The 57th Annual Grammy Awards come to you Sunday, February 8th. Rather than complain about the rigged system or make fun of the losers, this year I thought I’d consider the nominees in the “big four” categories on their own merits and decide how I’d order them and dish out the awards.
Record, Album, and Song of the Year, along with Best New Artist, are the only four awards at the Grammys that are not genre-specific. Naturally, they’re also the Academy’s signature awards and the ones with the most prestige attached. For any questions about how these categories are distinguished, how nominations work, or when a work must have been released to be considered for this year’s awards, I refer you to my FAQ.
1. Meghan Trainor – All About That Bass (Kevin Kadish, producer; Kevin Kadish, engineer/mixer; Dave Kutch, mastering engineer)
Every song in this category has clean recording and smooth production, so they all basically “sound great.” Only this song features an outstanding vocal performance. Trainor has the most pleasant voice among the nominees, though I will entertain arguments; beyond question is her dominance in the emotive department. Sweet, powerful, coy, and completely in charge of the pitches, she doesn’t just sing this song—she is this song. The sparse arrangement exposes every attack and release in the mix, so Kadish detailed the sound levels like a painter working with oils. Everything is going right here. Easy winner.
2. Sam Smith – Stay With Me (Darkchild Version) (Steve Fitzmaurice, Rodney Jerkins & Jimmy Napes, producers; Steve Fitzmaurice, Jimmy Napes & Steve Price, engineers/mixers; Tom Coyne, mastering engineer)
“Stay With Me” divides me. It sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? Yes, and the key to its beauty is the religiosity. I believe this is why the Darkchild version was nominated rather than the album mix. Darkchild chose to replace a string section in the final chorus with an electric organ, which feels right with the air established by the Gospel choir. But he also added a double-time shaker in the bridge that makes that section feel uptempo, which is jarring, where the original record remained somber throughout. Sam Smith is a good singer, isn’t he? He can be, but imagine how lovely this song would’ve been if performed by a crooner like Michael Bublé who didn’t rely so heavily on whispy falsetto. In fact, imagine if they had just nominated the version featuring Mary J. Blige! It’s right there on the single, and she is a much better fit for the song! Despite the quality product, suspect decisions tell me this one could’ve been better.
3. Iggy Azalea f/ Charli XCX – Fancy (The Arcade & The Invisible Men, producers; Anthony Kilhoffer & Eric Weaver, engineers/mixers; Miles Showell, mastering engineer)
The rapper born Amethyst Kelly knows how to flow. Singing, on the other hand, she wisely leaves to others (most of the time). Sadly, Charli XCX feels like she was invited onto this track either for her punky persona or, more likely, for the sake of publicity sharing between the two up-and-comers. It wasn’t to make the thing sound better. I like the beats, and the snaps, and the guys saying “Hey!” over and over in the background. Then Charli XCX pulls up to the mic and everything crumbles for me. There is plenty to like in this song, but I cannot rate this one any higher when the hook is so weak.
4. Taylor Swift – Shake It Off (Max Martin & Shellback, producers; Serban Ghenea, John Hanes, Sam Holland & Michael Ilbert, engineers/mixers; Tom Coyne, mastering engineer)
You won’t find a bigger Max Martin fan than me, so let me be clear that I think this is one of his worst efforts of the decade. Wikipedia lists brass players for this track, but if those aren’t synthesized horns, then they must be processed. They don’t sound like real instruments being played by professionals. After the cheerleader-style bridge, Taylor Swift starts to sing freestyle over the track, and she sounds glorious. It highlights just how much the bulk of the song is outside of her ideal vocal range, either in pitch or in attitude. Her throat sounds tight or strained in every verse and at the top of each descending chorus line. The hook is good enough, and sales indicate that this is a successful piece of pop. Still, all the promotion behind what our resident Taylor aficionado rated the fourth best track on its own album leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
5. Sia – Chandelier (Greg Kurstin & Jesse Shatkin, producers; Greg Kurstin, Manny Marroquin & Jessse Shatkin, engineers/mixers; Emily Lazar, mastering engineer)
In an attempt to be anthemic, the engineers here decided to overwhelm both the listener and Sia’s voice with big bass notes and heavy-hitting chords. I find the result neither engaging nor convincing. David Guetta might be a genius, because Sia doesn’t sound half as good on this track as she did on “Titanium,” and the attitude “Chandelier” calls for in the chorus is pretty similar. People must really love screaming this song out on the road for it to be as popular as it is.
1. Beyoncé – Beyoncé
The Queen proves once again that capitalism works. She is such a hot commodity that writers and producers have to compete for her to record their songs. Competition breeds quality, and Beyoncé’s fifth studio album is stuffed to the brim with quality contributions by dozens of musical geniuses working like their job is on the line. The singer herself, of course, is also brilliant, which is the key to the whole thing. While sex jams appear in numbers here, they each seem to come from a different decade, from 1980’s to 2020’s. Rap, pop, soul, and everything else Beyoncé attempts here scores with a swish.
Lyric: “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker.”
Best Track: “***Flawless”
2. Ed Sheeran – X
No mere singer-songwriter, Sheeran breaks out intense pounding tracks and rap delivery when needed to keep things feeling fresh throughout this surprising album. Clean production and crisp sound allow you to sit back and enjoy while the young Brit demonstrates how to groove with a guitar. After this album, I’ve come to view him as somewhere between “Adam Levine, but not an asshole” and “Jason Mraz, but cool.” Songs like “Thinking Out Loud” indicate that the classic storyteller approach and timeless melodies are also well within his range.
Lyric: “I’m not a rapper, I’m a singer with a flow.”
Best Track: “Nina”
3. Beck – Morning Phase
It’s been six years since Beck made a new album, and much, much longer since “Loser.” Morning Phase actually makes more sense if you’re not familiar with any of the artist’s successful songs. It is spacious, light, and pleasing to the ears, with plush acoustics and vocal harmonies. This one can swallow you if you’re not careful. Unfortunately, what warms in the first few tracks becomes tepid by the end as some back-half duds strive just to be inoffensive. The closing piece, at least, is a worthy denouement.
Lyric: “When the morning comes to meet you, rest your eyes in waking light.”
Best Track: “Blue Moon”
4. Pharrell Williams – Girl
Everybody loves funk, right? Funk revivalism is good for your body, mind and soul. I just wish it had a better missionary. Pharrell has earned credibility working behind the scenes in the industry, and after his 15 minutes here maybe he’ll go back. With so many synthesized instruments, a mediocre vocal performance, and fabricated energy, Girl leaves much to be desired. You can dance to it, for sure! But we’re talking about the Album of the Year and I think we need higher standards. Don’t take my word for it: listen to some of the songs that aren’t “Happy.”
Lyric: “Inhale, exhale, in and out, like a seal.”
Best Track: “Happy”
5. Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour
It turns out that Smith’s eager falsetto really rubs me the wrong way no matter what he’s singing. Every track here is stylistically derivative, as if he fashions himself a singer in a classic tradition. Smith is not that singer. If he wants to make an impression, he’ll need inventive compositions, or at least ballads that rely on more than simple string arrangements to carry them. For better or for worse, this album is also significantly shorter than the other nominees, suggesting to me that this wasn’t an example of trimming the fat and keeping the meat, but of keeping every song they recorded.
Lyric: “Although I try my best, I still let down the team.”
Best Track: “I’m Not the Only One”
1. Hozier – Take Me To Church (Andrew Hozier-Byrne, songwriter)
Based on chord progressions alone, this would be the most compositionally interesting nominee. Melodies that match the lyrics are much more than icing, though, and Hozier designed them to rest on soulful jazz rhythms so that his voice could dig into heavy notes and relax on others. Proper instrumentation and arrangement help to elevate the otherwise average chorus. (Incidentally, the fact that I don’t enjoy listening to this song is a testament to the distinction between Song and Record of the Year.)
2. Meghan Trainor – All About That Bass (Kevin Kadish & Meghan Trainor, songwriters)
Showcasing a completely different facet of the musical diamond known as jazz, Trainor and Kadish make pure fun look easy. The excitability and joy in Trainor’s voice are written into every note and tossed around like a beach ball between the string bass, the hand claps, the sax, and everybody else in the mix. Unlike so much of today’s pop, this one’s even got a spirited drum part and interesting licks for the guitarist in the background!
3. Taylor Swift – Shake It Off (Max Martin, Shellback & Taylor Swift, songwriters)
Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em! Tell ’em! Tell ’em what you told ’em! It’s standard advice for composing a powerpoint, but it gets a little old in song form. It’s hard to tell if the chord progression ever changes across this entire piece and the verse structure is maddeningly repetitive. The hook is good, but too short, so they just use the same hook three times in a row. Why is this nominated when “Blank Space” spent nearly twice as long atop the charts?
4. Sam Smith – Stay With Me (Darkchild Version) (James Napier, William Phillips & Sam Smith, songwriters)
Piano, pleading words filled with fear, and a Gospel choir combine to a truly brilliant effect. Putting those sounds together was one great idea in a song fraught with errors. The percussionist and bassist are too busy dying of boredom to sustain the song from underneath. Darkchild’s version makes some changes to the arrangement that I highlighted above, both good and bad. It’s funny—I think this song could have produced a better record than it did, even though the song itself is a subpar attempt at a very simple style.
5. Sia – Chandelier (Sia Furler & Jesse Shatkin, songwriters)
Other listeners must be hearing something I’m not. The chorus is structured repetitively, the way bad country songs are. There aren’t many instruments involved at all, just synths blasting us with long chords. Loudness isn’t an instrument! This song derives most of its effect from sheer volume, parading as catharsis. The vocals were mixed low relative to the synths and strings because the songwriters knew where the action was and wanted to trick listeners into cranking up the dial.
I remember hearing Tegan and Sara’s “Closer” and thinking of all the pre-teens who didn’t know that it sounded like every pop love song from the 80’s. Haim is better. If synthpop had stayed in vogue an extra five or ten years, with access to 2014 recording technology, it would’ve eventually produced Haim. I love when a group goes beyond revivalism to actually evolve an old genre. In fact, Haim’s debut album features an array of styles and ends up sounding more modern than retro. All three singers give confident performances to back up the heavy hitters in the tracklist including the utterly cool “My Song 5.”
2. Brandy Clark
Country music is in dire need of some sprucing up. The last three years have seen three country artists nominated for Best New Artist—Kacey Musgraves, Hunter Hayes, and The Band Perry—and no winners. Does Brandy Clark bring something new to the industry? Her lyrics prove her a skilled storyteller, but that’s area where I believe Nashville already excels. Her ballads and rockers are above average, by and large. What sets her apart are her groovers. Clark has been writing songs much longer than she’s been famous, and her experience arranging a group of instruments to form a solid pulse, something the song can float on, really comes to bear on 12 Stories. The result is an album that feels varied and constantly new without a clunker in sight.
My one-line description of Bastille would read “Wide sonic palette, narrow stylistic palette.” Let me unpack that. These boys make great use of every tool and every sound available to them in the studio and on their laptops. Despite coming from new angles, though, they keep hitting the same note. Compared to MGMT, who lost Best New Artist to a country band in 2010, I’d say Bastille does a little less to advance modern synthpop. Check out their catalogue if you’re in the market for loud, intense drums and keyboards playing songs about coming to terms with the past.
4. Iggy Azalea
Taking The New Classic in its entirety, Azalea suffers from a severe lack of hooks. She’s a talented rapper with enough real-world hardship to back up her lyrics, but great music takes more than rhymes. These songs need help, and the help that’s getting brought in to handle chorus duty is second-rate. As soon as she finds either a better producer (who can get her some slicker beats) or better guest artists to sing on her tracks, Azalea will have a real shot at reaching the top and staying there.
5. Sam Smith
He’s in this category, too? For crying out loud!
I’d love to see all my #1 choices above win their awards this year. Even if I get all four wrong, though, there are three other awards this year that I feel invested in:
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical
Max Martin has never won a Grammy. Outside of a few record label owners, he is the most important man in American and worldwide radio over the last twenty years, and he has no golden gramophone statuettes to show for it. He has been nominated for Record of the Year (as a producer) several times, most recently… well, most recently this year, for “Shake It Off,” which he also wrote, and which is also up for Song of the Year. But it would be a shame for such a weak song to earn him his first win.
His Producer of the Year nomination lists five additional tracks from the past year bearing his imprint, at least four of which are better than “Shake It Off.” Three of them feature Ariana Grande, who I believe is a solid gold talent who will turn platinum with his guidance. (Oh wait, My Everything is already triple platinum and Martin’s three singles off it are a combined ten-times platinum.) This is the award Martin should win, and these are the kinds of songs that should earn the Academy’s honors.
Best Music Video
“Turn Down For What,” by DJ Snake and Lil’ John, has one of the greatest videos of this century. It’s worth watching three times in succession. It’s the best thing to hit YouTube since Ke$ha made “Blow.” For anyone else to win this category would be a travesty.
Best Children’s Album
I don’t know anything about this category or any of its nominees, but I do know that Appetite for Construction is a brilliant name for a children’s album, and The Pop Ups therefore have my vote and my undying gratitude.