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GREIN ON GRAMMYS: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Look for women to do very well in the nominations for the 61st annual Grammy Awards. Female solo artists are likely to take at least three, and as many as six, of the eight nominations for Album of the Year. There are two main reasons for this strong showing.

First, women have had a great year. Cardi B had a smash debut album. Camila Cabello emerged as a solo star. Ariana Grande released her first new music since the One Manchester concert.

Second, the Grammys know that the nominations will be heavily scrutinized. This will be the first Grammys since Neil Portnow’s unfortunate remark that women need to “step up” and the first since the Recording Academy, in reaction, formed a task force to look at the larger issue of diversity in its membership and awards process.

First-round voting began on 10/17, so it’s time for me to make my final picks.

 

This is the first year that there will be eight nominees in each of the Big Four categories. Here’s how the process works, according to the Recording Academy. Rank-and-file members vote in the first round. Their Top 20 choices go to a top-secret Nominations Review Committee, which meets in a heavily guarded bunker somewhere in the Los Angeles area to winnow it down from 20 to eight. Then it’s back to the full membership to pick the winner.

Four albums seemingly can’t miss—Camila Cabello’s Camila, Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, Drake’s Scorpion and Ariana Grande’s Sweetener.

Cabello left a successful group, Fifth Harmony, and became an even bigger star on her own. How often does that happen? Cabello is vying to become the first woman who became famous in a group or duo to be nominated in this category with her first solo album since Gwen Stefani in 2005.

With her debut album, Cardi B became one of the most successful female rappers in history. Her album hit #1 and spawned a pair of #1 singles. Cardi B is vying to become the third female rapper to be nominated in this category, following Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott.

Scorpion has yielded three long-running #1 hits, “God’s Plan,” “Nice for What” and “In My Feelings.” A double album, Scorpion would be the first multi-disc album to be nominated in this category since Vince Gill’s four-CD set These Days in 2007. It would the first multi-disc hip-hop album to be nominated since OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which won 15 years ago. Drake’s last studio album, Views, was nominated in this category two years ago.

Grande has yet to receive a nomination in one of the “Big Four” categories, so she’s overdue. Her album has spawned two Top 10 hits, “No Tears Left to Cry” and “God Is a Woman.”

If all four of these albums make it, that leaves just four open spots. Here are the leading candidates to fill those spots. At the end of this discussion, I’ll give you my eight picks. You can play along with me and arrive at your own picks. I have no inside information, but after all these years of Grammy watching, I think I know how they think and how they operate.

Only two soundtracks have been nominated for Album of the Year in the last 25 years, so why am I so high on Black Panther: The Album? It was compiled and produced by Kendrick Lamar, a three-time nominee in this category (and a recent Pulitzer Prize winner). Both of the soundtracks that have been nominated in the last 25 years were, likewise, overseen by respected members of the music community. Babyface wrote and produced the songs on Waiting to Exhale, a 1996 nominee. T Bone Burnett produced O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the 2001 winner. Also, Black Panther was both a box-office smash and a cultural milestone—the first black superhero film.

Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer wasn’t a big commercial hit, but it has drawn stellar reviews. And Monáe came out as pansexual this year, which would give the roster added diversity. One of the main reasons for expanding from five to eight nominees, it seems to me, was to bring in more women, more artists of color and more critically hailed albums that weren’t necessarily blockbusters. Monáe has the Grammy winds at her back.

No country album made the finals last year. The committee members aren’t likely to stiff a major genre two years running, especially now that they have eight slots to play with. The two leading country contenders are Chris Stapleton’s From A Room, Volume 2 and Kacey MusgravesGolden Hour, both of which are nominated for the CMA award for Album of the Year. Stapleton, who was nominated here three years ago for Traveller, would become the first male country artist in Grammy history to receive two Album of the Year noms. Musgraves would become the first female country artist to be nominated in this category since Taylor Swift scored with Red five years ago.

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Swift has been nominated in this category with three of her last four albums. While reputation hasn’t done as well as her previous album, 1989, it had the biggest first-week sales of any album in this eligibility year—bigger, even, than Drake’s smash. If Swift is nominated and wins, she would become just the fourth artist in Grammy history to win Album of the Year three times. (The first three were Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon.) Does Swift belong in that company? Should the committee let such considerations affect their decision-making? Should they try to block all that out and focus strictly on the album’s merits? If they do, how does the album stack up to this year’s other contenders? The committee will doubtless spend a fair amount of time discussing these questions. It helps that the album’s fifth single, “Delicate,” was a legitimate radio hit that showed Swift off to her best advantage (unlike, say, the gimmicky lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do.”) Swift opened the show on the rival American Music Awards on 10/9, which probably won’t help her chances of landing a marquee Grammy nom. (It won’t kill them either, but it won’t help.)

The committee may decide that it would like to help boost a lesser-known artist to the next level with a nom in this category. They would be doing that with Monáe, but they could also do it with Leon Bridges or St. Vincent. Bridges’ sophomore album, Good Thing, produced a chart-topping hit in the Triple A format, “Bad Bad News.” St. Vincent’s fifth studio album, Masseduction, has gotten rave reviews. Her previous album, St. Vincent, won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album four years ago.

Paul McCartney is in the mix with Egypt Station, which became his first solo album to top the chart since 1982’s Tug of War (which was nominated in this category). McCartney reminded us of his star power (as if we needed a reminder) when his Carpool Karaoke segment was spun off into an hour-long, prime-time special. McCartney has received nine career noms in this category, more than any other artist. If Egypt Station is nominated, McCartney will become the only artist with Album of the Year noms in six decades. (McCartney and Paul Simon are currently tied as the only artists with Album of the Year noms in five decades.) Also, McCartney, 76, would become the oldest solo lead artist ever nominated in this category, surpassing Tony Bennett, who was 68 when he took the 1994 award for MTV Unplugged.

Another septuagenarian, John Prine, is a contender with The Tree of Forgiveness, which has received glowing reviews. Prine has never been nominated in this category. (His only “Big Four” nom was for Best New Artist of 1972. He lost to America.) A decade ago, an album like this would probably have been nominated. But I think the committee might be nervous about the prospect of a 72-year old white guy taking Album of the Year. That’s not the image the Grammys want to project right now. (The age thing could also work against McCartney.) Prine probably won’t go home empty-handed. He will probably win Best Contemporary Folk Album for the third time.

Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V is a contender. Wayne’s 2008 album Tha Carter III was nominated in this category. Other rap albums that may get a look include Travis Scott’s AstroWorld, J. Cole’s KOD, Pusha T’s Daytona and Eminem’s Kamikaze.

Post Malone’s beerbongs & bentleys has been a smash, building on the success of his debut album, Stoney. But there is no shortage of hip-hop contenders this year. Moreover, I think the committee might be nervous about the prospect of a white hip-hopper winning Album of the Year, potentially beating several African-American hip-hop stars. Four years ago, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis beat Lamar in four categories, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album. That wasn’t a good look for the Grammys (and didn’t do Macklemore any long-term favors).

After nearly two decades of stardom, P!nk has yet to be nominated for Album of the Year (as a lead artist). Her seventh studio album, Beautiful Trauma, may change her luck.

Beck won this award with his last album, Morning Phase. His follow-up, Colors, spawned four Top 10 hits on the alternative chart. But after Beck’s upset victory three years ago (over the likes of Beyoncé and Sam Smith), there may be a sense that he has been honored enough.

Jack White’s Boarding House Reach is a contender. White was nominated in this category once with The White Stripes and once on his own. A White concert film, Kneeling at the Anthem D.C., is making the rounds.

The Greatest Showman soundtrack has been a smash hit. But, as noted above, soundtracks that aren’t spearheaded by a music-biz power player rarely make it. Even such blockbusters as Titanic and Frozen were passed over in this category.

The CartersEverything Is Love got off to a fast start, but, like many albums these days, faded quickly. It is vying to become the first collaboration by a married couple to be nominated in this category since John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, which won the 1981 award. Both Jay-Z and Beyoncé were nominated in this category with their last studio albums—last two, in Beyoncé’s case. I think everybody concerned would rather hold off on a nomination until one of them has a good chance to win, rather than put them in the front row only to lose again. It’s one way to get a good seat, but it probably gets old after a while.

Other albums that have a reasonably good shot at a nom in this category include Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You, The Weeknd’s My Dear Melancholy (an EP), Sam Smith’s The Thrill of It All, Troye Sivan’s Bloom, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Carrie Underwood’s Cry Pretty, Miguel’s War & Leisure and Maroon 5’s Red Blue Pills.

So what will the nominees be? I’ve arranged my picks here in alphabetical order by artist, just as the Recording Academy will present them on 12/5.

Camila Cabello Camila
Cardi B Invasion of Privacy
Drake Scorpion
Ariana Grande Sweetener
Janelle Monáe Dirty Computer
Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour
Taylor Swift reputation
Various Artists Black Panther: The Album (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

If females do indeed take six of the eight nominations, that would constitute the best showing for women since female solo artists took four of the five nominations 20 years ago. Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the winner, beating Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions, Madonna’s Ray of Light, Shania Twain’s Come on Over and Garbage’s Version 2.0.

How many of the eight will I get right? We’ll find out on Wednesday, 12/5.

FOR FURTHER READING

Grein on Grammys: Record of the Year

Grein on Grammys: Song of the Year

Grein on Grammys: Best New Artist

Grein on Grammys: Country

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