Grammy Predictions: The Big Four Categories

Paul Grein
Yahoo Music

Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience has been the frontrunner to win the Grammy for Album of the Year virtually since the week it was released in March. With the nominations set to be announced on Friday, it's still the album to beat.

Lorde's "Royals" is the leading candidate for Record of the Year, with Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" close behind.

And we're headed for one of the most competitive Best New Artist races in years. Lorde and Imagine Dragons are likely to square off against Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kacey Musgraves, and Florida Georgia Line.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have a good chance of being nominated for all four of the top awards — Album, Record, and Song of the Year and Best New Artist. fun. was nominated for all four awards last year (and won for Song of the Year and Best New Artist). Lorde could also be nominated for all four awards, though her album, Pure Heroine, may fall short of an Album of the Year nomination. It was released just two months ago and hasn't had time to spawn a second big hit. Imagine Dragons can't be up for all four awards: Their album, Night Visions, was entered for Album of the Year in the previous eligibility year and thus isn't eligible this year.

The eligibility year closed on Sept. 30. The awards will be presented on Jan. 26 at Staples Center.

Let's take a closer look at the "Big Four" categories.

Album of the Year

Look for Justin Timberlake to make Grammy history this year. The *NSYNC alum is vying to become the first former group member to make the Album of the Year finals with his or her first three solo albums. (Donald Fagen and Sting were each nominated with their first two solo albums.) Timberlake was nominated for his solo debut album, Justified, and his sophomore album, FutureSex/LoveSounds. His entry this year is The 20/20 Experience — The Complete Experience, which combines the initial album and the sequel.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's debut, The Heist, is also a strong contender, on the strength of two #1 singles and the heartfelt and timely "Same Love."

Taylor Swift, who won in this category for Fearless and then wasn't even nominated for her follow-up, Speak Now, may well make it back to the finals with her fourth studio album, Red.

Bruno Mars's sophomore album, Unorthodox Jukebox, also has a good shot. Mars's debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, was nominated in this category two years ago.

Drake may slip into the fifth slot with his third full-length album, Nothing Was the Same. The panel of Grammy insiders that decides the final nominations in the top four categories usually strives to have balance among genres. And Drake is set to perform on the TV special on which the nominations will be announced (as are Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Robin Thicke, and Keith Urban). That's not a guarantee that he'll be nominated in a key category, but it suggests that he's on the Grammy radar.

The strongest alternates include Kacey Musgraves's Same Trailer Different Park, Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Lorde's Pure Heroine, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, Florida Georgia Line's Here’s to the Good Times, Blake Shelton's Based on a True Story, Jay Z's Magna Carta…Holy Grail,HAIM's Days Are Gone, and the Civil Wars' eponymous sophomore album.

Record of the Year

Lorde's "Royals" has the classy adult alternative sound of such past Grammy favorites as Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," which won two years ago, and Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," a finalist for the 1990 award. Lorde, 17, would become the youngest solo artist ever to be nominated for Record of the Year. That distinction is currently held by Monica, who was 18 when "The Boy is Mine," her smash collabo with Brandy, was nominated in 1998. (Two members of the brother trio Hanson were even younger when "MMMBop" was nominated in 1997.)

Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" has the broad pop-rock appeal of Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody," which was the 2009 winner.

The genial "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz is a hip-hop hit with universal appeal.

The exquisitely tailored “Just Give Me a Reason” by Pink featuring Nate Ruess embodies the Grammy sound so completely that it could have been designed in a Grammy lab. I think all three will make it.

Bruno Mars' "Locked Out Of Heaven" may slip into the fifth slot. Mars has been nominated in this category twice, with B.o.B's "Nothin' on You," on which he was featured, and his own smash, "Grenade." "Locked Out" echoes the pop/reggae sound of the Police. Sting gave the song his blessing when he joined Mars to perform it on the Grammys in January, so panelists may see it as homage rather than rip-off. (See "Blurred Lines" discussion below.)

"Wake Me Up" by Avicii with Aloe Blacc heads the list of likely runners-up. The smash is an unlikely (and winning) blend of dance and folk elements. The genre-blending aspect will give it added appeal to Grammy panelists.

Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise," which was voted Single of the Year at the CMAs, is also a strong contender. (I think it would have had a better shot if the remix featuring Nelly had been eligible. That genre-blending aspect would have given it a little extra import.)

Justin Timberlake's "Mirrors," the biggest hit from The 20/20 Experience, is very strong. But it will be forced to compete with Jay Z's "Holy Grail," which features Timberlake. They may split JT's votes.

"Get Lucky" by Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams is an irresistible throwback to the mirror-ball era, but the panelists may decide that it's a little retro for the top prize.

As the best-selling song of 2013, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" (featuring T.I. + Pharrell) is obviously a strong contender, but the legal wrangling over the song won't help. Marvin Gaye's family has sued for copyright infringement. There's another potential problem: The song's topless video may have alienated some feminist-leaning members of the panel. That said, I think it has a better chance in this category than it does in Song of the Year. I could see the Grammy panelists saying, "The song is derivative, but there's no denying that the record is catchy."

You can never rule out Adele, whose "Skyfall" won an Oscar. But the panelists may decide to give her a year off. She's a new mom and all.

Other possibilities include Katy Perry's "Roar," “Stay” by Rihanna featuring Mikky Ekko, Taylor Swift's, "I Knew You Were Trouble," Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball," Lady Gaga's "Applause," Darius Rucker's "Wagon Wheel," and Drake's "Started from the Bottom."

Song of the Year

Expect the nominations for this songwriter's award to largely overlap with Record of the Year. That's good news for "Royals" (Lorde), "Radioactive" (Imagine Dragons, Alex Da Kid, Josh Mosser) and "Just Give Me a Reason" (Pink, Nate Ruess & Jeff Bhasker).

But Macklemore & Ryan Lewis will be represented by "Same Love" instead of "Thrift Shop" (which wasn't entered for Song of the Year). "Same Love," which the duo co-wrote with Mary Lambert (who is also featured on the record) puts a personal spin on the hot-button issue of gay marriage equality.

"Mirrors" (Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, James Fauntleroy & Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon) may make it here, even if it comes up short for Record of the Year. Timberlake won't have to compete with himself in this category: "Holy Grail" wasn't eligible because it contains a sample.

Other strong candidates include "Cruise" (Florida Georgia Line & Joey Moi, Chase Rice & Jesse Rice), "Wake Me Up" (Avicii, Aloe Blacc, Mike Eizinger & Ash Pournouri), "Locked Out of Heaven" (Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence & Ari Levine), "Stay" (Mikky Ekko & Justin Parker), "Get Lucky" (Daft Punk, Nile Rodgers & Pharrell Williams), "Blurred Lines" (Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams), "Hold On, We're Going Home" (Drake, P. Jefferies, Majid Al Maskati, Noah Shebib & Jordan Ullman),"Wrecking Ball" (Lukasz Gottwald, Stephan Moccio, Maureen "Mozella" McDonald, Sacha Skarbek & Henry Walter), "I Drive Your Truck" (Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington & Jimmy Yeary) and "Skyfall" (Adele & Paul Epworth).

Best New Artist

I already told you who I think the final five will be. Top runners-up include Ed Sheeran (he was nominated for Song of the Year last year for "The A Team"), HAIM (their sales have yet to match their tremendous press), Emeli Sande (again, sales haven't matched the buzz), Kendrick Lamar (the Grammys need rap cred), Of Monsters and Men, and Phillip Phillips.

Phillips's "Home" is the best-selling song by any contestant in "American Idol" history. But after all this time, only one "Idol" contestant (Carrie Underwood) has been nominated in this category. (I've always had the sense that the Grammys don't want to be seen as simply rubber-stamping "Idol's" choices.) Since "Idol's" TV ratings are trending down, this would be an odd time for the Grammys to change their ways. Is Phillips strong enough to overcome the dynamics that are working against him?

Other possibilities include the Neighborhood, Ariana Grande, Tamar Braxton, Bastille, Earl Sweatshirt, A$AP Rocky, and the Weeknd.

Note: In coming days, we'll take a closer look at the likely nominees in the most popular fields: Pop, Dance/Electronica and Traditional Pop; Rock/Alternative; R&B; Rap; and Country.

Who and what do you think will be nominated? Weigh in below.