When the year's best isn't really

Times Staff Writer

If you're looking for a Grammy guide to the most distinguished album each year, don't automatically count on the album-of-the-year balloting.

Lots of adventurous choices are being nominated for best album these days, from Beck and Radiohead to OutKast and Eminem, but few of them actually win.

Among the painful reminders in recent years:

Beck's "Odelay" and Radiohead's "OK Computer" beaten in 1997 by Celine Dion's "Falling Into You."

Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" and Radiohead's "Kid A" losing in 2001 to Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature."

As a result, the best-album choices aren't as reliable most years as the winners in a secondary category that doesn't even have enough clout to be presented during the televised ceremony.

It's the contemporary folk category, and it's frequently the Grammy resting place for distinguished veteran artists -- from country and rock as well as folk -- whose sales are so modest that they have been largely pushed aside by the record industry.

Here's my vote on which category has given us the stronger album choice since 1995. (The year refers to the year the ceremony was held.)

1995: Contemporary folk (Johnny Cash's "American Recordings") over best album (Tony Bennett's "MTV Unplugged").

1996: Best album (Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill") over Emmylou Harris' "Wrecking Ball."

1997: Contemporary folk (Bruce Springsteen's "The Ballad of Tom Joad") over Celine Dion's "Falling Into You."

1998: Tie (Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind" wins in both categories).

1999: Best album (Lauryn Hill's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill") over Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

2000: Contemporary folk (Tom Waits' "Mule Variations") over Santana's "Supernatural."

2001: Contemporary folk (Emmylou Harris' "Red Dirt Girl") over Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature."

2002: Contemporary folk (Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft") over "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

How does this happen?

Simple. All 13,000 Grammy voters can cast ballots in the best album category, and many are unfamiliar with or uninterested in the candidates. But voters can vote in only eight of the Grammy's 28 musical fields.

So anyone who votes in the contemporary folk category probably feels passionate about those choices.

This year's likely nominees? Cash, Steve Earle and Beth Orton head a list that also includes Dave Alvin, Kasey Chambers, Guy Clark and Paul Westerberg.

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