Friday, December 04, 2015

2016 Grammy Nomination Predictions: Album of the Year & Song of the Year

Call me whatever, but the first week of December has always been an exciting time for me. There's so much that the Grammys could do to improve the integrity of their award, yet I still come back every year to take a crack at guessing who will get nominated where. It's the most important game in town when it comes to music awards. My infinite optimism, for better or worse, allows me to keep thinking that they'll eventually get it right one day. Regardless, it's always fun to take a look back at the year in music.

The nominations for the 58th Annual Grammy will be announced on Dec. 7 during CBS' This Morning and the actual hardware will be handed out Feb. 15, 2016. Back in June, I took a look at the Big Four categories and now I'm ready to walk the tightrope without a net and declare my final predictions for all the world to see. For this post, I'll be examining the fields for Album of the Year and Song of the Year. I also took a look at Record of the Year and Best New Artist, which you need to check out as well.

Album of the Year

I alluded to it a bit in my post for Best New Artist, but it's becoming harder and harder to create new stars. All this means is that the field becomes easier to predict and there is a shallower pool of contenders to choose from. This category has always tried to reward albums that have sold well and are also critically acclaimed. With sales being in a downward trend, it makes it harder to come up with a consensus choice on what could be a potential Album of the Year nominee.

Right now, we're at the precipice of the digital sales cliff before streaming becomes the dominant format. The definition of what we consider success will eventually transition from how many consumers are willing to buy a record to how often consumers are willing to listen to your music. When the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) will catch up to this trend and accurately reflect it in the nominations is unknown, but it may be coming sooner than we think.

This year I think will still play by the old rules, which means you can reserve a spot for Taylor Swift's 1989. Three #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and solid reviews are some of the key ingredients to landing an Album of the Year spot. The fact that Swift is the closest thing we have to a musical juggernaut, aside from Adele, assures her of plenty of Grammy nominations every year as long as she can deliver the quality.

The inclusion of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly will be significant for a number of reasons, but the one that's most intriguing from a business aspect is that it will be the first AOTY nominee to make as much noise for first week sales as well it did for streaming numbers. Glossy stats aside, the album stands as one of the most critically acclaimed of the year and was as culturally relevant as any mainstream album released in the past decade. I'd consider him a lock.

Going further along with the sales + acclaim equation, The Weeknd's Beauty Behind The Madness seems like another obvious fit. This category is often seen as a reward for being dominant over the course of a calendar and The Weeknd has had a hit that stayed on everyone's radar nearly every step of the way. "Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)", "Can't Feel My Face" and now "The Hills" have all shown great legs, which should bode well for his chances. Reviews have also been positive and his sound is contemporary, which will help the NARAS sleep well at night with their decision. Plus, the kids aren't going to tune in to your awards show unless they see some names they recognize.

If there aren't enough popular acts, the blue ribbon panel—which is the secret committee that decides upon the Big Four nominees based on the top 15 vote-getters among submissions—will try to come up with a few albums that bring some integrity to the category.

Rock always appears to be the equivalent of quality at the Grammys and seen to be a driving force in making great music, even as it's now being outsold by other key genres. Although great rock albums still exist, they don't exactly drive the culture like they used to, yet the NARAS feels its mandatory to always include something from the genre. Nine out of the past ten years have seen a rock album get nominated here, with hip hop following up with six and only three country albums in that same span.

The conversation each year has to include rock, which means we could see up to at least two nominees from this small group: Foo Fighters, Mumford & Sons, Alabama Shakes and Florence + The Machine. Not exactly world changing albums, but rock will always get a pass because of the old standard that it's the only music capable of creating a masterpiece.

Far and away, I think the best album out of this group is Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color and I believe they'll get the nod because of that. Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways had a great story behind it with them recording each song in a different city that will touch a core with a lot of musicians across the country. Mumford & Sons' Wilder Mind sold well also after the success of Babel. The thing is neither of those albums match up to their respective bands' previous work and one thing I will say about AOTY selections in the past few years is that they have been focused on the present instead of relying too heavily on past success. Beck got a nomination, but only because he got some of the best reviews he'd seen in years. On the other end, Coldplay hasn't been a true AOTY contender in years because the music hasn't been as good since Viva La Vida, despite being one of the biggest rock bands in the world. The Black Keys' Turn Blue, coming off the success of El Camino, was barely in the AOTY conversation last year because it didn't meet expectations. The critical response to Foo and Mumford was just lukewarm and I expect them to get left out for that reason.

Florence + The Machine's How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful makes for a more interesting narrative since it saw the group trying new things and mostly succeeding, but Alabama Shakes felt like the more inescapable band this year. It would also go in line with the NARAS wanting to be hip and right now, Brittany Howard is ahead of Florence Welch as far as cool points go in 2015.

A few dark horses I'm keeping my eye out for are Meghan Trainor's Title and the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast soundtrack. Title fits along into that magic recipe of three or more hit singles to get into AOTY, so even if the album won't land on many critics' year-end lists, it still has those key credentials. Hamilton was also one of the most talked about albums of the year and its awareness level is beyond a lot of artists that have outsold it. If the majority of the music industry held court in New York City, I would like its chances more, but I think there are way too many Californians voting that probably feel apathetic towards a Broadway musical.

Another recent trend in Album of the Year is the rise of the "cool dad" nominee, which has officially replaced the old fogey veteran slot that would traditionally go to people like Robert Plant, Santana or Herbie Hancock. Veterans are still being recognized, but only those who came to prominence during the '90s, which is when a lot of younger fathers would have been heavy into music and likely felt the coolest. The past two winners, Beck and Daft Punk, could have easily been played within the hour on MTV circa 1996 and that's kind of my measuring point for who's considered a cool dad nominee: would they have gotten play on MTV from 1992-2001?

Aside from Foo Fighters, the most sensible cool dad candidate is D'Angelo and The Vanguard's Black Messiah. We hadn't heard from him in 14 years and he pretty much picked up right where he left off with an album that had the world go bonkers for a few weeks because it was so unexpected and pretty damn good. It was a great moment and showed that albums, not songs, could still get people talking. What also helps is that Voodoo has increased in stature during D'Angelo's absence to reach masterpiece designation and with him sticking the landing for Black Messiah, it might be the most respected album among all voters, young, old, and ancient.

Only two times before have we seen more than two albums from the worlds of hip hop/R&B get placed here in the same year (2004 & 2005), but the inclusions of Kendrick, The Weeknd and D'Angelo make the most sense. Why use the pop slot for Trainor over The Weeknd? Why include the Foo Fighters over D'Angelo when he has a great story as well and an even better album? I might be thinking about this too logically, since this is the Grammys after all, so who knows what kind of monkey wrenches we could see.

Predictions for Album of the Year:

Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color
D'Angelo and The Vanguard - Black Messiah
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly 
Taylor Swift - 1989 
The Weeknd - Beauty Behind The Madness 

Possible spoilers:
Drake - If You're Reading This It's Too Late 
Florence + The Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways
Hozier - Hozier 
Mumford & Sons - Wilder Mind 
Meghan Trainor - Title 

Long shots:
Leon Bridges - Coming Home
Disclosure - Caracal
Dr. Dre - Compton 
Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording
Don Henley - Cass County 
Sam Hunt - Montevallo
Little Big Town - Pain Killer
Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint 
Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 2 
Chris Stapleton - Traveller
Tame Impala - Currents

Song of the Year

To include "Uptown Funk" or not? For the majority of people, this may not even seem like a debate. Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars ruled the free world in 2015, so any nomination they're eligible for should likely be theirs, right? Here's why I think the opposite may happen here.

Song of the Year is awarded to the songwriters, which means that there is usually more focus on the lyrics and the composition. It used to be that the song had to really cut to the core emotionally, but with nominations last year for "All About That Bass" and "Shake It Off," things are starting to become a bit more lighthearted. As poppy as those two songs were, there was still a strong sense of identity in what message they were trying to convey. Lyrically, "Uptown Funk" doesn't feel as transparent. You could write a paragraph about what "All About That Bass" is about. For "Uptown Funk"? Bruno Mars is really really cool? The lyrics feel cobbled together as if they were from a jam session (which is a HUGE part of why the song works), but if Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" can't get in here—a song with more traditional qualifiers like melody and a concrete theme—I feel that the blue ribbon panel may think they've already done their job by nominating it in Record of the Year.

This category has felt like a consolation prize in recent years if an artist couldn't get into the general field elsewhere, which leads me to believe it's likely the last category voted on within the blue ribbon panel. Katy Perry's "Roar" and Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" were previous Song of the Year nominees that were more suited for Record of the Year, but relegated here just so they could be recognized. "Uptown Funk" will likely win ROTY. The idea of spreading the love around to other acts will likely play a factor in its exclusion.

There are never any obvious candidates here since SOTY relies less on commercial success. That still won't stop me from saving a spot for Taylor Swift's "Blank Space." She dominated the year and "Blank Space" pokes fun at herself, humanizing her even more. It's also her best chance to give an acceptance speech within the general field, so book it.

I would be shocked if Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" doesn't get nominated here. I actually like his chances in Song of the Year more than I do Record because of that whole narrative of him being a singer with an acoustic guitar therefore his songs are much more meaningful.

Speaking of guys with acoustic guitars, I'm saving a spot for George Ezra's "Budapest." The chorus is catchy, it's tender, very sincere and got a decent amount of attention.

As I said before, this category is often seen as a consolation prize. If D'Angelo's Black Messiah doesn't get in for AOTY, "Really Love" could be shifted here because it seems ridiculous to not recognize him in the general field.

Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" is another big contender that I can see getting left out here. Hip hop is rarely nominated in SOTY and if it is, the songs usually rely on melody or other things to make it accessible. As great as "Alright" is, not only do I think it's too radical, but it's also too complex for casual hip hop fans. Take a look at the past hip hop nominees for SOTY: Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" and "All Of The Lights," Eminem's "Love The Way You Lie" and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Same Love." You can easily catch on to what those songs are about from the first listen. If your ear isn't accustomed to hip hop, the content of "Alright" probably won't make an immediate emotional impact. It's totally deserving of a nomination and having Pharrell Williams as one of the songwriters could make all my points null. Based on past history, I just don't see it though.

Common and John Legend's "Glory" would be the likely hip hop nomination here and a much safer choice if the NARAS wanted to address the current cultural and political climate. The thing is, they're not in the business of making statements, but drawing viewers and the momentum for "Glory" has long since faded. Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth's "See You Again" also stands a better chance than "Alright," although I do doubt if they want to include Wiz among the few hip hop names to ever receive a Song of the Year nomination.

One song that did have people talking for most of the year was Little Big Town's "Girl Crush." The controversy behind the misconception of the lyrics only helped to bring more ears to it and it's the rare top 20 country song that got people outside of the genre talking. Nashville always manages to get a representative in the general field somewhere and this looks like their best shot.

This category has been leaning towards pop for a while now, so it's okay to look at songs that made a big impact. The approach on deciding nominees is still more subjective than ROTY, where you're rarely even in the conversation if you don't have a top ten single on the Billboard Hot 100.

In that regard, this is one of the strongest years in recent memory for possible SOTY contenders based on chart success. I wouldn't be surprised to see songs like Rachel Platten's "Fight Song," Rihanna's "FourFiveSeconds" or Meghan Trainor's "Like I'm Gonna Lose You" get in. They're all logical choices, but I'm going to roll the dice on Alessia Cara's "Here" because it has the most momentum right now and is the choice that would make the NARAS look hip and current. It's slowly gained traction since the summer, suggesting the public has a genuine affection for it and its success is not influenced by marketing or hype. This would also be a good chance to employ the new eligibility rules that allow songs with samples to be nominated here as well (Isaac Hayes' "Ike's Rap II" in this case). Cara is a young fresh face using a contemporary sound to speak her mind in a way that everyone can relate to. That will always be appealing.

Predictions for Song of the Year:

Alessia Cara - "Here" 
George Ezra - "Budapest" 
Little Big Town - "Girl Crush" 
Ed Sheeran - "Thinking Out Loud" 
Taylor Swift - "Blank Space" 

Possible spoilers:
Alabama Shakes - "Don't Wanna Fight"
Common and John Legend - "Glory"
D'Angelo & The Vanguard - "Really Love"
Kendrick Lamar - "Alright"
Rachel Platten - "Fight Song"
Rihanna featuring Kanye West and Paul McCartney - "FourFiveSeconds"
Mark Ronson  feauring Bruno Mars - "Uptown Funk"
Meghan Trainor featuring John Legend - "Like I’m Gonna Lose You"
The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"
Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth - "See You Again"

Long shots:
Leon Bridges - "Coming Home"
Kelly Clarkson - "Heartbeat Song"
Fetty Wap – "Trap Queen"
Sia - "Alive"
Kanye West featuring Paul McCartney - "Only One"

You can check also check out my predictions for Record of the Year and Best New Artist.

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