Our picks among this year's nominees, including Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, and Nirvana

There’s no sport music-industry insiders have traditionally enjoyed quite so much as Grammy bashing. This year, though, the usually gleeful derision has been strangely muted. Chalk it up to a brasher set of nominees that promises to make the annual awards show almost, well, relevant. Rookie Alanis Morissette is up for six statuettes, and Joan Osborne for five, reflecting a year in which women and newcomers were the big news. Gangsta rappers too are finally getting their props. And chart lightweight PJ Harvey got as many nominations (two) as the 12-million-selling Hootie & the Blowfish.

How’d the Grammys get cooler? Thanks, in part, to the threat of a cold shoulder from the major labels. Last year’s ballot — notable for multiple nominees Tony Bennett and the 3 Tenors — was deemed so embarrassing that industry bigwigs David Geffen and Tommy Mottola publicly joined the usual critical outcry. Privately, labels threatened to withdraw financial support for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. NARAS president Mike Greene heard the message loud and clear, he says, and developed a plan to ”do something about getting rid of — or at least mitigating — two things: popularity and sentimentality” in the voting process. The immediate solution was to add a middle step to the nominating process, by appointing a select 25-person committee to each major category. These committees would then whittle 20 top nominees down to the 5 that the entire membership would vote on. The result: a ballot weighted more toward — what a concept! — artistic excellence.

Osborne, whose star was just beginning to rise when the nominations were announced, has benefited most from the newly hepper Grammys. If she or Morissette knocks aside Mariah Carey and sweeps the top categories Feb. 28, it’ll mark the first time a new artist has pulled off such a feat since that Grammy credibility booster of 15 years ago…Christopher Cross.


”One Sweet Day,” Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men; ”Gangsta’s Paradise,” Coolio; ”One of Us,” Joan Osborne; ”Kiss From a Rose,” Seal; ”Waterfalls,” TLC
WILL WIN: Mariah, the Boyz, and a No. 1 hit about a dead friend — how can that lose?
SHOULD WIN: TLC’s slinky ode to ghetto life flowed as beautifully as a waterfall.


Daydream, Mariah Carey; HIStory, Past, Present & Future — Book 1, Michael Jackson; Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette; Relish, Joan Osborne; Vitalogy, Pearl Jam
WILL WIN: Hipper factions voting for Morissette or Osborne could cancel each other out, leaving chart queen Carey the belle of the ball. A tough call.
SHOULD WIN: We’d relish a victory by dark horse — and thoroughbred — Osborne.


”I Can Love You Like That,” Maribeth Derry, Steve Diamond, Jennifer Kimball; ”Kiss From a Rose,” Seal; ”One of Us,” Eric Bazilian; ”You Are Not Alone,” R. Kelly; ”You Oughta Know,” Glen Ballard and Alanis Morissette
WILL WIN: Seal lets the voters have it both ways: a ballad, but by an ”edgy” act.
SHOULD WIN: The Osborne-sung ”One of Us” is spiritual and sacrilegious — a songwriting feat.


Brandy; Hootie & the Blowfish; Alanis Morissette; Joan Osborne; Shania Twain
WILL WIN: Don’t count out Hootie or Joan. But Alanis grabbed the zeitgeist by dishing out female empowerment, and voters will likely empower her back.
SHOULD WIN: Osborne is by far the most multifaceted freshman.


”I Can Love You Like That,” All-4-One; ”Love Will Keep Us Alive,” the Eagles; ”Let Her Cry,” Hootie & the Blowfish; ”I’ll Be There for You (Theme From Friends),” the Rembrandts; ”Waterfalls,” TLC WILL WIN: Hootie, if only because the group is under-represented (their album was released before the eligibility period). SHOULD WIN: TLC’s hazysexycool performance.


Daydream, Mariah Carey; Hell Freezes Over, the Eagles; Medusa, Annie Lennox; Bedtime Stories, Madonna; Turbulent Indigo, Joni Mitchell
WILL WIN: Sony’s voting bloc should have Mariah Carey-ing this one home.
SHOULD WIN: No one bought Indigo, but it was Mitchell’s best album in a decade.


”Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?,” Bryan Adams; ”You Are Not Alone,” Michael Jackson; ”Believe,” Elton John; ”Kiss From a Rose,” Seal; ”When We Dance,” Sting
WILL WIN: These mawkish guy ballads make Mariah sound like a riot grrrl, but Seal’s ”Kiss” will ride the Grammy bus.
SHOULD WIN: We too clap for Seal.


”Lay Down Your Pain,” Toni Childs; ”Down by the Water,” PJ Harvey; ”You Oughta Know,” Alanis Morissette; ”St. Teresa,” Joan Osborne; ”Don’t Have Time,” Liz Phair
WILL WIN: You oughta know that Morissette is the odds-on fave.
SHOULD WIN: Harvey’s insinuating groan is the real mess he left when he went away.


”Grind,” Alice in Chains; ”Spin the Black Circle,” Pearl Jam; ”Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” Primus; ”Blood Sugar Sex Magik” (live), Red Hot Chili Peppers; ”The Seventh Seal,” Van Halen
WILL WIN: Pearl Jam’s ode to vinyl spins out well ahead of a weak pack.
SHOULD WIN: Grab the gold trophy, Eddie Vedder & Co.


Forever Blue, Chris Isaak; Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette; Vitalogy, Pearl Jam; Wildflowers, Tom Petty; Mirror Ball, Neil Young
WILL WIN: Alanis Morissette, unless the knee-jerk response that rock really is a man’s man’s man’s world kicks in.
SHOULD WIN: Young’s Ball-sy collaboration with Pearl Jam sounded both youthful and curmudgeonly — the best of all possible rock worlds.


Post, Bjork; Foo Fighters, Foo Fighters; To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey; MTV Unplugged in New York, Nirvana; The Presidents of the United States of America, the Presidents of the United States of America
WILL WIN: Sniffle as Krist and Dave pick up Kurt’s final posthumous plaudit.
SHOULD WIN: Nirvana made the quintessential Unplugged; the format ran out of juice immediately afterward.


”Run-Around,” Blues Traveler; ”Hotel California,” the Eagles; ”What Would You Say,” Dave Matthews Band; ”Kashmir,” Jimmy Page and Robert Plant; ”Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” U2
WILL WIN: In this intriguing Xers-versusgeezers face-off, Matthews’ tasteful fusion folk should prevail.
SHOULD WIN: Blues Traveler locked into a groove and made us like harmonica solos again.