This year's Grammy nominations will be announced Thursday and the choices for best album and best record could be ugly. We all know how much the recording academy voters love mainstream bestsellers, and this year's crop of hit albums, especially, has been the least distinguished in memory.
If you look at the list of the 100 bestselling albums of the eligibility period (which runs from Oct. 1, 2002, to Sept. 30, 2003), you'll be hard-pressed to find five that deserve to be declared album of the year by even the most lenient standards. That means the academy voters had to look beyond what might have been on the radio or the top of the weekly Billboard sales list to find worthy nominees.
And how many do you think had that patience when they could easily settle for some of the high-profile bestsellers (Christina Aguilera, Ashanti, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lopez, John Mayer and Justin Timberlake for starters) or to simply fall back on some safe veterans (Fleetwood Mac, Dave Matthews, Seal, Steely Dan, Rod Stewart and Sting, among others)?
The good news is that "American Idol" hero Clay Aiken's album wasn't released until after the eligibility period, but the flavorless vocalist is eligible -- and a definite threat -- in the best record category, which honors a single recording rather than an album.
Aside from him, the outlook for record of the year nominees is more promising than the album field, thanks in part to the eligibility of Eminem's "Lose Yourself," the uplifting number from the "8 Mile" movie that won an Oscar for best song. The recording academy members aren't going to want us to think their peers in the motion picture world are hipper than they, are they?
Here are artists who deserve nominations for album, record and new artist, but prepare for the worst Thursday.
White Stripes' "Elephant" (V2): This is the most inspiring force in rock in a decade because the Detroit duo not only strikes with explosive blues-rock force but with an occasional vulnerability that taunts the macho aggression of so much of the heartless commercial rock of the '90s. The album sold more than a million copies this year, and Jack and Meg White appeared on the cover of virtually every music magazine, so even the most conservative recording academy voter should know about the group. Whether those voters appreciate the importance of this raw, radical outfit is a different matter.
OutKast's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" (Arista): We need four more nominees to round out the category, but this is the only other CD, besides "Elephant," with the ambition and imagination to truly deserve best-album consideration, and it is a striking enough mix of hip-hop, funk and R&B; to win most years. The album is likely to be nominated because it is a runaway bestseller and the duo's "Stankonia" was nominated in the same category last year.
Lucinda Williams' "World Without Tears" (Lost Highway): This is a bit of a change of pace for the exquisite singer-songwriter, an edgier, rockish look at romantic obsession that is sometimes stark and unsettling. It's a longshot because it wasn't a mainstream hit.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse's "Greendale" (Reprise): Young is almost as overdue for a best album Grammy as Bob Dylan was before voters caught up with the times and honored him for "Time Out of Mind" in 1998. Though the album didn't have much sales impact, it is a marvelously personal work that looks at life's lessons in ways similar though not parallel to "Time Out of Mind."
And then: Those are the most worthy album of the year contenders, but we need a fifth nominee. The choices here: Radiohead's "Hail to the Thief" (Capitol), Annie Lennox's "Bare" (J), 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope) and the "8 Mile" soundtrack (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope).
Eminem's "Lose Yourself" (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope): The only thing that could keep this track from being nominated is that it came out at the beginning of the eligibility period last year, so it wasn't fresh in voters' minds when they filled out their ballots. It's hard to imagine its being bypassed, but the voters have done dumber things. The record is an uplifting expression of self-affirmation. Even Eminem alarmists tend to give this one a thumbs-up.
OutKast's "Hey Ya!" and "The Way You Move" (Arista): The only problem with having two excellent singles on the eligibility list is that voters might split the vote between them and neither will be nominated. "Hey Ya" is a raw burst of rock 'n' roll energy with the charm of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There," while "The Way You Move" is a stylish salute to the silky, sensual side of Marvin Gaye.
White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" (V2): A thunderous tale of mystery and emotional overload, this dynamic single has dominated alt-rock radio since the spring and it still sounds fresh.
And then: The race should be among those four, but to round out the field, root for Annie Lennox's elegant "Pavement Cracks" (J), Missy Elliott's good-natured "Work It" (The Gold Mind/Elektra), Coldplay's stylish "Clocks" (Capitol), 50 Cent's infectious "In Da Club" (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope) or, for real longshots, Lisa Marie Presley's remarkably personal "Lights Out" (Capitol) or Warren Zevon's poignant "Keep Me in Your Heart" (Artemis)
Best new artist
If the voting were open to the public, Aiken would sweep the field, thanks to "American Idol" fans, but the recording academy professionals are more discriminating, right? We'll see. So many newcomers had big hits (including Hilary Duff and Evanescence) that it's hard to imagine any outsiders getting a nod. But hope at least one of these eligible artists caught voters' eye: the Kings of Leon, the Libertines, Sigur Ros, Ms. Dynamite, Fountains of Wayne, Gemma Hayes, Junior Senior, the Raveonettes or Kathleen Edwards.
Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at Robert.email@example.com