Billie Eilish is nominated in all general categories…can she pull off a historic sweep? (Photo Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Take yourself back to 2010: A 20-year old Taylor Swift has just won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for her multi-platinum smash Fearless, defeating a field of Dave Matthews Band, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and The Black Eyed Peas. I appear before you in your living room, bearing the most boring, least exciting, and least important news from the future — news about the Grammys. I tell you that the Grammys have expanded to eight nominees in the general categories. I tell you that the two favorites to win album of the year are a female rapper not named Nicki Minaj and a 19-year-old who cites Tyler, the Creator as her biggest influence. Also, Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver are nominated. As is Lana Del Rey (you’ll figure out who she is in two years) and Ariana Grande (yes, that chick from Nickelodeon). So is an artist who was nominated for Best New Artist two years ago, even though her album only peaked at 86 on the Billboard 200. Also, the biggest country song of the year was recorded by a gay African-American from Atlanta. Billy Ray Cyrus was added to the remix.
Would you believe me? Probably not, but that’s the world we find ourselves in today. Last year I chastised The Recording Academy for bringing even more attention to their terrible taste by expanding the general categories (“If you ask a person with bad taste to make a playlist for you, it doesn’t matter if you ask for 10 songs or 20 songs, they’re still going to pick bad songs”) and, considering that The Academy nominated Post Malone and Scorpion for the biggest award of the night, I felt vindicated. But, credit where credit is due, the golden gramophone ended up in the hands of Kacey Musgraves for Golden Hour, a worthy choice that rendered a lot of my other presumptions from that column moot. I didn’t think the Academy would keep it up, though. In fact, I was almost certain this year would bring another embarrassing field headlined by cloying pop acts and artists the industry is determined to make “happen.”
But, shock of shocks, The Academy actually did a pretty decent job with the general categories this year (their rock awards, per usual, are a goddamn embarrassment, but I’ll get to those in a bit). The nominees this year are either legitimately good (Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, Vampire Weekend), middling but impactful (Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Ariana Grande), bad but critically acclaimed (Bon Iver)1I may have made some enemies with this statement, so let me make my feelings about Bon Iver’s career very clear through a quick ranking of their albums: 1. For Emma, Forever Ago, 2. 22, A Million 3. i,i, 4. The sound of snow falling lightly in the Wisconsin wilderness accidentally captured one day while Justin Vernon accidentally left his tape recorder on 5. Bon Iver. , or, because this is still the Grammys, irrelevant but painfully tasteful (H.E.R.). This is a relatively youthful, exciting batch of nominees, but most of all they’re (with the exception of H.E.R., who I feel very bad for), relevant. No Herbie Hancock covering Joni Mitchell or bluegrass soundtracks to a Coens Brothers movie. The Grammys have finally got a nose for what the 18-34 demographic is listening too, and it only took them 62 years to develop it.
This newfound appreciation for music that people actually listen to couldn’t come a better time, either. Despite the presence of hip names like Cardi B, Travis Scott, and Post Malone, last year’s ceremony was weighed down by a few ill-advised performances like Jennifer Lopez’s Vegas-y Motown tribute and Lady Gaga’s gothed up rendition of “Shallow.” 2The most depressing moment of the night was when the Academy awarded “Shallow” Best Pop Duo Vocal Performance, a niche award that the Academy aired because they thought they might get a reaction not unlike the Hamilton cast winning for Best Musical Theater Album in 2016. Turns out everyone was pretty tired of the song after hearing it all awards season, and no one but the awardees really seemed to care much.If the performers who have already been announced are any judge, the Academy is still intent on making some baffling choices (Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. will be taking the stage together to celebrate…I guess the 34th anniversary of “Walk This Way?” Who books this shit?), but they’ve already announced performances from trendy artists like Rosalia and Tyler, the Creator, a sign that they may be finding smart alternatives to recent holdouts like Jay Z, Drake, and Justin Bieber. And yet, they were only able to net five of the eight Album of the Year nominees (more announcements could come, but, for now, all we get is Eilish, Grande, H.E.R., Lizzo, and Lil Nas X), proving either that their sway isn’t all that it could be or that most artists (correctly) still don’t care.
So why do I care so much? Maybe I’m just clinging to some utopian idea that music can still be universal — and that some parties can still be crashed. Square as they are, The Grammys are still they same show that gave us Metallica playing “One” to a blacktie crowd, Andre 3000 touching down in a Funkadelic spaceship, and Beck’s weird intro to The White Stripes. There aren’t many outlets where old people expecting something tasteful and classy can get presented with something weird and far out, or kids who only know the radio can get exposed to something just slightly off the beaten path. The power of the Grammys is that they can beam whatever they want into people’s living rooms. I wish they’d take the chance to show us something the mainstream hasn’t seen before more often. Oh well, we’ll always have St. Vincent and Dua Lipa.
Onto the awards:
Album of the Year
Cuz I Love You (Deluxe) – Lizzo
Father of the Bride – Vampire Weekend
i,i – Bon Iver
I Used to Know Her – H.E.R.
Norman Fucking Rockwell – Lana Del Rey
7 – Lil Nas X
Thank U, Next – Ariana Grande
when we all fall asleep, where do we go? – Billie Eilish
Who/What Will Win: Oddsshark has when we all fall asleep, where do we go? as a heavy favorite, but I’m not totally buying it. There are a lot of things working in Eilish’s favor, sure — she’s a young woman, and the Grammys, like the Golden Globes, love an ingenue, even if that ingenue is a little darker and angstier than typical. But we’re dealing with the new Grammys, who made history last year by giving both Record and Song of the Year to a (kinda, sorta) rap song for the first time ever. Like the “Shallow” presentation, “This Is America”’s triumph felt hollow because it’s a song no one — least of all discerning rap fans — really liked, so what should have been a moment for celebration fell flat. I expect the Academy to be just a step behind again this year when they hand the award to Cuz I Love You, answering all the gripes about hip-hop’s lack of recognition in the general categories by rewarding a cheesey, overexposed pop-rapper and declaring mission accomplished.
Who/What Should Win: I feel very strong that Father of the Bride is the best album of the year, and perhaps one of the best albums of the decade. It captures the millennial experience through decidedly non-millenial methods, creating a rich tapestry of fear, joy, love, and anger that’s understated and maximalist all at once.
Upset Special: A good way to predict these categories is by looking at who’ll actually be performing on Grammy night, which, as I mentioned above, eliminates almost half the field (and the two best nominees, unfortunately). Eilish is of course my second choice after Lizzo, but in Grammy terms, H.E.R. is basically 2020 Sara Bereilles. It’s clear that the Academy really, really likes her and I could easily see the Grammys sending viewers to Google by giving the biggest award of the night to an artist most people have never heard of.
Record of the Year
“bad guy” – Billie Eilish
“Hey, Ma” – Bon Iver
“Hard Place” – H.E.R.
“Old Town Road” – Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus
“Talk” – Khalid
“Truth Hurts” – Lizzo
“7 Rings” – Ariana Grande
“Sunflower” – Post Malone and Swae Lee
Who/What Will Win: Hmmmmm. There’s a credible argument for “Old Town Road” winning, now that the rap-never-winning-Record-of-the-Year albatross is off the Academy’s back, but I have a hard time buying that an organization that takes itself so seriously will reward a song that rhymes “cowboy hat from Gucci” with “Wranglers on my booty.” “Truth Hurts” is also in the running, but, seeing as how this is more or less a production award, I’m going with “bad guy,” which stands out from the last decade of pop with its relatively spare beat and whispery vocals — it’s like hearing a track bumping from a car or the apartment above, and I think that effect will win voters over.
Who/What Should Win: Hard to argue with “bad guy” for the above reasons, but “Sunflower”’s beat is absolutely beautiful and elevates what could’ve been a tossed-off, made-for-movie single to a higher level.
Upset Special: Bon Iver blends folk with glitchy pop, and that kind of cross-genre fusionism could appeal to voters. It’s also one of two songs I can remember from an album I think is boring as hell, so there’s that.
Song of the Year
“Always Remember Us This Way” – Lady Gaga
“bad guy” – Billie Eilish
“Bring My Flowers Now” – Tanya Tucker
“Hard Place” – H.E.R.
“Lover” – Taylor Swift
“Norman Fucking Rockwell” – Lana Del Rey
“Truth Hurts” – Lizzo
“Someone You Loved” – Lewis Capaldi
Who/What Will Win: I don’t have a great feel for this category, so I’ll double dip and take “bad guy” to win this one, as well. I can’t see it going to any of the non-AOTY nominees, and I think Eilish is in for a big night (even if I’m still not convinced she wins the big one). Record and Song of the Year have gone to the same artist or song four of the last five years, too, so she’s got that working in her favor.3For those of you keeping score at home: Sam Smith in 2015 (“Stay with Me”), Adele in 2017 (“Hello”), Bruno Mars in 2018 (“24K Magic” and “That’s What I Like”), and Childish Gambino in 2019 (“This Is America”)
Who/What Should Win: Imagine believing, even for one second, that any of these songs are better written than “Norman Fucking Rockwell?” I mean, “The greatest” really should have been the LDR song up for this award, but still! Lana Del Rey basically murders the 2010s indie bro archetype in the first three lines of this song (which may or may not be about Father John Misty), and it says much more about modern life and relationships than all seven of the other nominees combined.
Upset Special: All these H.E.R. nominations are just looming over these general categories, ready to confuse the viewing public. “Hard Place” is tasteful and sounds “big,” and that combination is catnip for Grammys voters. This is also a fun outcome because it would net an award for former Jack White sidekick Ruby Amanfu, one of the song’s co-writers.
Best New Artist
Lil Nas X
Tank and the Bangas
Who/What Will Win: Again, Lizzo and Lil Nas X are intriguing picks, but this really feels like Eilish’s award to lose. Does picking all of these general categories to go her way make me feel great about my Album pick? No, but Kacey Musgraves wasn’t even nominated in the other general categories last year, so there’s precedent!
Who/What Should Win: Billie Eilish is by far the best artist of the bunch and one that figures to be a defining figure of the 2020s. She’s the best pick.
Upset Special: Lizzo, considering she’s also nominated for Song and Record and is battling it out with EIlish for Album. This could be an early bellwether for how all the aforementioned races end up.
Best Alternative Album
Anima – Thom Yorke
Assume Form – James Blake
Father of the Bride – Vampire Weekend
I, I – Bon Iver
U.F.O.F. – Big Thief
Who/What Will Win: Considering they’re both up for Album of the Year, Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend are your two front runners here. Bon Iver’s Record of the Year nomination would seem to signal that they have a bit more support from the Academy, so I’ll (very reluctantly) pick them to win here.
Who/What Should Win: I made my case for Vampire Weekend above, but I’ll stress my point even further by pointing out that they’re one of the few “alternative” bands from the late 2000s/early 2010s who’ve endured for nearly a decade and gotten better with each subsequent release. I mean, Bon Iver’s lasted a while, too, but I don’t really know that they’ve gotten better like VW has (I also don’t think they were ever really that great in the first place, but I’ll save that for another piece). It’d also be great to see Big Thief nab an award here for their spectral, beautiful U.F.O.F., but they’ll hopefully get another bite at the apple at next year’s awards, when Two Hands, their second release of 2019, becomes eligible.
Upset Special: Father of the Bride is probably the second most likely winner, but for a true upset I’d go with Anima. The Grammys have always gone gaga for Radiohead, and their affinity for Yorke’s past work (his debut solo album The Eraser was also nominated in this category) may sway them to vote for a record from an artist who would otherwise feel too weird and bloopy for the Academy.
Best Rock Album
amo – Bring Me the Horizon
Feral Roots – Rival Sons
In the End – The Cranberries
Social Cues – Cage the Elephant
Trauma – I Prevail
Who/What Should Win: I listen to a lot of music. I don’t know how much exactly, but it’s a lot. I keep a running Spotify playlist of my favorite songs of the year, and, in 2019, it was comprised of 561 songs for a total of 34 hours and 23 minutes. If we do some rough math and assume that I added four songs to the playlist for each album I listened to, that means I listened to about 140 albums released in 2019 (which feels way too high, but it makes me sound super qualified, so just go with it). And let me tell you something: none of the five albums nominated for Best Rock Album were one of those 140. Hell, I didn’t even know any of these albums existed until the nominations were announced. I know I’m not the end-all be-all of music, but that just goes to show how out of touch the Academy is when it comes to these rock awards. I’ll concede that most of these albums charted — some highly! — but they generated absolutely no critical conversation whatsoever, and I’d actually go as far as to say that the disconnect between music critics and mainstream corporate rock radio and labels is one of the most undercovered trends in music right now. Someone with more time and patience could certainly write a really intriguing think piece about it using the Grammys as a case study.
The nominations for this award have become depressingly familiar. You’ve got your melodic, poppy, arena-ready metalcore (Bring Me the Horizon, I Prevail), your stale Black Keys wannabes (Rival Sons), your Cage the Elephant (Cage the Elephant, who now have three Grammy nominations and one win over the last five years), and, most cynically, your artist who recently passed away or band whose front person recently passed away (The Cranberries).
In regard to that last category, the Grammys have been pulling this shit a lot the past few years and there’s something about it that I find particularly crass. The last three Best Rock Song winners were all recently deceased singers (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Chris Cornell) who probably never got their due from the Academy while they were alive, and the fact that they had to keel over before the voters realized they deserved some recognition tells you all you need to know about this sorry organization. The Cranberries may not have had the staying power of some of their contemporaries, but they helped bring elements of dream pop to the mainstream and maybe should’ve gotten the credit for doing so in the 90s. But they didn’t, and now Dolores O’Riordan is dead, which means the Academy has to pretend like they care and give them a nomination and — because this field is so weak — probably a win, as well, for an album that wouldn’t have gotten a second thought under any other circumstance. It’s transparent, it’s insincere, and I hate it.
Who/What Should Win: Cage the Elephant is a perfectly copacetic band, and, in any event, miles ahead of the mediocre artists that make up the rest of the field. They keep on partying like it’s 2009, sure, but there’s a market for that.
As far as artists that should’ve been nominated but weren’t because of the Academy’s terminal lack of curiosity? Any combination of Brittany Howard, The Raconteurs, Julia Jacklin, Titus Andronicus, Jenny Lewis, Charly Bliss, black midi, Empath, Strange Ranger, Strand of Oaks, Orville Peck, Mannequin Pussy, Faye Webster, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, fucking WILCO, and about a dozen other artists who released albums in 2019 would be favorable to the current slate.
Upset Special: Considering their track record, Cage the Elephant isn’t a bad bet here at all.
Best Rock Performance
“History Repeats” – Brittany Howard
“Pretty Waste” – Bones UK
“This Land” – Gary Clark Jr.
“Too Bad” – Rival Sons
“Woman” – Karen O and Danger Mouse
Who/What Will Win: Alabama Shakes have had Grammy success in the past (they were even nominated for Album of the Year back in 2016), which makes me think that catchy, boogieing, yet undeniably weird “History Repeats,” the lead track from frontwoman Brittany Howard’s solo debut, will take the prize
Who/What Should Win: I listened to Howard’s Jaime on vinyl on a proper sound-system for the first time the other weekend, and I think it may be the most inventively produced and written rock record of the year. She keeps stretching and redefining what Southern rock and soul can be, and the result is something cosmic, pure and invigorating. She deserves this award and so much more.
Upset Special: Not gonna lie, “Woman” is way better than any song produced by Danger Mouse post-2012 has any right to be — his glitchy take on Motown pairs well with Karen O’s vocals, and, given their respective pedigrees, I expect this to be a competitive entry.
Best Rock Song
“Fear Inoculum” – Tool
“Give Yourself a Try” – The 1975
“Harmony Hall” – Vampire Weekend
“History Repeats” – Brittany Howard
“This Land” – Gary Clark Jr.
Who/What Will Win: “Harmony Hall” is the only track from an AOTY nominee and Vampire Weekend already have a nomination and a win under their belt, so I’ll take them here.
Who Should Win: “Harmony Hall,” a nervous laugh and grin masterfully disguised as an exuberant festival jam. Like the rest of Father of the Bride, it’s the perfect music to soundtrack a barbecue held in the face of a looming apocalypse.
Upset Special: I haven’t jumped on The 1975 bandwagon yet, but they’re the closest thing we have nowadays to a popular (as in charts and sales numbers) rock band, and I suspect that they could become a Grammy fixture in the years to come.
Best Metal Performance
“Astrolus — The Great Octopus” – Candlemass feat. Tony Iommi
“Bow Down” – I Prevail
“Humanicide” – Death Angel
“7empest” – Tool
“Unleashed” – Killswitch Engage
Who Will Win: Ah yes, that one time of year where I pretend I still follow metal. The rock categories have more or less become opportunities for the Academy to reward legacy acts they’ve ignored in the past (see my Cranberries rant from earlier), so I expect them to award doom metal legends Candlemass for the Tony Iommi featuring “Astrolus.”
Who Should Win: Are any of these other songs about a giant octopus that eats the earth? No? Then “Astrolus” it is.
Upset Special: Tool’s comeback was a huge story this year (and also kind of highlighted that they don’t have much of a place in it anymore), so I wouldn’t be shocked to see “7emptest” get the nod. I’ve never fully understood the appeal of Tool, a fairly generic sounding alternative metal band who sing about parabolas and the Fibonacci sequence and other boring mathematical stuff, when there are other bands out there writing songs about planet consuming cephalopods, but different strokes for different folks, I suppose.