It’s hard to make musical sense of 2012, and we really shouldn’t be counting on the Grammys (tonight at 8 on CBS) to do so for us. After all, there was no true zeitgeist-capturing movement, no radical new strain of popular music that felt like it absolutely had to happen; there was no huge shift in the collective consciousness that suggested any sort of cross-generational bonding over music. It all felt … well, random.
There was great music made. And there was PSY, the Korean rapper who answered the oft-posed question, “Is it possible to craft a song even more annoying than, say, ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’ or ‘You Can’t Touch This?’ ” Apparently, the answer is “Yes, it is.” Thanks, PSY.
The Grammys have not acted as a reliable barometer of what’s happening in music for at least a decade – and that’s being generous. They occasionally get it right – not nominating “Gagnam Style” in the Record of the Year slot was definitely a smart move, as was offering a tip of the cap to the beautifully weird Tom Waits in the Best Alternative Album category. More often, the Grammys get it wrong, whether by ignoring a vibrant new artist – say, Kendrick Lamar in the Best New Artist category, not that I’m suggesting he’s some sort of genius or anything – or by acting as if a true record-making genius like Steven Wilson doesn’t exist.
The problem, as has long been the case, can be pinpointed to the Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences’ difficulty in living up to its own mandate – to honor the most creative and artistically valid music made in a given year, over and above that which is merely commercially successful. It’s also tough to gloss over the fact that the Grammy Awards are a television show seeking ratings and advertising dollars. How does one honor music that displays the highest degree of creative integrity while still commanding a massive audience? Most of the time, one doesn’t.
It’s not all grim. For the 55th annual Grammy Awards, some great albums also happened to garner enough mainstream acclaim to make it into the coveted categories. And if there are, as ever, unpardonable omissions, there are deserving recordings in the running for high honors this year. Let’s have a look, shall we?
Album of the Year
The Nominees: The Black Keys, “El Camino;” Fun., “Some Nights;” Mumford & Sons, “Babel;” Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange;” Jack White, “Blunderbuss.”
Likely outcome: The academy is likely to go with Jack White. “Blunderbuss” is a strong record, but perhaps more important, White is an artist who has retained his underground credibility despite consistently flirting with the mainstream. That makes him a win-win in this category.
In a perfect world: There is no way the pedestrian pop/arena-folk of the hopelessly cloying Mumford & Sons should be in the running. My choice? Of those on offer, I’d go with the Black Keys.
Record of the Year
(Awarded to an individual song)
The Nominees: The Black Keys, “Lonely Boy;” Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You);” Fun., “We Are Young;” Gotye, “Somebody That I Used to Know;” Frank Ocean, “Thinkin’ About You;” Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
Likely outcome: Lord help us, the academy might go with Swift. She deserves a Grammy, in a category that doesn’t yet exist – “Worst Song Title of the Year.” But Record of the Year? No. If that nagging Grammy Mandate is a factor, then the battle will likely be between a pair of well-done novelty songs – Gotye’s cloyingly earnest “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Fun.’s homage to Freddie Mercury, “We Are Young.”
In a perfect world: Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” was the only mainstream-affecting song that offered any commentary beyond the narcissistic flogging of relationship-based clichés that plagues most of these nominated songs. Of the available, I’ll go with the Black Keys corker “Lonely Boy.” Great tune.
Best Rock Album
The Nominees: The Black Keys, “El Camino;” Coldplay, “Mylo Xyloto;” Muse, “the 2nd Law;” Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball;” Jack White, “Blunderbuss.”
Likely outcome: With the Black Keys and Jack White already showing up – and likely to win something – in other categories, the academy could choose to honor Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball.”
In a perfect world: Springsteen is the most deserving here. That said, I think Rush’s “Clockwork Angels” is a far superior album to everything on this list. Trey Anastasio’s “Traveler” should not have been overlooked, either.
Best Rap Album
The Nominees: Drake, “Take Care;” Lupe Fiasco, “Food & Liquor II;” Nas, “Life Is Good;” the Roots, “Undun;” Rick Ross, “God Forgives, I Don’t;” 2 Chainz, “Based on a T.R.U. Story.”
Likely outcome: I predict the academy gets it right in this category, by honoring Philadelphia’s soul-funk-R&B-hip-hop collective the Roots.
In a perfect world: I’d be happy with a win for the Roots, and equally happy with a nod for Nas, although it seems downright ludicrous that Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” was overlooked in this slot.
Best New Artist
The Nominees: The Lumineers, Alabama Shakes, Fun., Hunter Hayes, Frank Ocean.
Likely outcome: Fun. will most likely grab the golden gramophone.
In a perfect world: The Alabama Shakes and Frank Ocean both made excellent records this year, and both represent a breath of fresh air, musically speaking – the Shakes for their female-fronted acid-garage-soul-blues, Ocean for his uber-creative neo-soul.
Best Pop Solo Performance
The Nominees: Adele, “Set Fire to the Rain;” Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You);” Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe;” Rihanna, “Where Have You Been.”
Likely outcome: It will be all about Adele. She’s exactly the sort of deeply talented, middle-of-the-road artist the academy tends to love.
In a perfect world: This category could be far less yawn-inducing. These songs are all pretty lame, whether they happen to be well-sung, or otherwise.
Best Hard Rock/ Metal Performance
The Nominees: Anthrax, “I’m Alive;” Halestorm, “Love Bites (So Do I);” Iron Maiden, “Blood Brothers;” Lamb of God, “Ghost Walking;” Marilyn Manson, “No Reflection;” Megadeth, “Whose Life (Is It Anyways?).”
Likely outcome: The academy might take a chance here, since no one is likely to be paying too close attention to this traditionally untelevised category. They just might go with the Lizzy Hale-fronted fem-metal outfit Halestorm. That would not be a wasted choice.
In a perfect world: Iron Maiden’s live “Blood Brothers” is simply epic, a powerhouse marriage of prog-rock and metal. It’s a beast.
Best Alternative Album
The Nominees: Fiona Apple, “The Idler Wheel…;” Bjork, “Biophilia;” Gotye, “Making Mirrors;” M83, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming;” Tom Waits, “Bad as Me.”
Likely outcome: Gotye, I’m guessing. They’ll want to give the guy something to take home, and he’s not likely to beat out the competition for Record of the Year.
In a perfect world: Not only would Tom Waits be grabbing the Grammy, Tom Waits would also be president.
Best R&B Album
The Nominees: Robert Glasper Experiment, “Black Radio;” Anthony Hamilton, “Back to Love;” R. Kelly, “Write Me Back;” Tamia, “Beautiful Surprise;” Tyrese, “Open Invitation.”
Likely outcome: This category is pretty well stacked, but I’m predicting the academy goes with the weakest of the bunch – R. Kelly’s popularity remains immense.
In a perfect world: The Grammys, along with the rest of the world, would bow down and acknowledge the forward-looking brilliance of the Robert Glasper Experiment.