Grammys 2014: Top contenders and long shots in five races

Betting on the outcome of the Grammys is always a losing game. And the nominations for the 56th annual ceremony prove the voting members of the Recording Academy are as broad as ever with their musical tastes.

But history has shown that unpredictability could be the theme of the evening.

Will 17-year-old Lorde make Grammy history? Will Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Robin Thicke's staggering chart prowess be rewarded by voters? Will a rap album take the night's top prize for the first time in a decade?

Those are some of the pressing questions that will be answered when the Grammy Awards are unveiled Sunday at Staples Center in Los Angeles. (The show airs on CBS at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time.)
Here are five races worth watching closely:
 

Album of the year. The Recording Academy shocked everyone when Sara Bareilles was named a contender for the top prize, edging out critically acclaimed works from Justin Timberlake, Kanye West and Kacey Musgraves. The next shock? How the academy will actually vote. Taylor Swift's latest blockbuster, "Red," and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "The Heist" could easily sway voters. But Bareilles is a serious long shot. And then there are two wildcards: Kendrick Lamar's genre-defining debut, "good kid, m.A.A.d city," and Daft Punk's slinky comeback record, "Random Access Memories."

Song of the year. The narrative could be spun a number of ways here. At 17, a win for Lorde would make her the youngest songwriter to take the honor -- a perfect bookend to a year that saw the pop prodigy add a much-needed bite to pop radio. Pink has been overdue for Grammy glory since her gravity-defying performance in 2010's ceremony. A dark horse win for her superbly written ballad, "Just Give Me a Reason," could be the night's most satisfying surprise. And despite massive singles from Bruno Mars ("Locked Out of Heaven") and Katy Perry ("Roar"), it's impossible to count out Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, whose timely pleas for equality on the poignant "Same Love" will be especially hard to ignore.

Pop vocal album. Thicke's deliciously tawdry summer hit, "Blurred Lines," is facing sturdy competition for record of the year, and its corresponding album faces tough odds in the pop album category. The biggest competition is among two R&B-dipped pop crooners: Mars' popular sophomore set, "Unorthodox Jukebox," could sneak off with multiple wins, but after Timberlake was denied in the major categories, will voters offer consolation here for his "The 20/20 Experience?"

New artist. Critics are scratching their heads that teen pop phenom Lorde was denied an invite here over James Blake, but the British singer and electronic music producer seems an unlikely choice over acts who probably made weightier impressions on Grammy voters. Country breakout Musgraves could easily walk away victorious, and so could singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. But the narrative may ultimately end with Lamar or Macklemore & Ryan Lewis becoming the first hip-hop act to win the award since Lauryn Hill in 1999.

Rap album. It's unlikely that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, up for seven awards, will leave empty-handed. But some rap fans have been just as heavy-handed with criticism of the duo's more pop-oriented brand of indie rhymes. Voters rooted in tradition most likely will look elsewhere. But who? Drake's "Nothing Was the Same" elevated the rapper's confessional arena rap, while Jay Z chased ambitions of technical innovation with a so-so-received recent effort. The race is a tossup between Lamar and West. Both helped push the genre forward -- West experimented with conventions on the jarring "Yeezus," and Lamar delivered one of the genre's most striking debuts in recent memory -- but this race seems too close to call.