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GREIN ON GRAMMYS: HANDICAPPING THE NOMINEES IN THE BIG FOUR RACES

It doesn’t take a genius to know that Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Adele’s 25 are headed for Grammy nominations for Album of the Year. Two of Beyoncé’s last three albums—I Am… Sasha Fierce and Beyoncé—were nominated in the category. Adele won the award with her previous album, 21.

But who will these megastars face in the finals?

The eligibility year for the 59th annual Grammy Awards ended on 9/30. Let’s see how the key races—Album, Record and Song of the Year and Best New Artist—are shaping up.

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.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Beyoncé has amassed 20 Grammys, but just one of those awards came in one of the Big Four categories. That was when “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” took the 2009 award for Song of the Year. This may lead to a sense that she’s due for another big win. Lemonade was the critics’ choice as the best album of the first half of the year at three key outlets—Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and Metacritic.com.

It’s too early to know if Adele’s 25 will win the Grammy for Album of the Year on Feb. 12. But just being nominated would defy the odds. This would be the first time that an artist’s follow-up to an Album of the Year winner has been nominated in that category since Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft (the follow-up to Time Out of Mind) was a 2001 finalist. (How to explain this? It’s hard to follow an Album of the Year winner. Greatness is expected. Anything less than that is viewed as a disappointment.) Could 25 somehow fall short of a nomination? That’s really hard to imagine. It will be there.

A dozen albums are duking it out to fill the other three nomination slots. Let’s take them in descending order of their perceived likelihood of landing a nomination.

Drake’s Views is the year’s top album in terms of Sales Plus Streaming, with 13 weeks at #1. The album’s success has dramatized the increasing importance of streaming, which gives it an added sense of significance. But it has drawn mixed reviews. And Drake has yet to be nominated for Album of the Year. (Of course, he has never had a year like this before.)

The Recording Academy changed its rules in June to extend eligibility to albums that haven’t been commercially released. That’s good news for Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, which made history when it became the first album to hit the charts based solely on streaming. The album has drawn rave reviews. EW hailed the album’s “fusion of gospel, electronic and hip-hop music.” Grammy voters often respond to music that bridges genres.

Grammy voters also like a compelling back-story. How’s this? Faded teen idol comes back convincingly with a #1 album that spawns three #1 singles. The songs update his sound and allow him to neatly segue into a mainstream pop career. I’m talking, of course, about Justin Bieber and his album Purpose. Pop’s other Justin, Mr. Timberlake, received Album of the Year noms for his first two solo albums, on which he made a similar transition.

Paul Simon and Grammy voters are “Old Friends,” to cite the title of a song from Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 album Bookends. Simon’s latest album, the well-reviewed Stranger to Stranger, may give him his eighth career Album of the Year nomination. That would allow Simon to set three Grammy records. He would have the longest span of Album of the Year nominations (48 years, going back to Bookends). He would become the first artist in Grammy history to receive Album of the Year nominations in six consecutive decades. Finally, Simon, who turns 75 on Oct. 13, would become the oldest lead artist ever nominated for Album of the Year. The only hitch (and it’s a big one): The album came and went quickly. Here’s a possible hint: Simon will appear at the Grammy Museum in L.A. on 9/30 for “A Conversation With Paul Simon.” Tickets, priced at $100, benefit the museum. I don’t think this means that Simon is assured a nomination. But it does suggest that the album is on the Grammy radar. The committee that selects the final nominees will likely have a spirited debate on Bieber vs. Simon; on the importance of reflecting the current music scene vs. honoring pop traditions. Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall for that one?

Sia’s This Is Acting also has a good chance. The album’s second single, “Cheap Thrills,” became her first #1 hit.

David Bowie received one Album of the Year nom in his lifetime, for 1983’s Let’s Dance. If he’s nominated for Blackstar, which was released two days before his death in January, he’ll become the first lead artist to receive a posthumous nomination in this category since Ray Charles was nominated (and won) 12 years ago for Genius Loves Company. Here’s a possible complication: There’s no way to “pay off” the nomination with a performance on the telecast. Besides, the Grammys already paid tribute to Bowie on this year’s show (via Lady Gaga’s 10-song medley).

Maren MorrisHero and Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood are the top country contenders. Don’t take my word for it: Morris and Church are the only artists to be nominated for Album, Single and Song of the Year at the upcoming CMAs.

Frank Ocean’s sophomore album, Blonde, is also a strong contender. Ocean’s 2012 debut, channel ORANGE, was an Album of the Year nominee. Ocean would become the first artist since Lady Gaga to be nominated in this category with both of his or her first two studio albums.

Rihanna could land her second nomination in this category with the hit-laden ANTI. She was a finalist five years ago for Loud.

Radiohead, who have been nominated for Album of the Year three times, could be back for a fourth time with A Moon Shaped Pool. Only two rock bands have amassed four or more Album of the Year noms—The Beatles, who lead with five, and U2, who have had four.

Bon Iver’s 22, a million is due to be released on 9/30, the last day of eligibility. It’s the group’s first album since 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, which won two Grammys—Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album.

Other top candidates include Coldplay’s A Head Full of Dreams, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman, Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, The 1975’s I Like It When You Sleep…, Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered, Keith Urban’s Ripcord, DJ Khaled’s Major Key and The Lumineers Cleopatra. 

Note: twenty one pilotsBlurryface isn’t eligible. It was entered for Album of the Year last year. The album’s key tracks, “Stressed Out” and “Ride” are, however, eligible for Record and Song of the Year.

To recap: The likely nominees are Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Adele’s 25, Drake’s Views, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and Justin Bieber’s Purpose.

 

RECORD OF THE YEAR

When the Grammys got underway in 1958, this was widely seen as the top award. During the heyday of the album, it fell behind Album of the Year in prestige. Now that singles once again dominate the industry, this is arguably again the top award.

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

Lukas Graham’s “7 Years,” a reflection on the passage of time, is the kind of thoughtful, well-crafted single that Grammy voters have favored for decades.

Adele’s blockbuster ballad “Hello” also seems like a sure thing. This would give Adele her third nom in this category. She was nominated for her breakthrough hit, “Chasing Pavements,” and won for “Rolling in the Deep.”

Beyoncé’s “Formation” has a timely #blacklivesmatter theme, which may give it a boost. “Formation” took Video of the Year at both the BET Awards and the VMAs. EW rated it as the best song of the first half of the year. Beyoncé has received four Record of the Year nominations (counting one with Destiny’s Child). If she receives a fifth nom this year, she’ll tie Barbra Streisand as the woman with the most career Record of the Year noms in Grammy history.

twenty one pilots have three Top 10 hits that are eligible: “Stressed Out,” “Ride” and “Heathens.” “Stressed Out” was released in the spring of 2015, but it wasn’t entered last year, and thus is eligible this year. Since it was the duo’s breakthrough hit, it may have an edge over the other two. twenty one pilots would become the first rock group or duo to make the finals in this category since Imagine Dragons scored with “Radioactive” three years ago. The fact that they aren’t eligible for Album of the Year or Best New Artist means this is their best shot. That could work in their favor here.

Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” (featuring Sean Paul) may round out the category. Sia’s breakthrough hit, “Chandelier,” was nominated for Record and Song of the Year two years ago. And this smash was even bigger.

Two Canadian chart titans, Justin Bieber and Drake, head the list of likely runners-up. Bieber had two #1 hits, “Love Yourself” and “Sorry,” during the eligibility year. Drake had one, “One Dance” (featuring WizKid and Kyla).

The Chainsmokers“Closer” (featuring Halsey) and ZAYN’s “PILLOWTALK” are also high on the list of alternates. Both were global #1 smashes. Justin Timberlake’s feel-good smash “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is a little light in tone for a Record of the Year nom. But he’s a Grammy fave, having been nominated three times in the category.

James Bay’s “Let It Go” is also eligible. Bay received three nominations last year, including Best New Artist and Best Rock Album. In fact, he performed “Let It Go” on the Grammys in February.

The Weeknd’s “Starboy,” which was released just before the Sept. 30 eligibility cut-off, could also make the cut, and we may see a single from Bruno Mars as well. This would be Mars’ fifth nomination in this category in the past seven years; The Weeknd’s second in a row.

Other possibilities include Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” (which features an uncredited Beyoncé), Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man,” P!nk’s “Just Like Fire,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Piece by Piece,” Kanye West’s gospel-infused “Ultralight Beam” (featuring Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream and Kelly Price) and Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem” (featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz). 

Notes: Alessia Cara’s “Here,” The Chainsmokers’ “Roses” (featuring ROZES) and Grace’s “You Don’t Own Me” (featuring G-Eazy) would have been strong contenders, but they’re not eligible. All were entered last year. The Weeknd’s “The Hills” and Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” are out because they appeared on albums that won Grammys last year. 

To recap: The likely nominees are Lukas Graham’s “7 Years,” Adele’s “Hello,” Beyoncé’s “Formation” twenty one pilots’ “Stressed Out” and Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” (featuring Sean Paul).

 

SONG OF THE YEAR

The nominees for this songwriter’s award often overlap to a large degree with the nominees for Record of the Year. But not always. In 2004, for the first and only time in Grammy history, there was no overlap.

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

Lukas Graham members Lukas Forchhammer and Morten Ristorp co-wrote “7 Years” with Stefan Forrest and Morten Pilegaard.

Adele co-wrote “Hello” with Greg Kurstin. This would be Adele’s third nom in this category; Kurstin’s second. Adele was nominated for “Chasing Pavements” and won for “Rolling in the Deep.” Kurstin was nominated for the Kelly Clarkson smash “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” Trivia note: Lionel Richie’s “Hello” was nominated for Song of the Year 32 years ago. If Adele’s song is also nominated, this will mark the first time in Grammy history that two different songs with the same title have been nominated in this category.

Justin Bieber co-wrote “Love Yourself” with Ed Sheeran and Benny Blanco. This would be Sheeran’s third nom in this category in the past five years. He was nominated for “The A Team” and won for “Thinking Out Loud.”

Beyoncé co-wrote “Formation” with Khalif Brown (of Rae Sremmurd), Jordan FrostAsheton Hogan and Mike Will Made-It. This would be the superstar’s third nom in this category.

James Bay co-wrote “Let It Go” with Paul Barry. The ballad has the instant-standard quality of last year’s winner, “Thinking Out Loud.”

Kurstin, who seems a shoo-in for a nom for “Hello,” has two other strong candidates in the running—“Cheap Thrills,” which he co-wrote with Sia, and “Piece by Piece,” which he co-wrote with Kelly Clarkson. Kurstin has a fairly good chance of becoming the first songwriter (or songwriting team) with two songs in the finals in the same year since Elton John & Tim Rice scored 22 years ago with two songs from The Lion King. (No one has ever had three Song of the Year nominees in one year.)

Thomas Rhett co-wrote “Die a Happy Man” with Sean Douglas and Joe London. One or more country songs has made the finals in this category in five of the last 10 years. And this song, which mentions Marvin Gaye, has broad appeal. (It’s nominated for Song of the Year at the CMAs.)

Hit machine Max Martin, who has been nominated four times in the category (including the last three years in a row) has two strong candidates this year: “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” (which he co-wrote with Justin Timberlake and Shellback) and “Just Like Fire” (which he co-wrote with P!nk, Shellback and Oscar Holter).

The Chainsmokers’ Andrew Taggart and featured vocalist Halsey co-wrote “Closer” with Shaun Frank and Frederic Kennett. Two members of The Fray are also credited, owing to the song’s similarity to an old Fray hit, “Over My Head (Cable Car).”

Other top candidates include “Stressed Out” (written by Tyler Joseph), “PILLOWTALK” (which ZAYN co-wrote with Levi LennoxAnthony HannidesMichael Hannides and Joe Garrett), “Hymn for the Weekend” (written by Coldplay), “One Dance” (which DrakeWizKid and Kyla co-wrote with Nineteen85Noah “40” ShebibLogan SamaDJ MaphorisaChina Black and Luke Reid) and “Ultralight Beam” (which Kanye WestChance the RapperKirk FranklinThe-Dream and Kelly Price co-wrote with Mike DeanDonnie TrumpetSwizz BeatzNoah GoldsteinJerome PotterSamuel GriesemerCyhi the Prynce and Fonzworth Bentley).

(Writer credits used to be so simple: Lennon/McCartneyBacharach/DavidGoffin/King. I kind of miss that.) 

To recap: The likely nominees are Lukas Graham’s “7 Years,” Adele’s “Hello,” Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” Beyoncé’s “Formation” and James Bay’s “Let It Go.”


BEST NEW ARTIST

 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 BookChance 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 StrumbellasBishop BriggsKaleoDesiigner, Troye Sivan, Jordan SmithFlume, 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 HamiltonDNCE, 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 pilotsSturgill SimpsonAndra DayTy 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.

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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