Responding to years of frequently severe criticism, Grammy officials revolutionized their nominating process this year to give cutting-edge artists a better chance against the mainstream hit-makers who have long dominated the voting.
And who's likely to be the first winner for best album since the sweeping reforms?
So what happened?
The probable scenario is that the more adventurous best album nominees--Pearl Jam, Alanis Morissette and Joan Osborne--canceled each other out in the voting, clearing the way for Carey. It's reminiscent of what happened in the same category 11 years ago when Bruce Springsteen and Prince split the rock vote, allowing Lionel Richie to win.
Under the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences' new rules, an appointed 25-member panel determined the nominees in the four major categories, in lieu of having all 7,500 voting members of the academy determine the fields. But the panel may have done its job too well. If it had included only one rock album in the finals instead of three, the outcome might be different.
You can also look for some emotional moments on Wednesday. Frank Sinatra is expected to win his first Grammy in regular competition in 29 years (for "Duets II" in the traditional pop category), and Nirvana is likely to win its first Grammy (for "MTV Unplugged in New York" in the alternative music competition).
Here are veteran Grammy watcher Grein's predictions and Times pop music critic Hilburn's personal choices in this year's most interesting pop and rock races:
Album of the year: Carey's "Daydream," Michael Jackson's "HIStory--Past, Present and Future Book I," Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill," Osborne's "Relish," Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy."
PREDICTION: Since the membership passed over Jackson and Osborne in choosing the nominees for best pop album and best rock album, respectively, it figures that they also passed them over in this far more competitive category. The panel in effect overruled the membership by nominating these albums anyway, but the full academy now has the final say.
Pearl Jam fans may take hope from U2's victory eight years ago with "The Joshua Tree." But that album had spawned a pair of No. 1 pop hits and was still going strong at the time of voting. "Vitalogy," which came out just after the start of the eligibility year--Oct. 1, 1994, to Sept. 30, 1995--didn't reach the mass pop audience as convincingly, and it seems to have run its course.
Morissette has strong voter appeal, but it's hard to see the top award going to such a volatile, edgy artist--especially with Pearl Jam's siphoning off significant rock support. That leaves Carey as the likely victor. The deciding factor: She doesn't need to worry about the currently unfashionable Jackson's peeling away many pop votes.
CHOICE: The Carey and Jackson albums perfectly fit the stodgy old Grammy idea of excellence. They are highly polished spectacles that try so hard to embrace all the safe commercial dictates of the moment that you can almost hear the artists say to the consumer at the end of each package, "Didn't I give you everything you wanted?"
To varying degrees, the Morissette, Osborne and Pearl Jam albums live up to a more enduring standard of excellence. They move beyond superficial pop surfaces with music and commentary that are more daring, more insightful and, ultimately, more purposeful.
Of the three, Pearl Jam aims highest--and hits hardest. In "Vitalogy," the Seattle band addresses issues of the '90s--from youthful alienation to public and private corruption--with the intensity and heartfelt spirit of the best '60s bands.
Record of the year: Carey & Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day," Coolio featuring L.V.'s "Gangsta's Paradise," Osborne's "One of Us," Seal's "Kiss From a Rose," TLC's "Waterfalls."
PREDICTION: "Waterfalls," a slinky R&B; ballad with a hip-hop break, or "Gangsta's Paradise," the rap smash featured in the movie "Dangerous Minds," would probably win if voters let their kids fill out the ballot. As it is, their best chance is in the performance competitions.
"One of Us," a thoughtful if irreverent look at spirituality, only started to heat up in December and may still be unfamiliar to some voters. "One Sweet Day," which has been No. 1 since early December, is regarded as a successful merger of two pop titans rather than a genuine creative achievement. It's a shoo-in to win for best pop collaboration but not here.
That leaves Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" as the likely winner. The Englishman's "Seal," on which this lilting waltz first appeared, was nominated for best album last year.
CHOICE: Except for the insufferably sweet Carey-Boyz teaming, everything here is at least worth considering. There's a cleansing, spiritual undercurrent to the Seal record, and "One of Us" is so disarmingly tuneful that it'll be hard not to join in the applause if it wins. The strongest records, however, are from TLC and Coolio. While they share an uplifting social message, "Waterfalls"--the tale of a mother's concern for her children--is the more original and distinctive work.
Song of the year: "I Can Love You Like That" (written by Maribeth Derry, Steve Diamond, Jennifer Kimball), "Kiss From a Rose" (Seal), "One of Us" (Eric Bazilian), "You Are Not Alone" (R. Kelly), "You Oughta Know" (Morissette, Glen Ballard).
PREDICTION: The expletive-dotted "You Oughta Know" is too raw to win this award, which generally goes to ballads with the potential of becoming standards. It is, however, a cinch to win for best rock song. Pop's All-4-One and country's John Michael Montgomery, both of whom recorded the Grammy-nominated "I Swear" in 1994, returned last year with dueling versions of "I Can Love You Like That." Alas, the gambit is more interesting than the song. "You Are Not Alone," a gospel-tinged hit for Michael Jackson, is pretty but bland.
So it comes down to "One of Us" and "Kiss From a Rose," which was featured in last year's top-grossing film, "Batman Forever." Voters like philosophical, soul-searching ballads, but they also like No. 1 singles from hit movies. Bet on Seal.
CHOICE: There's a captivating quality about the wistful "One of Us" that has made it a cross-generational favorite, but the fiery accusation and bluntness of "You Oughta Know" make it a more galvanizing pop moment.
Best new artist: Brandy, Hootie & the Blowfish, Morissette, Osborne, Shania Twain.
PREDICTION: The massively popular Hootie is likely to come out on top, despite stiff competition.
Pop album: Carey's "Daydream," the Eagles' "Hell Freezes Over," Annie Lennox's "Medusa," Madonna's "Bedtime Stories," Joni Mitchell's "Turbulent Indigo."
PREDICTION: Carey edges out the Eagles.
CHOICE: Lennox is a marvelous vocal stylist, but "Medusa" was frightfully uneven, while Mitchell proved once again that she is an artist for the ages.
Pop female vocal: Carey's "Fantasy," Dionne Farris' "I Know," Lennox's "No More 'I Love You's,' " Osborne's "One of Us," Bonnie Raitt's "You Got It," Vanessa Williams' "Colors of the Wind."
PREDICTION: Osborne benefits from an underdog status that did the trick for Raitt and k.d. lang in recent years. Besides, Carey's dance ditty isn't much of a vocal showcase.
CHOICE: Farris, whose vocal was a flat-out show-stopper.
Pop male vocal: Bryan Adams' "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?," Jackson's "You Are Not Alone," Elton John's "Believe," Seal's "Kiss From a Rose," Sting's "When We Dance."
PREDICTION: Seal lost last year to an Elton John smash from a blockbuster movie. This year, Seal has the smash from the blockbuster movie.
Pop duo or group vocal: All-4-One's "I Can Love You Like That," the Eagles' "Love Will Keep Us Alive," Hootie & the Blowfish's "Let Her Cry," the Rembrandts' "I'll Be There for You," TLC's "Waterfalls."
PREDICTION: Hootie's muscular ballad in a squeaker over TLC and the Eagles.
Rock album: Chris Isaak's "Forever Blue," Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill," Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy," Tom Petty's "Wildflowers," Neil Young's "Mirror Ball."
PREDICTION: Record-company politics will help Pearl Jam--the only Sony entry competing against four albums released through sister labels Warner Bros. and Reprise.
CHOICE: Pearl Jam.
Rock female vocal: Toni Childs' "Lay Down Your Pain," PJ Harvey's "Down by the Water," Morissette's "You Oughta Know," Osborne's "St. Teresa," Liz Phair's "Don't Have Time."
CHOICE: Harvey was the artist of the year on most year-end critics' polls, and she is the class of the field vocally.
Rock male vocal: Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," Isaak's "Somebody's Crying," Lenny Kravitz's "Rock and Roll Is Dead," Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels," Young's "Peace and Love."
PREDICTION: Petty--his first Grammy, discounting a 1989 award he shared with the Traveling Wilburys.
CHOICE: Young, the hippest man in rock.
Metal performance: Gwar's "S.F.W.," Megadeth's "Paranoid," Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Nine Inch Nails' "Happiness in Slavery," White Zombie's "More Human Than Human."
PREDICTION: White Zombie. Tip-off: The band's album is nominated for best engineered album--a rarity for metal.
CHOICE: Nine Inch Nails. This live version of "Happiness in Slavery" was even more menacing than the studio one.
Alternative performance: Bjork's "Post," "Foo Fighters," Harvey's "To Bring You My Love," Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged in New York," "The Presidents of the United States of America."
PREDICTION: Grammy voters won't pass up this last chance to acknowledge Nirvana, which is zero for six going in.
CHOICE: Nirvana's acoustic album is moving, but the songs are better showcased in the original studio collections. Harvey, the choice here, delivered an astounding look at romantic obsession and need.
R&B; album: Mary J. Blige's "My Life," D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar," Prince's "The Gold Experience," TLC's "CrazySexyCool," Barry White's "The Icon Is Love."
PREDICTION: Sales aren't supposed to enter into this, but c'mon, TLC's album has sold more than the four other nominees combined.
CHOICE: TLC is the most varied and fully realized of the works.
R&B; female vocal: Anita Baker's "I Apologize," Brandy's "Baby," Toni Braxton's "I Belong to You," Carey's "Always Be My Baby," Williams' "The Way That You Love."
PREDICTION: Braxton is likely to win for the third year in a row--though teen star Brandy could sneak in if Braxton and Baker split the diva vote.
CHOICE: Braxton may be the most gifted singer in R&B; since Al Green.
R&B; male vocal: D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar," Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It," Prince's "I Hate U," White's "Baby's Home," Stevie Wonder's "For Your Love."
PREDICTION: Against a weak field, Wonder will win his 18th Grammy.
CHOICE: D'Angelo's vocal was the one to remember in 1995.
Rap album: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's "E. 1999 Eternal," Naughty by Nature's "Poverty's Paradise," Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version," Skee-Lo's "I Wish," 2Pac's "Me Against the World."
PREDICTION: The Bone Thugs and 2Pac albums both topped the national pop chart and spawned acclaimed singles. Bone Thugs stayed out of jail, which should give them an edge.
CHOICE: 2Pac, whose "World" conveyed some of the social tenderness and confusion of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."
Rap solo performance: Coolio featuring L.V.'s "Gangsta's Paradise," Dr. Dre's "Keep Their Heads Ringin'," the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa," Skee-Lo's "I Wish," 2Pac's "Dear Mama."
PREDICTION: The record of the year nomination clinches it for Coolio.
Rap duo or group: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's "1st of tha Month," Cypress Hill's "Throw Your Set in the Air," Method Man featuring Mary J. Blige's "I'll Be There for You"/"You're All I Need to Get By," Naughty by Nature's "Feel Me Flow," Tha Dogg Pound's "What Would U Do?"
PREDICTION: Blige is a respected R&B; vocalist--witness her nomination for best R&B; album. That should boost her collaboration with Method Man.
CHOICE: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's stylish harmony wins narrowly over Blige and Method Man.
Country album: Junior Brown's "Junior High," the Mavericks' "Music for All Occasions," "John Michael Montgomery," Twain's "The Woman in Me," Trisha Yearwood's "Thinkin' About You," Dwight Yoakam's "Dwight Live."
PREDICTION: Twain's appeal to pop-rock voters should give her the edge.
CHOICE: Maverick Raul Malo's dreamy, Roy Orbison-accented vocals over the delightful Brown and graceful Yearwood.
Country female vocal: Alison Krauss' "Baby, Now That I've Found You," Patty Loveless' "You Don't Even Know Who I Am," Martina McBride's "Safe in the Arms of Love," Pam Tillis' "Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)," Twain's "Any Man of Mine."
PREDICTION: Twain is likely to win for her sassy square dance.
CHOICE: Krauss. A no-brainer.
Country male vocal: John Berry's "Standing on the Edge of Goodbye," Vince Gill's "Go Rest High on That Mountain," Alan Jackson's "Gone Country," Montgomery's "I Can Love You Like That," Yoakam's "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere"
PREDICTION: Gill's touching farewell to his late brother is likely to bring the singer his fourth award in this category in six years.
CHOICE: Gill is in a class by himself.