In a B-plus year for music, the Grammy voters did a C-minus job of reflecting that energy and passion in nominations announced here Tuesday. In the top three categories alone, the reaction to the nominees is likely to range from hurrah to "huh?" to "double-huh?"
Fortunately for the image of the Grammys, the hurrahs will be for the choices in album of the year, the most prestigious of the 104 categories. In that race, three far different but immensely rewarding albums will vie for final honors: inspirational rocker Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," rap provocateur Eminem's "The Eminem Show" and classy pop vocalist Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me."
Several other strong candidates would have given us a more memorable field, including Beck's tender "Sea Change" and Wilco's eloquent "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." But the two remaining nominees -- the Dixie Chicks' traditional country "Home" and Nelly's playful hip-hop "Nellyville" -- achieved the Grammy nomination committee's goal of musical "balance" in the best album category without embarrassing anyone.
That's far more than can be said for the nominees for record of the year, the second most prized category. Eminem's catchy, confrontational "Without Me" and Jones' wistful "Don't Know Why" were essential choices, but the remaining nominees bring us to the head-scratching "huh?"
The undistinguished trio of nominees: the overblown pop of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles," a selection from Nelly (the teaming with Kelly Rowland on "Dilemma") that was far less spirited than his own "Hot in Herre" and the generic pop-rock feel of Nickelback's "How You Remind Me."
The list of better choices begins with Pink's infectious "Get the Party Started," the Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone," the Flaming Lips' graceful "Do You Realize??," Springsteen's anthem-like "The Rising" and the White Stripes' delightful "Fell in Love With a Girl."
The biggest Grammy disappointment, however, is the narrow range of best new artist nominees. Jones, the stylish 23-year-old whose vocals offer an absorbing blend of pop, country, soul and jazz influences, is the standout. Creatively speaking, she's a woman competing against three girls (Ashanti, Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne). The final nominee is John Mayer, a singer-songwriter whose works are uneven.
What's missing in this category and through much of the nominations list is a trace of the imaginative young forces that helped bring mainstream rock 'n' roll back from the life support system that it has been on in recent years. It's shameful that not one representative from this group -- the White Stripes, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, the Strokes, the Vines, Queens of the Stone Age, Dashboard Confessional -- was nominated for best new artist.
The second-guessing should continue through several categories, including best pop album, in which flyweight Britney Spears (!) was nominated and the brilliant Tom Waits was not; best rock album, in which the conventional Sheryl Crow was nominated and the captivating Ryan Adams was not; and the best contemporary R&B; album category, in which Brandy and Ashanti were nominated and the more imaginative Cee-Lo wasn't.
On the positive side, the Grammy voters did give us some insightful nominees in several other high-profile categories, including nonclassical producer, in which Dr. Dre (who worked with Eminem, Busta Rhymes and Truth Hurts, among others), Arif Mardin (Norah Jones) and Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers) will compete.
Other outstanding nominees: Beck's "Sea Change" in best alternative music album; India.Arie's "Voyage to India" in best R&B; album; and Johnny Cash's "American IV--The Man Comes Around" and Steve Earle's "Jerusalem," both in best contemporary folk album.
Overall, the hundreds of nominees show there is still a major split between voters who tend to blindly follow the sales charts and those who are sensitive to the more adventurous forces in pop.
The amusing sidelight of this year's Grammys, in fact, is that Springsteen, one of the most acclaimed figures in the history of modern pop-rock, goes into the final round of the Grammy competition in two unfamiliar roles: He is the betting favorite in the best album category and he is, no doubt, the choice of the establishment wing of the Grammys' 13,000 voters. For most of his first two decades in the business, Springsteen was consistently overlooked by Grammy voters the same way his greatest influences, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, had been slighted by earlier decades of Grammy voters.
From the start of the award ceremonies in 1959, the Grammy membership favored mainstream bestsellers over the revolutionary pop-rock forces that redefined our concept of pop music. It took eight years before a rock act (the Beatles) was nominated for best album and it took 10 years before one won (the Beatles for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band").
Springsteen was considered too much of a maverick by Grammy voters, who failed to nominate most landmark '70s and '80s albums.
Because many academy voters grew up with Springsteen's music, he is now viewed, quite deservedly, with respect. Because "The Rising" was a moving reflection on the Sept. 11 terror in America, the album takes on an even larger symbolism, especially during a Grammy year in which the awards ceremony will be held Feb. 23 in New York City.
Eminem, meanwhile, is now the maverick. The fact that he has picked up a best album nomination so early in his career is a sign that the voting system has moved forward. But the full membership may still be uneasy with him. He was nominated two years ago in this category for "The Marshall Mathers LP" and lost to Steely Dan's far less urgent "Two Against Nature."
By saluting Springsteen for album, Eminem for record and Jones for new artist, the Grammy membership could honor three of the year's premier pop voices. Too bad the Grammy voters didn't touch on more of those voices in Tuesday's nominations.