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Bravo-- This Time They Got It Right


There haven't been many times over the last four decades when it has been possible to put the words "job well done" and "Grammy Award nominations" in the same sentence, but this is one.

In fact, the recording academy screening committee did such a commendable job generally in the nominations for best album, the most prestigious award, that the full membership will have to work extra hard to foul things up when they select the winner.

As if spurred by the tragic events of Sept. 11 to search more diligently for substance in pop music, the committee ignored lightweight bestsellers in the most high-profile categories. This means no 'N Sync or Backstreet Boys. None of the cliched rappers or angry, cartoonish rockers.

In the best album category, the result is a nicely diverse collection that reflects the strongest currents of today's pop music, from rock to rap to country. There isn't even the outrage of last year's Eminem controversy to distract voters.

It'll be easy to applaud if the 12,000 academy members give the best album award to U2's "All That You Can't Leave Behind." It's an uplifting album that has reconfirmed the veteran Irish band's position as the most celebrated group in rock. Its robust sales in the U.S. (more than 3 million) also reminded the pop world of the continuing power of inspirational rock 'n' roll at a time when the music's future has been widely questioned.

The U2 album was released in 2000 after the deadline for Grammy voting last year (the balloting follows an Oct. 1-Sept. 30 calendar). Its "Beautiful Day," however, was released as a single in time for last year's voting and won for best record. The album, with its balance of social optimism and personal melancholy, gained added power emotionally in the aftermath of Sept. 11, thanks to a tour that was among the most memorable in years.

A victory for Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" would be equally popular--and another vote for classic rock 'n' roll values. For years, ignoring Dylan was a symbol of just about everything that was wrong with Grammy voting. While he was turning out a series of albums in the '60s that helped define rock 'n' roll as an art form and express the ideals of a generation, the Grammy voters saw him as an outsider.

Instead, they nominated such insignificant mainstream fare as Al Hirt, Herb Alpert and the Singing Nun. They finally caught up with the times in 1999 by honoring Dylan's brilliant, moody "Time Out of Mind" as album of the year. One reason the album was nominated was a change in the balloting system instituted in 1995 to help achieve a more relevant list of nominees. Instead of the entire membership selecting nominees, a screening committee was created in the most high-profile categories.

"Love and Theft" is a more challenging work than "Time Out of Mind" because it is less orthodox structurally, so it will be interesting to see if the full membership sees it as an equally powerful work or if it is thrown by its differences.

Despite the strengths of the U2 and Dylan collections, a win for OutKast's "Stankonia" would also be gratifying because it would send a welcome message to mainstream, adult audiences about the importance of rap as an art form. The only hip-hop album to win best album was Lauryn Hill's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" in 1999, and that collection was far from hard-core rap. Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" should have won last year, but its aggressive sensibilities were simply too extreme for the voters. "Stankonia" is a sensational, sonically marvelous exercise that is free of the social outrage of Eminem.

While not in the same league artistically as these three, the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack would also be a pleasing choice on several levels.

The music, featuring vocals by such gifted figures as Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, is an endearing salute to traditional American roots sounds, and it was a huge hit in the country field, where it served as a slap at all the Nashville hit makers who have turned their backs on traditional country music in a search for wider pop sales.

India.Arie's "Acoustic Soul" is a nicely constructed debut album that is anchored by "Video," one of the year's most glowing singles--a liberating expression of self-worth that reminds you of the understated assurance of Lauryn Hill. Still, this is the weakest of the nominees.

Among stronger choices available: Alicia Keys' "Songs in A Minor," the White Stripes' "White Blood Cells," Angie Stone's "Mahogany Soul" and Lucinda Williams' "Essence."

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