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GREIN ON GRAMMYS: HANDICAPPING THE NOMINEES, PT. 1

The eligibility year for the 59th annual Grammy Awards ends 9/30. Let’s see how the key races—Album, Record and Song of the Year and Best New Artist—are shaping up. First up: Best New Artist. But first, some background on how nominees are chosen.

As you probably know, there’s a two-step process to becoming a nominee in these top four categories. First, voting members of the Recording Academy make their choices. Then, a select committee of Grammy insiders reviews the voters’ top 20 choices in each category. This panel’s vote determines the final nominees. So the committee can catapult something from #20 in the first round of voting into the top five. But if it’s #21 in the first round, the committee never sees it. That makes predicting these things a little tricky.

I wrote an earlier version of this piece that ran in June. Much can change in three months, so I adapted that earlier piece to bring it up to date.

 
This has always been the hardest category to define. It has caused the academy more grief than any other category, from the anointing of Milli Vanilli to the disqualification on a technicality of Whitney Houston to such dubious outcomes as two-hit wonder A Taste of Honey beating Elvis Costello. To its credit, the Academy keeps trying to get it right. The rules were changed again this year. To be eligible, an artist must have released a minimum of five singles/tracks or one album, but no more than 30 singles/tracks or three albums; may not have entered into this category more than three times, including as a performing member of an established group; and must have achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and impacted the musical landscape during the eligibility period.

Got all that?

Let’s take this year’s candidates in descending order of their perceived likelihood of landing a nomination.

With a good chance of an Album of the Year nomination for Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper is a lock to be nominated in this category. Fun fact: Chance, 23, wasn’t even born in 1989 when Tone Loc became the first rapper to be nominated in this category.

Two country artists, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, have a good chance of making the finals. Both are nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year at the CMA Awards. (In addition, Morris is nominated for Album, Single and Song of the Year.) Morris’ first major-label album, Hero, topped the country chart in June. Ballerini’s “Peter Pan” is the current #1 country single.

This would be the first time in Grammy history that two country artists were nominated in this category in the same year. The Fine Print: Brad Paisley and Shelby Lynne were both nominated in 2000, but by then Lynne had shifted her focus from country to pop. Gretchen Wilson and Los Lonely Boys were both nominated in 2004, but the Tex-Mex trio’s “Heaven” was a pop hit that crossed over to country.

Ten other acts are vying for the other two spots.

The Chainsmokers have had three Top 10 hits this year, including the chart-topping “Closer.” They have released an EP, but they have yet to release a full-length studio album—a sign of the times.

Shawn Mendes has gone from opening act for Taylor Swift to landing a pair of Top 10 hits, “Stitches” and “Treat You Better.” Mendes, 18, would be the youngest Best New Artist nominee since fellow Canadian pop star Justin Bieber, who was just 16 when he was nominated in 2010. Note: Mendes’ eligibility will probably be debated at the annual Screening Meetings. His debut album, Handwritten, entered the chart at #1 in April 2015. There’s no question, though, that his career heated up this year.

Alessia Cara had a classic debut single, “Here.” She was a Best New Artist nominee at the BET Awards in June.

Halsey, whose 2015 debut album, Badlands, was widely admired, gained additional exposure this year as a featured artist on The Chainsmokers’ #1 smash “Closer.”

Bryson Tiller, whose debut album, TRAPSOUL, made the Top 10,  won two major prizes at the BET Awards—Best New Artist and Best Male R&B/Pop Artist. He was also a Best New Artist nominee at the VMAs.

Margo Price, whose Midwest Farmer’s Daughter has received raves, was nominated for two and won Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards.

With likely nominations for Record and Song of the Year, Lukas Graham also has a fairly good chance here. But a nom is not assured. Four years ago, Gotye won Record of the Year for “Somebody That I Used to Know,” yet wasn’t nominated for Best New Artist. Gotye never landed another Top 40 hit. Lukas Graham has reached that threshold with “Mama Said.” The Danish group was nominated for Best New Artist at the VMAs.

Charlie Puth, who was nominated for three Grammys last year, including Song of the Year for “See You Again,” has gone on to have a string of mainstream pop hits. One of them was a collabo with Meghan Trainor, who won this award in February.

Rachel Platten had a big hit last year with the anthemic “Fight Song.” The smash has had a second life as a pep-rally song in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Platten, 35, would be the oldest Best New Artist nominee since Brandy Clark, who was 37 when she was nominated two years ago.

The 1975, whose I Like It When You Sleep… was a #1 album, would be the first English rock band to make the finals since Bastille two years ago.

Other candidates include The Strumbellas, Bishop Briggs, Kaleo, Desiigner, Troye Sivan, Jordan Smith, Flume, Tory Lanez, Old Dominion, X Ambassadors, Melanie Martinez and Bebe Rexha. 

Notes: Leslie Odom Jr. isn’t eligible, because he won a Grammy as a “principal soloist” on Hamilton. DNCE, which won Best New Artist at the VMAs, isn’t eligible, on the grounds that its leader, Joe Jonas, was already prominent. Also ineligible: twenty one pilots, Sturgill Simpson, Andra Day, Ty Dolla $ign and Anohni. 

To recap: The likely nominees are Chance the Rapper, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, The Chainsmokers and Shawn Mendes. 

A  final thought: As you can see, these categories are extremely competitive. Last year, 431 artists were entered for Best New Artist—and that was the least crowded of the Big Four categories. (More than a thousand songs were entered for Song of the Year.) So when artists (excluding the never-satisfied Kanye West) say “it’s an honor just to be nominated,” it really is. People in the media throw the word “snub” around a lot. If an artist isn’t nominated, they were “snubbed.” But it may just mean they came in sixth or seventh or eighth, still a good showing, just not quite good enough. n 

Paul Grein has been reporting on the Grammys long enough to know that Alessia Cara wouldn’t be the first artist with that surname to receive a Best New Artist nomination. Irene Cara (no relation) was nominated in 1980.

 

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