Tough Call Awards: With no obvious favorites and little sign of industry consensus, this year's Grammy nominees are harder to handicap than ever before.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last year will not be remembered as a high-water mark in pop music history. There were no breakthrough albums released, no singer or group that captured the nation's imagination. Sales were flat, touring was down and general enthusiasm was low. All in all, it was a lousy year for music fans.

But that should make this a great year for Grammy watchers.

How so? Because for once the Grammy contest is shaping up as a real horse race. With no obvious favorites and little sign of industry consensus, this year's nominees are harder to handicap than ever before. Factor in last year's surprising Alanis Morissette wins -- a sweep that seems to have brushed away the Grammy voters' reputation for knee-jerk conservatism -- and it's anybody's guess who will come out on top when the winners are announced at the 39th Annual Grammy Awards show (which will be broadcast live from New York Wednesday, starting at 8 p.m., on CBS).

Much of that has to do with this year's nominees. Although the list is larded with mild, mainstream pop acts along the lines of Eric Clapton, Celine Dion, Sting, Gloria Estefan, Bryan Adams and Whitney Houston, it also includes quite a few cutting-edge acts, Beck, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, 2Pac, Oasis and Rage Against the Machine among them. It may not be the sort of slate a rock critic would compile, but neither is it the sort of old-fogey joke it once was.

Question is, are the voters as hip as the ballot? Edgy acts have been nominated before, and the Grammys have gone to less daring artists. Even the Morissette juggernaut last year could as easily be attributed to her middle-American mass popularity as to the artistic audacity of her music. So it's hard to say whether the presence of Beck, Garbage and Smashing Pumpkins represents a genuine change in attitude or just another false hope for hipsters.

That's why this year's Grammy forecast is being treated less as crystal ball-gazing than as an exercise in handicapping. Sure, some nominations are sure things and others long shots, but it's worth remembering that long shots can pay off and even sure things lose on occasion.

But before getting into odds-oriented specifics, here are a few Fearless Predictions:

Despite garnering a record-tying 12 nominations, Babyface will take no more than four of the tiny gramophones home.

Tracy Chapman and Eric Clapton will both do well enough (at least three Grammys each) to leave some commentators wondering if we're not on the verge of a blues revival.

Beck will win every category in which he's been nominated.

Alanis Morissette will do better with the video for "Ironic" than for the single itself.

The Beatles will win at least one award.

Smashing Pumpkins will be almost totally shut out.

Record of the Year

A perfect example of just how hard it will be to predict winners, the field for Record of the Year mixes big-name ballads of the sort that used to be shoo-ins with enough smart, quirky singles to give no one title a significant edge.

"Give Me One Reason," Tracy Chapman (Tracy Chapman and Don Gehman, producers): Musically, this basic blues seems too simple to be a serious contender, but between Chapman's wonderfully offhand performance and the classic lines of the song itself, it could just sneak in. Odds: 6 to 1.

"Change the World," Eric Clapton (Babyface, producer): Being typical of neither Clapton nor Babyface, this single counts as a stretch for both, and that -- along with the blissfully catchy chorus -- should go a long way toward persuading Grammy voters to give it thumbs up. Odds: 3 to 2.

"Because You Loved Me," Celine Dion (David Foster, producer): A decade ago, any ballad this soppily sentimental would have been a sure thing. But that will likely work against it this year, as Dion's big-voiced performance seems a tad too old-fashioned. Odds: 10 to 1.

"Ironic," Alanis Morissette (Glen Ballard, producer): Even if she loses points for misusing the word, "Ironic" demonstrates enough melodic power and songwriting skill to give Morissette a shot at maintaining last year's momentum. Odds: 3 to 1.

"1979," Smashing Pumpkins (Billy Corgan, Flood and Alan Moulder, producers): Smashing Pumpkins may be the acceptable face of alternative rock, but this single is too diffuse and derivative to be a serious contender here. Odds: 15 to 1.

Album of the Year

Traditionally the most adventurous of the top four categories, this is where we'll see just how daring the Grammy voters are.

"Odelay," Beck (Beck Hansen and the Dust Brothers, producers): With a mere million in sales, this may be the weakest of the nominees commercially. But expect to see this brilliantly idiosyncratic album's critical eclat -- it was named Album of the Year in Rolling Stone, Spin and the annual Village Voice critics' poll -- carry over here. Odds: 6 to 5.

"Falling Into You," Celine Dion (Roy Bittan, Jeff Bova, David Foster, et al., producers): Sure, there were a lot of big singles on this album, but it doesn't hold up well enough as a whole to make the cut here. Odds: 10 to 1.

"The Score," Fugees (Diamond D., Jerry "Te Bass" Duplessis, John Forte, et al., producers): In addition to having made one of the few hip-hop albums even rap-haters liked, the Fugees had the advantage of innovative production and great press. Unfortunately, that won't quite be enough. Odds: 3 to 1.

"Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," Smashing Pumpkins (Billy Corgan, Alan Moulder and Flood, producers): A big album in almost every sense of the term, the Pumpkins pick up points for ambition -- but lose them for self-indulgence. Odds: 8 to 1.

"Waiting to Exhale," various artists (Babyface, producer): A serious contender if only because of the number of hit singles this soundtrack spun off. Should a Babyface sweep materialize, expect to see this album benefit. Odds: 3 to 2.

Song of the Year

This award goes to the song, not the single, and in recent years has tended to go to something other than the Record of the Year song. That may be good news for Babyface, but probably won't much help Diane Warren.

"Because You Loved Me," Diane Warren, songwriter (recorded by Celine Dion): As stirring as this power ballad may be, the fact that it demands a voice as big as Celine Dion's is likely to work against it. Odds: 8 to 1.

"Blue," Bill Mack, songwriter (recorded by LeAnn Rimes): Rimes went over well at the American Music Awards, but came up empty-handed at the Country Music Awards; take the latter as an indicator of how well her first big hit will do here. Odds: 12 to 1.

"Change the World," Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick and Tommy Sims, songwriters (recorded both by Eric Clapton and by Wynonna): That this song was strong enough to produce two distinct interpretations should work to its advantage. But Clapton's edge in the Record of the Year category will likely diminish its chances here. Odds: 3 to 1.

"Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," Babyface, songwriter (recorded by Whitney Houston): Apart from the semi-silly title, this slow, sultry soul ballad is classic Babyface. But will that be enough to put it over the top? Odds: 2 to 1.

"Give Me One Reason," Tracy Chapman, songwriter (recorded by Tracy Chapman): The blues being such a basic song form, "Give Me One Reason" may at first glance seem too rudimentary to have a realistic chance here. But it's that very simplicity that gives the tune its edge. After all, anybody can write a blues song, but few can write one as memorable as this. Odds: 3 to 2.

Best New Artist

Even though this category is a shoddy indicator of an act's

future popularity (hello, Hootie & the Blowfish!), the Grammy voters take it seriously nonetheless. But will they see it as a means of endorsing the music industry's future, or just a way to reward last year's most popular newcomers?

Garbage: On the surface, it would be hard to imagine a more unlikely contender in this category than Garbage; not only is front person Shirley Manson outrageously outspoken, but even the band's biggest singles lack the easy accessibility found in traditional Best New Artist winners. But the group's innate musicality, combined with the studio savvy demonstrated by its three producer/members, will more than make up the difference. Odds: 3 to 2.

Jewel: If being cute were all that mattered, this category would come down to a contest between Jewel and Rimes, with the advantage going to Jewell. But it's not. Odds: 5 to 1.

No Doubt: Hard work and steady sales traditionally have been what it takes to make a band Best New Artist, and that may still hold this year. But too many in the industry consider the band talentless lightweights for it to earn this kind of endorsement. Odds: 4 to 1.

The Tony Rich Project: A great singer, inventive songwriter and talented bandleader, Rich genuinely has the goods. What he doesn't have is the sort of profile needed to make any of that

matter. Odds: 15 to 1.

LeAnn Rimes: She's incredibly young, is blessed with an amazing voice and sells records like nobody's business. If only she could combine that with the sort of cultural impact Alanis Morissette had! Odds: 6 to 1.

Calculating the odds

Here are the Grammy odds in some other key categories:

Best Female Pop Vocal Performance

"Unbreak My Heart," Toni Braxton. Odds: 3 to 2.

"Get Out of This House," Shawn Colvin. Odds: 8 to 1.

"Because You Loved Me," Celine Dion. Odds: 3 to 1.

"Reach," Gloria Estefan. Odds: 10 to 1.

"Who Will Save Your Soul," Jewel. Odds: 6 to 1.

Best Male Pop Vocal Performance

"Let's Make a Night to Remember," Bryan Adams. Odds: 15 to 1.

"Change the World," Eric Clapton. Odds: 6 to 5.

"Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)," John Mellencamp. Odds: 8 to 1.

"Nobody Knows," the Tony Rich Project. Odds: 20 to 1.

"Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot," Sting. Odds: 5 to 1.

Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal

"Stupid Girl," Garbage. Odds: 2 to 1.

"So Much to Say," Dave Matthews Band. Odds: 7 to 1.

"Wonderwall," Oasis. Odds: 3 to 2. "1979," Smashing Pumpkins. Odds: 5 to 1.

"6th Avenue Heartache," the Wallflowers. Odds: 3 to 1.

Best Alternative Music Performance

"Boys for Pele," Tori Amos. Odds: 10 to 1.

"Odelay," Beck. Odds: 1 to 1.

"The Burdens of Being Upright," Tracy Bonham. Odds: 8 to 1.

"New Adventures in Hi-Fi," R.E.M.. Odds: 5 to 1.

"Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," Smashing Pumpkins. Odds: 3 to 1.

Best Female R&B; Vocal Performance

"Not Gon' Cry," Mary J. Blige. Odds: 5 to 1.

"Sittin' Up in My Room," Brandy. Odds: 5 to 1.

"You're Makin' Me High," Toni Braxton. Odds: 3 to 1.

"Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," Whitney Houston. Odds: 3 to 2.

"You Put a Move on My Heart," Tamia. Odds: 8 to 1.

Best Male R&B; Vocal Performance

"Lady," D'Angelo. Odds: 10 to 1.

"A Change Is Gonna Come," Al Green. Odds: 4 to 1.

"New World Order," Curtis Mayfield. Odds: 3 to 1.

"Like a Woman," the Tony Rich Project. Odds: 8 to 1.

"Your Secret Love," Luther Vandross. Odds: 5 to 1.

Best Rap Album

"Gangsta's Paradise," Coolio. Odds: 5 to 1.

"The Score," Fugees. Odds: 3 to 2.

"Mr. Smith," L.L. Cool J. Odds: 6 to 1.

"Beats, Rhymes and Life," A Tribe Called Quest. Odds: 6 to 1.

"All Eyez on Me," 2Pac. Odds: 10 to 1.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance

"Let Me Into Your Heart," Mary Chapin Carpenter. Odds: 4 to 1.

"Strawberry Wine," Deana Carter. Odds: 2 to 1.

"Baby Mine," Alison Krauss. Odds: 3 to 1.

"Blue," LeAnn Rimes. Odds: 3 to 1.

"Believe Me Baby (I Lied)," Trisha Yearwood. Odds: 5 to 1.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance

"Like the Rain," Clint Black. Odds: 5 to 1.

"My Wife Thinks You're Dead," Junior Brown. Odds: 2 to 1.

"Worlds Apart," Vince Gill. Odds: 3 to 1.

"Private Conversation," Lyle Lovett. Odds: 4 to 1.

"Nothing," Dwight Yoakam. Odds: 3 to 2.

Producer of the Year

Babyface. Odds: 1 to 1.

David Foster. Odds: 2 to 1.

Don Gehman. Odds: 5 to 1.

Brendan O'Brien. Odds: 9 to 1.

Don Was. Odds: 10 to 1.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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