The Grammys: A Probable Snooze, So I Made My Own Music Awards

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

For most of this decade, the publishing and music industries have been in a race to see which can commit suicide first.

I would have bet on publishing -- is there really a single reader left for the annually-published novel about the family that gets together for a weekend at the ancestral manse, where secrets are revealed?

But then the lords of music started suing customers who downloaded copyrighted songs without paying -- that'll teach them for loving the product!

The score is tied for me these days, but the Grammys (Sunday, February 10, 8 PM ET on CBS) invariably represent a golden opportunity for the music industry to hurt itself anew. The CDs that win --- I know they're last year's models, but doesn't it feel as if they were released two or three years ago? The categories are invariably archaic (Arcade Fire and The White Stripes are "alternative" music?). And this year's nominees, as ever, seem overly familiar --- how excited will you be if Amy Winehouse beats the Foo Fighters, Vince Gill, Herbie Hancock and Kanye West for Album of the Year?

You can see the list of nominees at Or, in the interest of staving off brain-death, you can look through your collection and make your own list -- you can't do worse.

At, release dates have no meaning; my theory is that anything new to me is new. But as I look through the list of 2007 CDs that caught my ear in 2007, I see I have enough for a short list that's a bit more representative of audience taste -- that is, when the audience in question is an aging boomer male who can still remember brushing fuzz off the needle of his stereo. So why not be at least as annoying as the Grammys nominating committee and share my favorites?

CD of the Year: Neon Bible, by Arcade Fire. The songs are post-Springsteen anthems, the lyrics bite and sting, and the band is fun to watch. Oddly, I don't listen to it much -- it's too powerful, too committed, too full of (as they say at award shows) passion -- but when I do, through headphones, at the gym, I can lift the world.

CD (Singer/Songwriter): The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. What can't he do? After the breakthrough beauty of The Animal Years, he came out with a CD that's a total departure --- decades of powerful rock filtered through funhouse lyrics. The six-year-old in our house cracks up at "I love the way you look in your underwear." She's a wise one.

CD (Duet): Raising Sand, by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. She's not squeaky clean and blues grass, he's not fronting the world's greatest rock band. Under the supervision of T Bone Burnett, the duo delivers a collection of alternately haunting and bouncy songs that's as delightful as it is unexpected.

Single of the Year: "Magic" That's right. Not the pounding anti-radio single from the Springsteen CD, but the title song. It's quiet and spooky and seductive, and there's a change of attitude in the last verse that's like a black cloud you didn't see coming.

Latin CD: 90 Millas, by Gloria Estefan. I don't share her politics, but I admire her daring -- the grand dame of Latin club music made a world music CD, as authentic in its way as Buena Vista Social Club.

Soul (Veteran): We'll Never Turn Back, by Mavis Staples. The cover photo is of young black girls at a civil rights demonstration in the South -- an iconic image from the early 1960s. Why did they endure fire hoses and beatings and police dogs? Righteous faith. This kind of music. Half a century later, with Ry Cooder's support, Mavis Staples can still take you there.

Soul (New Artist): This Is Ryan Shaw. Like Wilson Pickett? Early Phil Spector? J. Geils? King Floyd? Ryan Shaw is a total throwback to Georgia-bred singers who grabbed the mike and....wailed. Short of the second coming of Otis Redding, he'll do. (The industry agrees. He's nominated.)

Best Political Song:
'Punish the Monkey (Let the Organic Grinder Go)"
, by Mark Knopfler. Come for the sentiment, stay for the subtlety. "I try to keep this stuff out of my CDs, but it creeps in," Knopfler told me. Nonsense. The music is so catchy you don't have to agree with the politics to crank it higher.

Americana (veteran): Dirt Farmer, by Levon Helm. The Grammy nomination lists this in the "traditional folk" category. I hadn't realized "folk" could include plaintive violin, energetic mandolin and high lonesome howls. With The Band, Levon was the one who sang "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." There are also songs here that he'll own forever.

Americana (new): Upfront and Down Low, by Teddy Thompson. The son of legendary Brits (Richard and Linda Thompson), he's released two made-in-America CDs that don't have a dull song on them. Now he's recorded a one-off: country classics, delivered in classic style. An unassuming, easily overlooked tour de force.

Movie Soundtrack (Original): Into the Wild, by Eddie Vedder. Critics don't much like Sean Penn, and when he wrote and directed a film about a kid who went off alone to Alaska -- and, alone, died there -- he got few props for making the kid look like a freedom fighter. Eddie Vedder's music is right in line with Penn's point-of-view. It's searing and haunting. And easy to have in heavy rotation for weeks.

Movie Soundtrack (compilation): Once. Homemade and heartfelt, a stinging rebuke to big budgets. And, in places, beautiful as Nick Drake.

World: Watina, by Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective. They sing in a nearly-extinct dialect, the music mixes Belize and Africa, and the joy only stops when you remember that Andy Palacio died early this year. If the Grammys do an "in memoriam" segment, will they include him? Don't bet on it.

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