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THE GRAMMY WHISPERER ON ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Here we go again. The showdown between mainstream pop and contemporary R&B and hip-hop that has been the dominant Grammy storyline the last two years running is set to repeat this year.

With online voting for the 60th annual Grammy Awards taking place through 10/29, Ed Sheeran’s ÷ and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. remain the front-runners for Album of the Year. In February, you’ll recall, Adele’s 25 won in that category in a closely-watched contest with Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Two years ago, Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat Lamar’s previous album, To Pimp a Butterfly.

The last contemporary R&B or hip-hop artist to win Album of the Year as a lead artist was OutKast, which took the 2003 award for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. We’ll have to wait until Jan. 28 to see if Lamar has the heft to take the award that has eluded such post-2003 nominees as Alicia Keys, Usher, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Gnarls Barkley, Lil Wayne, Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Pharrell Williams, The Weeknd and Drake.

We’re rolling out pieces in which I look at the likely nominations in the “Big Four” Grammy categories. Next, I’ll huddle with fellow Grammy nerd Lenny Beer for a no-holds-barred conversation.

Both Sheeran and Lamar are past nominees in this category. Lamar’s breakthrough album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, lost to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. As noted above, his follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, lost to 1989. Sheeran’s previous album, x, lost to Beck’s Morning Phase.

For music critics, this showdown is no contest. DAMN. received a commanding score of 95 (tops for the year) at Metacritic.com; Sheeran’s album got a ho-hum 62. But critical acclaim doesn’t tell the whole story. Sheeran is a perfect artist for Grammy sensibilities, with broad-based appeal.

Lamar will become the third rapper to be nominated for Album of the Year three times as a lead artist. The first two were West and Eminem. Lamar will become the second rapper (following West) to achieve this feat with three consecutive studio albums. Moreover, he’ll become the first artist from any genre to receive three Album of the Year noms within the last five years.

For his part, Sheeran will become the fifth solo Englishman to receive Album of the Year noms for back-to-back studio albums. He’ll follow Elton John, Sting, Phil Collins and Steve Winwood—a classy grouping. Sheeran introduced the album’s biggest hit, “Shape of You,” on the Grammy telecast in February.

Miranda Lambert’s double album The Weight of These Wings won an ACM award for Album of the Year in April. It’s nominated for a CMA award in that same category. This would be Lambert’s first Grammy nom in this category; the first by any female country artist since Taylor Swift was nominated four years ago for Red. A nom for Lambert would put country music back in the Album of the Year finals after being shut out last year.

Ok, to this point it was pretty easy. A trained chimp could tell you that Sheeran and Lamar will be nominated. Lambert isn’t as much of a no-brainer—there are other strong country contenders in play this year—but still fairly obvious. But now it gets hard. Really hard. By my count, nine albums have a good shot at the two remaining slots. Let’s take them in descending order of their perceived likelihood of making it.

Harry Styles’ first solo album, Harry Styles, reached #1 and spawned a Top 5 single, “Sign of the Times.” This would be the first solo debut album by someone who became famous in a boy band to receive an Album of the Year nom since Justin Timberlake’s Justified 14 years ago. Jeff Bhasker, who served as executive producer of Styles’ album, has been nominated three times in this category, for his work on albums by fun., Swift and Sheeran.

SZA’s debut album, Ctrl, has gotten rave reviews. It would be the first debut album by a female artist to be nominated in this category since Lady Gaga’s The Fame eight years ago; the first debut album by an African American female artist to be nominated here since Lauryn Hill’s solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 19 years ago.

Bruno Mars24K Magic is a gold-plated question mark. Mars’ debut album, Doo-Wops and Hooligans, was nominated in this category six years ago. In addition, “Grenade,” a hit from the album, was nominated for Record and Song of the Year. Mars’ sophomore album, Unorthodox Jukebox, was passed over for an Album of the Year nom, but the lead single, “Locked Out of Heaven,” was nominated for Record and Song of the Year. The problem is that the singles from 24K Magic weren’t as compelling as Mars’ past hits. Still, the album as a whole, with its retro-soul sensibility, could be nominated. It goes without saying that Mars is a huge star. He made the cover of Rolling Stone last fall and was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile. He sang “That’s What I Like” on the Grammys.

Lorde’s long-awaited sophomore album, Melodrama, received glowing press (and a 91 score at Metacritic.com), though it didn’t have the commercial legs of her 2013 debut, Pure Heroine. Lorde was nominated for Artist of the Year at the VMAs—along with Sheeran, Lamar, Mars, The Weeknd and Ariana Grande. (Grande isn’t part of this discussion because she didn’t release an album during the Grammy eligibility period—Oct. 1, 2016 to Sept. 30, 2017.)

Jay-Z has never been nominated for Album of the Year as a lead artist; he was nominated as a featured artist on albums by Lil Wayne, Lamar and Beyoncé. Many significant artists have never been nominated for Album of the Year, but most of them are past their prime. A nom at this point wouldn’t really make sense. By contrast, Jay-Z is still going strong. His current album, 4:44, spent its first two weeks at #1. In June, he became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Another factor may come into play here: Many thought that Beyoncé would and should win in this category for Lemonade. A nomination for Jay-Z might, at least in some small way, be a make-up for that.

Like Jay-Z, Metallica has never been nominated for Album of the Year. Also like Jay-Z, Metallica is still going strong. Hardwired…to Self-Destruct debuted at #1, and thanks in part to an album/ticket bundle, remained high on the charts for months. But there’s a complication: The band performed “Moth Into Flame” on the Grammys with Lady Gaga. It almost feels like the Grammys already “honored” the album. The Nominations Review Committee, which determines the final nominations in the top four categories, isn’t supposed to take into account who did or didn’t perform on the previous year’s Grammy telecast, but they’re only human. It’s kind of hard to forget. Some committee members may look at this album and think “been there, done that.”

Foo FightersConcrete and Gold is the latest by the Grammys’ favorite rock band of the past decade. The group was nominated in this category with back-to-back studio albums, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007) and Wasting Light (2011), but fell short with its 2014 release, Sonic Highways.

Future did something in February and March that no artist had ever done: He debuted at #1 in back-to-back weeks with two studio albums. The first of those albums, FUTURE, could gain traction here. It spawned the Top 5 hit “Mask Off.”

Khalid, who, like SZA, is a leading candidate for Best New Artist, is also a contender here for his debut, American Teen. Khalid, 19, is vying to become the first teenage solo artist in Grammy history to receive an Album of the Year nom. (Janet Jackson, Swift and Carey were all 20 when they were first nominated.)

Those are the 12 albums that I think have the best chance of being nominated, but there are still more in play. One or more of these could do better than expected and wind up with
a nomination. So let’s keep going.

A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service and The Weeknd’s Starboy both came out in November. Both artists performed songs from these albums on the Grammys in February. A Tribe Called Quest performed “Movin Backwards” and “We the People…”; The Weeknd, joined by Daft Punk, performed “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming.” The Weeknd’s previous album, Beauty Behind the Madness, was nominated for Album of the Year two years ago. Starboy sold well, but (perhaps inevitably) it didn’t quite match the impact of its predecessor.

Chris Stapleton’s previous album, Traveller, was nominated in this category two years ago. If he’s nominated again this year for From A Room: Volume 1, he’ll become the first male country artist ever to receive two Album of the Year noms. If both Lambert and Stapleton are nominated for Album of the Year, this would mark the first time in Grammy history that two country albums have been nominated in the same year. Like Lambert’s album, From A Room: Volume 1 received a CMA nom for Album of the Year.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound also received a CMA nom for Album of the Year.

Kesha’s Rainbow is a contender, but she stands a better chance in the Record and Song of the Year categories for her power ballad “Praying.” That’s also true of these hit-driven albums—Lady Gaga’s Joanne, Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!,” Logic’s Everybody, DJ Khaled’s Grateful and Imagine DragonsEvolve.

Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker got rave reviews, but dead artists are at a distinct disadvantage in this category. Even David Bowie was passed over in this category last year. The last solo artist to be nominated in this category posthumously was Ray Charles 13 years ago. The reason is simple: Consciously or subconsciously, the committee members would rather give that spot to an artist with a future.

The Hamilton Mixtape will have some support, but the Grammys clearly missed an opportunity two years ago when they didn’t nominate the Broadway cast album from Hamilton in this category. A nom for this all-star cover album, after passing on the real thing, wouldn’t make much sense.

Other albums in the mix include Drake’s “playlist” album More Life, The Rolling Stones’ covers album Blue & Lonesome, Linkin Park’s One More Light, LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, Brand New’s Science Fiction, Arcade Fire’s Everything Now, The xx’s I See You, Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy and MigosCulture.

My early picks: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Ed Sheeran’s ÷, Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of these Wings, Harry Styles Harry Styles, SZA’s Ctrl.

Note: 897 albums were entered for Album of the Year, up slightly from 890 last year. So you can see it really is “an honor just to be nominated.”

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