Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Grammy Post

There aren't a lot of hardcore music fans that take the Grammy Awards seriously these days, and it's not terribly difficult to figure out why: the Grammy Awards have always been a chance for the music industry to pat themselves on the back, often awarding the albums that spawned the most pop hits, or handing out sentimental trophies to old veterans or recently departed legends to pay tribute to them. There is nothing wrong with this practice as, it's worth noting, the Grammy Awards have rarely handed the Album of the Year prize to a legitimately bad album. Indeed, a handful of my all time favorite albums have won the prize, from The Joshua Tree to Rumours to Sgt. Pepper. That said, the Album of the Year award's history, for the most part, is a study in curious decisions. Like the fact that the Beatles only won the award that one time, or that Bruce Springsteen lost to Lionel Richie in the year that he took over the world with Born in the U.S.A. (or the more depressing fact that Born to Run didn't even score a nomination). And recent years have seen the award go to either country-pop crossover stars (Taylor Swift, the Dixie Chicks) or to legendary figures in music (Ray Charles, U2, Allison Krauss, Herbie Hancock): none were poor choices, but it would be hard to argue any of them as the best album released in their individual years.

I really thought that last year, Grammy had turned a corner. Rather than handing the Album of the Year award to a huge seller (Eminem's Recovery) or a newly minted pop music icon (Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster), the Academy opted for Arcade Fire, a critically acclaimed indie-rock act from Canada, and their concept album The Suburbs. In my eyes, that victory was truly magnificent: rather than going for something that was just a collection of singles, the Academy went for a true album, with recurring themes, sounds, ideas and characters. In an age where many have proclaimed that "the album is dead," that album defended the format, and it proved why it not only works, but why it will always be more artistically relevant than the single. Those people who were championing the rise of the digital single as the predominant musical format do have a point, though, since iTunes has indeed rendered the album obsolete to casual listeners. But it's still Album of the Year that is announced at the very end of the Grammy ceremony, and Arcade Fire's victory last year, backlash and all, was a poetic defense of the format that has defined the music industry since the 60s.

After that, I must confess that this year's nominees disappointed me a bit, even though two of them landed on my best of the year list. Still, the Academy is likely to avoid adding to their list of "curious decisions" this year (unless you count the nominees, which no one seems to remember after the fact anyway). Below, I list my thoughts on the nominees for the evening's biggest categories, as well as my reasons for tuning in again this year (however distractedly) and my predictions. (Spoiler: Adele).


1. Record of the Year

Adele - "Rolling in the Deep"
Bon Iver - "Holocene"
Bruno Mars - "Grenade"
Mumford & Sons - "The Cave"
Katy Perry - "Firework"

Will win: "Rolling in the Deep"
Should win: "Holocene"

A lot of people don't understand the difference between the Record of the Year and Song of the Year categories, but really, they're miles apart. One is simply about the songwriting at hand, while the other is awarded not only to the performing artist, but also to the producers, sound engineers, and other important team members who turned it into a stellar recording. As a result, Record of the Year is far more in recognition of the studio work done on a song than it is of a particular performance, unless the artist someone like Butch Walker who writes, performs and produces the track, which doesn't usually happen in mainstream pop music, and as a result, doesn't usually happen in this category. This year, though, there is one artist in this field who did all of those things, and the resulting recording is one of the most outstanding achievements in production of last year. That artist is Justin Vernon, the mastermind behind Bon Iver, and his song, "Holocene," which builds from a simple acoustic arrangement into full band ambiance. It's not the most sonically spectacular song on the album (that title would belong to one of the album's bookends, but it is, fairly easily, my favorite work here. That said, "Rolling in the Deep" is the biggest hit and will walk away with this category fairly easily. I'm fine with that, since producer Paul Epworth (who also worked on Florence + The Machine's Ceremonials), did some of the best production work of the last year.

2. Album of the Year

Adele -21
Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Lady Gaga - Born This Way
Bruno Mars - Doo Wops & Hooligans
Rihanna - Loud

Will & Should Win: 21

Now here's an embarrassment of a category. I had high hopes for this year's album of the year slate after the Academy defied the pop music world and gave the award to a record that not only had no hits, but a record by a band that many Grammy viewers had never even heard of. The ensuing backlash was one of the funniest things I've ever seen take place on the internet, and caused me to lose any faith I had left in the music consumerist population. This year's category could have been a really killer one too, with all of the records from last year that gained a ton of critical acclaim and a fair amount of success (Bon Iver and M83 come to mind), not to mention a handful of leftovers from the previous year, like Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which earned perfect scores from nearly every publication known to man and will likely go down as the most well received album of this decade. And it must be good, because I even like that record, and I've never enjoyed another rap album in my life. Or there was Taylor Swift's Speak Now, which actually does appeal to the pop music listener to me, and is a superior album to the one she won the prize for just two years ago. Kanye will get a consolation prize in the rap album category, but Swift isn't up for anything big tonight.

The biggest waste of a nomination here is for the Bruno Mars record, which I can say from personal experience is terrible. The singles are the only tracks worth hearing at all, and even those display pretty much every pop music cliche in the book. I've never liked Rihanna either, and I'd be willing to wager that her albums are just vehicles for a handful of chart topping singles, and are loaded with filler, but I've never listened to an entire Rihanna album, so I guess I will never know. And even my girlfriend, who loves Lady Gaga, couldn't find much to enjoy with Born This Way, though I personally find it to be a better than average pop music album with a couple of killer songs ("You & I" and "Edge of Glory") closing it out. The latter, which features a self-referencing saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons, was the last song the virtuoso ever recorded or played live, and is the kind of sonic feast that should absolutely be up for Record of the Year.

That said, the other two albums on this list both made my top 25 of last year, and both are terrific. Foo Fighters made their best album in at least a decade with Wasting Light, where the band sounds loud, rejuvenated and nostalgic, all while delivering some of the best tunes of their career. It's all water under the bridge, though, since Adele will win this category by a landslide, and it really is a deserved victory. Not only is 21 the best selling album of the last year (and it just recently had its strongest week of sales, almost a year after its release), it has also unleashed three terrific singles ("Rolling in the Deep," "Someone Like You" and "Set Fire to the Rain") and has truly moved a lot of people. The album's pop drenched break-up songs recall one of the best Album of the Year winners in the award's history: Fleetwood Mac's near perfect masterpiece Rumours, and I can easily see 21 becoming that album for this generation. I've heard way better break up records, but to hear pop music this great captivate the entire world in the way it has is a real triumph, and its hard to remember a winner of this category that defined its year more than 21 has. 

3. Song of the Year

Kanye West - "All of the Lights"
Mumford & Sons - "The Cave"
Bruno Mars - "Grenade"
Bon Iver - "Holocene"
Adele - "Rolling in the Deep"

Will Win: "Rolling in the Deep"
Should Win: "Holocene"
A long list of songwriters marks this album's one miss-step, proving that sometimes, too many cooks really do spoil the broth. That song is "Grenade," one of the most cliched and grating pop songs, not only of this year, but in the history of pop music. Rebecca Black's "Friday" is a better song.

The rest of the category is actually pretty stellar (or as stellar as a Grammy category can get), though "All of the Lights" is a better record than it is a song, I think: there are far better songs on that album. I'm glad to see Mumford & Sons up for these awards, although the album "The Cave" comes from released in 2009 and really shouldn't be in contention for an awards show taking place in 2012. "Holocene" and "Rolling in the Deep" round out the nominations, with the former being the better song (Pitchfork agrees), but with the latter taking the prize. I'd argue "Someone Like You" will prove to be Adele's trademark (and her most iconic hit), but "Rolling in the Deep" was a hell of a breakthrough.

Best New Artist
The Band Perry
Bon Iver
J. Cole
Nicki Minaj

Will & Should Win: Bon Iver

This category is one of the biggest jokes in any awards show, as they routinely nominate artists for their sophomore album, or in some cases, much later. One of the funniest occurrences of this took place in 2004, when they nominated Fountains of Wayne for the award, following their one hit wonder success with "Stacy's Mom;" the band had been together since 1996.

Anyway, the obvious outlier here is Bon Iver, who released his first album under that moniker in 2007, a year before Adele released her debut, even though she won this same award three years ago. Regardless of the questionable way in which these voters define the word "new," it's better late than Bon Iver, who completely steamrolls over everyone else in this category. The Band Perry had a pop gem this year with "If I Die Young," but even attempting that holds a candle to Bon Iver's near perfect record is laughable.

Best Rock Song/Best Rock Performance

Coldplay - "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall"
The Decemberists - "Down By the Water"
Foo Fighters - "Walk"
Mumford & Sons - "The Cave"
Radiohead - "Lotus Flower"

Will & Should Win: "Walk"

People have trouble differentiating Record and Song of the Year, but these two categories are, right down to their nominees, exactly the same. Certainly one of the stronger categories of the night, with the Decemberists sneaking in with a solid track from their great record The King is Dead. Foo Fighters should be sitting pretty here, though, with both the best song and the only Album of the Year nomination backing it up.

Best Rock Album
Jeff Beck - Rock 'n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul
Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown
Red Hot Chili Peppers - I'm With You
Wilco - The Whole Love

Will Win: Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Could Win: Jeff Beck

This category often turns either into a consolation prize for a could be/should be album of the year winner (Quentin Tarantino presenting it to Green Day in 2005, when they had the best record but it didn't matter in the midst of the Ray Charles tributes) or part of a sweep on the way to the big prize (U2 taking it for the terrific How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb the year later). This year, I'm going with the consolation prize theory, as Foo Fighters have no chance at Album of the Year, but could do pretty well here. The questionable spoiler is Jeff Beck, a virtuoso veteran paying tribute to a recently departed figure of rock 'n' roll evolution. I'm split either way, but it's actually a really solid category this year, so I'm less inclined to care.

Best Alternative Music Album

Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Death Cab For Cutie - Codes & Keys
Foster the People - Torches
My Morning Jacket - Circuital
Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Will & Should Win: Bon Iver

This is often one of the better categories of the night, and while I think this slate is less inspired this year, the fact that it's one of the bigger categories the Bon Iver will likely pick up keeps it on my list of ones to watch. 

But all of these categories and predictions aside, the real reason I'll be tuning in is quite simple: Springsteen and the E-Street Band will be performing. And really, I'm hoping for a Clarence Clemons tribute, though it seems likely he might get a bit upstaged by the recent passing of Whitney Houston. As predictable as that is, and as great as Whitney's voice once was (I'm pretty sure it wasn't anymore...), she didn't create the most perfect two minutes in the history of rock and pop music...
But Clarence Clemons? Yes, yes he did.


  1. Are you a wizard? :D Nice guesses, great post too... It was extremely satisfying that Arcade Fire won last year, since I also voted The Suburbs the best album of the year on my blog :) This year, the winners aren't bad either, I'm glad Kanye got his ass kicked (sort of) by Adele, I'm not a fan of her, but I respect her. And I'm glad Foo Fighters won all those awards too, it was well deserved. I'm happy for Bon Iver too, so overall, this year's grammys didn't suck that hard. Not saying I care much for them, though. The positive moments outshined the rest.

    1. I guess I am a wizard, though in all fairness, I really just had to guess Adele, haha. The Suburbs wasn't my favorite album of the year (probably sat somewhere around #10), but it was amazing to me that it even got nominated, and seeing it win was such a pleasant surprise.

      But yeah, the Grammys might nominate a ton of horrible music, but they picked pretty good winners this year, so that's something. As for the performances, Bruce, The Civil Wars and McCartney's big guitar battle at the end made the rest of the night worth it.

    2. Agreed. Although I'd never watch the ceremonial itself again, beacuse the last time, I saw Stevie Wonder perform with the Jonas Brothers. The wound they caused still hasn't really healed. I fear that something like that might happen again... :D

    3. I watch, though I can't say I pay too much attention.