As Eminem once said, “You think I give a f*** about a Grammy?” This Sunday, the much-maligned music awards show returns to the airwaves, ready to dole out the little gold gramophones like candy on Halloween. With over 100 categories ranging from such absurd esoterica as “Best Album Notes” to every type of ethnic music on the planet (Best Traditional Hawaiian comes right before Best Polka), it’s not unlikely your next-door neighbor has one for, say, Best Cowbell.
The charts, however, tell a different story: top Grammy winners are sure to see huge sales gains in the following weeks. Of course, the Grammys always have, and probably always will be, the oddball runt of the awards show season — the main reason to ignore it include the wonderfully deserving artists who are perennially ignored in the major categories (this year it’s Wilco, Brian Wilson and the Arcade Fire, among others). But, of course, there are reasons to tune in: the Grammys can surprise, shock and scandalize along with the best of them. Without further ado, here now are astrological predictions and educated deductions for the big Grammys.
Record of the Year
If commercial success is any indication, Usher’s got this one locked down. Of course, the Recording Academy can be fickle, but they usually reserve the surprise chart-basement prestige win for Best New Artist (Shelby Lynne, anyone?) Though “Yeah” wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination the best of Usher’s hits this year (that title goes to the sensuous “Burn”), it was catchier than the bird flu. For better or worse, the track firmly entrenched the R&B singer into the annals of pop culture. The other nominated records range from the funky-fresh (at least in comparison to its competitors) Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get it Started,” to the senior-citizen cruise-line Tex-Mex of Los Lonely Boys’ “Heaven.” Green Day gets one of its many nods with “American Idiot,” though the song’s half-hearted attempt at punk doesn’t compare to their far more sophisticated “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” The sub-par Ray Charles-Norah Jones collaboration “Here We Go Again” is the token nostalgia nod — if the song won, it would be Charles’ only Grammy for Record of the Year, a genuinely astounding fact.
Will win: Usher
Should win: None of the above (Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” should’ve been nominated).
Album of the Year
This category is a bit less predictable, but a clue to who might win it is the title of a very major motion picture: Ray. Let’s face it — “Genius Loves Company” is Ray Charles playing around with some buddies and won’t be measured against his best work no matter how you slice it. But maybe the Academy will make up for three decades of racially-charged neglect, and send Brother Ray off in well-awarded style. Most of the other nominees were predictably attention-grabbing this year, though ultimately nothing revolutionary. Green Day and Usher followed the similar path of the coming-of-age narrative (which inevitably involves personal expurgation and catchy hooks). But the original but overrated Kanye West did something that arguably hasn’t been done since Tupac, creating an intelligent rap album that sold millions. And yet the only true sparkling talent in the race is Alicia Keys, my personal favorite, whose “Diary of Alicia Keys” is a serious, time-testable musical statement.
Will win: Ray Charles
Should win: Alicia Keys
Song of the Year
This award goes to the songwriters (as opposed to Record of the Year, which goes to the producer). Like most of the Grammys, it’s a fairly safe category this year (Hoobastank and Tim McGraw weren’t exactly pushing any envelopes). Kanye West is an adroit lyricist, but “Jesus Walks” owes more to its stomping beat and ominous tone — and the Academy has never awarded its Song of the Year to a rap track anyway. Alicia Keys took home this trophy in 2001 for “Fallin’,” and though “If I Ain’t Got You” is a more solid, lyrically vibrant piece of R&B, it didn’t make the same splash as her debut. The two sterile hunks of packaged pop, “Daughters” by John Mayer and “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw, are so far away from great songwriting that it’s hard to take their nominations seriously. Then there’s “The Reason,” one of those big, listen-to-me-now songs the Academy drools for. Even though Hoobastank is a young band, emotionally distant from most of the older voters, “The Reason” displays the best of Doug Robb’s hundred-decibel voice, and Daniel Estrin’s Creed-flavored guitar licks. Though 2004 had much more to offer in the world of rock and roll, it seems Incubus’ little brothers will be going home with a golden statue.
Will win: Hoobastank
Should win: Alicia Keys
Best New Artist
This award is like the Best Supporting Actress of the Grammys: (usually) honors genuine talent, tends toward women, and can be a real career killer. Indeed, of all the Best New Artists of the past ten years, only one has been male (Hootie and the Blowfish, back in ’95), and only a handful have remained on the pop-culture radar (Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, and Norah Jones, though they all still have plenty of time to fall hard). If British blues girl Joss Stone wins this one (unlikely, given that she’s not American, and barely made a blip on the charts), the trend of mediocrity will continue with a vengeance. Expect, however, the curse to end with a Kanye West coup. Not only does he have a far more interesting stories to tell than fellow nominee Adam Levine and his saccharine-sweet Maroon 5, but the rapper has actually got musical talent. Los Lonely Boys (that’s Spanish for The Lonely Boys) are also up for the award, for reasons that are beyond this reviewer. The only spoiler could be the backwater Gretchen Wilson, who’s got the country camp locked down and reveals a surprising maturity and worldliness.
Will win: Kanye West
Should win: Kanye West