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Much oBliged

The Grammy Awards love it when a bad girl goes good.

Last year, the recording academy capped Mariah Carey's comeback from tipsy bubblehead to chart-topping powerhouse with eight nominations.

This year, the 49th version of "music's biggest night" could be a celebration of Mary J. Blige, whose album The Breakthrough details her triumph over drug addiction and toxic men. When nominations were announced Thursday for the Feb. 11 event, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul scored a leading eight, including R&B album of the year.

The Grammys got it right with the 35-year-old Blige - well, sort of.

Oddly enough, The Breakthrough will not compete in the night's biggest category. Instead, album of the year will be a battle among hip-hoppers Gnarls Barkley (St. Elsewhere), country gadflies the Dixie Chicks (Taking the Long Way), soft-rocker John Mayer (Continuum), funk-rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Stadium Arcadium) and just-plain-hunky Justin Timberlake (FutureSex/LoveSounds).

That's silly: You're telling me Timberlake's smarmy hip thrusts are better than Bob Dylan's Modern Times? Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics? Wolfmother's Wolfmother? (Okay, maybe I was the only person rooting for that one.)

With the exception of Gnarls Barkley, the awesomely off-kilter duo also nominated for record of the year (Crazy) and best alternative album, the major category has serious potholes.

The Grammy folks looove Mayer, whom they see as hunky and smart and, most important, safe. Unfortunately, Continuum is as exciting as a one-man pillow fight. The Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way was a wishy-washy bore of an album, but you better believe that leading liberals Natalie Maines & Co., nominated for five awards, are gonna have good seats at that show. Unlike Nashville, the country music bastion where the girls are no longer welcome, the all-encompassing Grammys are Bush-bashing territory, so expect plenty of love for the ladies who famously ripped the president.

In typical Grammy fashion, these year's noms were handed out mainly to the bestselling, most popular acts. One glance at the best new artist category will tell you that. The newbie battle has country princess Carrie Underwood, wuss-rocker James Blunt, R&B hunk Chris Brown, British singer-songwriter Imogen Heap and neo-soul lovely Corinne Bailey Rae. Former American Idol champ Underwood has outsold all her competition combined, but don't count out Blunt, whose ballad You're Beautiful is nominated for record and song of the year.

(In a perfect world, Rae, whose hit Put Your Records On was also nominated for record and song of the year, would win in a landslide. Her warm, lazy delivery is reminiscent of Billie Holiday and Norah Jones, and that seductive British accent is flat-out irresistible.)

The best R&B album category is interesting, if only because it shows off the Grammys as being an utterly hit-or-miss consortium of talent scouts. Blige is joined by Jamie Foxx (and his dreadful Unpredictable), India.Arie (Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship), Lionel Richie (Coming Home) and Prince (3121, also snubbed for album of the year).

Best rap album might have the strongest five entries in the competition: Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor, Pharrell's In My Mind, Ludacris' Release Therapy, T.I.'s King and the Roots' Game Theory. (I'm pulling for Lupe, who will definitely make my best-of list.)

Best country album, on the other hand, stinks like a setup: the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way will no doubt cream Little Big Town's The Road to Here, Josh Turner's Your Man, Alan Jackson's Like Red on a Rose and Willie Nelson's You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker.

In producer of the year, a category that's a lot cooler than you think, the Black Eyed Peas' underrated Will.i.am is going up against Howard Benson, T-Bone Burnett, Gnarls Barkley's Danger Mouse and Rick Rubin, who helmed, among other things, Johnny Cash's gorgeous farewell disc.

I'll give my predictions when we get closer to the big night. For now, commence moaning about who got jobbed and robbed. (Seriously, where's Wolfmother?!)

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

GRAMMY NOMINEES

These artists get the nod

Nominees in top categories for the 49th annual Grammy Awards:

Record of the Year: Be Without You, Mary J. Blige; You're Beautiful, James Blunt; Not Ready to Make Nice, Dixie Chicks; Crazy, Gnarls Barkley; Put Your Records On, Corinne Bailey Rae.

Album of the Year: Taking the Long Way, Dixie Chicks; St. Elsewhere, Gnarls Barkley; Continuum, John Mayer; Stadium Arcadium, Red Hot Chili Peppers; FutureSex/LoveSounds, Justin Timberlake.

Song of the Year: Be Without You, sung by Mary J. Blige; Jesus, Take the Wheel, Carrie Underwood; Not Ready to Make Nice, Dixie Chicks; Put Your Records On, Corinne Bailey Rae; You're Beautiful, James Blunt.

New Artist: James Blunt; Chris Brown; Imogen Heap; Corinne Bailey Rae; Carrie Underwood.

Rock Album: Try, John Mayer Trio; Highway Companion, Tom Petty; Broken Boy Soldiers, Raconteurs; Stadium Arcadium, Red Hot Chili Peppers; Living With War, Neil Young.

R&B Album: The Breakthrough, Mary J. Blige; Unpredictable, Jamie Foxx; Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship, India.Arie; 3121, Prince; Coming Home, Lionel Richie.

Rap Album: Food and Liquor, Lupe Fiasco; Release Therapy, Ludacris; In My Mind, Pharrell; Game Theory, the Roots; King, T.I.

Country Album: Taking the Long Way, Dixie Chicks; Like Red on a Rose, Alan Jackson; The Road to Here, Little Big Town; You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, Willie Nelson; Your Man, Josh Turner.

On the Web

* See the nominees in all 108 categories at www.grammy.com.

* Read Times pop music critic Sean Daly's review of Mary J. Blige's The Breakthrough at www.links.tampabay.com

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