Preview: Her craftsmanship should give Joan Osborne the edge with conservative Grammy voters, who just love a well-made recording.



As any pundit will tell you, the best way to predict how voters will act is by understanding how those voters think. Consequently, the biggest challenge facing any Grammy handicapper is having to stop thinking like a music critic and to start thinking like a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

That's not as easy as you'd think. The National Academy, whose 8,000 members vote on the Grammys, is an organization of industry professionals, with a heavy emphasis on producers and engineers. Unlike fans, who are happy with a good tune and a personable performance, or critics, who tend to prefer edgy, artistically daring work, what many academy members admire most is craftsmanship. Nothing impresses these folks more than a well-made recording.

This is why it's a mistake to complain, as Rolling Stone did recently, that the Grammys tend to favor "big-selling mainstream pop artists like Toto, Quincy Jones and Christopher Cross," as if all that was being rewarded was blandness and popularity. Embarrassing as their work may seem to alternarock hipsters, what Toto, Jones and Cross had in common was an extreme proficiency at recording and engineering -- and that's what put each over the top at Grammy time, which this year is at 8 p.m. Wednesday on CBS.

Grammy voters are, of course, notoriously conservative. Previous Grammy slates have shown a strong preference for soft, traditional rock and big, soppy ballads -- so much so that this year, the academy's leadership installed a secret 25-member screening committee to "filter" the results of the nominating ballots. That's why this year's list of Grammy hopefuls seems so cutting-edge, what with the likes of Seal, Alanis Morissette, Joan Osborne and Pearl Jam vying for Record of the Year and Album of the Year.

There won't be any screening committee for the final ballot, though, which is why this handicapper suspects that technical craft, not commercial success, will be the deciding factor. And while that won't be good news for Mariah Carey or Hootie and the Blowfish, it should work wonders for Joan Osborne.

* Record of the year: This year, the great contenders in the Grammy race are Mariah Carey, Alanis Morissette and Osborne, so the obvious question is, Will there be a sweep?

Well, let's put it this way: Joan Osborne should start rehearsing her thank-yous now.

Whether you believe that Osborne's "One of Us" was the best single released last year, the fact is that it makes a perfect record of the year. For starters, it manages to sound adventurous even as it stays well within the traditions of mainstream rock and roll. More than being catchy -- something all of the nominated singles are -- it takes stylistic elements every listener knows and gives them a bright new sheen. Ironically, that makes it a more appealing choice for the academy voters than adventurous fare like Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" or Seal's "Kiss from a Rose."

It also addresses a profound issue with a simple chorus: "What if God was one of us?" This is the sort of thing Grammy voters love. Looking over the list of previous winners in this category -- "Don't Worry, Be Happy," "Wind Beneath My Wings," "Tears in Heaven," "Streets of Philadelphia" -- it quickly becomes clear that a catchy song about a serious subject is a virtual shoo-in.

Finally, the two singles that have the best shot of upsetting Osborne -- TLC's "Waterfalls" and the Mariah Carey/Boyz II Men collaboration "One Sweet Day" -- are so close in style and audience that they'll likely cancel each other out.

* Album of the year: Things get a little trickier here. Although Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" and Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" scored highly with rock critics, that sort of approval is not likely to carry much weight with Grammy voters (the cads!). Likewise, though there always have been rumors of record company blocs swinging the vote in major Grammy categories, it would take more than the concerted efforts of Sony Music to ensure that Mariah Carey's "Daydream" will snare this Grammy.

Why? Because when push comes to shove, it's the engineering, arranging and production that makes or breaks an album in this category, and from that perspective, there are only two real contenders: Osborne's "Relish" and Michael Jackson's "HIStory Past, Present and Future Book 1."

That Osborne would be a prime contender is obvious as soon as you hear "Relish" on headphones or through a good stereo. Not only are the arrangements lean and clever, full of interesting textures and ear-catching hooks, but the recording itself is astonishingly vivid, virtually surrounding the listener in sound. It would be hard to imagine a better com- bination of singing, songwriting and studio craft.

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