Among potential Grammy nominees for the album of the year award, one name seems certain: James Blunt.
His "Back to Bedlam" CD was a breakout smash that probably can't be denied, even though many music critics (you know, the nasty kind who attack pretty boys who bare their aching hearts) may try. It has another disadvantage, too: it peaked early in 2006.
Beyond that, the work of a handful of other artists has a fair shot -- John Mayer, Corinne Bailey Rae, KT Tunstall, Justin Timberlake, Dixie Chicks, Bob Dylan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. However, trying to forecast top Grammy nominees is, frankly, folly.
Contenders for the top four races -- album, record, song and new artist of the year -- are determined by a secret group of 25 music pros who hole up in a hotel suite for a weekend to listen to, and debate, music by 20 artists who received the most votes from members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
In the best-album race over the past decade, the secret judges have tossed in such unforeseen wild cards as Diana Krall ("When I Look Into Your Eyes") and India Arie ("Acoustic Soul").
Underdogs who might get a special push this year are the type of artists who fit the role of Norah Jones and Alicia Keys at recent Grammys: young, hip, sexy and very serious about being perceived as artistes. British soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae may qualify. Her self-titled CD was widely respected, specifically the single "Put Your Records On." If nothing else, she'll surely be nommed for best new artist. Maybe even more.
"I think Corinne has everything you need to be this year's Norah Jones," says Newsday music critic Glenn Gamboa. "She appeals mainly to adult contemporary listeners. She's got an old-time feel to her, but she has her own twist. She's young. She's energetic. Being pretty doesn't hurt her. Her record did really well with a certain segment of the music-buying public. It didn't cross over in a way to guarantee her a spot in the album- or record-of-the-year races, but the secret committee could put her in."
Steve Hochman, Grammy writer for the L.A. Times, believes the Norah Jones clone could be KT Tunstall instead. "KT has real artistic merit," he adds.
The smokey-voiced Scottish folk-rocker proved her kudos clout earlier this year at the Brit Awards where she beat Kate Bush for the prize as the best British female solo artist of 2006.
Over all, Hochman believes that John Mayer had such a strong year that he may score the most Grammy noms of all, which would likely include a bid for "Continuum" as best album.
Mayer already proved that he can win a top category -- Song of the Year ("Daughters") -- and he recently wowed the Grammycast audience performing acoustic guitar. "They like to reward people who impress them," Hochman adds.
Justin Timberlake's "Justified" was nommed three years ago, so he's poised for a possible comeback with mega-seller "FutureSex/LoveSounds."
The Dixie Chicks were nommed twice for best album ("Fly," "Home") and now they could soar triumphantly back into the top race thanks to liberal Hollywooders being eager to embrace those sassy Chicks spurned by their country kin. Results of the recent Congressional election could help to make the Chicks hip again.
"I think they'll do well in the categories where everyone votes, as opposed to the categories where just the country folks vote," adds Gamboa. "But people who identify themselves as country aren't necessarily the mainstream country folks either, so they might do OK in the country races as well."
Another feisty country gal could break through, too -- Carrie Underwood, whose CD "Some Hearts" came out a year ago, but it made a gathering impression all year since as it topped the pop and country charts and she pulled off shockeroo after shockeroo at kudos fetes (Academy of Country Music Awards, Country Music Association Awards).
Fellow "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson has won two Grammys in the past, but they were in the second-tier pop races. No "Idol" has yet broken into the top categories, not even best new artist, but Underwood has the potential.
Since Grammy voters like to salute returning music veterans, it's crucial to cite two who could break through in the best-album lineup: Bob Dylan ("Modern Times") and Red Hot Chili Peppers. ("Stadium Arcadium"). "Modern Times" was widely cheered by critics, but Dylan might be penalized for having won the top album prize in 1997. Or have all of the young kids forgotten that now?
"I think Bob Dylan is a lock for album," Gamboa insists. "I think Red Hot Chili Peppers has a strong shot, too. It's their way of coming back. It's a solid double album, which almost never happens."
Two past nominees have albums out that could be strong contenders: Madonna ("Confessions on a Dance Floor") and Beck ("The Information").
Past best new artist champ Christina Aguilera may finally break through into the album lineup with "Back to Basics."
"Grammy voters notice that she's got the chops and that she's still holding on as a pop star," Hochman says.
Overdue to break through is Mary J. Blige, who's never been nommed in a top race. Her fans hope that her breakthrough could be, literally, "The Breakthrough."
The Envelope's forum moderators pipe in on this matchup, too. "This will be a very competitive race," says David Schnelwar ("Guru"), specifically because so many top contenders have been nommed in the race multiple times.
"I'd be shocked if the Chicks, Timberlake and Grammy veteran Dylan weren't nominated," says Darrin Dortch ("DoubleD"). "The other two spots are a crap shoot."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times