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GRAMMY ALBUM OF THE YEAR: WILD CARDS AND LATE BREAKERS

If you missed our initial list of what we consider the top contenders for Album of the Year, go read that first. This time we look at the rest of the competition as we see it, starting with the key dark horses and going farther afield from there.

THE OUTSIDE LANE

Bo Burnham, Inside (Imperial/Republic via Ingrooves): As we've noted elsewhere, the multiple-Emmy-winning Inside—the soundtrack to Burnham’s riveting one-man show on Netflix—is as powerful and cohesive a work about the present moment as we’ve heard, taking on a wild variety of styles. It’s a genuine album rather than just a collection of songs, speaking (with robust humor and real gravity) to the weird circumstances of the pandemic and their affect on our mental health. Burnham was pushed out of BNA and Comedy Album by insider dealings; will his brave, brilliant creation get its due?

Chris Stapleton, Starting Over (Mercury Nashville): The Academy could play it safe and acknowledge CS instead of Morgan Wallen—Stapleton’s work is strong and admired well outside country, though his five Grammy wins and 13 noms have all been in that genre category. He’s been playing with members of The Heartbreakers, and Starting Over has the nourishing, rootsy familiarity of Petty’s late records. And man, that voice.

Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You (Columbia): Few artists have done such fine work in the retrospective, reflective mode, and Letter to You is perhaps the pinnacle of this phase in the Boss’ fantastic career. The material and performances just soar; if there’s a spot for a “classic” artist among the nominees, Bruce is arguably the leading candidate.

Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight (RCA): The standard bearers of rock have been around for a quarter century-plus, but with Medicine they venture into new musical territory, playing with dance grooves and scrambling their approach to songwriting and arrangement. In the process they remind us of their abiding strengths—melodic invention, energy and tons of heart. Regarding that “classic” spot, Foos would be Bruce’s primary challenger.

H.E.R., Back of My Mind (RCA): Adored by Grammy (SOTY winner, multiple nominee), this gifted artist and multi-instrumentalist—whose blazing guitar solo a few years back was a true moment—has yet to make a musical statement that breaks through to the mainstream. Could the star-studded Back of My Mind be the one to do it? The set feels less retro and more in sync with the current hip-hop/R&B zeitgeist than her previous efforts.

THE PROBLEM CHILDREN

Kanye West, Donda (G.O.O.D./Def Jam): He's had his biggest impact in some time with the musically eclectic and thematically devout Donda; the difficulty, again, is with the artist rather than the work. Ye’s MAGA nonsense, chaotic bids for attention (including at the Grammy podium) and absurd 11th-hour tinkering eclipsed a truly engrossing and original album that reminds us why Kanye became a massive producer and top-tier artist in the first place. Will he be recognized for it, or relegated to the Gospel and Rap categories? It would be very smart of Grammy to include him, for all sorts of reasons.

Morgan Wallen, Dangerous: The Double Album (Big Loud/Republic): Here we have a classic case of “irresistible force meets immovable object.” Wallen’s Dangerous is simply too big—and too good—not to be acknowledged, but his drunken use of a racial slur stained his reputation—and Grammy, with its studiously public attention to social justice and diversity, doesn’t want that stain on its immaculate shirtfronts. Will Wallen always have an asterisk next to his name? How might his CMA situation alter the dynamics here?

SURPRISES, WHAT-IFS AND/OR WTFS

WizKid, Made in Lagos (Starboy/RCA): As the Afrobeat movement continues to gain momentum, this Nigerian artist is poised to become not only its foremost exponent but its next superstar. He’s been at it for more than a decade but is clearly having a moment, as evidenced by high-flying single “Essence” f/Tems. Lagos merges danceable grooves and melodic elements from all over the planet into a mighty tasty elixir, aided by guests like Damian Marley, Burna Boy and Skepta.

Hildur Guðnadóttir & Sam Slater, Battlefield 2042: Official Soundtrack (EA Music): Icelandic composer/musician Guðnadóttir has collected an Oscar, some Grammys and an Emmy, among other laurels, for her brilliant score work on Joker and Chernobyl. Here she and collaborator Slater enter new territory with a sonic collage that manages to evoke the EA game’s dystopian vision in all its anxiety and kaleidoscopic strangeness—and is a compelling album experience all its own. Suggesting predecessors as diverse as John Cage and Nine Inch Nails, Battlefield is a harrowing, brilliant odyssey.

Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales (RCA): Another exceptionally strong adult-R&B set, this veteran writer/singer's latest is packed with truth-telling earworms like the magnificent “Pick Up Your Feelings.” Sullivan is a powerhouse vocalist who at times recalls Mary J. Blige at her most gorgeously raw, but her influences are pleasingly eclectic, embracing hip-hop, jazz, pop and rock.

Hej Prijatelj, Kuverta Polna Bumpskega (Dejanski Zapisi): This Slovenian glam-metal troupe tempers its bombast with incandescent folk melodies, creating some truly otherworldly moments. After the global success of Måneskin, could Grammy recognize a leather-clad Eastern European collective that runs its accordion through a wall of Marshall amps? We like to think anything’s possible.

LATE BREAKERS 

These two albums, one released on 9/24 and the other due on 9/30 in a deadline-obliging cassette-only drop (with other formats to follow on 10/1), are likely the last two major sets to come out within the Grammy eligibility period as possible AOTY contenders. 

Mickey Guyton, Remember Her Name (Capitol Nashville): Guyton has been a disruptor in the country world, crafting beautiful work that directly confronts issues that much of the “heartland” would prefer not to address. For that reason alone she became the first Black female artist to earn a Country Grammy nom. But don’t put Guyton in a box as a protest singer—she’s as strong a writer and vocalist as anyone in Nashville, as this solid set amply demonstrates.

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, Love for Sale (Streamline/Columbia/Interscope): Once upon a time, before she fully conquered the world, Gaga seemed a wild choice for a pairing with legendary crooner Bennett, but the combination (on 2014’s Cheek to Cheek) proved smoother than a perfect martini. Their return engagement—a gambol through the Cole Porter songbook—is made infinitely more poignant by the fact that it will almost certainly be the ailing Bennett’s final recording. Expect Grammy to reward this set accordingly, and don’t rule out a valedictory AOTY nod.

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