You have no idea how happy I get during this time of year. Poring over a list of songs and artists in order to determine who will get nominated for an award that's perpetually behind the curve, but still the most important in its industry, truly gets my neurons percolating. It's like trying to solve a puzzle that not many have the passion to attempt and why I do it every year.
The nominations for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards will be announced on Dec. 7 during CBS' This Morning, with the actual ceremony on Feb. 15, 2016. I'm here once again to give my final predictions as to who will be nominated in the general field. Over the summer, I examined the contenders and where they stood at the moment, if you want further insight into my thought process. For this post, I'll only be taking a look at Record of the Year and Best New Artist, with Album of the Year and Song of the Year to follow in a separate post.
Record of the Year
The first thing to do when analyzing this category is revisit some of the biggest hits of the year. Over the past five years, sixteen of the thirty-one nominees reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, with last year's group dominating the summit for a combined total of 19 weeks.
I think you know where I'm going this.
There was no bigger song than Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk," truly the only track this year to unite a nation. Its place in Record of the Year is a foregone conclusion, so let's just get that out of the way.
Taylor Swift manages to dominate the general field conversation whenever she's eligible. This year should be no different, but I'll admit to being slightly worried since timing and momentum played a huge part in the nominations for "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "Shake It Off." But it's Taylor Swift. Time doesn't exist to her. She's on a different plane than the rest of us mere mortals. Save a spot for "Blank Space" as well, despite it being a full year old.
One doesn't always need to reach #1 in order to make a huge impact. Sometimes, just hovering around in the top ten for months will do the job, which is why I like Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" to grab a spot here as well. It's no secret that the Grammys love acknowledging male vocalists who also happen to be musicians. Strap an acoustic guitar onto a man and everything he coos is automatically going to be "deep." At least that's the perception that's been ingrained into our collective conscience for the past half-century. Sheeran has been nominated in each of the general field categories except for ROTY. Now that he has an actual money song that mostly all of America has heard of, the path to him landing a nod here should be laid out nice and smoothly.
If we're still on the subject of songs that never seem to die, Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen" was a prime example of such in 2015. In one of the most organic rises in recent memory, "Trap Queen" went from being a Soundcloud sensation to knocking on the door of being the #1 song in the country. In an era where there are few ubiquitous songs that everyone can agree on (Can your mother sing the words to OMI's "Cheerleader"? Didn't think so.), it can't be taken for granted when a song had the kind of the legs this one did. Plus, you know things are major when Taylor Swift gives you a co-sign.
For all intents and purposes, "Trap Queen" should be a Record of the Year nominee. But it probably won't. The blue ribbon panel—the secret committee of industry folk who are chosen to determine the Big Four categories each year from the top 15 submissions—may not be ready to welcome someone as rough around the edges as Fetty Wap to their party. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences doesn't usually have the greatest understanding of the latest trends in hip hop, but they're cagey enough to recognize those that are obviously talented (Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Outkast, Kanye West, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis). Therefore, I think there's probably an elitism that might prevent certain kinds of hip hop that's lacking in lyrical dexterity or seen as "too street" from ever getting a major nomination.
I may regret this, but I'm also going to pass on Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth's "See You Again" getting a nod here, even though it lines up perfectly with what a typical nominee in this category would be like. It's not unheard for a song to spend 10 weeks or more at #1 and not get nominated. Out of the 25 eligible songs that accomplished this feat (both Black Eyed Peas and Santana had two songs from the same album to reach the top spot, but artists can only submit one track for nomination per category), 14 got an ROTY nod. History is on "See You Again's" side, yet when I think about the actual quality of the track, it doesn't strike me as a song that gets people excited, despite its sentimental value. I think you'd have to be banking on the blue ribbon panel being fans of The Fast & The Furious franchise and part of me thinks they view themselves as above such popcorn fare.
Taking into account commercial success and a track's repeat factor, The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face" feels like a song that would still let the blue ribbon panel save face with its inclusion. In a weaker year, I could also see Jason Derulo's "Want To Want Me" get in. The main knock against it would be that it might be too similar in retro tones to "Can't Feel My Face." Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean" is hard to deny, even for folks who ragged on The Biebs early in his career, but it didn't have that world-conquering feel to it that most nominees here do.
Against my better judgment, I'm going with Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney's "FourFiveSeconds" over "See You Again." For a song that didn't reach #1, the streaming numbers and YouTube views have been very encouraging, suggesting that it's a song that people genuinely wanted to hear, even if the hype for it lasted only about a month. I also think it's way too appetizing to find another way to get McCartney on the broadcast, especially since this is one of the few occasions where including a veteran wouldn't be seen as a step back. Practically every Grammy ceremony over the past ten years has emphasized performances combining older and current artists. Here, you have a studio collaboration using those same ideals, and it actually worked. Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney creating a terrific song together is the equivalent of an NARAS wet dream. The reaction to "FourFiveSeconds" was as positive as any I've seen for a mainstream single this year and when passion becomes involved in discussions behind closed doors, anything is possible.
Predictions for Record of the Year:
Rihanna featuring Kanye West and Paul McCartney - "FourFiveSeconds"
Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars - "Uptown Funk"
Ed Sheeran - "Thinking Out Loud"
Taylor Swift - "Blank Space"
The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"
Justin Bieber - "What Do You Mean"
Jason Derulo - "Want To Want Me"
Fetty Wap - "Trap Queen"
Little Big Town - "Girl Crush"
Major Lazer featuring DJ Snake and MØ - "Lean On"
Maroon 5 - "Sugar"
Meghan Trainor featuring John Legend - "Like I’m Gonna Lose You"
Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth - "See You Again"
Alessia Cara - "Here"
Ellie Goulding - "Love Me Like You Do"
Kendrick Lamar - "Alright"
OMI - "Cheerleader (Live 2015)"
Rachel Platten - "Fight Song"
Silentó - "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)"
Best New Artist
I'm sure I say this every year and 2016 won't be any different: this is usually one of the most wide-open categories each time. It's become harder to build new stars within this new option-loaded ecosystem and it makes predicting this category a grab bag. One good thing about this is that it has led to more surprises and in the process quietly made it the hippest category for the past five years (nods for Haim, James Blake and Bon Iver would have been impossible twenty years ago without any major radio airplay).
That being said, as hip as this category wants to be, there's still room for the obvious contenders. Meghan Trainor being the main one, since she was already nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year for her debut single, "All About That Bass" in 2015 and proved that her success wasn't a fluke with three straight hits in "Lips Are Movin'," "Dear Future Husband" and "Like I'm Gonna Lose You." There may come a time where this category won't pay as much attention to commercial success. Then again, the NARAS are in the business of getting viewers to watch their awards show and you kind of need big names for that.
Fetty Wap seems like another obvious choice, but for many of the reasons I already listed in ROTY, I don't see him here. Blame the elitism.
I don't think it's going to be just one mainstream name and then a bunch of people your average listener may not have heard of. I'll take Hozier here, despite him not having a significant follow-up to "Take Me To Church." Trainor's case is helped by the fact she stayed on the radar. What's really saving Hozier is that those who heard his album enjoyed it and he's a man with an instrument, which makes him seem important. This usually means that the blue ribbon panel might view him as a real artist who will have a bright future ahead of him because of those things, even though Annie Lennox ate him for lunch onstage at the last ceremony. If he doesn't get the nod, I would add that as a reason why, but times are tough when you have to choose between him or Fetty Wap.
Best New Artist isn't always about who has had the most visible year though. When faced with mainstream recognition or credibility, there will always be a few spots open for the latter. Tori Kelly and twenty one pilots had a decent amount of Billboard success and could very well land here based on that. Walk The Moon is also a popular name voters will recognize due to the massive success of "Shut Up and Dance," which is likely ineligible for this year. Kelly seems to be the safest bet since she's proven that her voice can hold up well live and the blessing of producer/emperor Max Martin doesn't hurt.
Sam Hunt crossed over as well and one has to always be on the lookout for who the country voting contingent will get into the general field. In this case, I don't think the sales and airplay match up with the quality of the music and the standard Nashville has set for BNA over the past few years. Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark didn't exactly set the country charts on fire when they were nominated, which suggests that whoever was on the blue ribbon panel for those years was paying closer attention to the songs than the sales. I find Maddie & Tae much more agreeable in that regard and whoever hadn't heard "Girl In A Country Song" by the time BNA was being discussed, they likely would have been won over. However, I think Maddie & Tae would probably have been right on the border among top 15 vote getters, so I'm pretty skeptical about a country artist getting in here this year, which means the genre will likely be represented elsewhere in the general field.
In what I'll now call, "the Pitchfork pick," you can expect to see an artist who's just on the outskirts of the mainstream with a lot of clout in indie circles, based on some of the surprise nominees I mentioned earlier. Although she didn't have as much hype this year as when LP1 was released, FKA twigs stands a better chance for a nomination at the 2016 Grammys due to the seemingly nonstop press coverage, another full year of festivals under her belt and more pop culture awareness from dating Robert Pattinson. I really can't deny that her dating a movie star has made her more popular, as much as I hate to acknowledge it when it comes to an award that should be based on artistic merit. Luckily for twigs, the music holds up and she's as visually distinct as anyone to come down the pipeline in a while.
A few other contenders for the Pitchfork pick are CHVRCHES, Jessie Ware, Shamir and Tobias Jesso Jr., who I think could be a sneaky pick because of his association with Adele and good reviews. As I survey the possible nominees in the general field, things are looking a little lean on the rock side, which is why I like Courtney Barnett. With a surprising top 20 debut for her album and a few TV performances, she's officially on the radar and putting her in would make the Academy appear hip. Her lyrics are clever and she's probably had enough write-ups on her that she might be an even more consensus Pitchfork pick than FKA twigs.
On the hip hop/R&B side of things, Tinashe and Lianne La Havas are two standouts that if given a chance could work their way into the nominees based on the strength of their albums. La Havas in particular is an interesting choice because of the singer-songwriter angle and how photogenic she is, though I doubt she landed in the top 15. The safest choice left is Leon Bridges, an old school soul traditionalist with a striking voice. He doesn't exactly qualify as hip, but the press surrounding him has been positive and his talent would hold an appeal to voters across genres because of how familiar his sound is.
Predictions for Best New Artist:
Lianne La Havas
Maddie & Tae
Walk The Moon
twenty one pilots
Tobias Jesso Jr.
Years & Years
Don't forget to check back for my Album of the Year and Song of the Year predictions.