So on Tuesday, when the Recording Academy unveiled a new list of nominees for its 64th annual awards show on Jan. 31, it seemed to be getting things right and wrong at the same time. There were unexpected names and faces, but many of the same old problems.
Let’s start at the top with the nominees for album of the year, where the academy appears to be reviving its tendency to nominate artists after they’ve stepped down from their creative peak: Eminem in 2011, Dave Matthews Band in 2010, Radiohead in 2009. A decade-or-so later, this problem now gathers over the head of Kanye West, whose latest album, “Donda,” is easily the most unfocused and abysmal of his career. What a bizarre trip. The academy nominated West’s first two albums for album of the year (he lost in 2005 and again in 2006), but once the rapper began truly steering the direction of pop music writ large, Grammy voters took him out of the running. Now he’s up for the big one again.
A tangential Grammy problem at the top: Atonement for snubbing legends in their more relevant yesteryears. It’s still hard to compute Steely Dan winning album of the year in 2001, and Herbie Hancock winning it in 2008, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss winning it in 2009. Now, in the record of the year category, we have Abba’s “I Still Have Faith In You,” a ballad that sounds as if it were written just for Grammy voters. New Abba music might be a cool thing to put in your parents’ Christmas stocking, but it doesn’t belong here.
Redundancy is another problem in the top genre-blind categories — record, album, song of the year and best new artist — and the congestion lends itself to potential sweeps, like Billie Eilish’s four-for-four victory in 2020. No doubt, Eilish’s music was worthy of top honors that year, but not all of them. Newcomer Olivia Rodrigo threatens to repeat history with her worthy debut album, “Sour,” and its worthier hit single, “Drivers License.”
Last gripe, two examples: Overdoing it with the musician’s musicians. Jon Batiste topped Tuesday’s Grammy slate with 11 nominations, including two of the biggies, record and album of the year. And yes, Batiste is deeply fluent in the rich musical and social traditions of Louisiana jazz, not to mention he’s highly recognizable from his nights on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” But would anyone call him the zeitgeist musician of this wildly unique moment?
And then there’s Silk Sonic, a neo-pseudo-funk duo featuring 2018 album of the year winner Bruno Mars and rapper-singer-drummer Anderson Paak. The band made its splashy premiere during this year’s Grammy telecast, stirring Philly soul and Ohio funk into a people-pleasing mix that, on the band’s highly adept new album, feels as convincing as an expensive Halloween costume.
The only accessory these guys need now is a tiny golden gramophone. On Grammy night, they’ll be up for four, and you best believe they aren’t going home without one.
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