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Grammys 2011: An early look at album of the year contenders (Part 1)

October 27, 2010 |  1:51 pm

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The Grammy Awards went young -- and pop -- in 2010, awarding crossover teen star Taylor Swift the show's top crown -- album of the year. For such a seemingly wholesome and beloved artist, it was seen as a somewhat controversial pick.

The Grammys have typically skewed older -- Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Herbie Hancock, U2, etc. -- and rarely award an artist without a lengthy body of work. Unlike Norah Jones and Lauryn Hill, Swift's detailed tales of teenage life seemed aimed at a direct audience, and when she gave a wobbly vocal performance with Stevie Nicks, Team Swift was on the defensive

The Grammys can't win. Even when they gift its top prize to America's pop sweetheart, complaints pour in. But the Swift win did hint that Grammy voters are willing to go more mainstream than ever, and she competed in a field that also included the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, the Dave Matthews Band and Beyoncé.

One could argue that such a field represented the genre-hopping tastes of the iPod generation, or one could note that the choices were almost stubbornly old school. Voters went with all major label artists, all major stars and carefully spread the picks amid pop, rock, country and R&B fields. A year for the unexpected it was not.

Whether the trend continues, or voters throw in a Radiohead, Hancock or White Stripes-like surprise, will be answered soon enough. Grammy ballots are due Nov. 3, and nominations will be revealed in early December. Before voters put down their pencils, here's a look at some of the likely nominations -- and perhaps some deserving ones. 

(This is Part 1. Stay tuned to Pop & Hiss for a continued look at album of the year front-runners.)

Eminem, "Recovery" (Aftermath/Interscope)

Grammy potential: Despite his sometimes penchant for shock-and-awe rap, Eminem has been one of the rare hip-hop artists to graphically explore violence and sex and still earn Grammy recognition in the major categories. Twice Eminem has been nominated for Grammy's top prize. Sales, of course, have helped his cause, and Eminem has a trail of critical accolades behind him. "Recovery" is seen as a more a serious turn than 2009's "Relapse," and little makes an artist more appealing to Grammy voters than getting older.

Grammy deserving: When Eminem released "Relapse," it was his first album of new material in five years, and it captured an artist who had become a cartoon. As rapid and clever as his rhymes were, the drugged-up serial killer shtick was just that, and its appeal was based on whether or not one could see it as humor or some sort of metaphor. "Recovery" is full of anger, but it's largely directed at Eminem himself. It's a moody, lacerating examination, and one that has sold close to 3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The fact that it's perceived as a more thoughtful album than "Relapse" should make it Grammy bait. 

Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs" (Merge)

Grammy potential: Indie rock doesn't get album of the year recognition from Grammy voters, but it's a new world, at least sales wise, and indie rock is regularly selling on par with major artists (or maybe the latter are simply selling less to give that illusion). Nevertheless, Merge Records' Arcade Fire had a No. 1 hit, and "The Suburbs," a perceptive, lengthy concept album about subdivision life, has managed to stay in the top 100 for three months now, racking up a respectable 345,000 in sales. The orchestral rockers are also no strangers to the World-o-Grammy. Overlooked as a best new artist contender, the Arcade Fire are regulars in the alternative album field.

Grammy deserving: Few would complain if the Arcade Fire represented the rock constituency at the 2011 Grammy Awards, and definitely not those who championed Radiohead's "In Rainbows" two years ago. As arena-worthy concept albums go, "The Suburbs" is a knock out, with songs that document nostalgic longing, suburban isolation and the failure of the American dream (yes, Pop & Hiss is aware the band is based in Canada). Throughout, one feels it's a challenge to artist and fan but never at the expense of the song.

Miranda Lambert, "Revolution" (Columbia Nashville)

Grammy potential: Lambert has been a crossover star in the making for a few years now, and her time feels right for ascension. There will be a Nashville rep in the album of the year field, and nominating Lambert would instantly wash away any bad taste left from those who shirked at Swift's ability as a vocalist. Commercially, Lambert's in the running, as "Revolution" has steadily sold more than 880,000 copies. Additionally, she completely dominated the recent Country Music. Assn. nominations, snaring a record nine -- the most ever for a female country artist. 

Grammy deserving: If not a complete country traditionalist -- she is a bit too rock 'n' roll for that -- Lambert remains one of the bolder, fiercer artists to go through the Nashville machine. "Revolution" may not have the out-and-out force of Lambert's earlier efforts, but she brings maturity and nuance to a glossy Nashville sheen.

Jay-Z, "The Blueprint 3" (Roc Nation)

Grammy potential: Surprisingly, one of the world's most respected and successful hip-hop artists has never been nominated for Grammy's top prize. His one-time protégé, Kanye West, has regularly scored album of the year noms, and other hip-hop artists such as OutKast and Missy Elliott have been recognized in the major categories. Jay has, of course, won his share of Grammys (seven, according to the Grammy database), but they've been confined to the genre fields. In short, he's due, and Grammy voters love to award an artist for a career rather than an album. His "Empire State of Mind" is still inescapable, and may just be the kind of universally adored anthem that gets Jay-Z an album of the year nod.

Grammy deserving: "The Blueprint 3" was an album about re-asserting Jay-Z's hip-hop dominance, and that it did. Though such initial offerings as “D.O.A. (The Death of Auto Tune)" seemed slight, they fit on an album that was largely about showing off Jay-Z's skills as a world-class rapper. It's harder and catchier than "Kingdom Come," and some orchestral worthy production from West enhances Jay-Z's vocal prowess.

Mavis Staples, "You Are Not Alone" (Anti-)

Grammy potential: Chicago's legendary soul/gospel singer is going to run into the same roadblock as the Arcade Fire: She's on an independent label. This is, granted, the biggest long shot in Part 1 of our Grammy preview, but not completely out of the realm of possibility. Voters are always eager to recognize a heritage act, and Staples is no stranger to Grammy voters. The Recording Academy awarded the Staple Singers a liftetime achievement award in 2005, and Mavis herself performed alongside rapper West on that year's telecast. Staples, at age 71, isn't phoning it in, working with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and Anti- has done a fine job of getting the word out. She performed an industry showcase at the Hotel Cafe, spoke at the Grammy Museum and appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "The Late Show With David Letterman." Without a show-stopping R&B-pop album from the likes of Beyoncé, voters may look to reward an artist who is long overdue. 

Grammy deserving: Since Staples hooked up with Silver Lake's Anti-, her career has been rejuvenated. A 2007 album with Ry Cooder, "We'll Never Turn Back," found modern relevance in the freedom songs of the '60s, and while "You Are Not Alone" has a more reserved, respectful tone, Tweedy's songs are designed to showcase the rich, raspy American treasure that is Staples' voice. Moments such as the title track, as well as "Only the Lord Knows," are soulful beacons of hope in this recessionary time. 

Is your top Grammy pick missing? Don't fret. Pop & Hiss still has a second installment and will showcase five more albums that have a Grammy shot later this week.

--Todd Martens

Images, from left: Eminem (Robert Gauthier /Los Angeles Times); Miranda Lambert (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times); Arcade Fire's Win Butler (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times).

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