Grammys 2011: Is this the year the Grammys surprise us?
The annual pastime that is predicting the Grammy Awards lost a little of its excitement after the 2010 ceremony. Don't worry, Taylor Swift supporters, this isn't a criticism of the country-pop artist winning the album of the year prize. With her latest effort, "Speak Now," Swift has affirmed her status as a likable artist with widespread commercial appeal. The voters who gifted Swift with top honors this year can breathe easy. Their anointed artist is not a teen pop fad.
Yet despite 109 categories, Grammy voters took a narrow focus for the 2010 awards. The top nominations were spread among very few artists, with Swift, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas all earning repeat mentions. In fact, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Swift had a combined 23 nods. Voters can point to the bevy of genre categories as an example of the awards' inclusiveness, but when it comes to anything that actually happens on network television, one didn't have to look beyond the top of the charts to make an accurate prediction.
The Grammys, of course, have always put popularity first. This is no shock, but compare the Grammys to the Academy Awards. Oscar earlier this year went with "The Hurt Locker," choosing an independent, low-budget war film over the 3-D blockbuster and technologically crowd-pleasing achievement that was "Avatar." You want adventure on the Grammys? How about jazz icon Herbie Hancock winning album of the year for reinterpreting Joni Mitchell songs?
Alas, when it comes to legitimate award shows, the Grammys are all music fans have. And the ol' Recording Academy voting bloc has occasionally served up something unexpected, such as M.I.A.'s receiving a record of the year nod for "Paper Planes," or Gnarls Barkley's snaring an album of the year nod for "St. Elsewhere." The glimmers of hope may be small, but they are reasons for optimism.
And thus, here are some of those reasons to tune into Wednesday's Grammy nominations, which will be unveiled live (tape delayed for us West Coasters) on CBS at 10 p.m. Pop & Hiss will have live coverage of the nomination concert beginning at 7 p.m. PST, and will provide instant analysis. The nomination concert, held in downtown Los Angeles at Club Nokia, is due to feature performances from Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Miranda Lambert, among others.
1. The underdogs. The popular choice for a surprise is the soulful orchestral pop of Florence + the Machine. Yet after the act wowed audiences at the MTV Video Music Awards, a best new artist nod should be a given rather than something unexpected. Though it shouldn't have taken a full year, Florence + the Machine no doubt woke stodgy Recording Academy voters to her talents. A bigger surprise, however, would be the Arcade Fire earning an album of the year nod for "The Suburbs." Sooner or later, Recording Academy voters are going to have to recognize that the industry has changed and independent acts regularly appear on the charts. A general decline in sales has created a level playing field of sorts. Fans are venturing beyond superstars, and it's time Recording Academy voters did the same.
2. Because it's Miranda's time. You can count on at least one country artist scoring an album of the year nod. The safe bet is Lady Antebellum, whose adult contemporary pop has a country twinge and crossover appeal. Yet don't be surprised if Lambert edges out Lady Antebellum as the Nashville representative. Though she has reality-show roots, having been discovered on "Nashville Star," Lambert has managed to assume the role of mainstream country's rock rebel. With a voice that can break hearts as easily as it can rattle spines. Lambert has the support of the Nashville community, having won best album at the recent Country Music Assn. Awards, and is a more likely vote for a rock-heavy voting bloc.
3. Big things should be in store for hip-hop. Eligible rap albums include monster efforts from Eminem and Jay-Z, and a sharp album from the Roots, who are long overdue for some recognition in the album of the year field. Eminem's "Recovery" should be considered a lock, as it showed off a more serious side of the artist than did his prior effort "Relapse." Jay-Z, however, has never scored an album of the year nod, and his "The Blueprint 3" was a commercial success that spawned the forever-to-be-unavoidable "Empire State of Mind." The Roots? The most deserving, but the biggest longshots.
4. Because one of the year's best singles can't even have its name printed in a newspaper. The radio-safe version of the song is known as "Forget You," and though Cee Lo Green's hit likely can't win record or song of the year, the cut took bitterness and turned it into something rather charming. For that alone, Cee Lo deserves a nom.
5. Admit it, ranting about clueless Grammy voters is a time-honored tradition. Think of all the fun angry tweets that will be inspired by something like Train's "Save Me San Francisco" scoring an album of the year nod. Actually, don't.
-- Todd Martens
-- Todd Martens
Photos: Miranda Lambert at the CMA Awards (Associated Press); Arcade Fire's Win Butler (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)