Mac Wilson examines the major Grammy races


Grammy Award statuette
Grammy Award statuette for Simon Gogerly, engineer on 2006 Album of the Year, U2's 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb'. (James Munson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr)

When Grammy nominations were announced yesterday, I made predictions and proclamations in my head, then second- and third-guessed myself, all in the span of minutes. With the Grammys, what seems obvious is often obvious, except for when they leave you reeling with a curveball. I feel like I spent every pixel in the run-up to last year's ceremony declaring Beyoncé's self-titled album a shoo-in for Album of the Year, only for Beck's Morning Phase to walk away with a stunning win in the category.

So what looks like a sure thing may be anything but — except for when a dominant artist (e.g. Adele four years ago) runs a wire-to-wire victory campaign. Even as we look at Adele's historic chart performance this fall, she could be an ostensible lock in the 2017 Grammys, or for all we know, her star could fade between now and then (it could happen). So with that in mind, I'll try to handicap some of this year's major Grammy races.

Record of the Year / Song of the Year

A yearly reminder that Record of the Year refers to the recording, and is awarded to artist and producer, while Song of the Year is awarded strictly to the songwriter. The nominees in the two categories tend to overlap, and there are some years when a single dominant song can easily sweep to victory in both categories (as was the case with Sam Smith's "Stay with Me" last year, for instance). Being nominated in both categories is definitely a boon, but missing out in one category does not preclude a song in another; "Get Lucky" and "Somebody That I Used to Know" were not nominated for Song of the Year, but still won Record of the Year. In those years, Song of the Year went to a fellow Record of the Year nominee ("Royals" and "We Are Young," respectively) so it's not as though voters necessarily feel compelled to match votes in the two categories; they will vote for the strongest contender in each category. Despite the fact that Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" was bafflingly snubbed for Record of the Year at the 2010 ceremony, it still won handily for Song of the Year (it remains Beyoncé's only major Grammy win to date, but I digress).

This year, there are two commonalities between Record and Song of the Year: Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" and Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud." By looking at their fellow Song of the Year nominees, one can detect the tracks that must have been near-misses for Record of the Year; Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth's "See You Again" was considered a possible contender, and Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" has been appearing on many year-end singles lists. (Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" rounds out the contenders). Sheeran and Swift stand out as immediate favorites, but Swift's "Blank Space" in particular seems to stand head-and-shoulders above the field. Remember: This is a songwriting award, and the fact that Ryan Adams translated the song (along with the rest of 1989) in a high-profile yet faithful way, makes "Blank Space" already feel like part of the great American songbook. I'd be surprised if "Blank Space" didn't win, but Lamar's "Alright" is riding on a zeitgeist wave, and could make a run at becoming the first hip-hop song to win Song of the Year.

Even if Swift wins Song of the Year for "Blank Space," she faces stiff competition for Record of the Year. Along with the aforementioned "Thinking Out Loud," the nominees include D'Angelo's "Really Love" (the strong showing of which indicates that D'Angelo must have just missed out on an Album of the Year nomination), the Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face" (meaning that, given his work with both Swift and the Weeknd, producer Max Martin will be competing against himself) and Mark Ronson's raucous collaboration with Bruno Mars, "Uptown Funk." There was perhaps no song that permeated the popular consciousness like "Uptown Funk" this year (I went to five weddings in 2015, and "Uptown Funk" was played at every one; it already feels like it's been around for decades) and this sense of ubiquity paid off for Daft Punk two years ago (in what was a remarkably competitive field, in retrospect). "Uptown Funk" is probably the slim favorite, due to its good-timey vibe, but this could also very well be a year in which Taylor Swift runs the table. The early Pop Performance categories could give a hint how Record of the Year will go ("Blank Space" goes up against Sheeran and the Weeknd for Pop Solo Performance, while "Uptown Funk" is matched with Swift and Kendrick Lamar's "Bad Blood" in the Duo/Group Performance category). If Swift wins both of those awards, she'll be a lock for Record of the Year; if "Uptown Funk" wins on its own (or if The Weeknd or Ed Sheeran can mount an upset), this one will go down to the wire.

Best New Artist

The Best New Artist curse may have subsided in recent years (Alicia Keys, John Legend, Maroon 5, Carrie Underwood and Adele all have tremendous careers), while the jury is still out on Fun., Macklemore and Sam Smith (to say nothing of the dormant Bon Iver). This year's contenders are all solo artists (and all eminently spoonerizable): Courtney Barnett, James Bay, Sam Hunt, Tori Kelly, and Meghan Trainor. Trainor seems like the favorite; she already has a Record of the Year nomination under her belt for "All About That Bass," though this is her only nomination this year. James Bay is up for two awards in the Rock category, and if he can somehow win one or two of those awards, it could bode well for him with Best New Artist. Courtney Barnett is probably the sentimental favorite for many of The Current's listeners, though as with HAIM last year, the mere fact that she's nominated is a thrillingly ecstatic triumph that only goes to show that her star continues to rise.

Barnett may very well win — if you look at the last few years, there are some shockingly high-profile names in the "nominated" category who did not win, so just because she does not have the name recognition of Meghan Trainor, it does not preclude her from winning. I'll be crossing my fingers for Courtney Barnett, but my hunch is either James Bay or Sam Hunt will win, inspiring 10,000 Twitter jokes about Best New Artist going to white guys named Sam with boring last names.

Best Alternative Album

This category begins awash in bizarreness, as four-time nominees Death Cab for Cutie are over in the Best Rock Album category; on its face, this seems fine, but then one realizes their competition is James Bay, Highly Suspect, Muse, and … Slipknot?! It's even stranger, then, that Alabama Shakes' chooglin' second album, Sound and Color, is here in the Alternative category. The White Stripes captured this award three times, and the Black Keys won it for Brothers, the best classic-rock album of the last decade, so the boundaries are, as always, amorphous. Alabama Shakes will be squaring off against 2005 winners Wilco (for Star Wars), one-time loser Tame Impala (for Currents), two-time losers My Morning Jacket (for The Waterfall) and Björk, who has been nominated for this award six times before, yet has never won (in her career, Björk is 0-for-13 at the Grammys; a loss this year would bump her into the dubious top 5 of all time). This feels like a coronation for Alabama Shakes, and they also seem poised to capture Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, en route to …

Album of the Year

I considered submitting this piece with five different predictions for Album of the Year; the winner changes depending on if you refresh the page! While that seemed a bit extreme, there's still a compelling case to be made for each of the five nominees in this category.

Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color

Four months ago, I would have thought this was the front-runner. Two months ago, I would have thought it was a marginal nominee. Now? It's the only rock record in the category, giving it a sonic uniqueness. The last five Album of the Year winners have been core records on our airwaves; could The Current Effect extend it to an SEC-like sixth in a row?

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

One of the two sure things (along with 1989) before nominations were announced, Lamar's third studio album is being widely hailed as one of the very best albums of 2015. It will probably win the Pazz and Jop critic's poll, will earn Lamar another handful of awards (he won two last year, and is nominated for an additional 10 this year), to say nothing of To Pimp a Butterfly's profound impact on our culture and our society. The superlatives pour out in a torrent: Lamar would be the first solo male hip-hop artist to win Album of the Year, only the second solo hip-hop artist after Lauryn Hill, and only the third hip-hop artist after Hill and OutKast. Two years ago, Macklemore infamously topped Lamar in four separate categories, leading to Macklemore's increasingly cringe-worthy attempts to apologize after the fact. Now, Lamar stands tall as one of music's most crucial figures, and an evening of him stepping to the podium 10 times (he is competing against himself in the Best Rap Song category) would surely make for one of the most gratifying moments in Grammy history.

Chris Stapleton, Traveller

Stapleton is a longtime songwriter for many of country music's most popular figures; Traveller is his debut full-length album. The record has been roundly hailed as one of the finest country albums of the year, and he is nominated for three additional awards as well. The last solo male country musician to win Album of the Year was Glen Campbell in 1969(!), and the country music bloc may very well cast their support in his direction. He almost certainly will not win, but he could siphon votes from Taylor Swift or even Alabama Shakes. (The "country" spot for Album of the Year probably should have gone to Kacey Musgraves, but Swift's presence in the field probably hurt her as well.)

Taylor Swift, 1989

The commercial smash of 2014 (released after last year's eligibility deadline), 1989 has to be considered the immediate favorite. One could probably even read the release of Ryan Adams' cover album of 1989 as a sort of visibility reissue campaign for Swift's original record. The album is, dare I say, Born in the U.S.A.-esque in its stunning run of singles over the last 14 months. Remember, though: Born in the U.S.A. didn't win Album of the Year; it somehow lost (along with Purple Rain!) to Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down. Herein lies the million-dollar question: will 1989 join Born in the U.S.A. (and Beyoncé, and Late Registration, and Swift's own Red) in the "How on earth did they lose?" annals of history, or will it join Adele's 21 as one of those "It was a sure thing all along; there was never any doubt at any stage"? Ultimately, the book will only be written once the envelope is opened.

The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness

In a year of success beyond what Abel Tesfaye could have ever dreamed (although it was absolutely in line with his stated career goals), the Weeknd earned a total of seven nominations. Three hit singles on one album is a pretty decent way to get an Album of the Year nomination, and while he's bound to pick up a couple of Grammys this year, Album of the Year seems like a recognition of his talents and his acension to mainstream success. If he winds up winning every other award (which would entail surprising wins over Swift in multiple categories), he could win here, but when the strongest argument for winning is that "nobody expects him to win," while the argument is paradoxically valid, it isn't necessarily a rousing portent of success.

Look at it this way: every year, each of the five albums receives votes, substantial votes. Whether by genre, by label, or demographic, there are entire blocs of voters who can (and do) swing support from one place to another. While voting results are not made public, I'd wager a guess that even the most successful album of the century, Adele's 21, probably barely cracked the 50 percent majority mark to win; with four other opponents, this still qualifies as a resounding landslide. (Each of the other four nominees probably had about 12% a piece, which is still 1 out of every 10 voters).

This past year, after taking a full day to process how Beck's Morning Phase could have beaten Beyoncé, it came down to numbers: even if we wrote off Ed Sheeran and Pharrell Williams with a bare 5 percent each, it probably means that tallies were somewhere around: Beck, 32 percent; Beyoncé, 30 percent; and Sam Smith, 28 percent. If you can capture 33 percent (one out of every three voters), you are in great shape. Even if Taylor Swift only gets two out of every five votes, that will probably put her in pole position for victory.

I ultimately feel that Album of the Year could be determined by how many votes manage to get siphoned away from 1989. She has a country competitor (Stapleton), she has a pop competitor (the Weeknd) and she has a rock competitor (Alabama Shakes); all three artists will receive a due share of votes. My initial hunch (a very conservative one, mind you) is 15 percent for Alabama Shakes and 10 percent each for Stapleton and the Weeknd, leaving a little under two-thirds of the overall votes to be split between the two monolithic contenders, 1989 and To Pimp a Butterfly. Even for all the album's accolades, Lamar doesn't seem to have garnered the same acclimation-like wave that carried Lauryn Hill and OutKast to victory; this Onion article isn't Kendrick Lamar … yet.

It is possible that Lamar will ride a growing groundswell of support to Album of the Year, but I don't see enough support eroding away from Swift to keep her from winning. It's not as though it wouldn't be a historic victory in its own right, though: no woman has ever won Album of the Year twice for her own solo contributions. Only four artists have won more than once for their own solo records (as opposed to collaborations): Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and U2. It is tempting to say that Taylor Swift will become the fifth (and also tempting to say that Adele will become the sixth in 2017) but that's why they vote on these things.

Let the race begin.

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