Classical: Feats of enterprise and ambitionThe Grammy nominations in classical music are no longer a stuck record, with the same famous names recurring in quantity. If a trend can be spotted, it is that the recording academy respects work done on an ambitious scale.
For best classical album, the Emerson String Quartet's boxed set of Shostakovich's emotionally shattering 15 string quartets and Simon Rattle's first recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, Mahler's questing 10th Symphony, are just such ambitious efforts. But three very celebrated pianists are also in contention, with supremely confident and insightful Bach from Murray Perahia, arrestingly original Chopin from Evgeny Kissin and wonderfully vibrant Haydn from Leif Ove Andsnes.
The combination of big-name performers and standard repertory remains an irresistible Grammy attraction -- Daniel Barenboim carefully traversing the nine Beethoven symphonies, Valery Gergiev brilliantly conducting Tchaikovsky, or Itzhak Perlman and Martha Argerich playing Beethoven and Franck violin sonatas with sparks flying. On the other hand, the five opera recordings avoid the 18th- and 19th-century standards altogether, while the big-money singers are relegated to the best-vocal category. Bach looms big in 2000 in choral nominations, but then there was a lot of Bach released, commemorating the 250th anniversary of his death.
The Grammys are impossible to pin down when it comes to new music, which ranges from the raw, urban jazz-inspired avant-garde work of Heiner Goebbels to Ned Rorem's very conservative but devastatingly powerful life-and-death song cycle "Evidence of Things Not Seen." Equally varied are the nominees for best small ensemble performance, where the range is from Renaissance vocal music from the Spanish Diaspora to 20th-century tangos and other South American favorites arranged for a dozen cellos from the Berlin Philharmonic.
-- Mark Swed
Country: Missed opportunities for breath of fresh airSales and quality are not synonymous. That would appear to be a truism, but you'd never know it from looking at the Grammy nominations in the country category.
Faith Hill's "Breathe" album has sold almost 5 million copies in the United States and generated six nominations, including best overall song of the year and best country song, for the hyperventilating title track written by Holly Lamar and Stephanie Bentley. The album even produced a second country song nomination, for "The Way You Love Me."
In the country song competition, Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers' "I Hope You Dance" is the class of a weak field that also includes Vince Gill's "Feels Like Love" and Don Cook and David Malloy's title song from Billy Gilman's album "One Choice."
In a year that offered rich and probing works from Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne, Allison Moorer and Johnny Cash, the album category is full of unadventurous choices from big names (Gill, Alan Jackson) or big sellers (Hill, Lee Ann Womack's breakthrough "I Hope You Dance"). Trisha Yearwood's "Real Live Woman" is the one nomination that consistently reached deeply enough to warrant a country album nod.
Results are a bit more encouraging in the female vocal category, with three of five choices (Dolly Parton, Yearwood and Womack) going to heartfelt performances. Had academy members listened beyond Hill's hit singles, they would have stumbled across the one track on "Breathe" worthy of a nomination, her effectively understated vocal performance of Bruce Springsteen's "If I Should Fall Behind."
The male vocal category also is a hodgepodge of the predictable (Gill, Tim McGraw), the novel (Gilman) and the honorable (Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam).
-- Randy Lewis
R&B: Obvious choices, for better, worseIn their inimitably vexing fashion, Grammy voters once again have skirted that fine line between good taste and cluelessness in their R&B nominees.
Last year was, in fact, a fairly strong one for R&B, and it wasn't all found on the margins, either. For every emergent talent like Jill Scott, there were striking smash singles from Sisqo and D'Angelo.
In other words, there was plenty for the voters to choose from, and they mercifully didn't overlook obvious picks. In the best-vocal categories, worthy nominees include Erykah Badu for "Bag Lady," Scott's "Gettin' in the Way," D'Angelo's "Untitled" and, yes, even Sisqo's "Thong Song."
In the category of vocal performance by a duo or group, Lucy Pearl's "Dance Tonight" is a pearl among duds. Amazingly, there are three worthy winners in the best-R&B-song category -- "Bag Lady," "Untitled" and "Thong Song" -- and barring an upset by Destiny's Child's "Say My Name," the genre won't be shortchanged in that department.
True to form, the voters overlooked Badu's "Mama's Gun" in the best-album category while including Boyz II Men's unremarkable "Nathan/Michael/ Shawn/Wanya." Sisqo's megahit "Unleash the Dragon" is, not surprisingly, among the R&B album nominees, up against more worthwhile potential winners such as D'Angelo's "Voodoo" and Scott's "Who Is Jill Scott?"
The academy has once again offered up the nebulous traditional R&B vocal album category, and a special achievement Grammy should be awarded to anyone who can figure out just what this means.
Based on the nominees, who include Jeffrey Osborne, Johnnie Taylor and the Temptations, it seems to denote poorly selling veteran artists who appeal to the recording academy's older flank.
-- Marc Weingarten
Latin: Rock features controversy, but year has little pop to itThe fact that most of this year's Grammy nominations in the Latin field are pedestrian and unimaginative is not due to poor choices by academy members, but rather to the state of the music itself.
The nominations corroborate what observers have been discussing for the last 12 months: 2000 was, overall, a lackluster year for the genre.
You can't help but regard with suspicion a year in which two of the five nominees in the Latin pop category are live recordings. Shakira's "MTV Unplugged" and Luis Miguel's "Vivo" are satisfying packages, but they do little more than recycle their artists' previous hits.
The remaining nominees, Christina Aguilera, Oscar De La Hoya and Alejandro Sanz, offered state-of-the-art collections that focused more on achieving a pristine sound than on the emotional content of the material -- a disturbing tendency that has plagued Latin music for more than a decade.
As always, the rock-en-Español category is the most controversial. Looking at the list of nominees, one suspects that the people in charge make random decisions based on the few names that sound familiar to them. Although both Fito Páez and Los Amigos Invisibles deserved their nominations, leaving aside Julieta Venegas' excellent "Bueninvento" in favor of El Tri, La Ley or flamenco-pop outfit Café Quijano demonstrates how painfully out of touch these people are with the Latin rock movement.
On the tropical side, the traditional category is the most judicious one, with superb albums by Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa and Cachao all garnering nominations. Salsa is a more chaotic affair, with the inclusion of two artists that simply don't belong -- Son by Four and Luis Enrique.
The merengue, Mexican and tejano categories showcase a more conservative approach. Like every year, the nominations are nothing but a roundup of the usual suspects.
-- Ernesto Lechner
Rap: Singles show most strengthThe Grammy nominating committee seems to be able to pick a good rap single when it hears one, but its attention span must be too short for it to accurately pick the genre's better albums.
Yet again, a string of blockbuster albums has been nominated, while collections from the most progressive and innovative rap acts have gone overlooked.
The lone exception is "The Marshall Mathers LP," the critically acclaimed, chart-topping album from Eminem also nominated for overall album of the year. It is the only rap collection that deserves its place on the ballot, and it should be a no-brainer to win, at least in the rap portion.
Albums from Three 6 Mafia, Slum Village, Young Bleed and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony deserved nominations more than those by DMX, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and Nelly that are up against Eminem.
As for the singles, Jay-Z featuring UGK's "Big Pimpin'" deserves to win and could win for best rap performance by a duo or group.
Two Dr. Dre collaborations, "Forgot About Dre" and "The Next Episode," also stand a chance, but another Dre single, "Xxplosive," should have been nominated.
The most disappointing of all rap nominees comes in this category with the Beastie Boys' "Alive." Three 6 Mafia's "Sippin' on Some Syrup" should have been nominated, but its drug-centered content was probably too racy for Grammy types.
The most representative category is rap solo performance, even though it has a glaring omission. Eminem, whose "The Real Slim Shady" was nominated, should have received a second for "Stan," his sensational tale of a manic fan. Singles from Common, Mystikal and Nelly deserve the recognition and are all worthy candidates, but Eminem will probably win because of his high visibility.
-- Soren Baker
Jazz: The Underrecognized land on topThis year's jazz Grammy nominations are surprising in one significant sense: There's no real headliner. Lacking last year's high-visibility presence of Diana Krall, and the absence of such names as Wynton Marsalis and Sonny Rollins, the selections reflect the eclectic nature of today's jazz as well as its scarcity of iconic figures.
The vocal category, for example, includes three fine female singers -- Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nnenna Freelon and Dianne Reeves -- as well as veteran Freddy Cole and quirky Kurt Elling. Despite their admirable skills, however, none have thus far made the breakout effort that could take them to the very top level of their field.
It's good to see underacknowledged pianist Kenny Barron in two categories -- best instrumental solo and best instrumental group; Michael Brecker's presence in both categories is more predictable. But the grab-bag nature of these groupings obliges the academy voters to make choices between apples and oranges. How do they decide between Barron and Pat Metheny, or between Brecker and the pairing of Martial Solal and Johnny Griffin -- all worthy of praise, but with only minimally comparable artistic intentions?
The contemporary field, with choices to be made between Béla Fleck, Fourplay, Ronny Jordan, Liquid Soul and the pairing of Tim Hagans and Bob Belden, generally emphasizes the underplayed musical aspects of the category. The large ensemble grouping, with selections ranging from Sam Rivers' edgy Rivbea All-Star Orchestra to the craftsmanlike work of the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, underscores the eclectic but unfocused nature of this year's nominations.
And, perhaps forecasting things to come, the Latin jazz category may be the most promising of all, with Gary Burton's tango tribute the only odd inclusion in a grouping that includes engaging efforts from Danílo Pérez, Bobby Sanabria, David Sánchez and Chucho Valdés. Picking a winner here will be tough.
-- Don HeckmanCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times