2021 Grammys Preview: Just When You Thought It Couldn’t Get Worse…


 

What’s the weirdest movie you can think of being nominated for Best Picture? I don’t mean weird as in David Lynch weird, I mean weird as in “why on Earth would the Academy nominate this movie” for Best Picture weird. And I don’t mean “why on Earth would the Academy nominate this movie” in the sense that the movie is bad, or is from a genre or director the Academy doesn’t usually like. I mean weird as in “are we sure that this movie even exists?” I mean weird as in a movie released a year before the eligibility window but re-released a year later with twenty extra minutes of footage so it kind of counts. I mean weird as in a movie that’s been reviewed in zero major outlets and appeared on zero box office charts. Can you imagine such a thing happening?

Probably not because, for all of its flaws, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a sense of shame and self-respect. The Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, on the other hand, does not.

You would think that, after the year we’ve all been through, that the Grammys’ ability to shock and scandalize us would be somehow blunted. But au contraire: instead, it’s merely given them wider latitude with which to fuck up, because they know that less people are paying attention now. You probably didn’t even realize the Grammys were supposed to happen at the end of January, did you? Of course not, because you don’t care about the Grammys. And, given this year’s Album of the Year slate, who could blame you?

Ok, so maybe I am being a little harsh. Whatever you think of their artistic merit, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding, and Taylor Swift’s Folklore were all bona fide hits and merit attention at a show where having bona fide hits matters to the voters. Haim’s Women in Music, Pt. III is not on the same commercial level as any of those releases, but it’s the most artistically accomplished by a considerable margin, and a fine choice as the Grammys’ token “indie” nominee. You probably don’t remember Coldplay’s Everyday Life and Jhene Aiko’s Chilombo but, you’ll have to trust me here, both albums managed to peak in the top 10 of the Billboard Top 100 despite having almost zero impact on popular culture at large. Bad picks, but defensible from the standpoint of the shadowy industry insiders who decide these things.

But any concessions or rationalizations you could grant those six nominees are completely undercut by the remaining two, perhaps the most self-serving nominations in Grammys history. The first is Black Pumas’ self-titled debut. Well, not technically: it’s the deluxe edition of Black Pumas’s self-titled debut, because their actual self-titled debut was released way back in June of 2019, well outside of the Grammys’ eligibility window. I don’t have anything against Black Pumas per se. They’re a perfectly tasteful yet banal alt-soul group that’s fodder for adult alternative album radio. But, they do not, in the grand scheme of things, “matter” to the rest of the culture in a way that an Album of the Year nominee should.

And while I feel bad saying that about two guys who seem perfectly nice, I do not feel bad saying that about Jacob Collier, the author of the final and most egregious nominee of this year’s ceremony, Djesse, Vol. 3. I don’t particularly care for the music of Djesse, Vol. 3. — think a Mark Ronson-style super producer album, but without any danceable beats and with T-Pain, Kimbra, and Ty Dolla $ign instead of Bruno Mars, Angel Olsen, and Camila Cabello — but what’s most egregious is how this album failed to make any waves at all, commercial or critical, and yet still got nominated for the biggest award of the night. Not only is Djesse, Vol. 3. the first Album of the Year nominee since 1963 to never appear in the Billboard Top 200, it wasn’t even reviewed. Like, anywhere. This album is so obscure that it doesn’t even have a Metacritic page. It is an album that no one is talking about and no one is listening to. But, Jacob Collier is an industry insider. He’s already won a few Grammys for his arrangement work and, probably more importantly, is friends with Quincy Jones.

One of the reasons the Black Pumas and Jacob Collier nominations caused such a furor was that they took spots away from more deserving artists, most notably The Weeknd, whose “Blinding Lights” was arguably the biggest song of the past year. He got so mad about that he just announced that he’ll no longer be submitting his work to the Grammys or perform at them, and while I usually hate it when famous people whine about not being nominated for fake awards, The Weeknd actually has a point, which is that we still don’t really know how the Grammy nominations are decided. Yes, we know that artists submit their work for consideration and then voters vote on their favorites. But then the top 20 vote-getters go to shadowy “review committees” who winnow that top 20 list down to eight (or five if it’s a non-general category), and their criteria or process for doing so has never been sufficiently explained to the public. 

This past week the BAFTAs announced their first slate of nominees selected through a layered jury process meant to root out bias and produce more female and non-white nominees. I’m a little skeptical of this process as well, but at least it has a noble goal. What’s the Grammys review committees’ goal? It’s clearly not awarding the best talent, and it’s clearly not putting together a must-watch show. As far as I can tell, it’s to make its most powerful voters and members happy, and as depressing as that might sound, don’t worry. The Weeknd will continue to sell records and people will continue to listen to music. But they might stop watching the Grammys, and the Academy will only have themselves to blame.

The Predictions

Album of the Year

Black Pumas (Deluxe Edition) – Black Pumas

Chilombo – Jhene Aiko

Djesse, Vol. 3 – Jacob Collier 

Everyday Life – Coldplay

Folklore – Taylor Swift

Future Nostalgia – Dua Lipa

Hollywood’s Bleeding – Post Malone

Women in Music Pt. III – Haim

What Will Win: Fun fact: three of the last five Album of the Year nominees featured songs that won both Record and Song of the Year (Billie Eilish’s When we all fall asleep, Where do we go?, Adele’s 25, Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic), which makes me think that this year’s will be at least nominated in both of those categories too. That only applies to Dua Lipa and Post Malone. We already know the Grammys like Dua Lipa because she won Best New Artist a few years ago, and I can’t see the Grammys giving the biggest award of the night to a dude with a face tattoo, so Future Nostalgia it is.

What Should Win: It’s four or five songs too long but Women in Music Pt. III is probably the best album of Haim’s career, and mines these wholesome, rootsy, classic rock adjacent sounds that make it catnip for both me and old Grammys voters. In a more just society, they’re all bigger stars (like, actually played on pop radio big).

Upset Special: Seeing as she already has a trillion Grammys to her name (including two Albums of the Year) it doesn’t feel right calling a Taylor Swift win an “upset,” but the lack of a Record of the Year nom would worry me if I were her. But, she’s still Taylor Swift, and in a crowded field of mostly Album of the Year first timers, voters could go with the familiar name. 

Record of the Year

“Black Parade” – Beyonce 

“Circles” – Post Malone

“Colors” – Black Pumas

“Don’t Start Now” – Dua Lipa

“Everything I Wanted” – Billie Eilish

“Rockstar” – DaBaby feat. Roddy Ricch

“Say So” – Doja Cat

“Savage” – Megan Thee Stallion feat. Beyonce

What Will Win: I’m sticking with the idea that this year will feature another general category sweep, and going with “Don’t Start Now.”

What Should Win: This is a production/arrangement/performance award, and “Don’t Start Now” is the best produced pop song of the field, and maybe even the last half decade. Even my dad liked this song when he saw it performed on Saturday Night Live the other month. I’m sure Dua Lipa looking like Dua Lipa had something to do with that, but you know what this song’s musical secret is? The fact that it has an actual, living bassist playing a bassline, which gives it a sense of warmth and elasticity as opposed to the chilly, dead-eyed rigidity that sets in after listening to too many electronic beats. 

Upset Special: Probably “Circles,” since Post Malone got the Album of the Year nomination. It’s not a good song, but I really hate that I don’t hate it, if you know what I mean.

Song of the Year

“Black Parade” – Beyonce

“The Box” – Roddy Ricch

“Cardigan” – Taylor Swift

“Circles” – Post Malone

“Don’t Start Now” – Dua Lipa

“Everything I Wanted” – Billie Eilish

“I Can’t Breathe” – H.E.R.

“If the World Was Ending” – JP Saxe feat. Julia Michales

What Will Win: Dua Lipa pulls off the trifecta. 

What Should Win: I really do not love most of these songs from a songwriting standpoint, and as much as I like “Don’t Start Now,” it’s just kind of another dance floor anthem. “Cardigan” paints the most of a word picture, but it also tries to rhyme “cardigan” with “favorite,” which should not be rewarded, so I’ll default to “Everything I Wanted,” which at least tries to put a spin on the “it was a dream that turned into a nightmare” concept.

Upset Special: If Post Malone or Taylor Swift have a path to winning Album of the Year, it probably goes through this category, but if you want to live a little more dangerously I’d go with “I Can’t Breathe”. The industry has been trying to make H.E.R. happen for a while now, and the Grammys are still in love with the idea that pop songs can change the world (see: “Another Day in Paradise” and this well-intentioned but misguided tribute to the Las Vegas shooting victims). Rewarding a song that directly (if unoriginally) deals with Black Lives Matter would sure make the Academy feel like they’ve done something productive. It would also help them argue that this Wikipedia page should be deleted (it shouldn’t).  

Best New Artist

Ingrid Andress

Phoebe Bridgers

Noah Cyrus 

Chika

D Smoke

Doja Cat

Kaytranada

Megan Thee Stallion

Who Will Win: Even though Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion are both up for Record of the Year, this feels like a Phoebe Bridgers win to me. Part of that is just a vibe, part of that is because the only two rappers to win this award are *checks notes* Macklemore and Chance the Rapper. Yikes.

What Should Win: Phoebe Bridgers, and I hope she smashes a guitar on her way up to the stage and then spikes the Grammy like a football so weirdos on Twitter can cry about it more.

Upset Special: It’s one of either Bridgers, Megan, or Doja Cat, and Doja Cat is the most upsetty of all of them. If she wins, to my knowledge, she will be the first ever Grammy winner to shove french fries up her nose in a music video. They don’t call it music’s biggest night for nothing.

Best Alternative Album

Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple

Hyperspace – Beck

Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers

Jaime – Brittany Howard

The Slow Rush – Tame Impala

What Will Win: Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which for a time was the best reviewed album in Metacritic history. By all rights should have been nominated for Album of the Year too but Fiona’s right, this world is bullshit

What Should Win: This is probably the best slate of albums nominated in any category this year, but of course the Grammys had to nominate another superfluous Beck album. Fetch the Bolt Cutter is the objective best album on this list, but Jaime is a sentimental favorite of mine.

Upset Special: Punisher, since Phoebe Bridgers is nominated for (and could very well win!) Best New Artist. In a non-bullshit world, we’re talking about the cross-generational battle between her and Apple for Album of the Year, too.

Best Rock Album

A Hero’s Death – Fontaines D.C.

Daylight – Grace Potter 

Kiwanuka – Michael Kiwanuka

The New Abnormal – The Strokes

Sound & Fury – Sturgill Simpson

What Will Win: I would normally use this section to excoriate the Academy for their terrible taste in rock music, but this year’s list is… acceptable! Grace Potter and Michael Kiwanuka represent the least offensive corner of the corporate rock universe, Fontaines D.C. are boring but at least on trend, and Sturgill Simpson and The Strokes are legitimately good artists who put out legitimately good albums. Great work guys!

As far as a likely winner goes, I tend to think Sturgill Simpson will end up taking this award. Bizarrely, The Strokes have never been nominated for this award before so I could see the Academy giving them a win to make up for lost time, but Simpson is a past AOTY of the year nominee and probably hews closer to the median voters’ tastes.

What Should Win: Probably The New Abnormal, an unequivocally good album from a band some people had written off as has-beens, but I’d be fine with a Simpson win too.

Upset Special: Even though Grace Potter and Michael Kiwanuka don’t get taken very seriously in most critical circles I still think a Fontaines D.C. win would piss the most people off, because they’re representative of a wave of post-punk bands from the UK and Ireland that everyone has kind of gotten tired of already, and they are by far the most tired of them all. It’d also be hilarious to see the Academy go all in on post-punk next year too and nominate Idles and Protomartyr and Iceage and a bunch of other bands most people got hip to eight years ago and act like they’ve discovered something. We wanted you to change Grammys, but not like this!

Best Rock Performance

“Daylight” – Grace Potter

“Kyoto” – Phoebe Bridgers

“Not” – Big Thief

“Shameika” – Fiona Apple

“Stay High” – Brittany Howard

“The Steps” – Haim

What Will Win: Whereas the Best Rock Album slate was merely copacetic, this list is actually good! Five songs from critically acclaimed albums and one from… Grace Potter, who’s fine but inconsequential (as opposed to typical Grammy rock nominees, who tend to be bad and inconsequential). “The Steps” should be my pick based on Haim’s AOTY nod, but I have to go Bridgers again. I just feel like she has a big night.

What Should Win: Like I said, it’s a good list, but this has got to go to “Not.” Big Thief are the kind of Brooklyn-y art rock band who tend to sacrifice chops for texture and songwriting but they’re a must see live act and “Not” is the first song that really captures that experience on record. There’s so much negative space and yet so much going on at the same time. 

Upset Special: I’ll say Grace Potter, because she’s got the Best Rock Album nomination and because it would bother people like me. She seems nice, but come on.

Best Rock Song

“Kyoto” – Phoebe Bridgers

“Lost in Yesterday” – Tame Impala

“Not” – Big Thief

“Shameika” – Fiona Apple

“Stay High” – Brittany Howard

What Will Win: I’m going with Bridgers again. This is a songwriting award and she’s the most songwriter-y of the nominees. 

What Should Win: I’d be tempted to go with “Kyoto” too since its a clever inversion of a band-on-the-road song, but I think I’d have to double down on “Not.” Adrienne Lenker spends an entire song telling you what she isn’t singing about, and it still feels as epic and vital as a Yeats poem. 

Upset Special: I suppose Fiona Apple, who gets very evocative on “Shameika”. 

Best Metal Performance

“Bum-Rush” – Body Count

“Underneath” – Code Orange

“The In-Between” – In This Moment

“Bloodmoney” – Poppy

“Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Ax)” – Power Trip

What Will Win: I don’t know why I pretend like I still listen to metal. I have nothing against the genre but I may as well be writing about the jazz or gospel awards, that’s how little attention I pay to metal nowadays. Anyway, I guess I think Body Count will win because Ice-T is in Body Count and the political themes of their music are especially resonant now.

What Should Win: Body Count, because I just learned that Ice-T used to live one town over from me in New Jersey. That Power Trip song is a pretty sweet thrash track though.

Upset Special: Oh my God, I just realized that Poppy is that weird chick from Youtube who recorded a song with and is now feuding with Grimes. It’d be, uh, pretty hilarious if she won this award. It’d also be incredibly on brand for the Grammys.