The Grammy Tip Sheet : U2 and Eric Clapton are favored to lead the pack in nominations--and take home top honors--in our annual handicapping

Paul Grein, a free-lance writer specializing in pop music, has forecast the Grammy race for The Times since 1981. Last year, he correctly predicted four of the five nominees for best record and three of the five finalists for best album.

Whereas last year's Grammy Awards were a sentimental salute to the smooth sounds of Nat King Cole, this year's ceremony is going to rock .

U2, the most respected rock band of the last 10 years, is the favorite to win the best album award for "Achtung Baby," while legendary guitarist Eric Clapton will probably win for best single with "Tears in Heaven."

This would mark the first time that rock artists have swept both of the top prizes since 1978, when Fleetwood Mac took best album with "Rumours" and the Eagles won best single with "Hotel California."

The march to the Grammys begins Thursday when nominations are announced in 80 categories. The winners will be revealed Feb. 24, when the Grammys return here to the Shrine Auditorium after two years in New York.

In all, Clapton will probably be nominated in eight categories, including best album for "Unplugged" and best male vocal in pop and rock. U2 looks strong in five categories, including best single for "Mysterious Ways."

And they won't be carrying the rock banner alone. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of the biggest new bands of recent years, also has a strong chance of making the best single finals with "Under the Bridge."

Not that other styles of music will be shut out. The nominees for best album and best single are apt to also include R&B; (En Vogue, Boyz II Men), country (Garth Brooks), adult contemporary (Michael Bolton) and pop (Vanessa Williams).

Though these artists work in different styles, they all specialize in well-crafted, highly professional recordings that fall right in the pop mainstream. That's the Grammy common denominator.

The 6,500 voting members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (mostly artists, songwriters, producers and session musicians) also like to celebrate winners --dramatic comebacks (Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt), career milestones (Paul Simon's "Graceland"), special event records ("We Are the World"), artistic breakthroughs (George Michael's "Faith") and commercial breakthroughs (U2's "The Joshua Tree").

They also respond to human emotion. And just as Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable" was a touching tribute by a daughter to her late father, "Tears in Heaven" is a heartfelt salute by a father to his late son. Clapton composed the song after his 4-year-old, Conor, fell to his death from a 53rd-floor apartment in Manhattan two years ago.

Best Album

The surest nominee is "Achtung Baby," U2's first formal studio album since "The Joshua Tree," the 1987 best-album winner. The Irish band, with lead singer Bono, is vying to become the first group in the 35-year history of the Grammys to win this award twice.

Clapton's "Unplugged," a live career-retrospective which was recorded for the MTV series of the same name, is another near-certain nominee. Many Grammy voters will embrace it as a way of saluting Clapton's entire 25-year career--one that has been under-recognized by the academy over the years. Clapton won his first solo Grammy just two years ago.

Michael Bolton's "Timeless (The Classics)," a collection of contemporary standards, is tailor-made for the Grammys. After all, Bolton has been nominated the last two years for reviving classic hits by Ray Charles and Percy Sledge. And "Timeless" has timing on its side: The album hit No. 1 just as the nominating ballots were sent out in December.

Garth Brooks' "The Chase" is a question mark. No country solo artist has made the best album finals since Kenny Rogers a dozen years ago with "The Gambler." Yet no country artist has ever approached Brooks' sales impact. At one point last year, he had two of the nation's three best-selling albums. A top-rated TV special, a successful concert tour and extensive media attention (including the cover of Time magazine) added to his fame and stature. Count him in.

En Vogue will probably slip into the fifth spot with their hit-studded album, "Funky Divas." That would make them the first R&B; group ever to make the best album finals--unless you count the pop-minded Fifth Dimension or the rock-oriented Prince & the Revolution. The quartet's versatility--hits ranging from funk to R&B; to rock--should impress Grammy voters.

So where's the King of Pop? Barring an upset, this will be the first year since 1980 that Michael Jackson has made an album that won't make the finals. His latest opus, "Dangerous," got off to a fast start when it was released in late 1991, but it didn't have the legs or impact of its predecessors.

Also possible: Annie Lennox's "Diva," k.d. lang's "Ingenue," Elton John's "The One," Peter Gabriel's "Us."

Best Single

The surest nominees are all ballads: Clapton's melancholy "Tears in Heaven," Vanessa Williams' silky "Save the Best for Last," and Boyz II Men's doo-wop-accented "End of the Road."

Clapton's song has a sense of purpose and weight that will make it hard to beat. But Williams' single was widely admired: It proved that mass-appeal ballads don't have to be formulaic. And Boyz II Men's smash received a lot of attention as the longest-running No. 1 single of the rock era.

U2 has two strong entries among the 198 eligible singles, "Mysterious Ways" and "One." The songs could wind up splitting the U2 vote, but the band probably has enough support to make the finals anyway. The question is which single will come out on top. Since "Mysterious Ways" is easier to hum--and appears higher on the alphabetical list of eligible singles--it has the Edge.

The Chili Peppers' rock ballad "Under the Bridge" should take the fifth spot. The sleeper smash was the biggest hit from the band's breakthrough album, "Blood Sugar Sex Magik." And the foursome made the covers of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. The possible hitch is that the band's rowdy, randy image--did we mention that the group posed in the buff for its RS cover?--may put off mainstream Grammy voters.

Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," the big ballad hit from her debut film, "The Bodyguard," was released after the close of the eligibility year (Oct. 1, 1991 through Sept. 30, 1992). Otherwise it surely would have given Clapton a run for his money.

Also possible: lang's "Constant Craving," Mariah Carey & Trey Lorenz's "I'll Be There," Lennox's "Why," Jackson's "Black or White," En Vogue's "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)," Jon Secada's "Just Another Day," Arrested Development's "Tennessee."

Best New Artist

The front-runners are mega-selling country hunk Billy Ray Cyrus and critically acclaimed rap group Arrested Development. The engaging but slight nature of Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart" may make him seem too lightweight to win, but remember Milli Vanilli walked off with this award in 1990. Other likely nominees: balladeer Jon Secada, pop chanteuse Sophie B. Hawkins, and R&B;/pop singer Trey Lorenz, who came out of Carey's shadow with a hit of his own (see profile, Page 57).

Bubble-gum rappers Kris Kross and female hip-hop group TLC would probably be nominated if Grammy voters were in their teens and 20s, but since most are (quite a bit) older, they'll probably come up short.

Also possible: R&B; stars Jodeci and Mary J. Blige and MTV faves Ugly Kid Joe.

Others

Here are the likely nominees in other key categories. Under academy rules, nominations can be for albums, singles or album tracks.

Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female: Grammy voters should admire the effortless grace of Williams' "Save the Best for Last" as well as the quietly determined way she rebuilt her shattered career after the Miss America scandal. The award will acknowledge both feats. Also: lang's "Constant Craving," Lennox's "Diva," Mariah Carey's "MTV Unplugged EP," Celine Dion's "If You Asked Me To."

Pop Male: Clapton revealed his most private pain in "Tears in Heaven." Now Grammy voters will applaud his achievement in the most public way possible--on live national television. Clapton's chief competition will be the album of standards by Bolton, who has won in this category in two of the last three years. Also: Elton John's "The One," Jackson's "Black or White," Secada's "Just Another Day."

Pop Group or Duo: Duets have an edge in this category, having won in three of the last five years. The favorites this time: George Michael and Elton John's remake of John's 1974 classic, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson's version of the Oscar-winning "Beauty and the Beast" and the Patty Smyth-Don Henley pairing, "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough." Also: the B-52's' "Good Stuff," Wilson Phillips' "You Won't See Me Cry."

Traditional Pop: Look for Tony Bennett to win his first Grammy since "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" was named best single 30 years ago. He's a shoo-in for "Perfectly Frank," his well-received collection of songs associated with another long-time Grammy favorite, Frank Sinatra. Also: "Michael Feinstein Sings the Jule Styne Songbook," Placido Domingo's "The Broadway I Love," Nancy Wilson's "With My Lover Beside Me," Bobby Short's "Late Night at the Cafe Carlyle."

Rock Female: How thin was the competition in this category? Only 10 women were entered, the minimum number required under Grammy rules. Otherwise, the category would have been dropped--as it was last year and in 1988. That's good news for perennial bridesmaid Melissa Etheridge, who is likely to win for her album, "Never Enough." That is, unless voters decide to give it to Tina Turner again --for remakes of "Nutbush City Limits" or "The Bitch Is Back." Also: Alannah Myles' "Rockinghorse," Lita Ford's "Shot of Poison," Sass Jordan's "Make You a Believer."

Rock Male: Clapton will win for the second time in three years with "Unplugged." Also: Bruce Springsteen's "Human Touch," Lou Reed's "Magic and Loss," Peter Gabriel's "Digging in the Dirt," Bob Seger's "The Fire Inside."

Rock Group or Duo: Achtung! U2 is headed for its third Grammy in this category with "Achtung Baby." That will put them ahead of the Police as the most-awarded group in the category's history. Also: Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge," Guns N' Roses' "November Rain," the Black Crowes' "Remedy," Los Lobos' "Kiko."

Alternative: The B-52's, who have been nominated twice in the pop group competition, have a narrow edge with their album "Good Stuff." (The two previous winners, Sinead O'Connor and R.E.M., had also expanded far beyond their alternative base.) Also: the Cure's "Wish," Tom Waits' "Bone Machine," Morrissey's "Your Arsenal," Sonic Youth's "Dirty."

Hard Rock: Van Halen's widely admired video for "Right Now" could help the Los Angeles band win in this category for the second straight year. Also: Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Alice in Chains' "Dirt," Faith No More's "Angel Dust."

Metal: It's Grammy voters' worst nightmare: Metallica, the safe, easy choice in this category (three wins in three years), didn't release a new album or track last year. Now what are the voters supposed to do? They may have to break down and actually . . . listen to this stuff . They'll probably settle on two-time nominees Megadeth, whose "Countdown to Extinction" album reached No. 2. Also: Soundgarden's "Into the Void (Stealth)," Motorhead's "March or Die," Suicidal Tendencies' "The Art of Rebellion," Iron Maiden's "Fear of the Dark."

R&B; Female: Williams is headed for her fourth nomination in the past five years in this category with the title track of her album, "The Comfort Zone." Also: Shanice's "I Love Your Smile," Mary J. Blige's "Real Love," Whitney Houston's "I Belong to You," Chaka Khan's "Love You All My Lifetime."

R&B; Male: Bobby Brown lucked out. Though his current album hasn't had anywhere near the impact of his last studio collection, "Don't Be Cruel," there isn't much competition this year. As a result, he may be headed for his second win in this category in four years with "Humpin' Around." Also: Michael Jackson's "Jam," Tevin Campbell's "Alone With You," Trey Lorenz's "Someone to Hold," Al B. Sure!'s "Right Now."

R&B; Group or Duo: Despite fierce competition, Boyz II Men are likely to win in this category for the second straight year with "End of the Road." Also: En Vogue's "Funky Divas," Carey/Lorenz's "I'll Be There," Luther Vandross & Janet Jackson's "The Best Things in Life Are Free," TLC's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg."

Rap Solo: Though Hammer's "Too Legit to Quit" album paled next to its predecessor, "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em," the entertainer's image as a positive role model will probably hold sway with Grammy voters. Especially when his chief competition is Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," that chart-topping celebration of ample female behinds. Also: LL Cool J's "Strictly Business," Queen Latifah's "Latifah's Had It Up 2 Here," Big Daddy Kane's "Prince of Darkness."

Rap Group or Duo: It's a toss-up between Arrested Development's critically admired single, "Tennessee," and Kris Kross' insanely catchy smash, "Jump." Also: Public Enemy's "Greatest Misses," Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker," House of Pain's "Jump Around."

Country Female: Let's see if Mary-Chapin Carpenter still sings "I Feel Lucky" after Feb. 24. Carpenter won in this category last year, but this time she'll probably come in second to Wynonna Judd's solo debut album. The other likely nominees are also strong: Trisha Yearwood's "Hearts in Armor," Reba McEntire's "Is There Life Out There" and Tanya Tucker's "Can't Run From Yourself."

Country Male: Can 30 million album buyers be wrong? Brooks is a cinch to take this award for the second straight year with "The Chase." His strongest competitor is once again Vince Gill ("I Still Believe in You"), who scored an upset win over Brooks two years ago. Also: Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart," Travis Tritt's "T-R-O-U-B-L-E," George Strait's "Pure Country."

Country Group or Duo: Welcome to the post-Judd era. Wynonna and mother Naomi won in this category five times in the past eight years. With them out of the running, look for the red-hot team of Kix Brooks & Ronnie Dunn (see profile, Page 57) to win with their novelty-shaded hit, "Boot Scootin' Boogie." Also: Diamond Rio's "Norma Jean Riley," Alabama's "American Pride," Shenandoah's "Long Time Comin'," Restless Heart's "When She Cries."

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