A look into a cracked crystal ball

Special to The Times

AS the tallies are being taken leading up to the Dec. 7 announcement of nominations for the 49th annual Grammy Awards, key questions are emerging:

Could Mary J. Blige and John Mayer reign as the new Grammy prom queen and king?

Can the Dixie Chicks go from Nashville non gratta to Grammy gratta?

Can Carrie Underwood prove that being an American Idol is no Grammy handicap?


How will Faith Hill react if Underwood wins?

How will Kanye West react if anyone but Kanye West wins?

And when the Grammy Awards are handed out at the televised spectacle in Staples Center on Feb. 11, will the Red Hot Chili Peppers wear their formal tube socks?

The latter question is not just for fun. After 23 years of punk-funk mayhem, triumphs over personal tragedies and travails, various states of undress and an abundance of tattoos, the Chili Peppers look to be serious contenders for album of the year with their sprawling tour de force “Stadium Arcadium.” As such, the L.A. quartet could fill not just one but two slots in patterns that have developed in recent years: It’s an edgy rock act, a role taken two years ago when Green Day’s “American Idiot” picked up a best album nomination. At the same time, it’s a veteran act with great influence that’s never quite received Grammy recognition to match its popular and critical stature -- putting the band into the unlikely company of past winners Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett and Bob Dylan.

Speaking of Dylan, the bard is expected to claim an album spot himself for his bluesy “Modern Times,” his first No. 1 in 30 years -- continuing the streak of his 1997 Grammy winner “Time Out of Mind” and 2002 nominee “Love and Theft.” In this survey, the terms “shoo-in” and “sure thing” were used more in connection with a Dylan album nomination than for anything else.

Of course, these days Grammy nomination predicting can be like a cat chasing a light beam -- good exercise but not necessarily productive. That’s agreed on by both Grammy insiders and outside observers surveyed by The Times.

“I’m a Grammy voter and we are so much harder to predict than the Academy Awards voters,” says one veteran music business executive who asked that his name not be used due to his work inside the Grammy process.

That’s been even more true since 1995, when the Recording Academy, which gives out the awards, switched to a multi-level nominating process for the four top categories (album, song, record and new artist). Rather than nominees being determined by a straight vote of the 11,000 academy members, the top 20 vote-getters in each category are put before “blue-ribbon” committees to select the respective final fives based on criteria that still remain largely unclear. The song (given to the writer) and record (for production and performance achievement) nods have been particularly hard to get into clear crystal-ball focus.

Typically, though, the best-album committee has offered a balanced slate with respected “career” artists (Paul Simon and Steely Dan recently), brash urban iconoclasts (Eminem, OutKast), edgy rockers (Radiohead, the White Stripes), respected figures a bit out of the pop mainstream (jazz star Diana Krall) and “event” albums (the posthumous 2005 Ray Charles win for his “Genius Loves Company” duets project).

Pop-rock guitarist Mayer and R&B; star Blige both have risen to fit the profiles of ideal Grammy figures. Mayer embodies traditional music values with his blues-rock guitar skills as well as pop songwriting acumen and has been anointed by such figures as Clapton and Buddy Guy.

Blige also is a modern traditionalist, who has consistently brought new approaches to classic R&B; foundations, and her 3-million-selling “The Breakthrough,” led by the single “Be Without You,” is seen as the best of her career.

Not insignificantly, both have impressed Grammy voters with strong performances on past telecasts, including Blige’s spine-tingling duet with U2 on the Irish band’s song “One” -- the recorded version of which is a favorite for a record of the year nomination.

The duo of Gnarls Barkley (singer-rapper Cee-Lo Green and producermusician Danger Mouse) seems a sure thing for a record nomination with the stunning revisionist soul song “Crazy” -- a strong enough presence to merit serious consideration in the other three top categories as well, with their “St. Elsewhere” debut album among the year’s critical as well as commercial successes.

Underwood is seen as having a chance to do what Idol predecessor Kelly Clarkson couldn’t quite manage and leap into the major category gold with her country breakthrough album “Some Hearts.”

The most intrigue may surround the Dixie Chicks, who are still, depending on your perspective, either drowning in or bathing in the hot water stirred by member Natalie Maines’ 2003 comments critical of a fellow Texan who occupies the White House. “Considering the number of liberals and Democrats in the academy, they’ll get considered,” says Geoff Mayfield, Billboard magazine director of charts and senior analyst. “Not only did the album have multiple weeks at No. 1, but you would have had to be Rip Van Winkle not to know they had a new release. Not many albums come to market with a ’60 Minutes’ feature and the cover of Time.”

The most crowded elite race may be for new artist. Often there seems to be a scramble to find worthy new artists to fill out the five slots. This year there’s a glut. James Blunt, Gnarls Barkley, Daniel Powter, KT Tunstall, Underwood, Corrine Bailey Rae, hip-hop newcomers Chris Brown and Ne-Yo, Australian retro-rock trio Wolfmother, outlandish rockers Panic! at the Disco and English songstress Natasha Bedingfield are all seen as legitimate candidates -- and not a potential embarrassment a la A Taste of Honey among them, to cite one of the most notorious Grammy nods to a flash-in-the-disco-pan.

So, on to the best-guess predictions, based on the survey. Keep in mind, the general inscrutability of committee members’ preferences means each of these predictions carries with it a built-in “who knows?”


Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blige, Dylan, Dixie Chicks, Mayer. But don’t count out Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Underwood or perhaps even a dark horse such as Tunstall.


Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Timberlake’s “Sexyback,” Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful.” Also in the running are Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change” and Blige’s “Be Without You.”


Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” the Blige/U2 duet “One,” Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man,” Timberlake’s “Sexyback,” Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” -- though Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” could get consideration (the “Late Registration” album, of course, was eligible last year, but this single is up this year).

New artist

Gnarls Barkley, Blunt, Raye, Tunstall, Underwood, with particularly strong challenges from Panic! at the Disco and Ne-Yo.