By Edna Gundersen
Frank Ocean has critical heat. fun. has radio supremacy. The Black Keys have rock cred. Mumford & Sons have sales might. Jack White has underdog appeal.
All are vying for Grammy's esteemed album of the year trophy, but not one of them is the sure bet Adele was last year when she nabbed that award and five others in one of the least suspenseful ceremonies on record.
This time around, handicappers are leaning toward Mumford'sBabel,with a healthy minority predicting victory for the Keys'El Camino.
Early in Grammy season, focus hovered on Ocean and his adventurousChannel Orangealbum, which topped many critics' year-end lists.
"I initially thought Frank Ocean might win, but his record sales haven't matched his critical acclaim," says longtime Grammy watcher Paul Grein, author of Yahoo'sChart Watch blog. "Ocean's only hope of an upset stems from the fact that the four other albums are all in the broad pop/rock field and could conceivably split the votes. But I don't see that happening here."
Ocean, also up for best record, new artist and three other awards, is unlikely to nail a marquee category, though he's the favorite in urban contemporary album, Grein says.
With 475,000 copies sold to date,Orangeranks fourth among best-album contenders in sales. It's slightly ahead of White'sBlunderbuss(463,000 copies), but trails fun.'sSome Nights(976,000),El Camino(1.1 million) and the lineup's sales leader,Babel(1.65 million), Grein's pick as the likeliest winner.
"The group was influential in paving the way for the current folkie revival, which has boosted such varied acts as The Lumineers and Phillip Phillips," he says. "Also, this would be kind of a make-up because the group's debut album,Sigh No More, was passed over for a (2010) best album nomination."
Ranking the nominees' chances, he places the Keys second, followed by Ocean, fun. and White.
A White win would be a shocker, Grein says.
Billboardsenior correspondent Phil Gallo considersBlunderbussthe most deserving entry, but he foresees a podium stroll forEl Camino.
He's not writing off Ocean.
"It's hard to win as an outsider," Gallo says. "But you have a lot of voters who've been around a long time who support older art and an older sound, and Ocean has tapped into an older soul sound.
"This year is very hard to call," he adds. "You can say 'That record dominated the summer,' but the one it's up against is also huge. I believe four different people will win the top four awards (album, record, song and best new artist). What I like about the nominees across the four big categories is how much they fit the idea of music in 2012 and yet they aren't necessarily genre-specific.El Caminois a great rock record, but two years ago we'd have called it indie rock. What's fun.? It's pop but it's rock.
"The Grammys recognized music that became a part of pop culture's fabric. (Such populist fare) deserves to be rewarded along with an excellent album likeBlunderbuss."