Music awards won't surprise

Grammys: The usual suspects are likely to get the nominations today

newcomer Alicia Keys is a shoo-in.

January 04, 2002|By Jim Farber | Jim Farber,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

The music industry kicks off every year with a burning question: Who is most likely to battle it out for the Grammys?

We'll find out today, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences announces the names in the running for those fetching gold thingamabobs in nearly 100 categories. (The awards will be forked over Feb. 27.) But you needn't own a crystal ball, or commit larceny, to get an early peek at the nominees in this year's top categories.

When it comes to its pets, Grammy voters are fairly predictable, in a good way. They go mainly for a sensible mix of prestige and popularity. And how many records satisfy both demands these days? While these once-dingbat awards used to lean toward stars who merely had commercial clout or who represented an antique notion of quality, in the last half-decade they have gotten increasingly with it.

Check out last year's top winners: The esteemed U2 snared Best Song and Record with their ravishing hit "Beautiful Day." The Best Album trinket went to Steely Dan's erudite comeback, Two Against Nature. And the Best New Artist prize went to a tastemakers' favorite, Shelby Lynne.

While Lynne's reward came as something of a surprise, since she appealed far more to connoisseurs than to consumers, there can't be the least bit of shock value in the Best New Artist slot this year.

No sane performer can expect to beat Alicia Keys in this category. In fact, no artist has had as firm a lock on any Grammy category since Eric Clapton's sentimental favorite "Tears in Heaven" in '93.

Think about it: The woman could deforest half the Northwest with her glowing press. She has the backing of an industry icon, Clive Davis. And more, said icon himself has, in the last year, become the comeback kid, having been forced from his top perch at Arista Records only to launch the most successful new label in years, J Records.

One more thing: Keys is drop-dead gorgeous, which never hurts.

Despite Keys' shoo-in status, there's no shortage of stars likely to turn up as her doomed competition. They include: Craig David, one of the only British performers to break through in the last year, albeit with a very American sound; Five for Fighting, which had the suddenly relevant post-Sept. 11 hit "Superman"; the Strokes, this year's token critics' fave; Michelle Branch, the new face of female singer-songwriters, and India.Arie, the new face of alterna-soul.

Second-tier possibilities include rock acts such as Nickelback, Lifehouse, Linkin Park and Alien Ant Farm (all based on pure sales), plus the British band Coldplay, which managed to turn Jeff Buckley's achingly romantic sound into salable pop.

Things are not so cut-and-dried in the Best Album category. The year 2001 boasted several formidable examples of Grammy bait: Besides Keys' Songs in A Minor, there was Bob Dylan's Love and Theft, which earned just as enraptured a response as his previous album, Time Out of Mind - and that took the prize four years ago. Also, U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind became the most prescient new music after the World Trade Center atrocity, nearly a year after its release. While that Irish band already had taken 2000's Best Song and Record awards with a cut that also happened to be on this album, the full LP was not released until after 2001's deadline. And Grammy voters love to repeat themselves: Witness that two-year-running salute to Paul Simon's Graceland in 1987 and '88.

There's just one other sure-thing nominee in the Best Album category: the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, a critically hailed collection of Depression-era standards that, miraculously, has sold more than 3 million copies - with no end in sight. The surprise success of that album, plus its function as a reviver of proudly American roots music, makes it all the more tempting a work to reward at this moment.

More iffy entrants in this race include Lucinda Williams' Essence (her last album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, got a nod here) and Ryan Adams' Gold (one of the year's most celebrated albums, which also has the advantage of boasting a single that salutes "New York").

Now for the really tough call: Best Song and Record. No single ditty could be said to sum up the year, but a host of tunes told pivotal parts of the story. Again, there's Adams' "New York" (for topical reasons), Enya's "Only Time" (the unofficial post-9/11 healing song), Madonna's "Don't Tell Me" (for its influential stop-start rhythm), U2's "Stuck in a Moment" (for its rousing sense of succor), Five for Fighting's "Superman" (for its salute to heroism) and Alicia Keys' "Fallin'" or "A Woman's Worth," for her star power and for the tempting thrill of giving an emerging artist a headline-grabbing sweep.

Stay tuned.

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