Sugarcoated pop ditties, spleen-venting modern soul ballads and defiant, go-girl country anthems -- nominations in the Grammys' major categories are refreshingly diverse this year. Left-field artists such as Corinne Bailey Rae and Gnarls Barkley are up against ubiquitous pop stars such as Justin Timberlake and Mary J. Blige. With such a nice mix, it's a little difficult to decide on a shoo-in. But if I were a Grammy voter, these would be my picks in the top categories:
RECORD OF THE YEAR
The award goes to the artist and to the producers, recording engineers and mixers.
Nominees: "Be Without You," Mary J. Blige; "You're Beautiful," James Blunt; "Not Ready to Make Nice," the Dixie Chicks; "Crazy," Gnarls Barkley; "Put Your Records On," Corinne Bailey Rae
Pick: "Crazy," Gnarls Barkley. The summer smash received round-the-clock spins on urban, pop and modern-rock stations. An instant classic, the track brilliantly marries Cee-Lo's churchy, grainy vocals with a clean, nervy production that underscores the paranoia of the lyrics.
SONG OF THE YEAR
The award goes to the songwriter.
Nominees: "Be Without You," Mary J. Blige; "Jesus, Take the Wheel," Carrie Underwood; "Not Ready to Make Nice," the Dixie Chicks; "Put Your Records On," Corinne Bailey Rae; "You're Beautiful," James Blunt
Pick: "Be Without You," Mary J. Blige. Though the song's production is stiff, Blige still imbues the clear-eyed lyrics of devotional love with holy fervor, turning out one of her best vocal performances.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Nominees: Taking the Long Way, Dixie Chicks; St. Elsewhere, Gnarls Barkley; Continuum, John Mayer; Stadium Arcadium, Red Hot Chili Peppers; FutureSex/Love Sounds, Justin Timberlake
Pick: Continuum, John Mayer. This one is easy. With soulful vocals, substantive lyrics and richly organic grooves, Continuum has an evergreen quality the other albums don't possess. Plus, it deftly weaves blues elements throughout, and you never lose with the blues.
BEST NEW ARTIST
Nominees: James Blunt, Chris Brown, Imogen Heap, Corinne Bailey Rae, Carrie Underwood
Pick: Corinne Bailey Rae. Over the years, several artists who have won this award disappeared from the pop scene shortly afterward: A Taste of Honey, Christopher Cross and Paula Cole come to mind. But some who picked up the gramophone in this category -- Natalie Cole, Bette Midler, Mariah Carey -- managed to establish long, storied careers. Although her debut was uneven, Rae's airy, quirky vocal style and generally thoughtful approach made her one of 2006's most promising artists.
BEST FEMALE POP VOCAL PERFORMANCE
Nominees: "Ain't No Other Man," Christina Aguilera; "Unwritten," Natasha Bedingfield; "You Can Close Your Eyes," Sheryl Crow; "Stupid Girls," Pink; "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," KT Tunstall
Pick: "Ain't No Other Man," Christina Aguilera. Against a spare beat generously spiked with old-school horn samples, Aguilera lets loose on this excellent DJ Premier-produced track. Sassy, fun and funky, it should dust the other rather soft nominations.
BEST MALE POP VOCAL PERFORMANCE
Nominees: "You're Beautiful," James Blunt; "Save Room," John Legend; "Waiting on the World to Change," John Mayer; "Jenny Wren," Paul McCartney; "Bad Day," Daniel Powter
Pick: "Waiting on the World to Change," John Mayer. Hands down, the best song of the bunch. Mayer delivers believable, impassioned vocals over a tight, blues-suffused, Motown-meets-Stax groove. And because he's a Grammy favorite, he'll probably stroll away with this one.
BEST POP PERFORMANCE BY A DUO OR GROUP WITH VOCAL
Nominees: "My Humps," the Black Eyed Peas; "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," Death Cab for Cutie; "Over My Head (Cable Car)," the Fray; "Is It Any Wonder?" Keane; "Stickwitu," the Pussycat Dolls
Pick: "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," Death Cab for Cutie. This melodic, folk-laced number is perhaps the most distinctive here and should win. The fact that the inane "My Humps" is even nominated is disturbing.
BEST POP VOCAL ALBUM
Nominees: Back to Basics, Christina Aguilera; Back to Bedlam, James Blunt; The River in Reverse, Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint; Continuum, John Mayer; FutureSex/LoveSounds, Justin Timberlake
Pick: Continuum, John Mayer. Among last year's best pop efforts, Continuum shows Mayer at a creative peak, displaying a musical and lyrical depth his peers may never reach. His previous, serious forays into blues and jazz helped to inform the organic, nuanced direction of this fine album.