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THE 40TH ANNUAL GRAMMY NOMINATIONS

It's About 'Time' : Analysis: Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who redefined popular music in the '60s, finally gets recognition. His 'Time Out of Mind' is regarded as one of the year's best.

January 07, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

One thing for sure: Give the Grammy voters enough time--say 35 years--and they are bound to get it right.

The thousands of industry professionals who vote each year in pop music's most prestigious competition may have ignored Bob Dylan's landmark albums year after year in the '60s, when those records were redefining the boundaries of popular music.

No best album nomination in 1963 for "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," which contained the folk classic "Blowin' in the Wind." No best album nomination in 1964 for "The Times They Are A-Changin'," whose influential title song was sung last month by Bruce Springsteen during the Kennedy Center Honors saluting Dylan. And on and on; the voters, who have a history of favoring mainstream bestsellers over challenging forces, ignored "Highway 61 Revisited" in 1965 and "Blonde on Blonde" in 1966.

But the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences--which honored Dylan with a lifetime achievement award in 1991--finally nailed one: It nominated Dylan's "Time Out of Mind."

It's not an idle, nostalgic gesture. The album--a sobering work that reflects on the boundaries that age puts on a person's once limitless dreams--was widely hailed as the year's best.

Don't, however, raise a toast too quickly.

Strange things can happen in the final voting, the results of which will be announced Feb. 25 in New York.

Remember last year, when the 9,000 academy voters sidestepped four outstanding nominees--including Beck's "Odelay" and the Babyface-designed "Waiting to Exhale"--and gave the award to Celine Dion's middlebrow "Falling Into You"?

There are several potential traps among the other four nominees for best album this time.

Voters could be suckered into voting for another, far more popular '60s icon, Paul McCartney. His nominated album, "Flaming Pie," is a pleasing but modest work, not even close to the accomplishment of "Time Out of Mind."

Another mistake would be trying to make up for the failure last year to honor Babyface for "Waiting to Exhale" by voting for his "The Day," a classy, but generally far less distinguished package. Paula Cole, too, is a singer-songwriter with ambition and range, but her "This Fire" album is too uneven to deserve its nomination.

The only real competition for Dylan, from a creative standpoint, is Radiohead's "OK Computer." The British rock group's collection is an artful, icy look at life in an anxious, technological age. It was virtually as acclaimed as "Time Out of Mind."

In the best single record of the year race, the most noteworthy aspect is what's missing--anything that had a trace of the hip-hop currents that dominated pop radio during 1997. No "On and On" by Erykah Badu, no "Mo Money Mo Problems" by the Notorious B.I.G. No "Got 'Til It's Gone" by Janet Jackson.

Instead, the voters, with a homogenized vision that was both surprising and disappointing, leaned toward female singer-songwriters whose work was pleasant but unremarkable. Of the nominees, the most appealing record--listen to it closely before you laugh--was Hanson's "MMMBop," pumped full of kiddie-pop zest.

The most fascinating match--best new artist--in the top categories pits Badu against Fiona Apple, the year's most provocative pop confessor. Those are both substantial talents. It's nice that we haven't had to wait 35 years for the Grammy voters to recognize them.

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