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GRAMMYS '96

Grammy Carey-Over? : It's a rock fan's worst daydream. A super-committee tried to make the awards more relevant, but its cutting-edge choices will probably split the vote, leaving Mariah triumphant.

February 25, 1996|Paul Grein and Robert Hilburn | Paul Grein, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, has been forecasting the Grammys for Calendar since 1981. Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Responding to years of frequently severe criticism, Grammy officials revolutionized their nominating process this year to give cutting-edge artists a better chance against the mainstream hit-makers who have long dominated the voting.

And who's likely to be the first winner for best album since the sweeping reforms?

Mariah Carey!

The bland pop diva, who makes Whitney Houston seem like Chaka Khan, is likely to win three awards when the 38th annual Grammys are presented on Wednesday at the Shrine Auditorium.

So what happened?

The probable scenario is that the more adventurous best album nominees--Pearl Jam, Alanis Morissette and Joan Osborne--canceled each other out in the voting, clearing the way for Carey. It's reminiscent of what happened in the same category 11 years ago when Bruce Springsteen and Prince split the rock vote, allowing Lionel Richie to win.

Under the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences' new rules, an appointed 25-member panel determined the nominees in the four major categories, in lieu of having all 7,500 voting members of the academy determine the fields. But the panel may have done its job too well. If it had included only one rock album in the finals instead of three, the outcome might be different.

You can also look for some emotional moments on Wednesday. Frank Sinatra is expected to win his first Grammy in regular competition in 29 years (for "Duets II" in the traditional pop category), and Nirvana is likely to win its first Grammy (for "MTV Unplugged in New York" in the alternative music competition).

Here are veteran Grammy watcher Grein's predictions and Times pop music critic Hilburn's personal choices in this year's most interesting pop and rock races:

Album of the year: Carey's "Daydream," Michael Jackson's "HIStory--Past, Present and Future Book I," Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill," Osborne's "Relish," Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy."

PREDICTION: Since the membership passed over Jackson and Osborne in choosing the nominees for best pop album and best rock album, respectively, it figures that they also passed them over in this far more competitive category. The panel in effect overruled the membership by nominating these albums anyway, but the full academy now has the final say.

Pearl Jam fans may take hope from U2's victory eight years ago with "The Joshua Tree." But that album had spawned a pair of No. 1 pop hits and was still going strong at the time of voting. "Vitalogy," which came out just after the start of the eligibility year--Oct. 1, 1994, to Sept. 30, 1995--didn't reach the mass pop audience as convincingly, and it seems to have run its course.

Morissette has strong voter appeal, but it's hard to see the top award going to such a volatile, edgy artist--especially with Pearl Jam's siphoning off significant rock support. That leaves Carey as the likely victor. The deciding factor: She doesn't need to worry about the currently unfashionable Jackson's peeling away many pop votes.

CHOICE: The Carey and Jackson albums perfectly fit the stodgy old Grammy idea of excellence. They are highly polished spectacles that try so hard to embrace all the safe commercial dictates of the moment that you can almost hear the artists say to the consumer at the end of each package, "Didn't I give you everything you wanted?"

To varying degrees, the Morissette, Osborne and Pearl Jam albums live up to a more enduring standard of excellence. They move beyond superficial pop surfaces with music and commentary that are more daring, more insightful and, ultimately, more purposeful.

Of the three, Pearl Jam aims highest--and hits hardest. In "Vitalogy," the Seattle band addresses issues of the '90s--from youthful alienation to public and private corruption--with the intensity and heartfelt spirit of the best '60s bands.

*

Record of the year: Carey & Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day," Coolio featuring L.V.'s "Gangsta's Paradise," Osborne's "One of Us," Seal's "Kiss From a Rose," TLC's "Waterfalls."

PREDICTION: "Waterfalls," a slinky R&B ballad with a hip-hop break, or "Gangsta's Paradise," the rap smash featured in the movie "Dangerous Minds," would probably win if voters let their kids fill out the ballot. As it is, their best chance is in the performance competitions.

"One of Us," a thoughtful if irreverent look at spirituality, only started to heat up in December and may still be unfamiliar to some voters. "One Sweet Day," which has been No. 1 since early December, is regarded as a successful merger of two pop titans rather than a genuine creative achievement. It's a shoo-in to win for best pop collaboration but not here.

That leaves Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" as the likely winner. The Englishman's "Seal," on which this lilting waltz first appeared, was nominated for best album last year.

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