February 6, 2009

The Sun's Guide to: The 51st Annual Grammy Awards

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Every year since the Grammys’ inception 51 years ago, they have been a crap shoot of controversy. Following convoluted nomination metrics of artistic merit and commercial success, the Recording Academy never fails to surprise (and confuse) with its subjective selection of nominees. And while this year’s leading nom-getters are surprisingly mainstream — Lil Wayne earning top nominations with eight, followed by Coldplay garnering seven, and Jay-Z, Ne-Yo and Kanye West each earning six nods — there are bound to be some upset selections when the winners are revealed. As Lil Wayne rambled on his Weezy YouTube blog, “I think they [the Academy] thinks it’s enough just to nominate me,” going as far to predict he will get shutout of all categories. While Lil Wayne’s prediction is a little erroneous, here is my equally flawed attempt at sifting through the minutia-plagued Grammy landscape to predict who will come out victorious this Sunday night.

Best New Artist
Nominees: Adele, Duffy, Jonas Brothers, Lady Antebellum, Jazmine Sullivan

Somewhere during the ’90s, the Best New Artist category became a jinxed honor, a dignified recognition of debut artistic potential that doomed your future commercial viability. Past winners like Marc Cohn, Arrested Development, Paula Cole and Lauryn Hill — all deserved at the time of their award — bizarrely succumbed to has-been status immediately afterward. Thankfully, the new millennium brought relevance back to this time-honored award, and there are indeed several worthy nominees this year. While Brit singer-songwriters Adele and Duffy likely have the upper hand in this category — the former noted for her sweetly serious ballad “Chasing Pavements” while the latter recognized for her throwback-60s pop (“Mercy”), Country Music Association darlings Lady Antebellum (who?) also have an outside shot at the award, victorious at the CMAs only a few months ago. I find it almost unthinkable that the Academy would bestow the Hanson-lite Jonas Brothers this honor — how it is that the Grammys continue to anoint artists “new” when they’ve released multiple albums? — yet stranger things have happened (Milli Vanilli, anyone?). All this said, my heart gives the edge to Jazmine Sullivan, whose fusion of raspy vocals, old-school R&B flow and lyrical creativity make her a New Artist favorite of mine.

Song of the Year
Nominees: “American Boy,” “Chasing Pavements,” “I’m Yours,” “Love Song,” “Viva La Vida”

Purely aimed at rewarding songwriting merit, this year’s nominations are, unlike past stale standards, shockingly well-known. Adele gets a second nod here for “Chasing Pavements,” (a song you recognize but can never really hum), as does Sara Bareilles for her TV ad-turned-pop hit “Love Song” and Jason Mraz for his quirkily sincere “I’m Yours.” I would love nothing more to say that either one of these plucky pop songs, or Estelle’s effervescently ubiquitous “American Boy,” had a shot in this category. Yet, the Grammys rarely reward exclusively Top 40 hits Song of the Year, which leaves Coldplay’s pop/rock crossover “Viva la Vida” as the obvious pick.

Album of the Year
Nominees: Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends (Coldplay), Tha Carter III (Lil Wayne), Year of the Gentleman (Ne-Yo), Raising Sand (Robert Plant & Alison Krauss), In Rainbows (Radiohead)

As the record industry continues to plummet in album sales, this category has become less and less about commercial viability. Last year’s Herbie Hancock victory marked yet another example of how conservative the Grammy constructs really are, as the Academy continues to reward industry veterans producing fine albums that are elevated to otherworldly status when considering their industry background. This year, the industry vet card is filled by Robert Plant and Grammy-crush Allison Krauss, who has already won 21 freakin’ Grammys. What about spreading the wealth, Recoding Academy? Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentleman showed artistic growth and lyrical maturity, Radiohead’s In Rainbows re-affirmed the group’s innovative sonic prowess, and Lil Wayne’s long-delayed Tha Carter III delivered some monster radio hits. In the end, however, it’s Plant’s Raising Sand’s category to lose. Although, give an outside shot to Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, who as a group have that milquetoast, something-for-everyone appeal that the Grammys revere.

Record of the Year
Nominees: “Chasing Pavements” Adele; “Viva La Vida” Coldplay; “Bleeding Love” Leona Lewis; “Paper Planes” M.I.A; “Please Read The Letter” Robert Plant and Allison Krauss

As the Grammys’ most prestigious award, the winner of this category used to be considered the most successful song of the year, recognizing both critical acclaim and commercial performance. However, this tradition has been abandoned in recent years, as songs by Ray Charles, the Dixie Chicks, U2 and Norah Jones have been recipients garnering little to zero airplay. With this precedent in mind, Plant and Krauss’ “Please Read the Letter” is the favorite, as far as little known songs go, to snag the award. The irony here is that the other four underdog nominees are vastly more well-known. Adele and Coldplay again here get nods, as does Leona Lewis for her worldwide-phenomena of a debut “Bleeding Love.” As hilarious as it would be to see former teeny-bopper Jesse McCartney earn a Grammy for his co-write on the song, the record is likely, and frustratingly, too commercial for the stuffy voting elite. The one inspired surprise in this category is the nod given to M.I.A. for “Paper Planes,” which is likely the first (and last) Grammy nomination to feature gunshots, a Clash sample, and references to “weed and bongs.” However hopeful I am to see a hugely pregnant M.I.A. bounding around the Grammy stage, hoisting up her trophy while spewing revolutionary slogans about third world democracy, it’s unlikely the Academy will recognize the brilliance of this record.

The bottom line here is that no matter how relevant the Grammys think they are — gee whiz, we nominated Radiohead AND M.I.A. this year! — the Academy will likely continue to reward industry vets over worthy newcomers this year. Like last year’s situation, with jazz legend Herbie Hancock trumping Kanye West, this year’s top vote getter, Lil Wayne, will probably be bested by another old guy: Robert Plant. Swirling arena anthems (Coldplay) will likely reign over straight-ahead pop melodies (Lewis), and the rap genre will remain ignored. And all of my assertions will be completely wrong. That’s why we watch.

The 51st Annual Grammy Awards will be televised on CBS on Feb. 8, 2009 at 8 p.m. To see a full list of nominees, go online to http://www.grammy.com.