A Southern rock band teamed with some of the best producers in the industry; a Compton rapper who created one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the decade; a Nashville songwriter who stunned the country music world with his solo debut; a pop star who had the highest grossing tour in the world this past year; and a Canadian singer who dominated the charts with a soulful voice and drug-induced lyrics. That’s the profile of the five outstanding nominated artists for Album of the Year (AOTY).
Even though the Academy treats the big four categories equally, there’s no doubt that AOTY is the most prestigious. Not only because it is usually the last award to be presented in the telecast (last year it wasn’t). But because is an award for an entire album and everyone involved in the “make up” of that album wins; artist(s), producer(s), engineer(s), mixer(s) and even featured artist(s).
The last round of voting closed about a month ago and in a little more than twenty-four hours, an envelope at Los Angeles’ Staples Center will be opened containing the name of the winning Album of the year.
Despite this, there are still some heavy discussions among pundits and fans alike on who is taking the top prize of the night. Can Kendrick Lamar win despite of the hip-hop bias? or Alabama Shakes because of all the tech nods and live instrumentation? Taylor Swift because she is Taylor? Stapleton? The Weeknd?
Let’s take a look at some of the past winners in terms of genre. Out of the fifty-seven winning albums of the past editions, pop albums (on its many sub-genres and variations) have won a total of 18 times, making up around 32% of the winners. Pop is followed by fourteen rock albums and the next favourite genre is folk with thirteen wins. But it is interesting to notice how the predilection for a certain genre have changed throughout the years.
In the first ten years of the GRAMMYs (1959-1969), traditional pop and jazzy albums won for the first eight years until 1968, when The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s… became the first rock album to win AOTY. The following year the first country album won: By The Time I Get to Phoenix by Glen Campbell. Despite this, it wasn’t until thirty-three years later, in 2002, when the next country album won: the O Brother Where Art Thu? soundtrack. To this day, a total of only four country albums had been named Album of the Year.
In the 1970s, folk and funk albums dominated the award, winning three times each. In 1979, the first and so far only Disco album won: The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack led by the Bee Gees.
The 1980s saw a dominance of pop and rock albums. In 1991 jazz came back to the list of honorees when Quincy Jones won for Back on the Block, an album with hip-hop influences. And it wasn’t until 1999 when the first ever hip-hop album won (though it was categorized as R&B): Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
In the 2000s, there was more jazz, rock, country come back, another hip-hop album won, and the only pop album to win had a jazzy sound (Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me in 2003).
The five first winners of this decade represent five different genres -or fields-. Country (Fearless), Alternative rock (The Suburbs), pop (21), Americana/folk (Babel), EDM (Random Access Memories), and rock (Morning Phase).
It is also worth mentioning that despite the dominance of rock music in this category, the first “alternative rock” album to win was Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs in 2011. This form of rock music had its origins in the early 1980s and its sound had changed dramatically in the past three decades. But the point here is to notice that it takes quite a bit of time for most of the old Academy voting members to adapt and embrace the evolution (and the emergence) of a certain genre.
Are Academy members biased against a specific music genre? Alternative rock? Hip-Hop? or what about Country? only four wins in fifty-seven years. Or are the Academy members simply biased against new styles of music, young artists, computerized instrumentation, and politically-incorrect lyrics? Maybe yes, maybe no. The truth is there is always room for surprises. And maybe room to add hip-hop to that diverse list of winners of the 2010s.
I am not going into much detail on who should or will win. There’s been plenty of discussion in the GoldDerby forums here and here; accusations of racism in Fusion; explanation of genre bias in Yahoo and Rolling Stone. But, here is a summary of what everyone else is saying:
Taylor Swift’s 1989 is officially the favourite to win, according to pundits. If Taylor fails to score her second AOTY win, it is because the production team from Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color were able to conquer enough votes to win. There also seem to be consensus that neither The Weeknd or Chris Stapleton can win. But if either of them do it should not be a surprise.
I am going against all odds and predict Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly for the win. And if it does it should not be the result of ‘white guilt’ but the acknowledgement of a sub-genre of hip-hop music as a legit form of art, as well as the cultural impact the album generated throughout a year.
Here is a ranking of my predictions:
#1 Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
- Field: Rap
- Billboard 200 peak: #1 (2 weeks)
- GoldDerby odds: 2nd (10/3)
- Artist GRAMMY record: 2 wins / 20 nods
- Album also nominated for: Best Rap Album; tracks on Song of the Year, Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (won Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song last year).
- Also nominated here: Snoop Dogg, who could break his infamous record of most nominations without a win, with sixteen
#2 Alabama Shakes — Sound & Color
- Field: Alternative
- Billboard 200 peak: #1 (1 week)
- GoldDerby odds: 3rd (9/2)
- Artist GRAMMY record: 0 wins / 7 nods
- Album also nominated for: Best Alternative Music Album; Producer of the Year, Non-Classical; Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical; tracks on Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song
- Also nominated here: Mastering engineer Bob Ludwig who has won AOTY for the last three years.
#3 Taylor Swift — 1989
- Field: Pop
- Billboard 200 peak: #1 (11 weeks)
- GoldDerby odds: 1st (10/11)
- Artist GRAMMY record: 7 wins / 29 nods
- Album also nominated for: Best Pop Vocal Album; tracks on Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance (track “Shake It Off” received 3 nods last year.)
- Also nominated here: Max Martin, who won Producer of the Year, Non-Classical last year.
#4 Chris Stapleton — Traveller
- Field: Country
- Billboard 200 peak: #1 (2 weeks)
- GoldDerby odds: 4th (33/1)
- Artist GRAMMY record: First-time nominee
- Album also nominated for: Best Country Album, Producer of the Year, Non-Classical (tracks on Best Country Solo Performance, Best Country Song)
- Also nominated here: Dave Cobb, co-producer, is in the running for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical.
#5 The Weeknd — Beauty Behind the Madness
- Field: R&B
- Billboard 200 peak: #1 (3 weeks)
- GoldDerby odds: 5th (40/1)
- Artist GRAMMY record: 0 wins / 8 nods
- Album also nominated for: Best Urban Contemporary Album; tracks on Record of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance, Best R&B Performance, Best R&B Song, Best Song Written for Visual Media
- Also nominated here: Lana del Rey and Ed Sheeran, featured artists, who could both win their first GRAMMY.
And here are my predictions of the past five years:
2010: Beyoncé — I Am… Sasha Fierce (lost to Taylor Swift’s Fearless, ranked 2nd)
2011: Lady Antebellum — Need You Now (lost to Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, ranked 4th)
2012: Adele — 21 (won)
2013: Mumford & Sons — Babel (won)
2014: Daft Punk — Random Access Memories (won)
2015: Beck — Morning Phase (won)
And that’s it for this year’s predictions. Let’s now enjoy Valentines, the long weekend, and tomorrow night the 58th Annual GRAMMY Awards.