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LIANE HANSEN, host:

You can expect a whole lot of kissing going on tonight in Los Angeles during the 49th annual Grammy Awards ceremony. Mary J. Blige, Justin Timberlake and the Dixie Chicks are among the big-name nominees, but there are over 100 categories. Our music director Ned Wharton explored this year's list and found some gems beyond the blockbusters.

NED WHARTON: The list of Grammy nominees runs about a half-inch thick, and buried about 30 pages in are competitors for best Banda album. That's the category for Mexican brass bands, and this cut is just blaring to be heard.

(Soundbite of music)

WHARTON: That's from the CD "Mas Fuerte Que Nunca"(ph) by Banda El Recodo, a family-run group that dates back to 1938. These horn players can really blast, and the arrangements are lively and fun.

I'm a big fan of this next nominee for best solo rock vocal performance, but his voice is so idiosyncratic his name doesn't necessarily leap to mind when you think great vocalist. It's Neil Young.

(Soundbite of Song, "Lookin' for a Leader")

Mr. NEIL YOUNG (Singer): (Singing) Maybe it's Obama, but he thinks that he's too young. Maybe it's Colin Powell, to right what he's done wrong. America has a leader, but he's not in the house, he's walking here among us, and we've got to seek him out.

WHARTON: It's certainly a sign of the times that this music is getting attention this year. From the CD "Living with War," this song, "Lookin' for a Leader," is also nominated for the category Best Rock Song.

Next, here's a guy who can truly sing. If you've never really followed the country music scene, you can be forgiven for not knowing about this superstar, but do yourself a favor and just listen to this guy's amazing set of pipes.

(Soundbite of song, "Would You Go With Me")

Mr. JOSH TURNER (Singer): (Singing) Would you hold on to me tighter, as the summer sun got higher? If we roll from town to town and never shut it down, would you go with me?

WHARTON: Josh Turner grew up in South Carolina and first hit the stage at age 14, when his mother signed him up to sing for a church fundraiser. Today, his song "Would You Go with Me" is a nominee for Best Male Country Performance. Turner's CD, "Your Man," is also nominated for Best Country Album.

(Soundbite of song, "Ridin'")

CHAMILLIONAIRE (Rapper): (Rapping) (Unintelligible).

Chamillionaire's "Ridin'" is up for Best Rap Song; and Weird Al's Yankovic's hilarious send up, "White and Nerdy," is on a CD nominated for Best Comedy Album.

(Soundbite of song, "White and Nerdy")

Mr. WEIRD AL YANKOVIC (Singer): (Rapping): (Unintelligible)

WHARTON: That's from Weird Al Yankovic's CD "Straight Outta Lynwood." Check out the video on YouTube. It's a riot.

And now, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

(Soundbite of music)

WHARTON: This is music by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt, an organist and choral conductor who once studied with Aaron Copland. Choral music has a rich tradition and passionate followers, but we don't hear about it much, so it's nice to see a category for its recognition by the academy. The CD "Immortal Nystedt" is nominated for best choral performance and features Ensemble 96, led by Oystein Fevang. In this piece, Nystedt takes a Bach chorale as his point of departure, adds modern harmonies, and sends the listener to another world.

(Soundbite of music)

WHARTON: Imagine the awesome experience of being enveloped by these voices. You can understand why "Immortal Nystedt" is also a nominee for Best Surround-Sound Album.

In the category for Classical Producer of the Year, there's a name on the list with a long-time association with jazz: ECM Records founder Manfred Eicher. A producer is the magician in the studio with the golden ears. He coaxes the best performances out of the artists and, to mix a metaphor, has a vision for the sound. For ECM, that sound is crystalline and heavenly.

(Soundbite of song, "Nuove Musiche")

WHARTON: That's Rolf Lislevand playing the ancient lute called a theorbo on "Nuove Musiche," one of producer Manfred Eicher's CDs from the past year.

Finally, a nominee with a bittersweet story. One of the contenders for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo turned out the of the last live recordings for sax great Michael Brecker.

(Soundbite of music)

WHARTON: Randy and Michael Brecker's "Some Skunk Funk" is also nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. A couple of years after this show with his brother Randy on trumpet and Cologne's famous WDR Big Band, he was diagnosed with blood marrow cancer. He died last month at the age of 57.

(Soundbite of music)

WHARTON: Michael Brecker continued to play after this 2003 performance. His last recording with an all-star cast, including guitarist Pat Methany, pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, and drummer Jack Dejeanette(ph), is currently being mixed. It will be released in June on Heads Up Records.

HANSEN: Ned Wharton's director's cuts, with full audio tracks, can be found on our Web site, npr.org.

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