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SOUNDS LIKE A WINNER Preview: Her craftsmanship should give Joan Osborne the edge with conservative Grammy voters, who just love a well-made recording.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As any pundit will tell you, the best way to predict how voters will act is by understanding how those voters think. Consequently, the biggest challenge facing any Grammy handicapper is having to stop thinking like a music critic and to start thinking like a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

That's not as easy as you'd think. The National Academy, whose 8,000 members vote on the Grammys, is an organization of industry professionals, with a heavy emphasis on producers and engineers. Unlike fans, who are happy with a good tune and a personable performance, or critics, who tend to prefer edgy, artistically daring work, what many academy members admire most is craftsmanship. Nothing impresses these folks more than a well-made recording.

This is why it's a mistake to complain, as Rolling Stone did recently, that the Grammys tend to favor "big-selling mainstream pop artists like Toto, Quincy Jones and Christopher Cross," as if all that was being rewarded was blandness and popularity. Embarrassing as their work may seem to alternarock hipsters, what Toto, Jones and Cross had in common was an extreme proficiency at recording and engineering -- and that's what put each over the top at Grammy time, which this year is at 8 p.m. Wednesday on CBS.

Grammy voters are, of course, notoriously conservative. Previous Grammy slates have shown a strong preference for soft, traditional rock and big, soppy ballads -- so much so that this year, the academy's leadership installed a secret 25-member screening committee to "filter" the results of the nominating ballots. That's why this year's list of Grammy hopefuls seems so cutting-edge, what with the likes of Seal, Alanis Morissette, Joan Osborne and Pearl Jam vying for Record of the Year and Album of the Year.

There won't be any screening committee for the final ballot, though, which is why this handicapper suspects that technical craft, not commercial success, will be the deciding factor. And while that won't be good news for Mariah Carey or Hootie and the Blowfish, it should work wonders for Joan Osborne.

* Record of the year: This year, the great contenders in the Grammy race are Mariah Carey, Alanis Morissette and Osborne, so the obvious question is, Will there be a sweep?

Well, let's put it this way: Joan Osborne should start rehearsing her thank-yous now.

Whether you believe that Osborne's "One of Us" was the best single released last year, the fact is that it makes a perfect record of the year. For starters, it manages to sound adventurous even as it stays well within the traditions of mainstream rock and roll. More than being catchy -- something all of the nominated singles are -- it takes stylistic elements every listener knows and gives them a bright new sheen. Ironically, that makes it a more appealing choice for the academy voters than adventurous fare like Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" or Seal's "Kiss from a Rose."

It also addresses a profound issue with a simple chorus: "What if God was one of us?" This is the sort of thing Grammy voters love. Looking over the list of previous winners in this category -- "Don't Worry, Be Happy," "Wind Beneath My Wings," "Tears in Heaven," "Streets of Philadelphia" -- it quickly becomes clear that a catchy song about a serious subject is a virtual shoo-in.

Finally, the two singles that have the best shot of upsetting Osborne -- TLC's "Waterfalls" and the Mariah Carey/Boyz II Men collaboration "One Sweet Day" -- are so close in style and audience that they'll likely cancel each other out.

* Album of the year: Things get a little trickier here. Although Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" and Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" scored highly with rock critics, that sort of approval is not likely to carry much weight with Grammy voters (the cads!). Likewise, though there always have been rumors of record company blocs swinging the vote in major Grammy categories, it would take more than the concerted efforts of Sony Music to ensure that Mariah Carey's "Daydream" will snare this Grammy.

Why? Because when push comes to shove, it's the engineering, arranging and production that makes or breaks an album in this category, and from that perspective, there are only two real contenders: Osborne's "Relish" and Michael Jackson's "HIStory Past, Present and Future Book 1."

That Osborne would be a prime contender is obvious as soon as you hear "Relish" on headphones or through a good stereo. Not only are the arrangements lean and clever, full of interesting textures and ear-catching hooks, but the recording itself is astonishingly vivid, virtually surrounding the listener in sound. It would be hard to imagine a better com- bination of singing, songwriting and studio craft.

Hard, but not impossible. Unfortunately for Osborne, "Relish" is up against "HIStory," which means she's faced with the daunting task of competing against Jackson's greatest hits. Given the Grammy-winning power of those songs (and the equally awesome quality of Bruce Swedien's engineering), it's easy to see Jacko scoring an upset here. My guess is that his personal problems will keep enough voters away to give Osborne the award, but don't be surprised if this is where the Osborne sweep hits its biggest snag.

* Song of the year: This category doesn't always follow Record of the Year, but it does often enough to give songwriter Eric Bazilian's "One of Us" the edge -- particularly because songs that play at profundity do quite well here. (Think of such previous winners as "Streets of Philadelphia," "Tears in Heaven" and "From a Distance," and you'll see what I mean.)

Assuming that "I Can Love You Like That" will be undone by its own triviality, "Kiss from a Rose" will seem too idiosyncratic, and "You Oughta Know" will be sunk by its sex content, the only serious competition here is "You Are Not Alone," an R. Kelly song recorded by Jackson, which may actually be good enough to overcome the Jacko backlash.

Even so, the smart money would be on "One of Us."

* Best new artist: OK, so Hootie & the Blowfish has sold 12 million copies of its debut, "Cracked Rear View." Ace of Base sold 8 million copies of its first album, and that didn't help them.

No, sales are not the key in this category. Ever since the Milli Vanilli embarrassment, Grammy voters seem really hesitant to use this category to endorse popularity. So that rules out Hootie and doesn't bode well for last year's next-best-selling debut artist, Morissette.

Brandy, though clearly a major talent, may seem a tad too young to instill confidence in the voters. And though Shania Twain's "The Woman in Me" is well-enough produced to be a sure thing in the country category, Twain doesn't have enough of a pop presence to be a threat here.

As a result, this one's a no-brainer. Given the momentum she'll have from the other categories, Osborne should win in a walk, just as Sheryl Crow did last year.

* Best female pop vocal performance: Would you think it too much like piling on to give Osborne this Grammy, too? That's the only real question here, and if so, expect to see Vanessa Williams' Disney-driven "Colors of the Wind" edge out Carey, Annie Lennox and Bonnie Raitt. Otherwise, count this as another win for Osborne.

* Best male pop vocal performance: Apart from the oft-nominated Seal, all the contenders here are long-time Grammy favorites: Bryan Adams, Jackson, Elton John and Sting. So who gets the edge? Jackson, if only because his "You Are Not Alone" is heavily nominated elsewhere, and a win here would seem a vote of confidence without actually seeming to celebrate this self-crowned King of Pop.

* Best pop performance by a duo or group with vocal: This might seem a nice place to reward Hootie & the Blowfish for their success and ubiquity, but don't count on it happening. All-4-One and the Rembrandts may be relative pushovers, but TLC's beautifully produced "Waterfalls" is easily the equal of Hootie's "Let Her Cry." But neither will fly past the Eagles, whose instant oldie, "Love Will Keep Us Alive," makes them the obvious choice here.

* Best female rock vocal performance: Osborne could easily win this one, too, but because she's up for the less-familiar "St. Teresa," this is probably where Morissette's "You Oughta Know" will get its due. Though we rock critics will be pulling for P. J. Harvey.

* Best male rock vocal performance: With Neil Young and Bob Dylan in the running, this year's slate is the hippest this category has ever had. But that's not going to stop Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels" from walking off with the award.

* Best rock album: Again, were this a critics' poll, Neil Young's "Mirror Ball" would be the obvious choice. But since it's not, expect to see Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" rip past Chris Isaak's "Forever Blue," Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" and Petty's "Wildflowers."

* Best alternative album: P. J. Harvey's "To Bring You My Love" may have topped the magazine polls, but Harvey, bless her, is still alive. That's why Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged in New York" is guaranteed the memorial vote, and this Grammy.

* Best female R&B; vocal performance: Although the category is full of big names -- Anita Baker, Toni Braxton, Carey and Williams -- the tracks nominated are surprisingly weak. Which is why the likely winner will be the baby of the bunch: Brandy, for, um, "Baby."

* Best male R&B; vocal performance: Marvin Gaye manque D'Angelo is sure to get the hipster vote, Montell Jordan will attract the pop faction and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince will appeal to the musos. But the smart money will be on the sentimental vote, and that's going to Stevie Wonder for the underrated "For Your Love."

* Best rap album: Unless the voting body has changed dramatically over the past year, Skee-Lo's light-but-endearing "I Wish" is the obvious winner here. But I'm sure most of you are, like me, hoping Ol' Dirty Bastard wins, if only to see how they announce his name.

* Best female country vocal performance: Given the normal Grammy order of things, newcomer Twain would slip past Patti Loveless, Martina McBride and Pam Tillis to snare this award. But Alison Krauss' clear voice, bluegrass roots and big Country Music Award wins will give her enough of an edge to sneak by. (Besides, Twain stands a better shot with Country Album of the Year.)

* Best male country vocal performance: Why don't they just call this the Vince Gill award and get it over with?

* Best country performance by a duo or group with vocal: Despite the presence of perennial contenders Brooks & Dunn and chart-toppers the Tractors, this will likely be where the Mavericks get their due, proving once again that Grammy's country contingent is much hipper than the CMA crew.

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