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Grammy countdown: How the awards can stay relevant

December 1, 2009 |  6:49 pm

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At the age of 52, the Grammy Awards are set in their ways. As the Oscars and the Emmys made dramatic changes to their galas, upping the number of nominees of major categories, the Grammys waved goodbye to polka. 

Changes to the Grammy Awards come slow. On Wednesday night, the Recording Academy will unveil the nominees for its Jan. 31 ceremony in an hour-long special on CBS. The telecast will play out like a mini-Grammy Awards, with performances from the Black Eyed Peas, Nick Jonas and Maxwell, among others. While awards won't be given out Wednesday night, not many are handed out at the actual gala either, with this year's show having been turned into a telecast that featured almost two dozen musical numbers.

The performance-heavy broadcast worked, and there's a reason CBS is interrupting its "Criminal Minds"/"CSI: NY" lineup Wednesday night. The 2009 Grammy telecast brought in 19.4 million viewers, up from 17.5 million in 2008, according to Nielsen Media Research. Last year's prime time Grammy nominee special didn't fare as well, bringing in closer to 7.5 million viewers, but it effectively turned the unveiling of nominations into an event.

Wednesday night's affair will be more intimate than last year's press conference-turned-concert. Tickets this time were not sold to the public, and while it's still taking place at downtown's L.A. Live complex, the Grammy nominee venue has been shifted from the 7,000-plus-seat Nokia Theatre to the more intimate 2,300-capacity Club Nokia.

Additionally, now that the Grammy Awards are a two-pronged television event, don't exactly expect them to suddenly get risky with the nominations. But the gala can't get comfortable, either, as it's reflecting a constantly shifting music industry, and the ratings bump for the 2009 awards was an anomaly rather than the norm.

So, how do the Grammys stay out in front? Pop & Hiss has answers.

And the album of the year should go to ... Kanye West. Heading into this Grammy season, Mr. West was the odds-on-favorite to win this field in 2010. Now there's doubt as to whether or not he'll even be nominated.

Four albums into his career, West has had a profound effect on the latter half of this decade. He's been a loud-mouthed, egotistical brat, but he's also been the face of hip-hop since 2004, be it through his own releases or the abundance of production work he's done for others.

Rather than boast about street cred or jump on the latest fashionable beats, West released a debut album in 2004 in which he rapped about working at the Gap, and did so while showing off a passion for orchestral soul. With lyrics that embraced his middle-class upbringing, he was a unique voice in the pop landscape. Whether questioning his faith or wishing his girlfriend would spend more time at the gym, West was open, brash and relatively normal. When it comes to his music, none of that has changed.

If anything, West has only gotten more musically adventurous, reinventing his sound with each album. He completely threw away the script on last year's "808s & Heartbreak." On the surface it was a cold and mechanical album, with West embracing the Auto-Tune trend, but he came up with something that sounded vulnerable, wounded and surprisingly warm. The electronic manipulation was used as a sort of virtual glue -- a computer stitching together a broken heart. Dealing with loneliness amid fame was a theme. But this was also the sound of an artist making sense of an increasingly technological world, yet one where making a connection isn't getting any easier.

It's a fascinating album, and though it's loaded with vintage electronic sounds, it didn't feel the least bit dated. That's why it would be a downright shame if Recording Academy voters once again punished West for his inability to keep his mouth shut. Three times now West should have won album of the year, and three times now he's lost to inferior works.

Grammy voters love rewarding an artist for a body of work rather than simply a release, and "808s" was Kanye's chance to get his due, especially without a Robert Plant or Ray Charles release to spoil the party. So, while West didn't win any industry fans when he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, let's keep this in perspective. It was one ill-advised moment that does nothing to diminish the man's art, and yet every industry voter I've encountered in the last three months has expressed nothing but disgust at the mention's of West's name. That's troublesome.

What West has said and done outside the studio is of no business to Grammy voters. But for what he's done inside it, he has earned this award.

And speaking of West and Swift: Get the two onstage at the same time at the Grammy Awards -- perhaps back-to-back performances. Just no uncomfortable mash-ups (Pop & Hiss just had a flashback to the Jonas Brothers performing with Stevie Wonder -- MAKE IT STOP!). On the other hand, we would not object to Swift joining Beyoncé for the "Singles Ladies" dance. You think Mathew Knowles is going to pass up that moment of YouTube gold? Not a chance. Just make everyone's life easier and give Bee more screen time. 

There are these things called independent labels. Please make note of them. Club Grammy is one that's largely kept the indie labels behind the velvet rope, or at least out with the riff-raff during what is the Grammy pre-telecast. Independents dominate a lot of niche Grammy categories -- folk, jazz, etc. But in the big four -- album, record, song and new artist -- an indie is a rare sighting. Even when present, the indie is something of a major indie (see the Robert Plant-bolstered Rounder Records, or a self-released Radiohead album), and that's all well and good, but how about getting a Sub Pop, Warp, Secretly Canadian or Anti- artist among the major nominees? Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear are on the new artist ballot, and are worthy nominee choices. Neko Case's "Middle Cyclone" is in the running for album of the year, and while it has a shot at scoring a nom this year, it's a long shot. The industry has shifted, and independent artists are routinely placing among the top 20 on the album chart. Grammy voters have largely been blind to this shift. The best new artist category is an obvious place to sneak in some indie newcomers, and the Jonas Brothers don't count.

Grammy voters have backed themselves into a corner with U2. The act's 2009 release, "No Line on the Horizon," kind of has to be nominated for album of the year. Voters regularly nominate U2 in the field -- the act won for 1987's "The Joshua Tree" and 2004's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" -- and U2's prior two releases were Grammy darlings. Though it didn't win, 2000's "All That You Can't Leave Behind" was also nominated for the top prize. Both "Atomic Bomb" and "Leave Behind" spawned plenty of hits and sold into the millions, and both lacked the atmosphere, the grace and the experimental tendencies of "No Line on the Horizon." The latter hasn't spawned a blockbuster such as "Beautiful Day," and it hasn't sold at the pace of U2's recent releases either. It is, however, an artistic triumph. If Grammy voters pass it up, it reinforces the notion of the gala being little more than a popularity contest.

Herbie Hancock seems like a swell guy and all ... but are jazz covers of Joni Mitchell songs really the mark of an era-defining album? To be fair, jazz rarely makes an appearance in the album of the year field, and Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters" is a fine release, but album of the year it was not. That being said, Allen Toussaint's "The Bright Mississippi" is a jazz album that voters hopefully didn't overlook when making their album of the year picks. It's a release that offers elegant renditions of the songs that framed Toussaint's youth in New Orleans, reworking Thelonious Monk's "Bright Mississippi" and Duke Ellington's "Solitude," among others, and makes a grand attempt at preserving a culture. Should it win? No, but it deserves the recognition.

The eligibility period. Change it. It's a shame that some of the year's most talked-about albums won't be represented at this year's Grammy telecast. Jay-Z's "The Blueprint 3," Miranda Lambert's "Revolution," Rihanna's "Rated R" and Pearl Jam's "Backspacer," among many others, won't be considered until the 2011 Grammys, as the 2010 eligibility period closed on Aug. 31 (on the plus side, the outdated eligibility window hopefully gives voters enough time to not get any Grammy ideas about Susan Boyle). This is an old topic, but the Recording Academy needs to shift to a straight calendar year. Album cycles are shorter these days, and there's no reason to have late 2008 albums being awarded on a 2010 show. We know it's not simple, as there are broadcast dates and business calendars to shift. Additionally, voters may have to deal with a shorter window to vote on the 109 categories. But there's one way to ease the later strain . . .

Cutting polka was a good start. Now trim more categories. If we learned anything from Beyoncé and Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards, it's that genre lines matter little in 2009, and the Grammys split things to near-ridiculous specificity. Really, no one truly knows the difference between best R&B album and best contemporary R&B album (Mary J. Blige seems to waft between both without any rhyme or reason), so let's just cut the contemporary R&B field. In fact, cut most of the genre categories. Follow the Oscars and increase the album of the year contenders to 10 or more, bring the total categories to a manageable 20, and call it a day.

The Country Music Assn. Awards took Grammy voters off the hook. Swift is going to clean up Wednesday. She may even lead all nominees when all is said and done. She has plenty of supporters, including a number of my colleagues, and as one of the biggest music stories of the last two years, she's deserving of the Grammy acknowledgment she'll receive Wednesday night. If her "Fearless" wins best country album, no one will argue, but as the CMAs, AMAs, VMAs and ACMs all went and gave Swift top accolades in 2009, Grammy voters shouldn't feel obligated to follow suit. She's dominated the country landscape, and has become arguably the biggest crossover Nashville act since Shania Twain. But Shania never won album of the year, and Swift doesn't deserve it in 2010. That is in no way a take-down of the artist -- simply the recognition that "Fearless" was not the best album released over the last year and a half. As Pop & Hiss noted earlier this year, she's pitched as an ol'-fashioned singer-songwriter, and one with upstanding moral values who relates to her fans by filtering teen issues through an adult prism. Her music does, however, walk a line between honest and calculated, and voters would be right to let her get one or two more albums under her crystal-emblazoned belt before giving her the top prize.

And the same sentiment, without the thing about the morals, goes for ... Lady Gaga. The out-sized personality on display in her live presentations hasn't yet translated to her music. 

Finally, for fun, our final predix for album of the year:

Album of the year best bets:
Maxwell's "BLACKsummers'night"
Taylor Swift's "Fearless"
Lady Gaga's "The Fame"
Kanye West's "808s & Heartbreak"
Green Day's "21st Century Breakdown"

Possibilities:
U2's "No Line on the Horizon"
Beyoncé's "I Am ... Sasha Fierce"
Whitney Houston's "I Look to You"
Allen Toussaint's "The Bright Mississippi"
Black Eyed Peas' "The E.N.D."

Deserving long shots:
Phoenix's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"
Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "It's Blitz!"
Neko Case's "Middle Cyclone"
The Decemberists'  “The Hazards of Love”

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Kanye West, left, and Taylor Swift. Getty Images

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