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Critic’s Notebook: Grammy nominations pull from a wide world

December 1, 2010 |  9:10 pm

Eminem, Bruno Mars and Lady Antebellum are no surprises while Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ is a pleasant one. Some choices, though, are from left field.

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The roll call of top nominations for the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, broadcast live on CBS on Wednesday during a cheerful if typically frantic show at Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles, reads like a playlist created by someone with a very itchy finger. It’s all over the place, and likely to provoke both excitement and horror among music loyalists.

Some of what’s on the list — the 10 nods for comeback hero Eminem, the promising numbers for music industry-friendly newcomers Bruno Mars and Lady Antebellum — fulfill expectations. The voting members of the Recording Academy, who come from all facets of the corporate music industry, tend to reward such artists: rebels who’ve matured enough to behave well in public and fresh-faced kids chasing the pop dream of making good music that sells.

The Grammys always has been an insider’s game, and though its view has broadened in recent years to reflect an ever more scattershot music culture, artists with the magic combination of high visibility and classiness (which, in pop, is a constantly shifting variable) tend to win out. That has resulted in some truly regrettable nominations in the past, but also in many fine lobs from left field.
This year, that’s where all the meaningful action 

Every top category has at least one entry worthy of a hearty cheer, and another that will likely inspire much wincing. The biggest milestone, industry-wise, is right up top: the inclusion of “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire in the album of the year pile.

A genuine indie rock triumph, recorded by a Canadian art collective and released on the utterly unaffiliated North Carolina label Merge, “The Suburbs” represents the future for the kind of ardently ambitious, crowd-inspiring rock that once required the support of a major label. Following the album’s rise to the top of the Billboard Top 100 last summer, this chance for a red-carpet victory lends hope to those who still believe that music — preferably with guitars and shouted choruses — can move mountains.

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Before puffing up with pride, however, champions of that progressive view should note a flaw in the album picks: It’s a pretty white field. (Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne is a Creole Haitian.) Sade, whose beautiful album “Soldier of Love” also topped the Billboard charts, was snubbed. So was rap titan Jay-Z for “The Blueprint 3,” though his and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” would not be denied in the best song category.

Yet Lady Gaga’s supplemental “The Fame Monster” and Katy Perry’s problematic “Teenage Dream” made the cut. As Cee Lo Green moans in his deeply deserved song of the year rant, “… You”: “Why? Why? WHY?”

The answer to that question could be none too pretty. The ever-growing, multicultural Tower of Babel built from the year’s top singles stands next to a much smaller, white male-dominated pile of “serious” albums, in the Grammy nominations list as elsewhere. Another left-field multiple nominee this year is Jeff Beck, tapped twice for his single-song collaboration with 2008 album of the year winner Herbie Hancock — and then four more times for aspects of his largely critically drubbed guitar-pulling album “Emotion & Commotion.”

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A more deserving shocker was the Cat Stevens-like Ray LaMontagne, whose wonderful, off-the-radar fourth album “God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise” earned him a top spot, for the potential song of the year “Beg Steal or Borrow.”

But wait, again. Go inches deep into the nominations list, and blessed variety wins out. Consider the best new artist battle. On one side, there’s Justin Bieber, the most bearably musical teen idol to come along in years, and Drake, a heartthrob rapper who earns respect from his genre’s most macho kingpins. On the other, two British bands critics adore: the majestically noisy Florence + the Machine and the adventurous folk rockers Mumford & Sons. In the middle, Esperanza Spalding, whose easy way with innovation is bringing fresh ears to jazz. This bunch fulfills anyone’s requirements for both quality and diversity.

Simple moral or even aesthetic judgments just don’t fit the Grammys this year. There’s always another interesting hopeful jumping in from the outfield. From Green’s brilliant nasty gospel to Miranda Lambert’s rebel feminist country, from Bieber Fever to yet another chance to debate the importance of “Glee” — yes, “Don't Stop Believin' “ got a nomination — it’s already a memorable Grammy year. One that could, for once, bring some real surprises.

--Ann Powers

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Images, from top: Bruno Mars (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times), Katy Perry (Michael Robinson Chavez /Los Angeles Times) and Miranda Lambert (Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

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