In a year with a solid nominee list and a largely terrific performance slate, I was pretty sure the Grammys were going to continue their run of awarding their top prize to legitimately great albums. After all, both Adele’s 21 and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs (the Album of the Year winners from 2011 and 2010, respectively) were among my favorite albums from each year, and Taylor Swift’s Fearless (2009’s victor) is, as one of my online buddies has said repeatedly since its world-dominating success, the pop-country Thriller. And Grammy voters certainly gave themselves enough opportunities to award terrific, artistically interesting statements this year: there was Channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean’s R&B magnum opus; there was Some Nights, fun.’s collision of soaring pop anthems and autotune heavy, hip-hop production; and there were also Jack White and the Black Keys, a pair of artists whose loud, scuzzy, hard-rocking records would have, at very least, been interesting departures from the last decade’s winners.
But even after fun. won two of the four biggest awards of the night (Song of the Year and Best New Artist), even after Jack White set the stage on fire with his raucous rock ‘n’ roll performance, even after Frank Ocean won his own pair of awards, Grammy voters still decided to play it safe. The ultimate triumph of the night came to Mumford & Sons and their most recent release, Babel, and while their Album of the Year win wasn’t exactly surprising (they had sales on their side, after all, which is sometimes the most important thing), it was, for me, a disappointing end to an otherwise solidly entertaining Grammy broadcast.
Every year, I tune into the beginning of the Grammy show, and every year, it loses me somewhere along the way. This year was different: perhaps it was the slate of talented performers on tap (versus last year, which was pretty much downhill after the Springsteen opening), or the fact that a good handful of my favorite albums of the year were up for prizes of varying sizes. But right from Taylor Swift’s bizarre, clown-infused commencement (to the tune of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” groovy synthesizers and all), I was on board. Moments later, Adele, last year’s dominating force (as host LL Cool J reminded us, she won six awards for 21), claimed the first award of the night—Best Pop Solo Performance for the live version of “Set Fire to the Rain”—and her charming acceptance speech reminded us all why she’s so easy to like.
Elton John and Ed Sheeran joined forces for a nice, intimate take on the latter’s song, “The A Team,” while fun.’s literally-rain-soaked performance of “Carry On” was one of the night’s earliest highlights, singer Nate Ruess parading around the stage and hitting notes that most of the female nominees couldn’t even manage. Rising R&B star Miguel delivered similar vocal intensity with “Adorn,” though his moment in the spotlight was hijacked a bit by an unnecessary appearance from rapper Wiz Khalifa.
Fun. scored their first major win of the night in Song of the Year, which they won for last year’s ubiquitous pop single, “We Are Young.” The moment was a nice one, allowing Ruess and his bandmates to reflect on their rapid rise into the spotlight, after a dozen years of playing together. The band released their debut album in 2009, but prior to that, Ruess’s former band, The Format, had been a fairly major presence within the alt-rock community. As someone who has been a fan of Ruess’s projects for the better part of the last decade, seeing him finally get this kind of recognition was a very fulfilling experience. The fact that the band includes a Michigan native—multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost, a Central Michigan University graduate hailing from Royal Oak—only made the victory sweeter.
Mumford & Son’s performance of “I Will Wait,” their album’s flagship first single, was nice enough, a furiously strummed, folked-up pop performance complete with a throwback kick-drum. But fellow mainstream folkies The Lumineers would achieve far more compelling results with a similar set-up later in the night (on their big single, “Ho Hey”), and Mumford’s pitchy, innocuous showcase also had the unfortunate duty of preceding one of the most buzzed about performances of the night.
That performance belonged to Justin Timberlake, who, after spending the last six years away from music, recently dropped a surprise single (“Suit & Tie”) and announced a sooner-than-anticipated release date for his third solo album, The 20/20 Experience. (The album comes out on March 19.) On record, Timberlake adds a lot of electronic, studio-based flourishes to his music, but with last night’s performance, his unparalleled talents as both a singer and showman were on full display. So many artists struggle with Grammy performances, whether because of difficulties adjusting to the sound or nerves. For example, Frank Ocean, so often praised for his smooth R&B voice, struggled with vocal flatness in his late show performance of “Forrest Gump,” while a Maroon 5/Alicia Keys mash-up showed just how much studio magic goes into Adam Levine’s voice on record.
But JT made it look easy, darting around the stage, synchronizing dance moves with his back-ups and crooning with a soulful falsetto in a way that made “Suit & Tie” even better than it sounds on record. Jay-Z strolled up from the audience for his late-song rap feature, the two pros playing off one another with effortless electricity. And by the time the performance transitioned into “Pusher Love Girl,” an even better song soaked with strings and brass, Timberlake had managed a coup on the Grammy stage, transforming the show into his own personal marketing statement. His performance was a bona-fide show-stopper, a resounding return from an industry fixture whose future in music seemed a bit questionable for a few years there. And thanks to the ingenious juxtaposition of his performance with the release of a second single (the sprawling, eight-minute “Mirrors”) and album pre-order availability, Timberlake should be gearing up for a huge first week of sales when his album finally drops. He may not have been nominated for any Grammys, but JT was arguably the biggest winner of the night.
And the rest of the night went down pretty much as planned. The Black Keys, The Lumineers and Jack White all killed it, while a Bob Marley tribute featuring Sting, Bruno Mars, Rihanna and Damien Marley was a nice enough—if strangely placed—sentiment in a year that saw the passing of numerous greats on its own, from the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch to the Monkees’ Davy Jones, from Etta James to Donna Summer. Why this particular Grammy show included a tribute to an artist who was stolen from us more than 30 years ago, I will never know.
Elsewhere, fun. and Gotye received their expected awards, for Best New Artist and Record of the Year, respectively, and Ryan Seacrest showed up to announce a new Grammy initiative that will reward great music educators nationwide. The highlight of the night, however, was reserved for Levon Helm, the drummer and sometimes-lead-singer for The Band, whose death radiated through the rock music community last spring. Just like last year’s show-defining finale, which united a spectacular bill of rock ‘n’ roll greats for a run-through of the Beatles’ Abbey Road medley, Helm’s tribute was a distinctly all-star affair, cramming the stage with artists forever indebted to The Band’s legacy.
Naturally, the song was “The Weight,” the band’s signature hit, and the performers knew exactly what to do with it. There was Elton John, keeping the whole thing going on the piano; there was T. Bone Burnett, an Americana producer-extraordinaire, helping out with guitar duties; and there were also country star Zac Brown and soon-to-be victors Mumford & Sons on hand to drive the song’s sing-along aesthetic. But the starring turns belonged to the girls: modern gospel singer Mavis Staples and rock ‘n’ roll revivalist Brittany Howard, the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes. The two brought rousing soul and resounding feeling to the number, and despite the relatively large number quality performances that had played out on that stage throughout the night, this one showed that not much can compare to a classic song done well.
And then, of course, Mumford & Sons took Album of the Year for Babel. I’m neither surprised nor terribly upset about the turn-out. I like the album just fine—I even gave it a 7 when it came out last fall—but for a category that has recently championed releases showing the best of what the album format still has to offer, Babel feels like a distinct step backwards. Frank Ocean’s album only has a few truly great songs, but it absolutely comes alive when heard as a cohesive unit, its transitions, interlude tracks and meandering song structures coalescing into something that is both rewarding and disorienting; fun.’s Some Nights, while it has a very noticeable weak point, is more or less a master-class in album sequencing, building to one of the most cathartic and over-sized finales of any album that came out last year; and Jack White’s record is meandering as well, but it hits so many different styles, so many benchmarks of rock ‘n’ roll history, that it’s difficult not to respect it as a throwback to how people used to make albums. Mumford & Sons are easily likable, but also extremely limited. Their album feels like a marathon at just 52 minutes and 12 tracks, and that’s because most of the songs on it are very sonically similar. So while “I Will Wait” is a great radio single, hearing it 12 times in a row does not a great album make.
And that, I guess, is the root of the problem, because Babel is not a great album. Then again though, Grammy has a history of giving this prize to safe releases over genre-defining classics. Some of the most universally influential artists of all time, including, but not limited to Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, Marvin Gaye, Tom Waits, Nirvana, Kanye West, Radiohead, R.E.M., The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and yes, The Band, have never won the award. (Springsteen somehow lost for Born in the U.S.A. one of the most popular albums in the history of recorded music.) And even The Beatles and Bob Dylan, widely regarded as the two greatest artists in rock ‘n’ roll history, only won the once. As a result, the history of the Album of the Year category reads like a bizarre mix of albums still loved in all circles (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, U2′s The Joshua Tree, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours) and albums that no one really cares about anymore (Santana’s Supernatural, Lional Richie’s Can’t Slow Down, Christopher Cross’s Self-Titled, etc.) Soundtracks, live albums and compilations further dilute the category, to a point where it’s hard to even see the qualities the voting body looks for in a full-length release. Is it about the popularity of singles? Is it about sales? Is it about sheer track-by-track quality? Or is it about some other quality that I can’t see? Because no matter how I look at this year’s slate of nominees (along with albums that were unfairly left off it), I can’t figure out how Mumford & Sons’ Babel rose to the top.