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2009 Grammy themes: The Winehouse effect, the perfect album and M.I.A.

December 4, 2008 |  5:45 pm
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Lil Wayne's eight Grammy Award nominations Wednesday can be interpreted as the record industry's sincere thanks to the New Orleans rapper for proving that it's still possible to sell 1 million albums in a week, which he did in June with "Tha Carter III." He did it by exploiting nontraditional avenues, galvanizing rap fans in the months leading to the album's release with a series of mix tapes distributed over the Internet.

The industry wants -- more to the point, desperately needs -- such innovators, but it decidedly prefers those who also find ways to acknowledge the old traditions. That's one of several themes that emerged from this year's nominations.

The good soldiers

There are, perhaps, some surprising newcomers to this year's album of the year and record of the year fields. Check the presence of Internet sensations M.I.A. and Lil Wayne.

The globe-trotting political activism of electronic artist M.I.A. has been a cult fave for years. Both her albums -- 2005's "Arular" and 2007's "Kala" -- reached the Top 200 on the U.S. pop charts. But Grammy nods didn't exactly shower upon her until this year, when her gunshot-enhanced "Paper Planes" snared a record of the year nod.

But why the sudden interest in M.I.A.? Perhaps because she's been playing by more conventional industry rules. Last year, she worked with star producer Timbaland, and this year, her "Paper Planes" shot up the charts -- after it appeared in the trailer for comedy "Pineapple Express."

She's also become a budding entrepreneur. M.I.A. recently partnered with Interscope to launch her own label in N.E.E.T, which released the soundtrack to "Slumdog Millionaire."

And then there's Lil Wayne. Kanye West has been the hip-hop stand-in for the album of the year field the last few years, but Kanye's decidedly safe compared with the sexually explicit rap of Lil Wayne.

More to the point, the last few weeks unveiled a different Lil Wayne, one who's happy to do some standard, awards-baiting industry promotions. Witness his recent appearance at the Country Music Assn. awards in Nashville, waving a guitar on-stage with heartland favorite Kid Rock.

Winehouse effect

Amy Winehouse, last year's big Grammy star, might not have been anywhere near this year's nomination list, but that doesn't mean her presence wasn't felt. Three of the five contenders for best new artist -- one of Winehouse's five Grammy wins last February -- have connections to the retro soul star or tap a similar vibe.

Philadelphia-bred R&B newcomer Jazmine Sullivan and Brit singer Adele both released albums that employed Winehouse's star producers. Sullivan's album opener, "Bust Your Windows," goes for a similar vintage recklessness as Winehouse's "Rehab" and was recorded with Saleem Remi, whose résumé includes Winehouse's 2003 debut, "Frank," and 2006's "Back to Black."

As for Adele, she tapped Winehouse's reining Grammy producer of the year in Mark Ronson, who helped give her coffee-shop soul more of a smoked-out nightclub vibe (see "Cold Shoulder"). And then there's Duffy, who essentially stepped right out of the 1960s.

This year's Grammy nominations clearly reveal that Recording Academy voters are looking for new stars. Just check the lack of a major nomination for Mariah Carey's "E=MC2." Her 2005 effort, "The Emancipation of Mimi," received 10.

And there were no album nods for "As I Am" from perennial Grammy favorite Alicia Keys. But if voters are on the prowl for new blood, they're tapping artists who have found inspiration in the past.

'Idol' backlash

Maybe they're still stinging from the ratings trouncing the Grammy Awards took in 2006 when the show went head to head with "American Idol," but "Idol" omissions from this year's nominations would suggest voters have had their fill of the talent competition.

The biggest surprise was the shutout of Carrie Underwood's "Carnival Ride" album, despite Underwood's three wins previously, including new artist of 2006 and female country vocal for the last two years.

It's nearly as surprising not to see any nominations for leadoff singles from the show's latest grads, David Cook and David Archuleta, both of whom released their debut albums after the eligibility period closed. No singles from Kelly Clarkson's 2007 album, "My December," earned any Grammy appreciation either.

Previous "Idol" champ Jordin Sparks sneaked in with a nomination in the pop collaboration category for "No Air," her duet with Chris Brown, from her debut album. So did "Idol" judge Simon Cowell, one of the producers of British singer Leona Lewis' nominated single "Bleeding Love."

The most significant nods went to Jennifer Hudson, whose debut CD is vying for R&B album. She also landed two other nominations: female R&B vocal for the track "Spotlight" and R&B duo or group performance for "I'm His Only Woman," her duet with another "Idol" grad, Fantasia.

Perfect storm

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss didn't just make extraordinary music when they teamed for their "Raising Sand" album. They also gave Grammy voters everything they could hope for in the way of nomination fodder.

In Plant, they have a legend overlooked during his heyday as lead singer of Led Zeppelin, which never won a Grammy, although the academy doled out lifetime achievement recognition three years ago.

The British rocker has collected just two Grammys, one of which arrived last year in the pop vocal collaboration category for "Gone Gone Gone," the first single from "Raising Sand." The other was a hard rock performance win in 1998 for his re-teaming with Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.

Grammy voters love to heap belated praise on veteran musicians, and this would allow them to bestow major awards -- including record and/or album of the year -- on one of rock's genuine deities.

His pairing with Grammy-darling Krauss is the clincher. With 21 statues in her awards chest, Krauss is the most honored female musician in Grammy history. Voters will jump at this chance to add a few more to her pile.

To top it off, the songs on "Raising Sand" touched a nerve with critics, many of whom included the album on their Top 10 lists for 2007. But it's also soothing enough not to alienate Grammy conservatives, the way Radiohead’s more exotic rock or Lil Wayne's racy rap might.

They'll face strong competition Feb. 8 from Coldplay, another Grammy favorite, in the record and album categories. But it's a lock that come "music's biggest night," this unlikely pair should brace for a whole lotta love.

-Randy Lewis & Todd Martens

Photo credit: M.I.A., courtesy Robert Caplin / For the Times

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