Classical: Feats of enterprise and ambition

The Grammy nominations in classical music are no longer a stuck record, with the same famous names recurring in quantity. If a trend can be spotted, it is that the recording academy respects work done on an ambitious scale.

For best classical album, the Emerson String Quartet's boxed set of Shostakovich's emotionally shattering 15 string quartets and Simon Rattle's first recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, Mahler's questing 10th Symphony, are just such ambitious efforts. But three very celebrated pianists are also in contention, with supremely confident and insightful Bach from Murray Perahia, arrestingly original Chopin from Evgeny Kissin and wonderfully vibrant Haydn from Leif Ove Andsnes.

The combination of big-name performers and standard repertory remains an irresistible Grammy attraction -- Daniel Barenboim carefully traversing the nine Beethoven symphonies, Valery Gergiev brilliantly conducting Tchaikovsky, or Itzhak Perlman and Martha Argerich playing Beethoven and Franck violin sonatas with sparks flying. On the other hand, the five opera recordings avoid the 18th- and 19th-century standards altogether, while the big-money singers are relegated to the best-vocal category. Bach looms big in 2000 in choral nominations, but then there was a lot of Bach released, commemorating the 250th anniversary of his death.

The Grammys are impossible to pin down when it comes to new music, which ranges from the raw, urban jazz-inspired avant-garde work of Heiner Goebbels to Ned Rorem's very conservative but devastatingly powerful life-and-death song cycle "Evidence of Things Not Seen." Equally varied are the nominees for best small ensemble performance, where the range is from Renaissance vocal music from the Spanish Diaspora to 20th-century tangos and other South American favorites arranged for a dozen cellos from the Berlin Philharmonic.

-- Mark Swed

Country: Missed opportunities for breath of fresh air

Sales and quality are not synonymous. That would appear to be a truism, but you'd never know it from looking at the Grammy nominations in the country category.

Faith Hill's "Breathe" album has sold almost 5 million copies in the United States and generated six nominations, including best overall song of the year and best country song, for the hyperventilating title track written by Holly Lamar and Stephanie Bentley. The album even produced a second country song nomination, for "The Way You Love Me."

In the country song competition, Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers' "I Hope You Dance" is the class of a weak field that also includes Vince Gill's "Feels Like Love" and Don Cook and David Malloy's title song from Billy Gilman's album "One Choice."

In a year that offered rich and probing works from Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne, Allison Moorer and Johnny Cash, the album category is full of unadventurous choices from big names (Gill, Alan Jackson) or big sellers (Hill, Lee Ann Womack's breakthrough "I Hope You Dance"). Trisha Yearwood's "Real Live Woman" is the one nomination that consistently reached deeply enough to warrant a country album nod.

Results are a bit more encouraging in the female vocal category, with three of five choices (Dolly Parton, Yearwood and Womack) going to heartfelt performances. Had academy members listened beyond Hill's hit singles, they would have stumbled across the one track on "Breathe" worthy of a nomination, her effectively understated vocal performance of Bruce Springsteen's "If I Should Fall Behind."

The male vocal category also is a hodgepodge of the predictable (Gill, Tim McGraw), the novel (Gilman) and the honorable (Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam).

-- Randy Lewis

R&B: Obvious choices, for better, worse

In their inimitably vexing fashion, Grammy voters once again have skirted that fine line between good taste and cluelessness in their R&B nominees.

Last year was, in fact, a fairly strong one for R&B, and it wasn't all found on the margins, either. For every emergent talent like Jill Scott, there were striking smash singles from Sisqo and D'Angelo.

In other words, there was plenty for the voters to choose from, and they mercifully didn't overlook obvious picks. In the best-vocal categories, worthy nominees include Erykah Badu for "Bag Lady," Scott's "Gettin' in the Way," D'Angelo's "Untitled" and, yes, even Sisqo's "Thong Song."

In the category of vocal performance by a duo or group, Lucy Pearl's "Dance Tonight" is a pearl among duds. Amazingly, there are three worthy winners in the best-R&B-song category -- "Bag Lady," "Untitled" and "Thong Song" -- and barring an upset by Destiny's Child's "Say My Name," the genre won't be shortchanged in that department.

True to form, the voters overlooked Badu's "Mama's Gun" in the best-album category while including Boyz II Men's unremarkable "Nathan/Michael/ Shawn/Wanya." Sisqo's megahit "Unleash the Dragon" is, not surprisingly, among the R&B album nominees, up against more worthwhile potential winners such as D'Angelo's "Voodoo" and Scott's "Who Is Jill Scott?"

The academy has once again offered up the nebulous traditional R&B vocal album category, and a special achievement Grammy should be awarded to anyone who can figure out just what this means.

Based on the nominees, who include Jeffrey Osborne, Johnnie Taylor and the Temptations, it seems to denote poorly selling veteran artists who appeal to the recording academy's older flank.

-- Marc Weingarten

Latin: Rock features controversy, but year has little pop to it

The fact that most of this year's Grammy nominations in the Latin field are pedestrian and unimaginative is not due to poor choices by academy members, but rather to the state of the music itself.

The nominations corroborate what observers have been discussing for the last 12 months: 2000 was, overall, a lackluster year for the genre.