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Handicapping the 2008 Grammys

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When the 51st annual Grammy Awards are telecast live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles starting at 7 p.m. next Sunday on WBBM-TV/Ch. 2, the only thing that's certain is that many of the predictions made by critics and handicappers will be wrong.

As I note every year at this time, awards sponsors the Recording Academy are such a large, diverse and sometimes clueless group of music-business professionals with so many competing political and inside-industry agendas that getting an accurate read of who'll take home the golden gramophones is about a thousand times harder than predicting Chicago's weather.
Nevertheless, perhaps because my editors love to see me try and fail, here once again is a look at this year's "Big Four" categories, with my game but no doubt flawed thoughts on who may claim these coveted prizes.

Category 1: Record of the Year (Awarded to the artist)

The nominees: Adele, "Chasing Pavements"; Coldplay, "Viva La Vida"; Leona Lewis, "Bleeding Love"; M.I.A., "Paper Planes" and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Please Read the Letter."

Predicted winner: Since the extraordinary debut hit by the young British R&B star Adele is likely to split the good-taste vote with globetrotting dance star M.I.A.'s admittedly invigorating hit "Paper Planes," I'm guessing we'll see the old-school nostalgia vote claim victory with the sweet but sleep entry by Plant and Krauss, especially because the Coldplay and Lewis tracks are mediocre contenders by otherwise strong artists.

Most worthy: Adele, though it's by just a hair over M.I.A. If there's been a better heartbreak song than "Chasing Pavements" in the last decade, this one is so great that it's erasing any other from my memory.

Category 2: Album of the year (Awarded to the artist)

The nominees: Coldplay, "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends"; Lil Wayne, "Tha Carter III"; Ne-Yo, "Year of the Gentleman"; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand"; Radiohead, "In Rainbows."

Predicted winner: Once again, I'm going with the nostalgic/non-threatening vote taking the win with Plant and Krauss. Some voters will be swayed by the big numbers that Lil Wayne and Ne-Yo scored in the hip-hop and R&B worlds, and the unrepentant rockists may go with Coldplay, though "Viva La Vida" was the least impressive album the band has made. The only thing I'm positive about is that the most deserving band on this list won't claim the prize.

Most worthy: Radiohead, as much for the raw emotion and vastly improved Thom Yorke vocals on "In Rainbows" as for the noble experiment of releasing the disc as a "pay-what-you-think-it's-worth" digital download--a model that scares the heck out of the traditional music industry, underscoring how no one really needs it any more.

Category 3: Song of the year (Awarded to the songwriter)

The nominees: "American Boy" by Estelle featuring Kanye West (songwriters William Adams, Keith Harris, Josh Lopez, Caleb Speir, John Stephens, Estelle Swaray and Kanye West); "Chasing Pavements" by Adele (songwriters Adele Adkins and Eg White); "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz (songwriter Jason Mraz); "Love Song" by Sara Bareilles (songwriter Sara Bareilles) and "Viva La Vida" by Coldplay (songwriters Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion and Chris Martin).

Predicted winner: This is the one prize Adele may take back to London. Bareilles doesn't have a lot to distinguish her from the legions of other female singer-songwriters sitting at pianos; Coldplay was sleepwalking through this one, as I've said (go ahead and try to hum the hook to "Viva La Vida," I dare ya) and the Estelle song is fun but slight. Mraz is the kind of cute and mannered artist Grammy voters love, but I think they'll be more enamored of Adele's surprisingly soulful update of Ella Fitzgerald by way of Etta James.

Most worthy: Adele.

Category 4: Best new artist

(Per the academy's strange logic: "For a new artist who releases, during the eligibility year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist"--even is said artist has been putting out music for years, like the Jonas Brothers.)

The nominees: Adele, Duffy, the Jonas Brothers, Lady Antebellum and Jazmine Sullivan.

Predicted winner: Always the trickiest field in a tricky lot--Grammy voters almost never get this one right--Adele likely will lose out her because she'll be splitting the post-Amy Winehouse young British soul chanteuse vote with AimeƩ Ann Duffy of Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales. The nomination of Philadelphia singer Sullivan will further divide R&B fans, and I'm guessing the Jonas Brothers got the nod only because voters were impressed by their platinum sales and wanted to give their 'tween-age daughters something to watch on the telecast. That means the always-active Nashville bloc could well score with the hometown country-pop trio of Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood and Hilary Scott, though Lady Antebellum has about as much originality (and taste) as the menu at Cracker Barrel.

Most worthy: No doubt about it: The JoBros are better than the Beatles, Sinatra, Elvis and Aretha Franklin combined! (Bet you thought I was gonna say Adele again, right? Sorry, but I'm still deleting the hate mails piled up since the last time I minimized the boundless bubblegum brilliance of Kevin, Joe and Nick. And you'll never convince me that the Jonas Brothers don't belong in the ranks of stellar Best New Artist Grammy winners Christopher Cross, Milli Vanilli and the Starland Vocal Band!)

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4 Comments

Funny story, Jim -- nobody I've met so far here in Wales gives a rat's butt cheeks about Duffy, which is kind of amazing, since it was apparently the UK's biggest-selling album of 2008. I always wonder who in the hell actually buys these things.

But honestly, I've long wondered how Grammy voters can be so tone-deaf. I mean, the Emmys and Oscars occasionally get one right (as when Arrested Development won in '04, or the win for Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova at the Oscars last year). If they can do something right every so often, why can't the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences? I mean, great, Bob Dylan finally won in 1998, but how has Nick Cave never been nominated? And remember
when the Clapton-Babyface collaboration "Change the World" robbed The Great King Pumpkin of his one Grammy shot in "1979?"

Or -- and this one's my favorite -- Paula Cole wins "Best New Artist" over Erykah Badu, Fiona Apple, and Hanson. Really. Erykah Badu is, in my opinion, one of the most important voices in soul -- if not THE most important -- in my lifetime. Fiona Apple matured into an incredibly talented, incredibly diverse artiste, and that Extraordinary Machine album is spectacular. Even Hanson has managed to put out a couple of catchy, hook-filled, roots-rock records that sound kind of like a cross between the Wallflowers and Fleetwood Mac. Well, at least they didn't give it to Puff Daddy -- but in fairness, at least you probably still remember the Did-ster.

Furthermore, I have to take issue with their whole method. In Rainbows, for example, was among my favorite albums... of 2007 (I believe it came out in October of that year). So too was Raising Sand released in October '07. The others were indeed released in '08, so they're fine, but how does it make any sense to nominate two records that have been out now for fifteen months?

Okay, Angry Grammy Rant of 2009 over. Look forward to one next year!

What's extraordinary about Adele's debut hit? It sounds very alike to previous hit songs by James Morrison and Will Young. The connection between all three? The co-writer Eg White. Adele has a far stronger song called Hometown Glory on her debut album.

Brendan, as a fellow Welshman I suggest you expand your social circle! Though not exactly my full cup of tea Duffy's album was the fourth biggest selling worldwide in 2008. Massive success across Europe. You may not have met anyone who gives a rat's arse about her, but I bet there's a lot more rate her as an artist than Erykah despite your paeons of love to Ms Badu.

The Best New Artist category feels pretty redundant this year. What a shambolic mess they've made of it.

Anonymous, I don't have any problem with Duffy, but neither do I think she's anything special. I believe I noted that Duffy's record was the #1 seller in the UK in 2008. But even still, since when have record sales somehow equated to greatness? Just because something is popular doesn't mean it's right. George W. Bush once had a 92% approval rating, too.

Further, you are absolutely entitled to your opinion, but I simply can't take seriously anyone who honestly believes that Duffy, after one admittedly popular album, is somehow more legitimate than Erykah Badu, who has (in my opinion) two masterpieces and two very, very good records under her belt.

Brendan D--

The Smashing Pumpkins have won two Grammys. Sure, they were not for "Song of the Year" but rather for "Best Hard Rock Performance"...but they still count.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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