NEW YORK - In a B-plus year for music, the Grammy voters did a C-minus job of reflecting that energy and passion in nominations announced yesterday. In the top three categories alone, the reaction to the nominees is likely to range from hurrah to "huh?"
The hurrahs will be for the choices in album of the year, the most prestigious of the 104 categories. In that race, three far different but immensely rewarding albums will vie for final honors: inspirational rocker Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, rap provocateur Eminem's The Eminem Show and classy pop vocalist Norah Jones' Come Away With Me.
Several other strong candidates would have given us a more memorable field, including Beck's tender Sea Change and Wilco's eloquent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But the two remaining nominees - the Dixie Chicks' traditional country Home and Nelly's playful hip-hop Nellyville - achieved the Grammy nomination committee's goal of musical "balance" in the category without embarrassing anyone.
That's far more than can be said for the nominees for record of the year, the second-most prized category. Eminem's catchy, confrontational "Without Me" and Jones' wistful "Don't Know Why" were essential choices, but the others are head-scratchers.
The undistinguished trio of nominees: the overblown pop of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles," a selection from Nelly (the teaming with Kelly Rowland on "Dilemma") that was far less spirited than his own "Hot in Herre" and the generic pop-rock feel of Nickelback's "How You Remind Me."
Better choices: Pink's infectious "Get the Party Started," the Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone," Springsteen's anthem-like "The Rising," the White Stripes' delightful "Fell in Love With a Girl" and the Flaming Lips' graceful "Do You Realize??"
The biggest Grammy disappointment, however, is the narrow range of best-new-artist nominees. Jones, the stylish 23-year-old whose vocals offer an absorbing blend of pop, country, soul and jazz influences, is the standout. Creatively speaking, she's a woman competing against three girls (Ashanti, Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne). The final nominee is John Mayer, a singer-songwriter whose works are also too uneven to match Jones'.
What's missing in this category and through much of the nominations list is a trace of the imaginative young forces that helped bring mainstream rock 'n' roll back from the life-support system that it has been on in recent years. It's shameful that not one representative from this group - the White Stripes, And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Dead, the Strokes, the Vines, Queens of the Stone Age, Dashboard Confessional - was nominated for best new artist.
The second-guessing should continue through several categories, including best pop album, in which flyweight Britney Spears (!) was nominated and the brilliant Tom Waits was not; best rock album, in which the conventional Sheryl Crow was nominated and the captivating Ryan Adams was not; and the best contemporary R&B album category, in which Brandy and Ashanti were nominated and the more imaginative Cee-Lo wasn't.
On the positive side, the Grammy voters did give us some insightful nominees: Beck's Sea Change in best alternative music album; India.-Arie's Voyage to India in best R&B album; and Johnny Cash's American IV - The Man Comes Around and Steve Earle's Jerusalem, both in best contemporary folk album.
Overall, the hundreds of nominees show there is still a major split between voters who tend to blindly follow sales charts and those who are sensitive to the more adventurous forces in pop.
The fact that Eminem has picked up a best-album nomination so early in his career is a sign that the voting system has moved forward. But the full membership may still be uneasy with him. He was nominated two years ago in this category for The Marshall Mathers LP and lost to Steely Dan's far less urgent Two Against Nature.
By saluting Springsteen for album, Eminem for record and Jones for new artist at the awards ceremony Feb. 23, the Grammy membership could honor three of the year's premier pop voices. Too bad the Grammy voters didn't touch on more of those voices in yesterday's nominations.