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Grammy grab The News' pop music critic makes his picks in some of the popular categories for tonight's Grammy Awards

Take a deep breath, and let it sink in: 2008 was a very good year for music.

Considering that the general trend in ... well, pretty much everything, is a downward spiral toward who knows what, it should be accepted as genuinely heartening that so much wonderful music was written, recorded, produced, released and consumed in '08.

A quick glance at the list of Grammy nominations tells only part of the story, of course. Much that was worthwhile didn't make the cut, as is always the case. But if your "Album of the Year" slot includes rather sensational offerings from the likes of Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Radiohead and Coldplay, well, some things would seem to be going well.

As good as 2008 was for most idioms, 2009 is shaping up to be even better, with January releases from the likes of Animal Collective, Umphrey's McGee, Franz Ferdinand and Bruce Springsteen all suggesting that pop is capable of doing much more than striking poses in front of its own bedroom mirror.

The above-mentioned are widely diverse, their only common trait being the fact that they are ambitious and excellent records. That's a good sign, too.

The year in music wasn't all roses, naturally. The Recording Academy, which is responsible for assembling the nominations and doling out the trophies, always has its sacred cows, and this year, they appear to be the Jonas Brothers and Lil Wayne. Both seem to have secured for themselves critical immunity, despite the fact that neither is particularly outstanding.

The Jonas Brothers get a pass because they actually write their own songs and play their own instruments, and are capable of name-dropping Elvis Costello into a Rolling Stone interview when necessary. That does little to elevate them above the status of (admittedly catchy) cheesy pop-rock.

Lil Wayne is entertaining and creative, but let's face it -- Chuck D, or even Common, he's not. Still, both sold truckloads of concert tickets and records this year, and the Academy loves to pretend that what sells the most is analogous to what possesses the most artistic merit.

Whatever. Why attempt to beat back the tide with a stick of wood? Better to celebrate what's good about this year's roll call of nominees.

Following is a list of my picks. I've concentrated on the flashiest categories -- there are, after all, 106 separate niches. (A full list is available at www.grammy.com. Well worth checking out.)

>The Picks

Album of the Year

Nominees: Coldplay, "Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends"; Lil Wayne, "Tha Carter III"; Ne-Yo, "Year of the Gentleman"; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand"; Radiohead, "In Rainbows."

Who will win: The Academy is likely to grant Lil Wayne the trophy. That's too bad. Kinda like giving Van Halen the Nobel Peace Prize for "Hot For Teacher." It's not that it's bad but why serve fast food on your best china?

Who should win: Radiohead. "In Rainbows" is wild, weird, ambitious, haunting and bloody brilliant.

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Record of the Year

Nominees: Adele, "Chasing Pavements"; Coldplay, "Viva la Vida"; Leona Lewis, "Bleeding Love"; M.I.A., "Paper Planes"; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, "Please Read the Letter."

Who will win: The Academy just might go for some critical credibility by passing the trophy to M.I.A. That wouldn't be a bad thing. She's the most exciting thing to happen to hip-hop-based music in decades, precisely because her music employs hip-hop methodology in service of a bold new world-beat sound.

Who should win: Plant & Krauss, for their transcendent take on the Plant/Jimmy Page song "Please Read the Letter."

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Best New Artist

Nominees: Adele; Duffy; Jonas Brothers; Lady Antebellum; Jazmine Sullivan.

Who will win: Jonas Brothers. The Academy is, to quote a lyric from Matt Johnson's band the the, "jealous of youth." The boys have this one cornered.

Who should win: Duffy made a gorgeous, Spectoresque pop record, beautifully sung and imaginatively produced.

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Best Rock Album

Nominees: Coldplay, "Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends"; Kid Rock, "Rock 'n' Roll Jesus"; Kings of Leon, "Only by Night"; Metallica, "Death Magnetic"; the Raconteurs, "Consolers of the Lonely."

Who will win: Man, if they give it to Kid Rock, I'll eat my copies of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Second Helping" and Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy," sans ketchup. It might happen, but my guess is, Coldplay will get the nod here.

Who should win: I'd be happy, considering the list, with either Coldplay or Metallica. Both challenged themselves and their audience.

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Best Alternative Album

Nominees: Beck, "Modern Guilt"; Death Cab for Cutie, "Narrow Stairs"; Gnarls Barkley, "The Odd Couple"; My Morning Jacket, "Evil Urges"; Radiohead, "In Rainbows."

Who will win: Radiohead.

Who should win: This is an interesting category, because all of these nominees are deserving. It's a win-win situation.

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Best Rap Album

Nominees: Jay-Z, "American Gangster"; Lil Wayne, "Tha Carter III"; Lupe Fiasco, "The Cool"; Nas, "Nas"; T.I., "Paper Trail."

Who will win: Lil Wayne, because the Academy wants to suggest that it is in touch with what the kids are digging. (See Jonas Brothers, above.)

Who should win: Lupe Fiasco, for the sheer breadth and scope of the music, a maniacal pastiche of sound and style.

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PREVIEW

51st Annual Grammy Awards

8 tonight on CBS, Channel 4

Artists scheduled to perform include Radiohead, Kid Rock, U2, Rihanna, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Coldplay, Jonas Brothers, Paul McCartney & Dave Grohl, Justin Timberlake and Lil Wayne.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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