Sure things and a few wild cards

Times Staff Writer

Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" has been the odds-on favorite to win a Grammy for album of the year since advance copies began circulating in the record industry last spring.

Not only is the veteran rocker long overdue for the Grammys' top honor, but "The Rising" is also a heartfelt reflection of the nation's resilience after the horrors of Sept. 11. A Springsteen victory would be a classic feel-good moment in the Grammy Awards ceremony, which will be held Feb. 23 in New York.

But don't start etching Springsteen's name on a statuette yet.

Two other albums likely to be named in the category when the nominations are announced Tuesday had enough impact to emerge as serious challengers: Eminem's "The Eminem Show" and Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me."

Eminem's previous collection, "The Marshall Mathers LP," deserved the best album award two years ago, but the violent, sometimes ugly side of the rap provocateur's music no doubt made many recording academy members feel uncomfortable giving him the Grammy seal of approval.

This time, several factors, including Eminem's revealing performance in the movie "8 Mile" and his maturing artistry, have showcased his creative skills in ways that make him a more acceptable entry. And a victory for Jones, a young pop singer with a graceful, understated style, would be the climax of a great Cinderella story.

Who will challenge these three?

Here's what to expect Tuesday in the three highest-profile categories. The eligibility period was Oct. 1, 2001, to Sept. 30, 2002.

Album of the year

In predicting the nominees, it's important to remember that the screening committee that makes the final selection leans toward a balance of artists from different genres, either because of voting blocs or overt philosophy. Last year's nominees, for instance, came from rock (Bob Dylan and U2), R&B; (India.Arie), rap (OutKast) and country ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?").

In looking for two albums to round out this year's best album contingent, it's helpful to consider the candidates by genre.

Country: Nashville entries have been nominated in this category three of the last four years, and one of those high-profile acts, the Dixie Chicks, is back with a well-received new album, "Home." The trio's only likely country competition would come from Alan Jackson's "Drive." The veteran singer has never been nominated in this category, but his Sept. 11-inspired single "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" was a massive hit.

Cutting-edge: If you include Dylan and U2 in this category, smart, adventurous pop-rock forces have picked up two best-album nominations per year in three of the last five years. Beck is back with the highly acclaimed "Sea Change," and it would be a natural here if only it had shown more sales punch. Voters rarely nominate albums that don't reach the 1-million mark, and "Sea Change" is far from it.

Moby also gave us a classy album last year, but the chances for "18" may, too, have been hurt by lukewarm sales. Another possibility here: Coldplay, a fast-rising band that is enjoying a buzz.

R&B;: Though R&B; artists have five nominees in the last three years in the best record balloting, they have only two for best album: India.Arie and TLC. Newcomer Ashanti established a presence but probably doesn't have the artistic depth to have made an impression on the committee.

Hip-hop: This field has produced four nominees in four years, and an Eminem nomination would keep that streak alive. Nelly has enough of a pop following to give hip-hop two nominees this year but is a longshot.

And then ... After the embarrassment of nominating the Backstreet Boys in 2000, the committee has stayed far away from the youth-pop market. But that may change this year with two young artists who represent the evolution of the genre far beyond the Britney-Backstreet crowd: Pink ("Missundaztood") and Avril Lavigne ("Let Go").

Among the longshots: pop singer Josh Groban ("Josh Groban") and the post-Sept. 11 telethon CD "America: A Tribute to Heroes."

In the end, look for Eminem, Jones, Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks and one of the wild cards.

Record of the year

You'd expect a strong correlation between best album and best record nominations, but only three of the artists in last year's best album group were also nominated for best record (which refers to either an album track or a formal single). In fact, only six artists over the last three years have been represented in both categories. Still, it's hard to imagine that Eminem ("Without Me"), Jones ("Don't Know Why") and Springsteen ("The Rising") would be passed over here.

Generally, the Grammy committee's best-record choices aren't as thoughtful as its best-album choices, often settling simply for the big hits. That's why Jackson's "Where Were You" could edge out Springsteen's "The Rising" as the post-Sept. 11 statement.

In looking for other possibilities, several youth-brigade hits are likely to pick up support, starting with Pink's "Get the Party Started." Also possible: Lavigne's "Complicated" and Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles." There should be some support for Nelly's "Hot in Herre," Ashanti's "Foolish" and Santana's "The Game of Love" (featuring Michelle Branch). This would have been a great time for Grammy voters to make up for their virtual snubbing of Nirvana and nominate "You Know You're Right," an old recording that was released for the first time last year. But the record was released after the close of the eligibility period.

If the Dixie Chicks aren't nominated for best album, voters could nominate the group's hit version of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" here. Without a lot of strong candidates, the vote may be so widely split that some adventurous new rock forces, including the White Stripes ("Fell in Love With a Girl") and the Strokes ("Last Nite") could slip through. Highly regarded newcomer John Mayer isn't eligible for best album, so his Grammy fans could line up behind his "Your Body Is a Wonderland."

Eminem is the only certainty Tuesday. Jones, Springsteen or Jackson plus Pink are likely. But don't be surprised if a couple of the big hits burst through.

Best new artist

This category is usually a free-for-all because no one seems sure whether to vote for the artist who had the most success during the year or the one with the greatest potential. Things should be especially freewheeling this year because there are more strong candidates (legitimate and otherwise) than at any other time in memory.

Jones is a certainty, with youth-brigade leaders Lavigne, Carlton and Branch likely to claim at least one other spot. Grammy voters tend to favor solo artists over bands, making Ashanti, Groban and Mayer strong possibilities for a spot or two.

That leaves little room for some of the most enticing rock acts in years, from the White Stripes and the Strokes to Dashboard Confessional to Queens of the Stone Age. Impressive hip-hop candidates include Cee-Lo and Petey Pablo, and there's the maverick N.E.R.D. Looming in the background: Badly Drawn Boy and Jack Johnson.

Dream finalists: White Stripes, Jones, Badly Drawn Boy, N.E.R.D. and Queens of the Stone Age. More realistic lineup: Jones, Lavigne, Groban, Mayer and Ashanti.

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at

robert.hilburn@latimes.com

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