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grammy school announces THE CLASS OF '94

I'm humming the lyrics to Curtis Mayfield's Freddie's Dead for a couple of reasons. It's a great song, first of all, and Mayfield, paralyzed from the neck down, is sharing the Legend Award with Frank Sinatra at tonight's 36th Annual Grammy Awards.

But, as Mayfield sang more than 20 years ago, there are dreams, and there is reality. Although you can dream of a reason to be excited about the Grammys, reality is usually depressing.

After a year in which the fringe became the mainstream, there was reason to hope for a little less conservatism in the nominations. Instead, there was a retreat back into the safety of old stalwarts.

Sting (six nominations) and Billy Joel (four) produced solid albums, yet they are far from the cutting edge. Whitney Houston's (also four) version of I Will Always Love You is achingly familiar, to put it mildly.

In this context, honoring Mayfield seems almost too hip. Honoring Sinatra was inevitable, yet you'd have a hard time convincing me that Mayfield would have been receiving this award if his situation weren't so tragic (he was paralyzed when he was hit by a falling lighting tower in 1990).

Mayfield, through his career with the hugely influential soul group the Impressions and later on his own, proved to be one of pop's premier _ and politically conscious _ songwriters. Even people not familiar with the bulk of his work recognize People Get Ready, for example. Along with his inestimable effect on soul music, he has possessed one of pop's purest falsetto voices, and was an influential instrumentalist (Jimi Hendrix quoted his rhythm-guitar figures right down to the chord voicings).

Actually, the best way to honor Mayfield is to honor his stylistic and artistic heirs in R&B and rap, or even the alternative artists who've done for rock 'n' roll what Mayfield did for soul. Let's see them appear more often in places other than the specialty categories (which may not happen until something falls on them). But, again, there's reality and then there are dreams.

With that said, here are my predictions for some of the categories in this year's Grammys.

Record of the Year: Let's stop right here and give Whitney's I Will Always Love You two right off the bat. She'll take "Record of the Year," over A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme) Billy Joel's River of Dreams, Sting's If I Ever Lose My Faith In You and Neil Young's Harvest Moon. She'll also win "Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female" over Mariah Carey's Dreamlover, Shawn Colvin's I Don't Know Why, Tina Turner's I Don't Want To Fight and k.d. lang's Miss Chatelaine.

Album of the Year: Sting's Ten Summoner's Tales. It should edge out the Bodyguard sound track, as well as Billy Joel's River of Dreams. REM's Automatic for the People could be a surprise winner, while Donald Fagen's Kamakiriad is a longshot.

Song of the year: I'm predicting Billy Joel's River of Dreams over Sting's If I Ever Lose My Faith in You, and Aladdin's Theme (Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle). Neil Young's Harvest Moon would be a good choice, though I wouldn't bank on Meat Loaf's I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That).

Best New Artist: Here we have Toni Braxton, Belly, Blind Melon, Digable Planets and S.W.V. (Sisters With Voices). This race looks to be between Toni Braxton and Digable, one that Braxton should win.

Best pop vocal performance, Male: Sting (If I Ever Lose My Faith in You) should take this one, though in a perfect world the best vocal performance Grammy would go to the best singer, in this case Aaron Neville (Don't Take Away My Heaven). Billy Joel's River of Dreams will take it if Sting doesn't. Rod Stewart's Have I Told You Lately, and Boy George's The Crying Game, are good but probably won't win.

Best Rock Song: Lenny Lravitz's Are You Gonna Go My Way, Soul Asylum's Runaway Train or Aerosmith's Livin' on the Edge are front runners. I predict Kravitz, though Aerosmith's odds are increased with two nominations (they're also up for Cryin'). Meat Loaf's I'll Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That) casts an ominous shadow.

Best Alternative Album: Nirvana's In Utero should win, though a win for REM's Automatic for the People would sound just as good. Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream, and Belly's Star are good choices. Only the Grammys would consider U2 (Zooropa) alternative.

Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal: The Smashing Pumpkins' Cherub Rock should win over the Pearl Temple _ I mean, Stone Temple Pilots' Plush.

Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female: Toni Braxton is on the way to becoming R&B's next vocal diva, and I'm picking Another Sad Love Song over entries by three already established divas: Whitney Houston (I'm Every Woman) Aretha Franklin (Someday We'll All Be Free) and Patti LaBelle (All Right Now). Janet Jackson's That's The Way Love Goes could sneak in.

Best R&B Vocal performance, Male: Luther Vandross, How Deep is Your Love. I have a soft spot for almost everything here, though: Babyface's For the Cool In You, Ray Charles' A Song For You, Tevin Campbell's Can We Talk and Teddy Pendergrass' smoky Voodoo.

Best Traditional Pop Performance: Barbra Streisand's Back To Broadway, over Tony Bennett's Steppin' Out, Rosemary Clooney's Do You Miss New York?, Michael Crawford's A Touch of Music in the Night, and Diane Schuur's Love Songs.

Best Country Vocal, Male: This is a tough field, though there may be a sentiment to go back to Garth Brooks (Ain't Going Down till the Sun Comes Up) who cut back on touring for part of last year. Otherwise, it's a toss-up, with Alan Jackson's Chattahoochee, Dwight Yoakam's Ain't That Lonely Yet, George Jones' I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair and Aaron Neville's The Grand Tour.

Best Country Vocal, Female: Mary-Chapin Carpenter, a past Grammy winner, is still on a roll and should take it for Passionate Kisses edging out Emmylou Harris (High Powered Love), Tanya Tucker (Soon), Wynonna (Only Love) and Trisha Yearwood (Walkaway Joe).

Best Rap Solo Performance: Let Me Ride, Dr. Dre. Even given the gangsta rap backlash, Dre should roll over the competition in this category: L.L. Cool J's Stand By Your Man, MC Lyte's Ruffneck, Paperboy's Ditty and Sir Mix-A-Lot's lukewarm Just Da Pimpin' In Me.

Best Rap Performance by a duo or group: The aforementioned gangsta backlash could keep Dr. Dre from a double win. If Dre's Nuthin But a "G" Thang gets snubbed, Digable Planets' Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat), should step in. Naughty by Nature's Hip Hop Hooray was the most played-out rap song of '93 until Whoot (There It Is!), while Cypress Hill's Insane in the Brain was plain irritating. Arrested Development's Revolution is a left-field choice.