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Grammy Forecast: Expect Big Things From West, Winehouse

Two years ago, when U2 won the Grammy for Album of the Year for How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, Bono paid tribute in his acceptance speech to each of the losing nominees. To Kanye West, who had been a bridesmaid in the category two years in a row, he said, "Kanye, you're next."

Bono probably just meant it as a gracious, consoling remark, but it may very well turn out to have been prescient. West has an excellent chance of walking away with Album of the Year when the 50th annual Grammy Awards are presented at Staples Center on Feb. 10. His third album, Graduation, had the biggest opening week sales of any release in 2007. There's also a sense that, after losing twice, it's his turn. (The other Album of the Year contenders are all in the finals for the first time.) And, not that he needs it, but there may be a sympathy factor because of his mother's highly publicized death last year after undergoing plastic surgery.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Amy Winehouse, who is in the running for Album, Record and Song of the Year, as well as in several other high-profile categories. Winehouse's album, Back To Black, has been both a commercial and critical hit, which is the combination that Grammy voters love to celebrate. But there's a catch: More than a few voters will be put off by Winehouse's well-publicized drug problems. The question of the night is whether Winehouse is so strong that, even losing the support of some older and more conservative voters, she will still be able to snag some key awards.

Other questions, large and small, will be answered at this year's Grammys.

1) Will Sen. Barack Obama prevail over his current foil, former President Bill Clinton, for Best Spoken Word Album?

2) Will the Eagles, who in the '70s won the group vocal award in both pop and rock, win this time in the country field?

3) Will Grammy voters go for Feist in the music video category or will their well-documented loyalty to old favorites push them to vote one last time for Johnny Cash, who died in 2003?

The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which presents the Grammys, doesn't seem to want anybody to leave empty-handed. There are a record 110 categories this year, more than twice as many as there were as recently as 1978. All five Album of the Year finalists are likely to win awards as the best albums in their fields.

Here's the lowdown on the leading races:

Album of the Year

Nominees: Foo Fighters' Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Vince Gill's These Days, Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters, Kanye West's Graduation, Amy Winehouse's Back To Black

Gill's sprawling, 4-CD set shows his versatility--and, at a time that even single-disk CDs are fighting to be heard--his audacity. Jazzman Hancock's salute to pop icon Joni Mitchell crosses genre lines-something that Grammy voters love. Winehouse was last year's most critically admired newcomer. But West is out front. He'll be only the second rap act, following OutKast, to win this top award. The pick: West.

 

Record of the Year

Nominees: Beyonce's "Irreplaceable," Foo Fighters' "The Pretender," Rihanna featuring Jay-Z's "Umbrella," Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around...Comes Around," Amy Winehouse's "Rehab"

"Umbrella" was the biggest hit of the summer, but its appeal may be a bit young for the typical Grammy voter. Rock bands have done well in the past decade, with Santana, U2, Coldplay and Green Day all winning this award. But Foo Fighters' "The Pretender" was considerably harder-edged than those other bands' winning entries. "Rehab" blends an autobiographical storyline, a dash of humor and an irresistible beat. And, like the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready To Make Nice" (last year's winner for Record and Song of the Year), it turns a central issue in the artist's life into art. But it cuts uncomfortably close to home. If Winehouse had overcome her dependency issues, it would stand a better chance. This is the third Record of the Year nomination for both Beyonce and Timberlake, who have proven their durability and versatility. Beyonce's song was a bigger hit (10 weeks at #1, compared to just one week for Timberlake). And the female empowerment angle may help it with women voters. (Kanye West's "Stronger" would have been a strong challenger, but West's camp didn't enter it in the Record of the Year process. They instead entered his follow-up, "Good Life"-an appealing work, but hardly the creative and commercial powerhouse that "Stronger" was.) The pick: Beyonce

 

Song of the Year

Nominees: "Before He Cheats," written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins; "Hey There Delilah," written by Tom Higgenson of Plain White T's; "Like A Star," written by Corinne Bailey Rae; "Rehab," written by Amy Winehouse; "Umbrella," written by Shawn Carter, Kuk Harrell, Terius "Dream" Nash and Christopher Stewart

"Irreplaceable" isn't eligible here because Beyonce's album won an album award (Best Contemporary R&B Album) at last year's ceremonies. (The Grammy rulebook makes the U.S. Tax Code seem like a beach read.)  Voters may decide that "Rehab" was a terrific single that won't have much of a life beyond this one recording. The plaintive "Hey There Delilah" is a pretty song, but it may be too slight to win here. "Before He Cheats," a country crossover smash for Carrie Underwood, is sassy and clever. It's from Underwood's debut album, which came out in 2005, which has given voters extra time to get to know it. The pick: "Before He Cheats"

 

Best New Artist

Nominees: Feist, Ledisi, Paramore, Taylor Swift, Amy Winehouse

Feist and Swift are strong contenders. Still, Winehouse's nominations for Album, Record and Song of the Year lift her above the pack. The pick: Winehouse.

 

Best Pop Vocal Album

Nominees: Bon Jovi's Lost Highway, Feist's The Reminder, Maroon 5's It Won't Be Soon Before Long, Paul McCartney's Memory Almost Full, Amy Winehouse's Back To Black

As the only one of these five finalists who was also nominated in the more prestigious Album of the Year contest, Winehouse is the front-runner. If she faces a backlash, Feist and Maroon 5 are waiting in the wings. The pick: Winehouse.

 

Best Female Pop Vocal Performance

Nominees: Christina Aguilera's "Candyman," Feist's "1234," Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry," Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right," Amy Winehouse's "Rehab"

This always competitive category is especially competitive this year. Furtado seems a long-shot, but any of the other four could easily win. Aguilera has won in this category twice and this 1940s-sounding entry will appeal to older voters. Fergie won Grammys three years running with Black Eyed Peas before making a convincing solo breakthrough last year. She has a shot here with this smash ballad, but the award will probably go to either Winehouse or Feist. Voters will want to give Feist an award or two, but she seems to keep coming in second. The pick: Winehouse.

 

Best Male Pop Vocal Performance

Nominees: Michael Buble's "Everything," John Mayer's "Belief," Paul McCartney's "Dance Tonight," Seal's "Amazing," Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around...Comes Around"

Mayer has won in this category in three of the last five years. But his entry this year is fairly minor. It's drawn from a six-song EP consisting of acoustic versions of songs from last year's Continuum album. McCartney is a legend, though he's hardly a Grammy magnet. Except for a Beatles "reunion" in 1996, he hasn't won since the 1970s. Buble will probably win in the traditional pop category, and doesn't need two awards. So it looks good for Timberlake, who won here in 2003 with "Cry Me A River."  The pick: Timberlake.

 

Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals

Nominees: Bon Jovi's "(You Want To) Make A Memory," Daughtry's "Home," Maroon 5's "Makes Me Wonder," Plain White T's' "Hey There Delilah," U2's "Window On The Skies"

As a Song of the Year finalist, "Hey There Delilah" is an obvious front-runner here. Daughtry's poignant ballad was heard each week last season on American Idol.  U2, which won in this category six years ago, is U2 ('nuff said). But this category is Maroon 5's home turf (unlike U2, which was just visiting from the rock field). The group won here two years ago with "This Love" and will probably do it again. The pick: Maroon 5.

 

Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals

Nominees: Tony Bennett & Christina Aguilera's "Steppin' Out," Beyonce & Shakira's "Beautiful Liar," Robert Plant & Alison Krauss's "Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)," Gwen Stefani & Akon's "The Sweet Escape," Timbaland featuring Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake's "Give It To Me"

Bennett and Aguilera have both won in this category in the past. But they may be outmatched this year. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss's Raising Sand was released after the close of this year's eligibility period (Oct. 1, 2006 to Sept. 30, 2007). Otherwise, it would have been a surefire Album of the Year nominee. This track gives voters their only opportunity this year to salute the project. The pick: Plant & Krauss.

 

Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album

Nominees: Michael Buble's Call Me Irresponsible, Bette Midler's Cool Yule, Queen Latifah's Trav'lin' Light, Barbra Streisand's Live In Concert 2006, James Taylor's James Taylor At Christmas

Tony Bennett has won in this category 10 times in the 16 years it has been presented--every time he has had an eligible album in release. But the pop legend didn't make an album last year (he was too tired from dusting his Grammys), which puts this category in play. Buble's album hit #1 on the pop chart. And his nomination in the male pop vocal category underscores his popularity. Buble's strongest challenge will probably come from James Taylor, who won for Best Pop Vocal Album in 1997. The pick: Buble.

 

Best Rock Album

Nominees: Daughtry's Daughtry, John Fogerty's Revival, Foo Fighters' Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Bruce Springsteen's Magic, Wilco's Sky Blue Sky

Foo Fighters, Fogerty and Springsteen have all won this award in the past, while Wilco has won for Best Alternative Music Album. And Daughtry had one of the five top-selling albums of 2007. While all five contenders are viable, this will be a showdown between Springsteen and Foo Fighters. Foo Fighters' nominations for Album and Record of the Year probably give them an edge. If they win, they'll become the first act to win three times in the category's 14-year history. The pick: Foo Fighters

 

Best Alternative Music Album

Nominees: Lily Allen's Alright, Still..., Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, Bjork's Volta, The Shins' Wincing The Night Away, the White Stripes' Icky Thump

The White Stripes won this award in 2003 and 2005. Equally important, the title song of their album is nominated for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals. That shows broad-based support. If they win, they'll become the first act to take this award three times in the category's 18-year history. The pick: The White Stripes.

 

Best R&B Album

Nominees: Chaka Khan's Funk This, Ledisi's Lost & Found, Musiq Soulchild's Luvanmusiq, Jill Scott's The Real Thing, Tank's Sex, Love & Pain

Musiq Soulchild's fourth album opened at #1 on the pop and R&B charts last spring. But Grammy voters have a soft spot for women--and there are two powerhouse female singers in contention. Jill Scott won a Grammy with a track from her last album, while Chaka Khan has been a Grammy favorite since the '70s. Scott is also nominated for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance-where Khan's entry was skipped over. The pick: Jill Scott

 

Best Contemporary R&B Album

Nominees: Akon's Konvicted, Keyshia Cole's Just Like You, Fantasia's Fantasia, Emily King's East Side Story, Ne-Yo's Because Of You

This will be tight between Ne-Yo, whose sophomore album opened at #1 on the pop and R&B charts last spring, and Fantasia, who had a successful run on Broadway in The Color Purple. Ne-Yo was also a finalist here last year, which gives him a slight edge. The pick: Ne-Yo.

 

Best Rap Album

Nominees: Common's Finding Forever, Jay-Z's Kingdom Come, Nas' Hip-Hop Is Dead, T.I.'s T.I. Vs. T.I.P., Kanye West's Graduation

This is the only category in which all five finalists were #1 pop albums. Jay-Z won this award in 1998, but it's all but certain to go to West for the third time in four years. That will put him in a tie with Eminem for the most wins in the category's 13-year history. The pick: West.

 

Best Rap/Sung Collaboration

Nominees: Akon Featuring Snoop Dogg's "I Wanna Love You," Chris Brown & T-Pain's "Kiss, Kiss," Keyshia Cole Featuring Missy Elliott & Lil' Kim's "Let It Go," Rihanna Featuring Jay-Z's "Umbrella," Kanye West Featuring T-Pain's "Good Life"

Three of the five entries were #1 hits on the Hot 100. One of these, the frisky "Kiss, Kiss," was on the radio seemingly non stop throughout the voting period. Still, it's hard to imagine "Umbrella" not coming out on top. It will be Jay-Z's third win in this category in the past five years. He was featured with Beyonce on "Crazy In Love" and he collaborated with Linkin Park on "Numb/Encore." The pick: Rihanna featuring Jay-Z.

 

Best Country Album

Nominees: Dierks Bentley's Long Trip Alone, Vince Gill's These Days, Tim McGraw's Let It Go, Brad Paisley's 5th Gear, George Strait's It Just Comes Natural

As the only Album of the Year candidate, Vince Gill has a big advantage here. But it's striking that this is the album's only nomination in the country field. All of Gill's rivals for this award have additional country nominations. (Tim McGraw's album has four others.)  But this is probably just a fluke. Gill is loved in Nashville. He has won 18 Grammys, more than any other country male artist. He has never won in this category, but that's likely to change this year. The pick: Gill.

 

Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals

Nominees: Brooks & Dunn's "Proud Of The House We Built," Eagles' "How Long," Emerson Drive's "Moments," Montgomery Gentry's "Lucky Man," the Time Jumpers' "Sweet Memories."

Brooks & Dunn won in this category twice in the '90s, but Eagles have an edge because of the huge success of their album Long Road Out Of Eden (which was released too late for Album of the Year consideration). Eagles won the pop group award for 1975's "Lyin' Eyes" and the rock group prize for 1979's "Heartache Tonight." They'll become the first group to win in all three fields. The pick: Eagles.

 

Best Spoken Word Album (Includes Poetry, Audio Books & Story Telling)

Nominees: Barack Obama's The Audacity Of Hope: Thoughts On Reclaiming The American Dream, Maya Angelou's Celebrations, Bill Clinton's Giving: How Each Of Us Can Change The World, Jimmy Carter's Sunday Morning In Plains: Bringing Peace To A Changing World, Alan Alda's Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself

All of the finalists except Alan Alda have won in this category before. Poet Maya Angelou has won three times, and could do it again if the politicians split the vote. But Obama is on fire. Whether he wins or loses the Democratic nomination, he seems destined to be awarded his second Grammy. It's not the White House, but you take what you can get. The pick: Obama.

 

Best Compilation Soundtrack Album For Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media

Nominees: Across The Universe, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, Love (The Beatles), Once (Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova)

The two Beatles songbooks, Across The Universe and Love, may split the votes of boomer voters. The two film adaptations of Broadway musicals, Dreamgirls and Hairspray, may split the votes of show tune buffs. That creates an opening for the unique and much-admired Once. One song from that soundtrack, "Falling Slowly," is nominated for both an Oscar for Best Original Song and a Grammy for Best Song Written For Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media. (Do you get the sense that the person who named these Grammy categories was paid by the word?) The pick: Once.

 

Best Short Form Music Video

Nominees: Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down," Feist's "1234," Gnarls Barkley's "Gone Daddy Gone," Justice's "D.A.N.C.E.," Mute Math's "Typical"

Cash's video is for a track from his posthumous 2006 release, American V: A Hundred Highways. The country legend died in September 2003. Grammy voters are notoriously loyal to old favorites, but this is pushing it. More than a few voters will decide it's time to move on--which is good news for Feist, whose "1234" video was widely admired. This can make up for her losing three times to Winehouse. The pick: Feist.

 

Paul Grein, who writes the Chart Watch blog for Yahoo.com, has been analyzing and handicapping the Grammys since the late '70s. He thinks he's just about got them figured out. He first attended the show in 1977, the last year that Andy Williams was host.

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