Let's hope tonight's show outshines Grammy albums

Let's face it: People don't tune in to the annual Grammy Awards broadcast simply to see who wins what. Really, how much general interest can there be in categories like Best Arrangement on an Instrumental or Best Album Package?

For many viewers, what makes the Grammy broadcast worth watching is as much the live music as any suspense involving who will win Record of the Year. So when the presentation of the 36th Annual Grammy Awards gets under way tonight (carried live on CBS, beginning at 8 p.m.), one of the biggest draws will be the performances by such stars as Sting, Whitney Houston, Billy Joel, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Neil Young.


After all, the music is the most memorable part of any Grammy broadcast, right?

Wrong. If it were, the four-volume "Grammy's Greatest Moments" would be at least a little more listenable than it is.


Older fans might find the title a tad misleading, since the series stretches back no further than Aretha Franklin's 1972 performance of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Trouble is, the Grammys have only been televised live since 1970, and that limited the amount of source material to which the "Grammy's Greatest Moments" production team had access.

Even so, the set conforms to a rather peculiar notion of greatness, one that seems to favor marquee value over musical quality, and middle-of-the-road pop and rock over country, gospel, jazz or classical. Worse, several of the performances are so bad that it's hard not to wonder what, if these are the greatest moments, the lesser ones sounded like.

"Grammy's Greatest Moments: Volume I" (Atlantic 82574) starts off predictably enough with Tina Turner singing "What's Love Got To Do With It." Her rendition typifies the performances collected here -- workmanlike, recognizable, totally professional and altogether unexciting. "What's Soul Got To Do With It" seems to be her attitude.

She's hardly alone in that, either. It's understandable that Natalie Cole's rendition of "Unforgettable" would be a bit stiff -- hey, she's singing along with a dead guy, right? But Billy Idol, Donna Summer, Phil Collins and Sting have no such excuse, yet their performances seem every bit as lifeless as the Coles'.

All told, the only performance on this album that's worth owning is the Barbra Streisand/Neil Diamond duet on "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" -- one of the few moments in this set that deserves the word "great."

Things pick up some for "Grammy's Greatest Moments: Volume II" (Atlantic 82575), thanks to Michael McDonald's exquisitely tremulous vocal on the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes" and Billy Joel's energetic charge through "We Didn't Start the Fire."

It's easily the most consistent of the four volumes, and also -- perhaps not uncoincidentally -- the album most reliant on recent winners. Granted, there are a couple eyebrow-raisers here, notably Terence Trent D'Arby's totally over-the-top screech through "If You Let Me Stay." But for the most part, the performances are thoroughly enjoyable, whether as straightforward as k. d. lang's bittersweet "Constant Craving" or as adventurous as Eric Clapton's tellingly rephrased "Tears in Heaven."

Actually, there's a certain consistency to the performances on "Grammy's Greatest Moments: Volume III" (Atlantic 82576) -- unfortunately, it's that the music is dependably awful. From Los Lobos' sloppy, album-opening "La Bamba" to Mike + the Mechanics' sappy, album-closing "The Living Years," this album is an almost total waste of time.


True, we do get to hear Aretha Franklin's stunningly impassioned reading of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" -- Grammy greatness by any standard -- but it comes packed in with such retch-inducing fare as Kenny Rogers' "Through the Years" and Cristopher Cross' unspeakable "Arthur's Theme."

Still, the Grammy folks managed to save the worst for last. "Grammy's Greatest Moments: Volume IV" (Atlantic 82577) boasts what may be the series' most inexplicable inclusion, Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl." Not only is the song itself merely bad-imitation Springsteen, but the track is so full of mud and distortion you'd think it was recorded on a cassette machine someone smuggled into the audience.

"Volume IV" does, at least, offer a taste of the show's taste in production numbers, but it's hard to say whether that counts as an advantage. Certainly, there's little to recommend Anita Baker's badly paced version of "God Bless the Child," and even though Sting's "Someone To Watch Over Me" has its charms, the Grammy folks could have found a more authoritative interpreter for their Gershwin tribute.

Look at the bright side, though -- it'll probably be a couple of years before they dare to release Volume V.