If we expect all that surplus muchness to mean anything more than “hooray for money,” then the most coveted prize at Sunday night’s 63rd Grammy Awards should be the trophy for album of the year. It’s always been the evening’s unofficial highest honor, but only in a vestigial sense since the dawn of the iPod — and that’s if you ever considered it an honor in the first place. The glitz and twinkle of Music’s Biggest Night can make it easy to forget that the Grammys is an industry-voted awards show — and that “excellence” is only ever what the music business wants to see when it looks in the mirror Monday morning.
On Sunday, the Recording Academy will celebrate how eight acts chose to fill — and overfill — their containers, elevating the artists’ reputations to the highest levels, then lifting one a little bit higher than the rest. As listeners, holding them all to the highest standards is the least we can do.
Dua Lipa, "Future Nostalgia"
This 25-year-old disco enthusiast starts her second album by telling two lies: “You want a timeless song, I want to change the game.” No thanks and not really — we very much want to feel time move forward, and Lipa is clearly playing the game. Her playbook is a three-ring binder with a single page clamped inside: Revive disco revivalism by grafting the fizz of Daft Punk’s “Discovery” to the bounce of Madonna’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor” to the throb of Lady Gaga’s “The Fame.” The good thing is that she commits to the plan with all of her heart and most of her lungs, which makes for a coherent, dignified kind of fun.
Still, this album is probably only as fun as whatever fun you can have to it. As a singer, Lipa is breathy and buoyant, but her lyrics skew literal. “Levitating” is a song about levitating. “Hallucinate” is a song about hallucinating. The rhythmic frisson in the music is much better at creating metaphysical side effects than the singer is at describing them, but there’s still mystery and melancholy in that riddle of an album title, “Future Nostalgia.” Will we look back on this era as an era when we wished it was another era? “Timeless” shouldn’t mean “we missed it.”
Haim, "Women in Music Pt. III"
Haim might have different ideas about future nostalgia. “Some things never change, they never fade, it’s never over,” Danielle Haim sings on “I Know Alone,” a delicate song about a relentless depression — but you might not immediately hear it that way, since this mind-melded sibling trio believes in nuance. Fluent in the brash gestures of rock-and-roll, they always deploy their broad strokes delicately and tactfully, giving the stories in their lyrics enough breathing room to feel real. They don’t seem to be performing their lives through their songs so much as living in them.
As for nostalgia kicks, most of the songs on “Women in Music Pt. III” sound like Sarah McLachlan fronting Fleetwood Mac, but there’s no anxiety of influence circling overhead. These sisters are Los Angeles recording studio habitues who play with such a nimble and knowing touch, they could change direction at any instant, like a flock of birds wheeling in the breeze. But here, they don’t. “Are we gonna give it another try?” asks one song. “I don’t wanna give up yet,” goes another. Inside the space of each line, each melody, they persevere.
Post Malone, "Hollywood's Bleeding"
When Post Malone received the Twitter version of a standing ovation back in April after live-streaming an entire set of very whatever Nirvana covers, it was hard to tell whether our pandemic desperation had driven us mad or if this was simply the latest example of pop’s most undeserving superstar being applauded for minimal effort. The bar feels characteristically low on “Hollywood’s Bleeding,” with the 25-year-old quasi-rapping toward dirtbag catharsis, cultivating his dark art with a smirk.
Everyone’s out to get Post on this album — his enemies, his exes, the entire Internet — so he retreats to rap-pop limbo, setting his bland grudges to corn syrup melodies that sound as if they were stolen from both Drake and Nickelback. Is there something Canadian about how Post Malone transposes displeasure into a hook? The harder you listen for that answer, or for any kind of answers, the more one song melts into the next, until everything feels like background music, until his grievances become an ambiance, and that’s American all the way.
Jhené Aiko, "Chilombo"
Whether you hear it as a failure or some kind of inside-out achievement, the quiet strangeness of Jhené Aiko’s third album lies in the singer’s ability to make a spectrum of emotions — affection, fury, desire, resentment, confidence, sleepiness, pride — all sound like one composite emotion, or really a sort of non-emotion that she delivers in a lovely, tuneful, uniform lilt. Whether she’s issuing tantrum warnings, (“When I get mad, I get big mad,” on “Triggered”) or lamenting her exhaustion, (“Why am I trying?” on “Born Tired”), we have no choice but to take her at her word. We can’t take her at her sound. This album’s 63 minutes burn slow, like an aromatherapy candle in the next room.
Black Pumas, "Black Pumas (Deluxe)"
If this Texas duo’s retro-soul vision is, in fact, as “psychedelic” as advertised, here’s how: Within seconds, the music should transport your mind’s ear inside a boutique coffee shop, or into the opening-credits sequence of an HBO drama, or maybe into the opening-credits sequence of an HBO drama set inside a boutique coffee shop. It offers a utility in its aura — of tastefulness, of craftsmanship, of its knowledge of cool and unimpeachable things, including Otis Redding’s growl and the RZA’s snare drum sounds. Released in 2019 and reincarnated in 2020, the album’s deluxe edition is a double-disc (or two panes of pixels on a screen) padded with live performances and some boring covers that will flatter people with medium taste (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Fast Car”), but there’s also a cover of the proto-punk group Death that gets so completely defanged, you might start to hear the espresso machine’s phantom hiss.
Coldplay, "Everyday Life"
Earlier this century, ridiculing Chris Martin seemed well on its way to becoming an Olympic sport, but eventually all of the self-appointed deputies holding Coldplay responsible for its milky mediocrity seemed to forget that the band ever existed. Now dunking on Coldplay feels like kicking a golden retriever — also, the golden retriever is one of the most high-profile global advocates for Syrian refugee relief, and he’s against racist policing and gun violence, too.
Without a doubt, it’s an unspeakably cruel world that Martin is trying to heal with this double album of humanitarian soft-rock, but his band’s half-finished U2 ballads try unusually hard. One song features an audio recording of what sounds like a White police officer harassing a Black motorist at a traffic stop in Philadelphia, and it ends with a children’s choir singing over the thump of a human heartbeat. There’s a fake gospel song about God’s grace and a fake Dylan song about gun control. At one point, Martin sings, “In Africa, the mothers will sing you to sleep and say, ‘It’s all right, child, it’s all right.’ ” Tell us more about Africa, Chris Martin.
“Everyone hurts, everyone cries, everyone sees the color in each other’s eyes,” he sings on the album’s title track. “Everyone loves, everybody gets their hearts ripped out.” This is the White savior’s lullaby: We are all the same. Platitudes dilute the truth. We’re not the same because we’re not treated the same, not in our streets, not in our schools, not in our workplaces and not at the Grammys. The very prize Coldplay is hoping to win here hasn’t gone to a Black artist since 2008.
Jacob Collier, "Djesse Vol. 3"
This 26-year-old British producer contributed a dinky track to that Coldplay album, and everything here is even worse. “Djesse Vol. 3” is a circus of meaningless virtuosity, a child’s magic show crammed with extra-caffeinated drum programming, overzealous synth filigree and too many cameos from too many people singing too fast. It’s all very wow and neato, like something you might hear at a Silicon Valley product launch or at the Grammys. If you must listen, “In My Bones” is meant to squiggle like a vintage Prince song, so at least Collier can locate one cardinal point. But let’s also remember that the Recording Academy nominated Prince for album of the year only twice and that he got blanked both times. It’s an embarrassment that this guy even gets to lose once.
Taylor Swift, "Folklore"
For roughly a decade now, it’s been difficult to listen to Taylor Swift’s music without hearing the world’s deranged reaction to it howling at our backs. How did something so ordinary become so extraordinary in our culture? How long will it stay this way? The whole phenomenon continues to feel absurd and sci-fi, like if only one person on the entire planet knew how to bake chocolate chip cookies.
And while we’ll never be able to hear Swift in a vacuum, “Folklore” might be as close as we ever get. Recorded in quarantine, it’s a spare, quiet album that allows her modest voice to work on its own terms, giving her songs a fresh verisimilitude in the process. “I’ve never been a natural,” she sings on “Mirrorball,” one of the truest, deepest, lightest, heaviest songs she’s ever written. “All I do is try, try, try.”
If she was trying to make her best album, she probably did. If she was trying to win a prize for it, she probably will.
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