LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and bluegrass queen Alison Krauss are the favorites to take home the coveted Grammy for album of the year when the music industry's top honors are handed out on Sunday.
The odd couple scored five nominations for their collaboration, "Raising Sand," on which they reworked old folk ballads and R&B chestnuts under the watchful eye of producer T-Bone Burnett, the man behind the "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, the 2002 album of the year winner.
"Raising Sand" was an instant critical and commercial hit, and Plant scuttled a much-rumored Led Zeppelin reunion by opting to tour Europe and America with Krauss instead.
Grammy voters will surely warm to the 60-year-old's "amazing transformation" from the frontman with one of the most debauched and successful rock bands of all time to an earnest purveyor of white mountain blues, said Doug Brod, editor at Spin magazine.
"There's a quality to him that really appeals to people now," Brod said. "People see him as a survivor, as a guy who's not afraid to take chances."
Krauss is already the Grammys' darling. At just 37, she has won 21 Grammys, ranking at No. 7 on the list of all-time winners. If she and Plant sweep their categories, she would tie at No. 3 with French conductor Pierre Boulez. The only people with more are late classical conductor Sir Georg Solti with 31 Grammys and prolific producer/composer Quincy Jones with 27.
Plant and Krauss have plenty of tough competition for album of the year. And surprises abound: Last year, no one foresaw jazz veteran Herbie Hancock's win, and outspoken rapper Kanye West is still smarting over two defeats.
The other contenders this year are British rock bands Coldplay and Radiohead and hip-hop heroes Lil Wayne and Ne-Yo.
The main Grammy Awards ceremony begins at 5 p.m. PST, when about a dozen awards will be handed out during a 3-1/2-hour show laden with performances. The rest of the 110 categories will be announced during a separate event that kicks off four hours earlier.
Lil Wayne leads the field with eight nominations in six categories, and likely will dominate the rap field. His album "Tha Carter III" was the biggest selling U.S. release of 2008.
Coldplay followed with seven nominations, and could edge out Plant and Krauss for record of the year, a category the band won in 2004 with "Clocks." This time, the quartet is in the running with "Viva La Vida," which boasts the ubiquity and "grand, swelling sound" that appeal to Grammy voters, said Michael Endelman, senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine.
The tune also was nominated for song of the year -- a songwriter's award. A plagiarism lawsuit filed by virtuoso guitarist Joe Satriani, who claims "Viva La Vida" rips off one of his tunes, is unlikely to deter Grammy voters from showering the group with awards, observers say.
As usual, best new artist is tough to predict. For every winner like the Beatles or Carly Simon, there's a puzzling pick like Starland Vocal Band or Milli Vanilli.
This year's crop features female British singers Adele and Duffy, teen heartthrobs the Jonas Brothers, country group Lady Antebellum and R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan.
Blender magazine editor in chief Joe Levy put his money on Welsh-born Duffy, 24, who had a big hit with the tune "Mercy," a contender for the female pop vocal performance Grammy.
"She's a new performer who sounds like a '60s soul singer," Levy said. "She's the safe, sober version of (last year's big winner) Amy Winehouse."
Editing by Bill Trott