Essential tracks: Lesser-known but just as worthy Grammy nominees

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Time Pop Music Critic
The late Jesse Winchester's 'Reasonable Amount of Trouble' is a bittersweet Grammy contender

As mentioned in this week's Grammys notebook, beneath the big-name performers who will earn prime-time eyes during Sunday's awards ceremony is a bounty of lesser-known musicians vying for attention. Below are a few albums that have earned their nods with expertly crafted work.

Jesse Winchester, "A Reasonable Amount of Trouble" (Appleseed Recordings). Until his death from cancer in April 2014, the consistently inspired if under-appreciated singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester earned his living through music and penned a discography's worth of noble work. A songwriter's songwriter, Winchester was best known for music recorded by artists including Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Reba McEntire and dozens of others. Nominated for two Grammys, "A Reasonable Amount of Trouble" was finished just before his death and is a beautiful, life-affirming country rock record.

FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2015

Featuring melancholy lap steel runs by Jerry Douglas, "A Reasonable Amount of Trouble" was written by Winchester while he was recovering from treatment of cancer of the esophagus, and as he was finishing its recording he learned that the disease had spread. This bittersweetness is constant throughout, but Winchester never wallows or weeps. Rather, it feels like an Americana meditation weighted with a reality of fading life.

Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana, "Taming the Dragon" (Nonesuch). Pianist Brad Mehldau's solo in "Sleeping Giant" is nominated for best improvised jazz solo, but unlike his previous nominations he has gone electric. Rather than dotting the acoustic piano, on "Taming the Dragon," released in early 2014, the great keyboardist harnesses the Fender Rhodes electric piano. He does so in collaboration with inventive percussionist Mark Guiliana, and the result is an utterly strange, consistently surprising jazz record.

Engineered and mixed by Greg Koller, who worked with Kanye West on "Graduation" (among many others), "Taming the Dragon" features freaky synth sounds, spoken-word passages, off-kilter sampled beats and countless runs certain to infuriate Wynton Marsalis-type traditionalists looking for solid ground. That's probably why I like it so much.

Brandy Clark, "12 Stories" (Slate Creek/Warner Bros.). Songwriter Clark busted out of Nashville in 2013 on the heels of this expertly crafted country album and went on to earn deserved spins on commercial radio. Not exactly an unknown, Clark is nominated as best new artist, one of the four major awards given during the telecast. Also, she's all over the country charts.

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That's fine because "12 Stories" continues to blossom. The hits, yes: "Stripes," "Pray to Jesus" and "Hungover" are three worthy story-songs, but there's so much more. "Just Like Him" explores the notion of absentee dads and husbands with cutting lines about breaking hearts, breaking dishes and waiting up all night for missing men. "Get High" is the best argument for marijuana legalization this side of Peter Tosh's "Legalize It." "Life will let you down/ Love will leave you lonely/ Sometimes the only way to get by/ Is to get high." Unless you're under 18, of course.

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