

Pop vocal album

The nominees: Fiona Apple, "Extraordinary Machine"; Kelly Clarkson, "Breakaway"; Sheryl Crow, "Wildflower"; Paul McCartney, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard"; Gwen Stefani, "Love. Angel. Music. Baby."

Predicted winner: I'm betting voters will jump at the chance to honor venerated elder Sir Paul.

Most worthy: If we consider the disc that had the most impact in the pop world in 2005, the prize has to go to Stefani.

Sadly overlooked: The New Pornographers, "Twin Cinema" -- truly great pop music, even if it wasn't as commercially popular as any of these discs.

Rock album

The nominees: Coldplay, "X&Y"; Foo Fighters, "In Your Honor"; the Rolling Stones, "A Bigger Bang"; U2, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb"; Neil Young, "Prairie Wind."

Predicted winner: It's likely that the elders here (Young, who deserves the nod, and the Stones, who don't) will cancel each other out, as will Coldplay and the Foo Fighters, allowing Grammy voters to once again declare the devotion to U2.

Most worthy: Coldplay.

Sadly overlooked: The White Stripes, "Get Behind Me Satan."

Alternative music album

The nominees: The Arcade Fire, "Funeral"; Beck, "Guero"; Death Cab for Cutie, "Plans"; Franz Ferdinand, "You Could Have It So Much Better"; the White Stripes, "Get Behind Me Satan."

Predicted winner: This is a hard one to call, since voters will be familiar with Franz Ferdinand and the White Stripes from recent appearances on the Grammy show, and they probably know Death Cab from "The O.C." But Beck is the biggest name, so I'll give it to him as their uninspired choice.

Most worthy: The Arcade Fire -- though "Funeral" was actually released in September 2004. (The Grammys continue to define the voting year by odd parameters; for instance, the year 2005 was Oct. 1, 2004, to Sept. 30, 2005, but even by their wacky calendar, "Funeral" doesn't qualify. Go figure.)

Sadly overlooked: Moby, "Hotel."

Dance recording

The nominees: The Chemical Brothers featuring Q-Tip, "Galvanize"; Deep Dish, "Say Hello"; Fatboy Slim & Lateef, "Wonderful Night"; LCD Soundsystem, "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House"; Kylie Minogue, "I Believe in You"; New Order, "Guilt Is a Useless Emotion."

Predicted winner: Overrated British dance diva Minogue, the only name in the field that mainstream voters are likely to recognize.

Most worthy: LCD Soundsystem.

Sadly overlooked: Ladytron, "International Dateline."

R&B album

The nominees: Earth, Wind and Fire, "Illumination"; Fantasia, "Free Yourself"; Alicia Keys, "Unplugged"; John Legend, "Get Lifted"; Stevie Wonder, "A Time to Love."

Predicted winner: Legend -- but that's based on the guess that Grammy voters are as befuddled as I am about the distinction between this category and "best contemporary R&B album" (those nominees: Amerie, Mariah Carey, Destiny's Child, Mario and Omarion).

Most worthy: Legend.

Sadly overlooked: Leela James, "A Change Is Gonna Come."

Rap album

The nominees: Common, "Be"; Missy Elliott, "The Cookbook"; Eminem, "Encore"; 50 Cent, "The Massacre"; Kanye West, "Late Registration."

Predicted winner: While Elliott is a great talent, this was not her best disc, and the nods to Eminem and 50 Cent will likely cancel each other. That leaves a duel between West and his mentor Common, a tough call, since both artists delivered stellar efforts. Maybe voters will honor West in the big categories of album and record of the year, and give this award to Common. (We can hope.)

Most worthy: Common.

Sadly overlooked: Saul Williams, "Saul Williams."