Tough Call Awards: With no obvious favorites and little sign of industry consensus, this year's Grammy nominees are harder to handicap than ever before.

February 23, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Last year will not be remembered as a high-water mark in pop music history. There were no breakthrough albums released, no singer or group that captured the nation's imagination. Sales were flat, touring was down and general enthusiasm was low. All in all, it was a lousy year for music fans.

But that should make this a great year for Grammy watchers.

How so? Because for once the Grammy contest is shaping up as a real horse race. With no obvious favorites and little sign of industry consensus, this year's nominees are harder to handicap than ever before. Factor in last year's surprising Alanis Morissette wins -- a sweep that seems to have brushed away the Grammy voters' reputation for knee-jerk conservatism -- and it's anybody's guess who will come out on top when the winners are announced at the 39th Annual Grammy Awards show (which will be broadcast live from New York Wednesday, starting at 8 p.m., on CBS).

Much of that has to do with this year's nominees. Although the list is larded with mild, mainstream pop acts along the lines of Eric Clapton, Celine Dion, Sting, Gloria Estefan, Bryan Adams and Whitney Houston, it also includes quite a few cutting-edge acts, Beck, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, 2Pac, Oasis and Rage Against the Machine among them. It may not be the sort of slate a rock critic would compile, but neither is it the sort of old-fogey joke it once was.

Question is, are the voters as hip as the ballot? Edgy acts have been nominated before, and the Grammys have gone to less daring artists. Even the Morissette juggernaut last year could as easily be attributed to her middle-American mass popularity as to the artistic audacity of her music. So it's hard to say whether the presence of Beck, Garbage and Smashing Pumpkins represents a genuine change in attitude or just another false hope for hipsters.

That's why this year's Grammy forecast is being treated less as crystal ball-gazing than as an exercise in handicapping. Sure, some nominations are sure things and others long shots, but it's worth remembering that long shots can pay off and even sure things lose on occasion.

But before getting into odds-oriented specifics, here are a few Fearless Predictions:

Despite garnering a record-tying 12 nominations, Babyface will take no more than four of the tiny gramophones home.

Tracy Chapman and Eric Clapton will both do well enough (at least three Grammys each) to leave some commentators wondering if we're not on the verge of a blues revival.

Beck will win every category in which he's been nominated.

Alanis Morissette will do better with the video for "Ironic" than for the single itself.

The Beatles will win at least one award.

Smashing Pumpkins will be almost totally shut out.

Record of the Year

A perfect example of just how hard it will be to predict winners, the field for Record of the Year mixes big-name ballads of the sort that used to be shoo-ins with enough smart, quirky singles to give no one title a significant edge.

"Give Me One Reason," Tracy Chapman (Tracy Chapman and Don Gehman, producers): Musically, this basic blues seems too simple to be a serious contender, but between Chapman's wonderfully offhand performance and the classic lines of the song itself, it could just sneak in. Odds: 6 to 1.

"Change the World," Eric Clapton (Babyface, producer): Being typical of neither Clapton nor Babyface, this single counts as a stretch for both, and that -- along with the blissfully catchy chorus -- should go a long way toward persuading Grammy voters to give it thumbs up. Odds: 3 to 2.

"Because You Loved Me," Celine Dion (David Foster, producer): A decade ago, any ballad this soppily sentimental would have been a sure thing. But that will likely work against it this year, as Dion's big-voiced performance seems a tad too old-fashioned. Odds: 10 to 1.

"Ironic," Alanis Morissette (Glen Ballard, producer): Even if she loses points for misusing the word, "Ironic" demonstrates enough melodic power and songwriting skill to give Morissette a shot at maintaining last year's momentum. Odds: 3 to 1.

"1979," Smashing Pumpkins (Billy Corgan, Flood and Alan Moulder, producers): Smashing Pumpkins may be the acceptable face of alternative rock, but this single is too diffuse and derivative to be a serious contender here. Odds: 15 to 1.

Album of the Year

Traditionally the most adventurous of the top four categories, this is where we'll see just how daring the Grammy voters are.

"Odelay," Beck (Beck Hansen and the Dust Brothers, producers): With a mere million in sales, this may be the weakest of the nominees commercially. But expect to see this brilliantly idiosyncratic album's critical eclat -- it was named Album of the Year in Rolling Stone, Spin and the annual Village Voice critics' poll -- carry over here. Odds: 6 to 5.

"Falling Into You," Celine Dion (Roy Bittan, Jeff Bova, David Foster, et al., producers): Sure, there were a lot of big singles on this album, but it doesn't hold up well enough as a whole to make the cut here. Odds: 10 to 1.

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