The Grammy Awards like to call themselves “music’s biggest night,” and while I don’t often prescribe to most of the winners they choose, this year’s nominee slate is one of the best and most unpredictable in recent memory. Thank a meteoric rise in mainstream attention for R&B and folk music, genres that have largely dwelt in the underground for the past decade, or a trade-off from cookie-cutter pop to indie innovation in other popular radio formats.
Grammy has been moving towards a more credible stance on pop music for awhile now, actually, and it’s been refreshing to see that shift. Two years ago, indie-rock superstars Arcade Fire walked away with a surprise win in the Album of the Year category (for their third album, The Suburbs), and last year’s show saw the full-on domination Adele and her 21st century pop masterpiece, 21. Both albums are terrific, yes, but more than that, they are both manifestations of what the full-length album format can still do with the right set of songs and creative personnel.
The last decade has seen a lot of talk about the album being “dead” as music’s primary distribution format, and while I do believe that digital models have changed the game and given pop singles new possibilities of proliferation, I also believe that nothing can ever replicate the album experience. Where a single song can generally only display an artist in one state, one tempo, one melodic groove, one pervasive theme, one distinct mood, etc., an album can deliver a wide range of all of the above. A well executed album can build an emotional tenor between groups of songs or tell a widescreen story, and both 21 and The Suburbs are faultless examples of those capabilities.
So will this year’s winners continue to build Grammy legacy back to something more than superfluity? Take a look below to learn who I expect to dominate the evening and who I expect will go home empty-handed.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Black Keys – El Camino
fun. – Some Nights
Mumford & Sons – Babel
Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Jack White – Blunderbuss
Will and Should Win: fun. – Some Nights
Could Win: Mumford & Sons – Babel
There’s a lot of great stuff in this category this year, so it’s hard to pick out one deserving gem from the bunch, let alone the one that will rise above the other four in the eyes of Grammy voters. Mumford & Sons made a huge splash last fall, notching massive sales numbers in the first week of Babel’s release and landing an inordinate number of songs on the iTunes chart. And Frank Ocean is easily the year’s most hyped industry figure, fresh off dozens of Album of the Year prizes from a wide cross-section of taste-making publications.
With all of that said though, no artist invaded the pop cultural consciousness last year quite like fun. If Some Nights manages a victory here, it will be more for the pair of ubiquitous pop singles it spawned (“We Are Young” and “Some Nights”) than for more ambitious album tracks (the auto-tune vortex that is “Stars,” for example) but even if that’s the case, it’s a hard one to argue with. Similar mainstream double-plays helped Adele and Taylor Swift to triumph in this category, and given fun.’s meteoric rise from indie-pop favorites to mainstream superstars, this chance to welcome them to the club will probably prove too sweet to resist.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
The Black Keys – “Lonely Boy”
Kelly Clarkson – “Stronger”
fun. – “We Are Young”
Gotye – “Somebody That I Used To Know”
Frank Ocean – “Thinkin’ Bout You”
Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
Will Win: Gotye – “Somebody That I Used To Know”
Could Win: Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
Should Win: Frank Ocean – “Think’ Bout You”
If fun. does indeed manage to win Album of the Year, they still probably won’t be looking at an Adele-like sweep, which means they lose this one. In all fairness, “We Are Young” is the lesser single from Some Nights, and in a year that saw three or four inescapable pop hits, Grammy voters will probably want to use the big categories to spread the wealth between them. That mindset should clear the way for Gotye, whose “Somebody That I Used To Know” will be one of those songs that encapsulates 2012 for most people ten years down the road. Swift is a potential spoiler for the slick feast of pop production that is “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” but I expect she’ll have better luck next year.
SONG OF THE YEAR
Ed Sheeren – “The A Team”
Miguel – “Adorn”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
Kelly Clarkson – “Stronger”
fun. – “We Are Young”
Will Win – Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
Could Win – fun. – “We Are Young”
Should Win – Miguel – “Adorn”
See above, then note that “Call Me Maybe” was the other piece of the early-year pop music trinity of inescapable hits (along with fun. and Gotye). On one hand, Jepsen’s absence from virtually any other category could show weakness, but don’t expect her year-defining single to go home empty-handed. Meanwhile, the euphoric vocal display of Miguel’s “Adorn” is just lucky to be nominated, but look for the rise of R&B, started this year by Miguel and Frank Ocean, to snowball into something huge in the next year or two.
BEST NEW ARTIST
Will Win: fun.
Could Win: Frank Ocean
Should Win: The Lumineers
This category is, to put it lightly, ridiculously stupid. It’s not uncommon for an artist to win this award with their second or third album, while the Grammy committee has been know to nominate artists who have been around for the better part of a decade (Fountains of Wayne, I’m looking at you). In that case, fun. shouldn’t even be in the playing field, since I very vividly remember listening to their first album while driving around my hometown the summer before I came to college (that was 2009, for anyone who’s counting). They’ll win anyway, if only because of the splash they made this year, but that still feels false to me. A little more credible would be a win for Ocean, who only had a mixtape–not an official album–out in 2011, but his presence on the blockbuster release that was Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne (also from that summer) should probably disqualify him too.
My pick, then, would be The Lumineers, one of the bands responsible for bringing folk music back into the mainstream, but Alabama Shakes, with their throwback, Led Zeppelin-aping brand of rock ‘n’ roll, would be equally fine.
-Bruce Springsteen, a snub in the Album of the Year field (in my opinion) will probably pick up consolation prizes in Best Rock Song and Rock Album (for “We Take Care Of Our Own” and Wrecking Ball, respectively.
-The Lumineers will make up for their loss in Best New Artist by winning Best Americana Album, which is, unsurprisingly, one of the best categories of the night. (The Avett Brothers, John Fullbright, Mumford & Sons and Bonnie Raitt round out the list.)
-Best Alternative Music Album, always an interesting category, will probably go to either Bjork or Fiona Apple, a pair of songstresses whose more experimental crafts got a lot of buzz this year. But Gotye could pull off a win here if it loses that Record of the Year award, and M83’s masterful Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming will at least get a mention.
-Adele might still manage a win tonight, since she’s nominated in Best Pop Solo Performance for the live version of “Set Fire to the Rain.” Considering the fact that 21 has pretty much single-handedly propped-up the music industry over the past two years, that’s probably reasonable.
The 55th annual Grammy Awards will be broadcast from the Staples Center in Los Angeles beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern. The Black Keys, fun., the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, Frank Ocean, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Carrie Underwood, Elton John, Ed Sheeren and Jack White are all scheduled to performed, while LL Cool J will again take hosting duties. The event will air locally on CBS providers.