Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: Let's hear it for Grammys' noteworthy but unheralded nominees

Neko Case is at least one critic's pick to win the Grammy for best alternative album for The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight; The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
Neko Case is at least one critic's pick to win the Grammy for best alternative album for The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight; The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.

56th Annual Grammy Awards

8 p.m. Jan. 26 on CBS. Grammy.com.

The relevance of the Grammy Awards as any kind of honest assessment of the state of popular music fell away years ago. And yet every winter, they return as part of a barrage of awards programs designed so every branch of corporate popular culture can promote and congratulate itself simultaneously.

Similarly, every year I promise myself not to watch the Grammys telecast. It's not intended as some sort of smug, self-important boycott but as a determined attempt to ignore the Grammys.

But then I watch. I get sucked in.

It could be the occasional oddball performance pairings (jazz giant Chick Corea sitting in with Foo Fighters) or upset wins (Esperanza Spalding beating out Justin Bieber for best new artist two years ago).

But the end product — specifically, the Grammys' finale awards — always seem so trivial. That is less a reflection of how dreary and increasingly disposable contemporary pop music has become as it is an admission of how narrow the scope of recognition has always been for the Grammys' governing body, The Recording Academy.

But the curious thing is that the Grammys as a whole always have acknowledged a large spectrum of contemporary and classical music. It's just that the less visible and more commercially obscure awards never seem fit for prime time.

So here is a look at four intriguing Grammy categories, their nominees and possible winners — categories you can pretty much bank on getting little or no mention during Sunday's telecast.

Best alternative album

Nominees: Neko Case, The National, Nine Inch Nails, Tame Impala, Vampire Weekend

This is an apples-and-oranges (and, in a few instances, bananas) category that uses the empty, outdated tag "alternative" as a sort of purgatory for en vogue acts with greater critical appeal than commercial visibility. Regardless, the regal Case's The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight; The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is the pick of this clearinghouse lot.

Best jazz instrumental album

Nominees: The New Gary Burton Quartet, Terri Lyne Carrington, Gerald Clayton, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride Trio

Jazz categories tend to fare nicely at the Grammys. Burton, Garrett and McBride are all worthy winners. But let's go with vibraphonist Burton, the elder of the bunch. His Guided Tour is the latest in a string of strong recordings that continue to highlight the interplay of younger-generation players.

Best American roots song

Nominees: Sarah Jarosz, Steve Earle, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, Allen Toussaint

Jarosz, Earle and Toussaint provide expert entries. But the clear choice is the O'Brien and Scott composition Keep Your Dirty Lights On, a plainspoken commentary on the modern-day practices of ol' King Coal. That's a topic Kentucky native Scott, who wrote You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive, is fully versed to speak on.

Best Americana album

Nominees: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint

It would be great to see the great New Orleans song stylist Toussaint walk away with this for Songbook, his splendid solo piano career retrospective. A great second choice would be Miller and Lauderdale's Buddy and Jim. But it's hard to imagine the Grammys passing over Old Yellow Moon, Harris' spirited reunion album with one-time Hot Band mate Rodney Crowell. Still, that's a winner we can all live with.

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