U2, Jackson Top Grammy Nominees : No Major Embarrassment Seen in Top Categories

Times Pop Music Critic

The annual list of Grammy Awards nominees is normally a collection of inspired, obvious and embarrassing choices. The good news this year is that there is no major embarrassment among the nominees in the key best single or best album categories.

That means we won't have to brace ourselves on March 2 when the Grammy winners are announced in New York City. There won't be a repeat of the night in 1976 when Captain & Tennille's nondescript "Love Will Keep Us Together" was declared the year's best single or-- wince --the evening in 1981 when Christopher Cross, an agreeable, but decidedly minor singer-songwriter became one of only six artists in the 30- year history of the Grammys to win both key awards the same year.

The worst that can happen this time is that Whitney Houston wins for best album and that's not a total tragedy--just an example of the 5,000 members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences once more opting for studio craft over originality and vision.

The closest thing to an embarrassment in this year's list of nominees is the omission of Bruce Springsteen, who released two highly acclaimed albums during the 1986 eligibility period: "Live/1975-85" and "Tunnel of Love."

Rather than snubbed by academy voters, Springsteen may well have been the victim of the divided-vote syndrome--with Springsteen supporters dividing their votes between the two albums rather than lining up behind one of them.

Whatever the reason for the omission, Springsteen--arguably the most acclaimed rock figure of the last decade--still has only one Grammy: a 1984 nod for best rock vocal.

Album of the Year--The quality here rests with Michael Jackson (for "Bad"), Prince ("Sign 'o' the Times") and U2 ("The Joshua Tree").

Houston's album, titled simply "Whitney," was a technically skilled effort which seemed to spend an eternity atop the national sales charts last summer, but it offered little of the ambition or vision that should be demanded of the year's most honored album.

The "Trio" album, featuring vocals by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, was a warm and endearing collection of country-flavored tunes, but it, too, lacked the originality and scope to be considered a serious contender.

Jackson, who won a record eight Grammy awards in 1983, has in "Bad" an album that matches the Houston LP for studio sheen and far surpasses it in the area of individuality, but "Bad" lacks the songwriting advances and cutting-edge force that enabled Jackson's "Thriller" to achieve its 1983 sweep.

Prince's album, a two-record set, has several extraordinary highs, including the socially-conscious title track and the sizzling "U Got the Look" single, but a few undistinguished numbers keep it from the power and consistency of Prince's earlier "Purple Rain" (a 1984 best album nominee) or U2's "The Joshua Tree."

The U2 album was unquestionably the most compelling album of 1987: a work that combined a glorious musical spark with challenging socio-cultural themes as purposeful as rock's most celebrated artists of the '60s.

The choice here: "The Joshua Tree."

Record of the Year--Steve Winwood, who won this category last year with "Higher Love," is back with the equally classy single, "Back in the High Life Again." He doesn't deserve a repeat victory in this much stronger field, however, because there simply isn't enough creative boldness in the single to justify back-to-back awards.

Paul Simon, whose "Graceland" won the Grammy for best album last year, stands a better chance of scoring another key win this year, thanks to the marvelously designed title track from the warm, uplifting "Graceland" album.

Suzanne Vega's "Luka," a poignant, deftly crafted reflection on child abuse, and Los Lobos' spirited remake of "La Bamba" were also widely admired singles that will receive considerable support in the final voting. The record, however, that most shaped and summarized the pop tone of 1987 was U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," an eloquent expression of renewed idealism.

The choice here: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

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