By EDNA GUNDERSEN
The odds favor the oddest couple in recent Grammy memory. By almost every measure, former Led Zeppelin howler Robert Plant and bluegrass darling Alison Krauss have a lock on the Grammy for album of the year, music's highest honor.
This year's field, widely hailed as a solid reflection of 2008's worthiest works, pits the duo's "Raising Sand" against Coldplay's "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends," Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III," Ne-Yo's "Year of the Gentleman" and Radiohead's "In Rainbows."
All enjoyed critical hosannas and commercial success, but the Grammy victor is often determined by byzantine variables that weigh artistic merit along with popularity, familiarity, past performance, overdue recognition and comfort levels. The probability rises when an album appeals to multiple constituencies, avoids controversy and evokes a bygone era.
"Plant and Krauss will win," predicts Paul Grein, a veteran Grammy prognosticator and Yahoo's Chart Watch columnist. "You have two respected veterans from vastly different fields, which reminds me of last year's winner, Herbie Hancock doing the songs of Joni Mitchell.
"Voters like rootsy music. We saw that when "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" won. There's deep support for this album."
What may hurt "Sand "is its arrival three weeks into the eligibility period of Oct. 1, 2007, through Sept. 30, 2008. "That's the only downside," Grein says. "Some of the punch is gone."
"Sand," no longer on "Billboard"'s album chart, has sold 1.2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Carter," 2008's top seller and still No. 25, has sold 3 million copies since its June 10 release. "Gentleman" is close behind at No. 29 but with far fewer sales: 857,000 since Sept. 16. "Viva," out since June 17, is No. 45 and past 2.2 million. "Rainbows," released as a CD in early 2008, is No. 198 with sales of 689,000, but that excludes downloads racked up during an innovative tip-jar campaign launched Oct. 10, 2007. A year later, publisher Warner Chappell reported digital and physical sales at 3 million.
"Plant/Krauss probably has the best chance," says "Spin "editor Doug Brod. "Last year, they gave it to an underdog that nobody heard. In this case, they'd honor two lifers for an album that got unanimous critical acclaim."
"Sand "seems unbeatable. Plant is a rock legend who was overlooked in his prime. Krauss has more Grammys than any female artist. Their partnership reflects the show's tradition of "Grammy moments," and their hypnotic duets are adventurous but not too edgy for conservative tastes.
But an upset isn't impossible.
"Coldplay made an album that's even more successful at a time when no one was buying records," Brod says. "Everyone's heard it."
Grein agrees that "Coldplay has broad appeal," but he sees the British rock band running second in the race.
"They'll probably win song and record of the year (for "Viva La Vida"), but I don't think they'll get all top three awards," Grein says. "Even U2 didn't do that, and Coldplay isn't quite at U2's level."
He places Ne-Yo third and credits his placement in the marquee category to "being ingenious enough to put the word "gentleman' in the title. Voters are nervous about the thuggish nature of contemporary R&B. He has plenty of chances to win later."
While Radiohead is widely respected, "In Rainbows" may suffer as "a symbol of the downloading crisis," Grein theorizes.
Brod suggests voters will regard it "as a little opaque, artsy and less deserving. It's admirable that the industry nominated them, but it feels like they're being rewarded for writing their own business model."
Where does that leave Lil Wayne, this year's leader with eight nominations? Weezy's hit-packed opus, which topped multiple critics' lists, was the only 2008 release to exceed opening-week sales of 1 million copies.
Grein ranks it dead last in the best-album sprint.
"It's too extreme, too explicit," he says. "Grammy voters like rap if it's Outkast. Kanye (West) is as far as they'll go, and even he didn't win last year."
West, in fact, has lost the best-album contest three times. Eminem lost twice.
Brod recalls huge anticipation for Lil Wayne's album. "Even before it came out, people were calling it the best of the year."
They didn't have a Grammy calculator.
Gannett News Service