One of the most aggravating things about the annual Grammy Awards ceremony is its presumption of excellence.
Tune in to this year's broadcast (8 p.m., Tuesday on CBS), and what you'll see is a show ostensibly dedicated to celebrating the best in recorded music. Trouble is, "the best" quite frequently aren't even in the running. As a result, all the awards really represent is a sense of status quo in the recording industry.
To be fair, things have been worse. In 1972, for instance, the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" did not make the cut for Album of the Year, although "Jesus Christ Superstar" and Neil Diamond's "Moods" did. In 1984, neither Van Halen's "Jump" nor Prince's "When Doves Cry" were candidates for Record of the Year, but Chicago's "Hard Habit to Break" -- remember that one? I didn't think so -- was.
Under its current president, Michael Greene, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) has tried to make the Grammys a little less laughable, but with limited success (remember when Jethro Tull won the "Best Hard Rock/Metal" Grammy?). Needless to say, this year's list of final nominees was full of dubious choices and glaring omissions.
In an ideal world, the list of Grammy nominees really would be the best the music industry has to offer. So this year, I'm supplementing my usual list of Grammy predictions with a "wish list" of who should have been nominated, and who ought to win. Think of it as a case of Real World Grammys versus the Ideal World Grammys.
Record of the Year
Real Nominees: "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)," Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle; "I Will Always Love You," Whitney Houston; "The River of Dreams," Billy Joel; "If I Ever Lose My Faith In You," Sting; "Harvest Moon," Neil Young.
Probable Winner: "I Will Always Love You." It helps, of course, that Houston sang the pants off this one, putting every bit of her voice into the song. But what cinches it is that the single was the sort of mega-hit that appealed equally to R&B;, pop and country )) audiences, giving it a base of support far broader than anything the opposition can muster.
Ideal Nominees: " 'Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Doggy Dogg; "Rain," Madonna; "Man in the Moon," R.E.M.; "Supermodel," RuPaul; "Runaway Train," Soul Asylum.
Deserving Winner: " 'Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang." Given the amount of anti-gangsta rap propaganda being pumped out by well-meaning activists and would-be Comstocks, it's worth remembering that what made this music popular in the first place wasn't guns or aggression, but hooks. And this single had more pop savvy than anything on the radio last year, from Dre's sinuous synth lines to Snoop's laconic cadences.
Album of the Year
Real Nominees: "Kamakiriad," Donald Fagen; "The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album," Whitney Houston; "River of Dreams," Billy Joel; "Automatic for the People," R.E.M.; "Ten Summoner's Tales," Sting.
Probable Winner: "Ten Summoner's Tales." In addition to good looks and a winning personality, Sting has two things NARAS voters can't seem to resist: impeccable musicianship and a flair for melody. The former should give him the edge over Joel and R.E.M., while the latter should ease his triumph over Fagen and the wildly uneven "Bodyguard" soundtrack.
Ideal Nominees: "The Chronic," Dr. Dre; "Exile in Guyville," Liz Phair; "Sons of Soul," Tony! Toni! Tone!; "Zooropa," U2; "Saturation," Urge Overkill.
Deserving Winner: "Zooropa." Good as "The Chronic" is, sonic detours like "The $20 Sack Pyramid" keep the album from achieving the greatness Dre's singles promise. U2, on the other hand, understands how to weave in-jokes and sound bites into the fabric of the music without losing the listener, and that makes "Zooropa" the clear winner in this category.
Song of the Year
Real Nominees: "Harvest Moon," Neil Young, songwriter; "I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)," Jim Steinman, songwriter; "If I Ever Lose My Faith In You," Sting, songwriter; "The River of Dreams," Billy Joel, songwriter; "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)," Alan Menken and Tim Rice, songwriters.
Probable Winner: "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)." With "I Will Always Love You" inexplicably out of the running, we have to look at the next most schlocky ballad, and that's "A Whole New World." In fact, its only real competition is "I'd Do Anything for Love," but at 12 minutes long, it would have a better shot at Symphony of the Year.
Ideal Nominees: "Anniversary," Raphael Wiggins and Carl Wheeler, songwriters; "Man in the Moon," Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, songwriters; "Passionate Kisses," Lucinda Williams, songwriter; "Rain," Madonna Ciccone and Shep Pettibone, songwriters; "Runaway Train," David Pirner, songwriter.
Deserving Winner: "Runaway Train." If the measure of a good song is its ability to come across clearly with the simplest of guitar accompaniment, then "Runaway Train" is clearly the leader of this pack. But any of the five would be a more deserving choice than the NARAS nominees.
Best New Artist
Real Nominees: Belly; Blind Melon; Toni Braxton; Digable Planets; SWV.
Probable Winner: Braxton. SWV had more pop success, and Digable Planets certain has more hipster cool, but Braxton has good looks, a great voice and enormous pop potential -- and if that doesn't sway the NARAS voters, they're more clueless than they look.
Ideal Nominees: Toni Braxton; Digable Planets; The London Suede; Liz Phair; Rage Against the Machine.
Deserving Winner: Phair. Granted, she doesn't have Braxton's voice or a production team as polished at L.A. and Babyface behind her, but even so, her "Exile in Guyville" was the most fully realized debut in recent memory. A smart songwriter and personable singer, Phair is definitely a talent to watch.
Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female
Real Nominees: "Dreamlover," Mariah Carey; "I Don't Know Why," Shawn Colvin; "I Will Always Love You," Whitney Houston; "Miss Chatelaine," k.d. lang; "I Don't Wanna Fight," Tina Turner.
Probable Winner: Houston. Hey, it's Record of the Year -- what more reason do you need?
Ideal Nominees: "Breathe Again," Toni Braxton; "That's the Way Love Goes," Janet Jackson; "Miss Chatelaine," k.d. lang; "Rain," Madonna; "Put Me On Top," Aimee Mann.
Deserving Winner: Madonna. Even though she's never won a pop Grammy (or any Grammy, for that matter), "Rain" seems a natural for this slot -- lush, tuneful, just smart enough to give it a slight edge over lang (the only actual nominee deserving of the award) or Braxton.
Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals
Real Nominees: "Livin' On the Edge," Aerosmith; "No Rain," Blind Melon; "My Back Pages," Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, George Harrison; "Runaway Train," Soul Asylum; "Two Princes," Spin Doctors.
Probable Winner: Aerosmith. They're slick, they're successful, they're old enough to have fathered most of their fans -- no wonder the NARAS voters identify with these guys.
Ideal Nominees: "Cannonball," The Breeders; "Heart Shaped Box," Nirvana; "Dream All Day," Posies; "Cherub Rock," Smashing Pumpkins; "Sister Havana," Urge Overkill.
Deserving Winner: The Breeders. Though it's a close call over the cheery crunch of "Cherub Rock" and the swirling psychedelia of "Sister Havana," "Cannonball" offers a classic combination of ear-catching invention and melodic simplicity.
Best R&B; Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals
Real Nominees: "Let It Snow," Boyz II Men; "Sunday Morning," Earth, Wind & Fire; "Give It Up, Turn It Loose," En Vogue; "No Ordinary Love," Sade; "Anniversary," Tony! Toni! Tone!
Probable Winner: En Vogue. True, the Tonys have a stronger song, and harmonize just as sweetly as the ladies. But En Vogue is better-established and brand-name dependable, and given the conservatism apparent in these nominations, those are clearly the qualities that count.
Ideal Nominees: "Lately," Jodeci; "Slow and Sexy," Shabba Ranks featuring Johnny Gill; "Right Here (Human Nature Remix)," SWV; "Anniversary," Tony! Toni! Tone!; "Rump Shaker," Wreckx-N-Effect.
Deserving Winner: Tony! Toni! Tone! The group's ability to blend old-school soul singing with new-jack beats ought to earn them the real-world Grammy in this category. But Wreckx-N-Effect's ineluctably kinetic "Rump Shaker" and SWV's insinuatingly sweet "Right Here" also deserve a cheer, if not a trophy.
Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group
Real Nominees: "Revolution," Arrested Development; "Insane in the Brain," Cypress Hill; "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," Digable Planets; "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg; "Hip Hop Hooray," Naughty By Nature.
Probable Winner: Digable Planets. NARAS voters have a history of opting for the safest, least objectionable rap records -- how d'you think the Fresh Prince wound up with so many Grammys? As a result, dangerous-but-deserving acts like Dre and Snoop or Cypress Hill don't stand a chance, and even the Digables would lose out were they up against a stronger single from the artistically admirable Arrested Development.
Ideal Nominees: "Insane in the Brain," Cypress Hill; "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg; "Check Yo Self" Ice Cube featuring Das EFX; "Whoot, There It Is," 95 South; "Slam," Onyx.
Deserving Winner: Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. It's so obvious it's hard to believe you'd even have to ask, though in any other year, "Insane in the Brain" or "Check Yo Self" would be awfully tough competition.
Best Country Vocal Performance, Male
Real Nominees: "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)," Garth Brooks; "Chattahoochee," Alan Jackson; "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," George Jones; "The Grand Tour," Aaron Neville; "Ain't That Lonely Yet," Dwight Yoakam.
Probable Winner: Alan Jackson -- but only by a hair in what may be the best-matched field.
Ideal Nominees: "Money in the Bank," John Anderson; "Sure Is Monday," Mark Chestnutt; "Where You Going," Jimmie Dale Gilmore; "Blue Collar Man," Travis Tritt; "Fast As You," Dwight Yoakam.
Deserving Winner: Dwight Yoakam. Gilmore is probably the best writer of the bunch, but his voice lacks the punch needed to make the most of a song as solid as "Where You Going," and as much fun as it is to hear Tritt get down with Gary Rossington on "Blue Collar Man," truth is, that song is more a rocker than a country tune. Yoakam, on the other hand, knows how to walk the line, and delivers a performance so smooth, sexy and energized you's almost think Elvis never left Nashville.
Producer of the Year (Non-Classical)
Real Nominees: Walter Afanasieff; Tony Brown; Bruce Fairbairn; David Foster; Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; Hugh Padgham.
Probable Winner: David Foster. Sure, his work is slick and soulless, but it sells -- just look at "I Will Always Love You." But then, the NARAS membership has always valued craft over inspiration.
Ideal Nominees: Dr. Dre; DJ Muggs; Flood; Daniel Lanois; Butch Vig.
Deserving Winner: Dr. Dre. So what if he's sometimes moody, combative or unpredictable -- so was Phil Spector. Like Spector, Dre is by far the most inventive producer of his generation, blessed with an almost instinctive understanding of the relationship between melody and rhythm, hooks and groove. It's one thing to turn hard-core beats into mainstream hits; what Dre does is make the difference between "hard-core" and "mainstream" irrelevant. And if that doesn't make him Grammy-worthy, I don't know what does.