Grammy Sounds Off for Newcomers

We're barely six weeks into 2005, and already the event billed as "Music's Biggest Night" is once again here. Even with the glut of award shows, the Grammys remain the ultimate barometer of artistic -- and commercial -- achievement.

The 47th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles will kick off on Sunday evening with five nominated artists -- the Black Eyed Peas, Gwen Stefani, Los Lonely Boys, Maroon 5 and Franz Ferdinand -- performing separately across three stages.

Later in the evening, the scheduled performers will include Kanye West and Usher, who together are nominated for 18 Grammys, and a possible duet from Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.

In one special performance, Bono, Stevie Wonder, Norah Jones, Alicia Keys, Velvet Revolver, Tim McGraw and Brian Wilson will perform the Beatles' "Across The Universe." The evening will also include a tribute to Ray Charles, featuring Bonnie Raitt and Billy Preston, and a salute to Southern rock led by McGraw, Gretchen Wilson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dickie Betts and Elvin Bishop.

Queen Latifah will host the show, which will air live on CBS beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

In the past, the Grammy Awards have been criticized for being too predictable, with established artists awarded again and again and newcomers ignored. Remember the 1988 show when Jethro Tull beat Metallica in the heavy metal category? It certainly seemed like Grammy voters were out of touch.

Nowadays, the awards reflect the year's music beat and encompass a very wide range of music genres. This year, the nominations contain a whopping 107 categories, including four new ones: best electronic/dance album, best surround sound album, best gospel performance and best Hawaiian music album.

By far, the most important categories -- and the ones that guarantee a next-day surge in CD sales -- are the big four: best album, song, record and new artist. Below is a list of the nominees and my picks:

Album of the Year

"Genius Loves Company" -- Ray Charles & Various Artists
"American Idiot" -- Green Day
"The Diary of Alicia Keys" -- Alicia Keys
"Confessions" -- Usher
"The College Dropout" -- Kanye West

This is the strongest line-up in years, with a combined 39 nominations between the five acts. Conventional wisdom suggests that leading nominee Kanye West or mega-superstar Usher will win, but in the wake of Ray Charles' passing, the music industry may be moved to give him this most-coveted and well-deserved award. In life and in death, Charles remains timeless.

Record of the Year

"Let's Get It Started" -- Black Eyed Peas
"Here We Go Again" -- Ray Charles & Norah Jones
"American Idiot" -- Green Day
"Heaven" -- Los Lonely Boys
"Yeah!" -- Usher featuring Lil'Jon & Ludacris

Green Day's politically charged "American Idiot" is arguably the best rock song of this generation. It was the soundtrack to the divisive presidential election, in addition to debuting at No. 1 in the United States and United Kingdom simultaneously. Unfortunately for Billie Joe Armstrong and his Green Day cohorts, Usher's "Yeah!" was the No. 1 song of the year, spending 12 weeks at that spot, and it blew the doors wide open for the infectious sounds of crunk-rap. One year after its release date, "Yeah" still sounds as hot as ever. If any pop artist can claim 2004 as his or hers, it's Usher. All hail the new, not-self-proclaimed King of Pop.

Song of the Year (Songwriting Award)

"Daughters" -- John Mayer
"If I Ain't Got You" -- Alicia Keys
"Jesus Walks" -- Kanye West, C. Smith and Miri Ben Ari
"Live Like You Were Dying" -- Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman (Tim McGraw)
"The Reason" -- Daniel Estrin and Douglas Robb (Hoobastank)

The dark-horse candidate in the songwriting award is 2004's No. 1 country single of the year, "Live Like You Were Dying," McGraw's career-defining single and a tribute to his late father. "If I Ain't Got You" by classically trained pianist Keys, 2001's Grammy princess, is also a favorite.

Nevertheless, art reflects society and traditional values took center stage in 2004. That's likely to spell victory for West. His rap song about Jesus Christ achieved both critical and commercial success, which is astounding considering the sort of booty, bling-bling, pimpin' and gang-bangin' hits that usually top the hip-hop charts. This award is Kanye's to lose.

Best New Artist

Los Lonely Boys
Maroon 5
Joss Stone
Kanye West
Gretchen Wilson

Several weeks ago West and Gretchen Wilson were nominated for best new artist at the American Music Awards. Gretchen won and Kanye threw a public tantrum about being "robbed" of the award. Two months of apologies and plenty of penitence might score West the award, but it will not be easy.

Wilson is part of the new generation of country acts who are responsible for the genre's roaring comeback in 2004. Country music sales were up 12 percent, and country music remains the nation's most popular radio format. Wilson's "Here For The Party" was one of three country albums among the top 10 sellers for 2004. The smash hit "Redneck Woman" is a shoo-in for best country song of the year.

Still, Maroon 5's debut CD, "Songs About Jane," is celebrating its 90th week on the charts, and this not-so-new band could walk away with the award.