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Mark Brickley: Sunday’s Grammy Show to Cast Star-Studded Lineup

Brush up on the nominees for Best New Artist and other highlights of the 52nd annual awards night

The Grammys Awards are always music’s biggest night, with the coveted award a golden gramophone trophy. On Sunday, the 52nd annual Grammys will broadcast at 8 p.m. on CBS, live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Without regard to album sales or chart performance, the Grammys recognize artistic excellence and technical proficiency. The Grammys receive hundreds of entries for its top awards, which are culled to five nominees. More than 12,000 Recording Academy peers were eligible to cast votes this year in 109 categories. While record companies can suggest entries, they can’t vote. No one knows who the winners will be until the sealed envelopes are torn open. That uncertainty tightens the anticipation.

In 2008, the audience was stunned when jazz pianist/composer Herbie Hancock won the Grammy for Best Album. A jazz artist hadn’t received the award in 43 years. The reaction was as strong in 1989 when Jethro Tull received more votes than Metallica for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal.

The youngest performer to win a Grammy was 14-year-old singer LeAnn Rimes. In 1997, she amazed Grammy voters with a stirring voice culled from country legends. Her No. 1 country hit “Blue” was a song written for Patsy Cline, but was never recorded. It remains a mystery why Elvis Presley never won a top Grammy, although he was honored for his gospel recordings.

Irish vocalist Sinèad O’Connor was the only artist to refuse a Grammy, rejecting the 1991 award for Best Alternative Music Performance. Her winning album was ironically titled I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

In 2009, 19 million viewers watched the Grammys to see the world’s greatest entertainers perform live. This year’s show will feature Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Maxwell, Lady Antebellum, Pink, the Dave Matthews Band, Lady Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas, Green Day and the Zac Brown Band.

This stargazing lineup sounds more like a future Hall of Fame concert. With a nod to American Idol’s interactive format, the Grammys’ producers invited fans to upload 20-second videos singing Black Eyed Peas song “I Got a Feeling.” Selected clips will be included in the Peas’ live performance. Bon Jovi fans will vote online to help decide which song the band will play on Grammy night.

Let’s hope Grammy voters will support innovative musical artists and leave the Oscars to recognize dramatic talent, costumes and set design. How about Swift and Kanye West smoking a peace pipe and performing together? Now that would make news.

Grammy producers like to stage collaborative duets that usually don’t make the highlight reels. Live tributes to fallen stars work better. The obvious tribute will be a Michael Jackson medley. How about also featuring the music of Peter and Gordon? Showcasing their 1960s melodic pop would bring back the era and honor Gordon Waller, no longer with us. Or perhaps a medley of songs from James Gurley, the brilliant lead guitarist of Big Brother & the Holding Company, or Blue Cheer’s Dickie Peterson. Both artists died last year.

It’s unlikely we will see a crazed fan jump the stage as one did in 1989 during a performance by Bob Dylan. Security is now as tight as a drum. Nor will an egotistical R&B star grab a mike during an acceptance speech. These days, spontaneous decision-making can damage a career. Shock value is definitely out. Just ask Idol runner-up Adam Lambert. Instead of performing on New Year’s Eve in Times Square on live TV, he sang for a low-budget party on Universal Studios’ backlot. That was one expensive kiss.

A sparkling Grammy performance can provide a career boost, stimulate record sales and create touring buzz. After Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand album won five top Grammys last year, sales increased 715 percent to 77,000 albums. With the continuing erosion of CD sales, it’s unlikely anyone will top singer Nora Jones, whose 2003 sweep of the Grammys resulted in 621,000 albums sold, or the 2002 Album of the Year, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which resulted in 211,000 followup albums flying off the racks. The good news for musicians is that record sales in 2009 hit an all-time high with the surge in downloaded music.

The prime focus of Sunday’s show will be trained on Beyonce, Swift and Lady Gaga vying for the night’s top awards. Each vocalist is nominated for multiple Grammys. Just outside the spotlight may be the most intriguing competition — the award for Best New Artist. Since the millennium, this recognition has garnered success for artists Alicia Keys, Jones, John Legend, Carrie Underwood and Maroon 5. Other past new-artist winners have included Sheryl Crow, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and The Beatles.

There have been several rare exceptions. Both the Starland Vocal Band (“Afternoon Delight”) in 1977 and Christopher Cross (“Sailing”) in 1981 won Best Artist Awards. Neither would ever again receive a Grammy nomination.

The Best New Artist trophy was revoked only once. That happened in 1990, after it was discovered that pop artists Milli Vanilli didn’t actually sing on their debut album. Lady Gaga was ineligible for this year’s New Artist award consideration because she was nominated in 2008 for another Grammy category.

The 2009 Best New Artist field began with 360 entries. The five finalists include a quirky British arts duo, a group of alternative L.A. rockers, a new R&B diva, a Brooklyn-based psychedelic pop act and a country band from the deep South.

Here’s a closer look at each nominee.

The Ting Tings

The Ting Tings are contemporary music’s newest pop expressionists. With Jules De Martino painting the duo’s bold, layered sound portraits, vocalist Katie White sings like an artist’s muse. She has a big, excitable voice and star-making stage presence. De Martino previously wrote for pop singer George Michael, and bears his likeness in aviator shades and a leather bomber jacket. As the Tings’ primary musician, De Martino plays drums, piano and various guitars.

This experimental music duo use a pair of Boss RC-50 effects loop boxes to create a synthesis between percussion and their electronic mix. “It’s not like a backing track,” White said. “The effects give you an intuitive visceral ability to improvise.” The two Tings make a big, live sound with the electric interface.

Their debut album, We Started Nothing, was self-produced at their art commune home in Manchester, England. After the breakup of their former band, Dear Eskimo, the Tings wanted to disappear and write songs to play for their friends.

“We didn’t expect this to happen,” White said. “I think that’s why it worked.” She admits she couldn’t play an instrument when they began to compose songs. Her attempt to play a D guitar cord with the wrong fingering found its way into the album’s first single. While the overall caliber of the album is a bit uneven, the musical ideas are fresh. The songs’ simple rhythms move. The record was designed to be danced to, and it works.

The band’s name comes from a Chinese boutique where White once worked. It’s a mandarin term that obliquely refers to the sound of innovation or an open mind. “It’s like the ting you hear when you get an idea,” White said.

“Great DJ” and “Be the One” are the Tings’ first two breakout singles. The band Bird and the Bee (“My ‘F’ing Boyfriend”) and the Tings have similar biting, lyrical styling. Chanteuse White reportedly designs her own stage clothes. The Ting Tings rank as one of pop’s hippest and creative new acts. They deserve an earnest shot at this year’s Best New Artist award.

Silversun Pickups

Alternative rock is partly defined by musicians who edge beyond rock-‘n’-roll’s commercial boundaries. Indie’s 21st-century roots are found in Seattle’s garage grunge, goth’s dark spectacle and British and American punk. Silversun Pickups guitarist and vocalist Brian Aubert crafts ethereal songs that build and fall, driven by fuzzy alien compressed riffs. The Pickups’ reincarnated four piece was incubated in L.A.’s Silver Lake music scene. The band found its stride playing regional venues, including multiple-night gigs at Silver Lake’s Spaceland Club.

Their first album, Carnavas, was released in 2006 and included noted songs “Lazy Eye” and “Well Thought Out Twinkles.” The Pickups’ 2009 CD, Swoon, included their breakout single “Panic Switch.” The album’s tracks average five minutes but are well-crafted. Aubert’s sonic melodies are supported by Nikki Monninger’s pulsing bass, drummer Christopher Guanlao’s crashing innovations and Joe Lester’s keyboards and electronics. The Pickups’ album success led to extensive tours, including European dates supporting Snow Patrol, Wolfmother and Foo Fighters.

The Silversun Pickups’ Best New Artist nomination has become controversial. The Grammys’ Web site states that the policy for a New Artist nomination must be one whose album released during the eligibility year first establishes the public identity of that performer. Some critics believe that the Silversun Pickups’ profile was clearly established with their 2006 album Carnavas and major international concert performances. This is not the first time a band/artist has been nominated for this Grammy category with previous album success.

Last year, French band Phoenix was deemed ineligible for New Artist consideration because it had released four former albums. In 2001, country singer Shelby Lynne received the New Artist award. Lynne had previously released 13 albums, beginning in 1989. Nominating the Silversun Pickups is a monster step forward in recognizing independent music’s mainstream status. A Grammy for the Pickups is unlikely given that Swoon isn’t nominated for this year’s Best Alternative Album.

Keri Hilson

Veteran Atlanta songwriter Keri Hilson’s first album, In A Perfect World, invades territory claimed by accomplished R&B stars Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Beyonce, among many others. Despite her industry connections, it’s difficult to picture Hilson immediately penetrating this elite field. Hilson is also nominated this year for Best Rap Collaboration.

Her new record’s strongest song, “I Return the Favor,” is a duet with Timbaland. The unpredictable track jives in different directions. Its unusual hook and mix make you want to move. Hilson’s and Timbaland’s voices blend together effortlessly and have audible chemistry. Hilson was featured on his 2007 hit “The Way I Are.” She would be smart to work live with him in support of her new record.

“Energy,” one of the album’s 14 featured tracks has a clever, so true lyrical hook: “This love is taking all my energy, how do we reverse the chemistry?” Hilson also sings duets with jail-bound Lil Wayne (weapons conviction), Kanye West and Ne-Yo. Given that Hilson has thrived by writing songs for Usher, Britney Spears and Ludacris one might assume she would save strong material for her own album. The record’s credits do not list Hilson as the lead writer on any of its tracks. This may explain why the lyrics sometimes attempt matching words that strain to rhyme.

The album reportedly took three years to produce. Many of In A Perfect World’s songs have similar hooks, familiar beats and dated lyrical formulas. “Get Your Money Up” makes no apologies for club-hopping girls out for cash. Hilson sings coolly about women preying on men who will give it up: “Boy get your money up, I need something bigger than a Hummer truck … Now slide to your bank account, all the cash throw it out.” Hilson may not have the vocal strength of Mary J or bounce of Beyonce, but the push of Interscope Records has given the album strong radio play.

MGMT

MGMT wants to help you get your groove on. Their synthesized funk-based songs are mainstream pop with a hallucinogenic 1960s undercurrent. The band’s uncomplicated melodies are woven together with alternative guitar riffs and keyboard overdubs. MGMT was hatched at Wesleyan College, where MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser (vocals/synthesizer) and Andrew VanWyngarden (vocals/guitars) attended.

Correct pronunciation of the band’s name is to spell out the individual letters. MGMT’s name choice is a spoof on corporate culture, which is consistent with their satirical songwriting style. Their first album, Oracular Spectacular, was released in 2008. The album’s big single, “Kids,” is nominated for the Grammys’ Best Performance by a Duo/Group with vocals.

The band doesn’t try to fool you with theatrical tricks. Occasionally hypnotic and mellow, and other times head shaking, MGMT builds songs like a Fillmore Dead jam that evolves and resolves. The band’s lyric on song “Electric Feel” may be their mantra: “We had the vision so let’s have some fun … ‘cause we’re fated to pretend,” singer Goldwasser lampoons.

MGMT’s recording success has been rewarded with heavy touring exposure, including festival stops at SXSW, Bonnaroo, Coachella, Leeds, Irish Oxegen and Loopalooza. They headlined the 2009 San Francisco Treasure Island Festival and opened for Paul McCartney at Boston’s Fenway Park. Their album collaborations with Kid Cudi and Beck’s Record Covers Project (songs of Leonard Cohen) have enhanced their discography.

While there are several tracks on their first record that were underdeveloped, MGMT may be the most accomplished band of musicians of this year’s New Artist nominees. MGMT is just beginning to hit their songwriting groove. The band’s new album should be released this month.

Zac Brown Band

Members of the Zac Brown Band are road warriors. They play hundreds of shows each year, and have a good time doing it. Reportedly, Brown cooks for his meet-and-greets before each show, smothering his secret Love Sauce on the barbecued beef enjoyed by the fans. The dessert course is getting to hear the band play live. Brown’s hit single, “Chicken Fried,” and debut album, The Foundation, remain at the top of the country charts. The band is also nominated for the Grammys’ Best Country Album and Best Performance by a Duo/Group.

The current touring ensemble was formed in Atlanta four years ago. Songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook recently joined the group. Brown has a unhurried, natural vocal style. You can hear every word he sings. Some have likened his voice to that of Van Morrison. Brown’s band has a unique bar feel, but the songs do sound a lot alike. Adding a female voice would make the arrangements more interesting and varied. Because Brown doesn’t have the pipes of Toby Keith or vocal power of Trace Adkins, sharing leads would sustain audience interest.

The band’s strongest original material is its up-tempo songs. With Brown’s amazing flat-picking skills, the band really cooks. Their recent live appearance at the Country Music Awards was an amazing show of instrumental prowess. Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” has never been played with more passion and abandon. While the performance ran a minute or two long and was messy, live television has never seen anything like it. No one can play the song’s fiddle and guitar solos faster than they did.

If music fans continue to support country music as a crossover genre, the Zac Brown Band just may become a main stage act, following the footsteps of Lady Antebellum. With country ingénue Swift running interference, the Zac Brown Band could be favorites to win this year’s Best New Artist race.

Noozhawk contributor Mark Brickley is a freelance writer in Carpinteria.

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