The Best New Artist (BNA) award goes to the artist(s) only. Academy guidelines described it as the award “for a new artist who releases, during the Eligibility Year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist.”
There’s been much discussion and controversy on what is considered a “new” artist. For example, in 2001 country singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne won this award after having released five albums over a ten-year course. It is also the only category to have a winner ‘vacated’ after the infamous Milli Vanilli incident in 1990.
The rules of this category had been changed multiple times in the last ten years. Former GRAMMY or Latin GRAMMY winners are no longer eligible for a nomination, an artist must not have released more than three studio albums, and the blue-ribbon panel ultimately decides what’s considered a “new artist”.
All of this year’s nominee fit the guidelines. The five of them had their debut albums released during the eligibility period. Meghan Trainor is the only former nominee and there’s a fair representation from the mainstream fields: Courtney Barnett (alternative), James Bay (rock), Sam Hunt (country), Tori Kelly and Meghan Trainor (pop). We are only missing an urban entrant.
The difficult part of predicting a winner is that none of the nominees had the same breakthrough year that the last three winners (Sam Smith, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Fun.) had. So it is an open race, technically all the contenders have equal chances at winning.
Let’s take a look at the odds for each of the nominees. They are listed in order of likelihood of winning:
01. James Bay
- Field: Rock
- Debut album: Chaos and the Calm (2015, Billboard 200 peak: #15)
- GoldDerby odds: 1st (21/20)
- Artist also nominated for: Best Rock Song, Best Rock Album
Statistically speaking English blues-rock singer-songwriter James Bay has the best shot here. First, he enjoys a total of three nominations which proves a wider recognition within the Academy. He also fits the trend of previous male winners, and much like last year’s winner Sam Smith. Bay is up for the four major awards at this year’s BRITs.
James Bay enjoys stardom in Great Britain, however he is not much known outside the rock/alternative scene in the U.S. Also rock/alternative acts hadn’t been well favoured in this category. In the last 15 years, only two “rock” artists have won: Evanescene (2004) and Bon Iver (2012).
02. Courtney Barnett
- Field: Alternative
- Debut album: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015, Billboard 200 peak: #20)
- GoldDerby odds: 4th (12/21)
- Artist also nominated for: None
Australian indie-rock singer-songwriter, Courtney Barnett was one of the biggest surprises when the GRAMMY nods were announced last December. Some consider her to be this year’s “Esperanza Spalding” meaning she could upset everybody and take the award.
Barnett hasn’t hit the Top 40 radio and does not even care about awards shows, but her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was considered one of the best of the year. It reached the top ten from ‘best albums’ lists on numerous music publications such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and Stereogum. The album also won Best Independent Release at the ARIA (the ‘Australian GRAMMYs’) last November.
Barnett, however, is not doing very well in polls and prediction centers. Many GoldDerby forum posters consider there could be a voting split between her and James Bay. Voting split is not very common in this category: Macklemore won over Kendrick Lamar in 2014 and so did Adele over Duffy in 2009.
The reason I’m placing Barnett second is because in open-race years, when anybody can win, the least popular act takes the prize.
03. Sam Hunt
- Field: Country
- Debut album: Montevallo (2014, Billboard 200 peak: #3)
- GoldDerby odds: 2nd (10/13)
- Artist also nominated for: Best Country Album
Nashville singer-songwriter Sam Hunt won New Artist of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards (ACM) and the American Music Awards. He also contested that category at the Country Music Association Awards (CMA) losing to Chris Stapleton. Stapleton, however, was ineligible here as he’d been submitted before as part of the band The SteelDrivers.
Despite country musicians had to wait over 40 years for their first BNA win when LeAnn Rimes took the award in 1997. Three other country artists have won: Shelby Lynne (2001), Carrie Underwood (2007) and Zac Brown Band (2010). Since 2005 (except in 2011) there’s been at least one country artist nominated.
The odds against Hunt winning are the fact that his hit single, “Take Your Time” was completely snubbed in the country field and did not make the cut for Song of the Year despite being a favourite. The Academy also seems to be quite reluctant to award the so-called “bro-country” musicians.
04. Tori Kelly
- Field: Pop
- Debut album: Unbreakable Smile (2015, Billboard 200 peak: #2)
- GoldDerby odds: 5th (40/1)
- Artist also nominated for: None
California pop singer-songwriter Tori Kelly generated a lot of buzz in the last quarter of 2015 due to the success of her single “Should’ve Been Us”, right on time to receive her first GRAMMY nod for Best New Artist. Kelly was named ‘Breakthrough Artist’ at the Billboard’s Women in Music ceremony last month.
Kelly’s odds at winning have somewhat being underestimated. Sure enough that Kelly is too fresh for a win but she collaborates with music industry heavyweights like Max Martin and Ed Sheeran.
On the other hand, female pop singers no longer have the strong support they had back in the nineties. The last female pop artists to win were no less than Amy Winehouse in 2008 and Adele in 2009.
05. Meghan Trainor
- Field: Pop
- Debut album: Title (2015, Billboard 200 peak: #1)
- GoldDerby odds: 3rd (9/2)
- Artist also nominated for: None (Last year: Record of the Year, Song of the Year)
It is quite ironic to find one of the biggest hit-makers of the year and the most popular among the nominees as the least likely to win. The reason behind this is the fact that Meghan Trainor did not receive any other nominations this year.
Her number-one debut album, Title was a favourite for Best Pop Vocal Album, her hit single “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” with John Legend was considered a shoo-in for the Best Pop Duo/Group category and “Lips Are Movin'” was also a likely nominee for Pop Solo. In the end, she only received the expected BNA nod.
Trainor is now the third artist in a row to receive a BNA nod following a previous nomination the year before after Ed Sheeran in 2014 and Brandy Clark last year. Neither of them won but it’s worth to notice they had stiffer competition. Trainor could win and that would not shock anybody.
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