The Grammy Whisperer Previews the “Big Four” Categories and More

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 likely to repeat next year. Ed Sheeran’s ÷ and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. are shaping up as the front-runners for Album of the Year. Last year, you’ll recall, Adele’s 25 won 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.

Who will Sheeran and Lamar face in the Album of the Year finals? And what about the other top categories? We’re about three-quarters of the way through the eligibility year (which ends Sept. 30), so let’s take a look.

I’ll discuss the top candidates for each of the Big Four awards, plus Producer of the Year. At the end of each category, I’ll fearlessly give my five early picks.

Album of the Year

Both Sheeran and Lamar are past nominees in this category. Lamar has been nominated twice. His breakthrough album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, lost to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. 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. Entertainment Weekly rated DAMN. as the best album of the year so far. It received a commanding score of 96 at Metacritic.com. Sheeran’s album got a ho-hum 62. But critical acclaim doesn’t tell the whole story. Sheeran is a perfect Grammy artist, with broad-based appeal. He has been nominated in each of the Big Four categories.

Lamar will become only the third rapper to be nominated for Album of the Year three times (as a lead artist). The first two were West and Eminem. Furthermore, Lamar will become only the second rapper (following West) to score with three consecutive studio albums.

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.

Bruno Mars24K Magic also has a good chance. Mars’ debut album, Doo-Wops and Hooligans, was nominated in this category six years ago. His sophomore album, Unorthodox Jukebox, was passed over for a nom, but it won for Best Pop Vocal Album. Mars is a huge star. He made the cover of Rolling Stone last fall and received a 60 Minutes profile. He sang “That’s What I Like” on the Grammys in February.

I just realized something: I don’t have a woman in the mix yet. In the last 30 years, a female solo artist (or an all-female group) has made the finals in all but two years. (Women were skunked in 2000 and 2012.) The women with the best chance this year include Miranda Lambert, Lorde and acclaimed newcomer SZA.

Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings won the ACM award for Album of the Year in April. A nom for her would also serve to put country back in the finals after being shut out last year.

Lorde’s long-awaited sophomore album, Melodrama, has been getting a tremendous amount of press. Her 2013 debut album, Pure Heroine, was passed over for a nom in this category, but it was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album.

Neo soul singer SZA’s debut album, CTRL., has also been getting rave reviews. It features collabs with such top hip-hop stars as Lamar and Travis Scott.

If the Nominations Review Committee that determines the final nominations in the Big Four categories picks with an eye to diversity—and we all know it does—it may go with Metallica’s Hardwired…to Self-Destruct. The band has yet to be nominated for Album of the Year, so it’s about time. The band performed “Moth Into Flame” on the Grammys.

The committee could nominate a second rap album (in addition to DAMN.). A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, the group’s first album in 18 years, drew rave reviews. The group performed two songs from the album, “Movin Backwards” and “We the People…,” on the Grammys. But the committee may decide that it would be smarter to not “split the vote” of members who would be open to voting for a rap album.

Many other albums have a good chance of making the finals. Among them: Harry StylesHarry Styles, The Weeknd’s Starboy (his last album, Beauty Behind the Madness, was nominated two years ago), Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1 (his last album, Traveller, was nominated two years ago), Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! and The xx’s I See You (EW put it in their top five for the year so far).

Other albums that are in the mix include Halsey's hopeless fountain kingdom, The Rolling Stones’ Blue & Lonesome (their only nom in this category was for 1978’s Some Girls), Drake’s “playlist” album More Life (Views was nominated this past year), Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, Green Day’s Revolution Radio (American Idiot was nominated for 2004) and Lady Gaga’s Joanne (she had three consecutive noms in this category from 2009-11).

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 last year.

Two new releases, DJ Khaled’s Grateful and Imagine DragonsEvolve, are also in the mix. Upcoming releases to keep an eye on include Jay Z’s 4:44 (due June 30), HAIM’s Something to Tell You (July 7) and Arcade Fire’s Everything Now (July 28).

My early picks: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Ed Sheeran’s ÷, Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, Metallica’s Hardwired…to Self-Destruct.

Note: Last year, 890 albums were entered for Album of the Year. So it really is “an honor just to be nominated.”

Coming next: Grein's initial Best New Artist picks