Heading into tonight’s ceremony at Staples Center, we handicap the winners in four of the most high-profile categories.
BEST NEW ARTIST
The field at a glance: With Adele and Duffy, there’s plenty of U.K.-bred retro soul amid the best new artist crop. Though neither artist has the ‘60s-inspired theatricality of last year’s winner, Amy Winehouse -- the bumping, keyboard-scorched groove of Duffy’s “Mercy” comes close -- both are tapping into a vintage, Grammy-approved sound.
They’ll compete with teen pop studs the Jonas Brothers and another soul/R&B; newcomer in Jazmine Sullivan, who snared five Grammy noms. Sullivan’s September release “Fearless” has been a steady seller, and she has a bit more pop swing than her peers in the category. She even knows a thing or two about comedic timing -- check the lusty girl group bounce of “Switch.”
Rounding out the nominees is the now annual country representative: Lady Antebellum. Don’t expect the act to be much of a factor here; the group doesn’t have the crossover success or critical acclaim to take home the award.
The Grammy goes to: Adele. There’s some consensus that Adele and Duffy will split the votes. If that’s the case, it could open the field up for Sullivan. Adele, however, has made quite a case for herself the last few months. Since appearing on “Saturday Night Live” in October (the episode with Sarah Palin), her album has been a hot seller. Adele also isn’t as tied to a ‘60s-inspired vibe as her contemporaries. She’s adept at handling a stark, acoustic-driven song and brings a more challenging, jazz-inspired phrasing to her vocals.
SONG OF THE YEAR
The field at a glance: There’s Coldplay, and then there are four artists who will lose to Coldplay. “Viva La Vida,” with its triumphant strings and momentous church bells, moves swiftly and feels significant. It even made a commercial for an MP3 player seem like an extravagant occasion.
As for the other nominees, Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” builds to a heavily orchestrated chorus that lends the soulful song a bit of an epic feel. Adele is certainly the best singer of the bunch, but she’ll be rewarded elsewhere (see best new artist). Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song,” meanwhile, is downright slight and forgettable. It was propelled to the top of the chart solely because it was in a commercial, and Bareilles doesn’t have much of an identity beyond it.
Estelle and her “American Boy” featuring Kanye West are unlikely to upset Coldplay, either. West seems to be cursed -- the man has 10 Grammys, and all of them are confined to genre fields. That leaves Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” This was a top-10 hit, and it’s also the most ingratiating song nominated for a Grammy in 2009.
There’s no reason to listen past the first verse, when Mraz sings like a little puppy dog that you’re “so hot,” he’s melted. What follows is a balmy, day-at-the-beach guitar and show-off vocal phrasing.
Although the song isn’t a serious contender to best Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” it is not to be taken as lightly as it sounds either. Look for it to win best male pop vocal performance.
The Grammy goes to: Coldplay, though it should be awarded to Estelle.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The field at a glance: Pop superstars Coldplay (“Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends”) and Ne-Yo (“The Year of the Gentleman”) are vying against the token heritage act (“Raising Sand” from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss) and critical favorites Lil Wayne (“Tha Carter III”) and Radiohead (“In Rainbows”).
Ne-Yo is a rising Grammy star, but bet on him in the single categories rather than this race. Wayne had the bestselling album of the year in “Tha Carter III,” but he represents a harder, more explicit hip-hop sound than the Grammys usually embrace in its top category. Radiohead has been nominated for the top prize in the past, but this year, the band and the Recording Academy seem to be getting on famously, as the adventurous English group is appearing in ads for the ceremony telecast and will perform at the show.
That leaves just two contenders . . .
The Grammy goes to: Plant and Krauss. “Raising Sand” has all the right ingredients for an album of the year win. Plant is overdue for Grammy recognition (he has won only two in his career), while Krauss is one of the Grammys’ most beloved artists (she has 21 awards). The pair won last year for best pop collaboration with vocals for the “Raising Sand” single “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” and they are performing on this year’s telecast.
That said, Coldplay had the top-selling rock album of the year, and the band bridges the generation gap. Orchestra-laden single “Viva la Vida” is adult-safe, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin has a little bit of hip-hop street cred (he collaborated with Kanye West on the song “Homecoming” from West’s 2007 release “Graduation”).
If there’s an act that can upset Plant and Krauss, it’s Coldplay.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
The field at a glance: Before Grammy nominations were announced in early December, there was a growing belief that M.I.A.'s gunshot-enhanced “Paper Planes” might score a nomination or two. But being recognized in one of the top categories was still a surprise, considering the song’s revolution-bent lyrics. Of course, being in a trailer for a major Hollywood film (“Pineapple Express”) goes a long way toward softening M.I.A.'s edges.
Also nominated is the smash “Bleeding Love” from Leona Lewis, and “Please Read the Letter” from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, but M.I.A. has the buzz.
Still, it’s going to be tough for M.I.A. to walk away with the trophy. The Grammys certainly will want to skew younger after awarding the album of the year prize to Herbie Hancock in 2008, and bestowing record of the year upon her would help them win points. Adele has a shot, but she’s much more likely to win best female pop vocal performance for her “Chasing Pavements.” And though “Bleeding Love” was one of the year’s biggest hits, Lewis didn’t receive many major nominations, so don’t expect her to win in this category.
The Grammy goes to: Plant and Krauss. “Please Read the Letter” is a nice cut, and the album has a distinct feel, with its slight country undertones and its guitar buzzing in from another era. But don’t rule out Coldplay (and the deserving Adele is the sleeper pick).