Record of the year
The distinction between record and song of the year lies in the credits; record goes to the people responsible for the best musical production of the year of eligibility (for 2016, that period runs from 1 October 2014 through 30 September 2015), and song is awarded to those people who wrote the best song. While Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and Ed Sheeran all helped define pop in their own ways during that period, and D’Angelo’s Really Love is the best funk offering in this category, the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars homage to the Minneapolis Sound was the pop offering of early 2015, and will probably be trotted out at parties as a way to remember the year of The Dress, Left Shark and Netflix and chill until at least 2065.
Will win: Mark Ronson ft Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk
Should win: D’Angelo – Really Love
Album of the year
A formidable category this year, even if the noxious Abel Tesfaye is among its nominees. (Sorry, industry types; despite your best efforts, he isn’t and will probably never be the next Michael Jackson.) Sound & Color finally captured the formidable live act that is Alabama Shakes’ in-concert vitality; 1989 transformed Taylor Swift into a platinum-plated pop star, her gawky, country teenage days fully behind her.
This category’s two heaviest hitters have the sort of stories Grammy voters love –and their attendant albums are excellent as well. Chris Stapleton has knocked around the music business for years, writing country-chart-topping songs for the likes of George Strait and Kenny Chesney, and after his whiskey-soaked debut Traveller cleaned up at the Country Music Association awards last year he became a commercial force on his own. Kendrick Lamar, meanwhile, summed up the year of Black Lives Matter with a dense, exploratory album that entwined the personal and political in a way that galvanized listeners. The quite-good Traveller is my pick to win this category because of Stapleton’s formidable industry ties, particularly those embedded within Nashville. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Lamar’s tour de force takes it.
Will win: Chris Stapleton, Traveller
Should win: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
Song of the year
Swift’s winking Blank Space, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s treacle-topped elegy See You Again, Little Big Town’s glowering Girl Crush, Ed Sheeran’s People Get Ready-biting Thinking Out Loud – all big hits, all of which pale in comparison to the political and musical jolt offered by Lamar’s Alright. Judging by this clip of the song being performed by Lamar and residents of Los Angeles’ Compton neighborhood, the people behind the Grammys would seem to agree.
Will win: Kendrick Lamar – Alright
Should win: Kendrick Lamar – Alright
Best new artist
As it so often does, this category offers up a hodgepodge of new-ish-comers that range from head-scratching (the brazenly retro Meghan Trainor, who snuck in on a technicality after being up for record and song of the year in 2015) to bland (the snoozy James Bay) to perfectly fine (the pop artiste Tori Kelly, the cerebral fuzz-punk of Courtney Barnett). Among these nominees, the Georgia-born Sam Hunt – whose hybridization of country, hip-hop and soul calls back to the rock era’s roots while also positioning Nashville for a bright future – stands out not just by being better, but by selling a boatload of records while doing so.
Will win: Sam Hunt
Should win: Sam Hunt
Best pop vocal album
Barring a mass revolt by the voting public’s boomers (and Red Sox fans) that results in a James Taylor surprise victory, Taylor Swift’s grand pop statement is the odds-on favorite for this category – even if Florence + The Machine’s How Big How Blue How Beautiful is, overall, a less self-conscious, more intricately put together album. Perhaps now that Swift has fully embraced the pop life she won’t do the whole “Who, me?” act when her name gets called.
Will win: Taylor Swift – 1989
Should win: Florence + The Machine – How Big How Blue How Beautiful
Best rock album
If you ever wondered why “rock” seemed to be in such a bad pop-cultural spot in the mid-2010s, the middling material offered by this category’s nominees provides some fine reasoning as to why. There’s Bay, with his studiously positioned hat and retro influences; there’s Death Cab For Cutie, a hangover from the era when “indie” was still considered outside the mainstream; there’s Slipknot, who seem to be there as an apology for that whole Jethro Tull mishap a few decades back. The Brooklyn trio Highly Suspect, meanwhile, perform the neat trick of summing up their inclusion in this category via their name. (Don’t be fooled by their being signed to an “independent” label; that imprint, 300 Entertainment, is run by industry lifer Lyor Cohen.) Which leaves us with Muse, whose absurdist libertarian shtick is at least of the moment.
Will win: Muse – Drones
Should win: At least a dozen records that aren’t nominated in this category. Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love? That Father John Misty album? I’m personally partial to Faith No More’s Sol Invictus
Best alternative music album
X Ambassadors’ Jeep-endorsing Renegade was the biggest alt-rock hit of 2015, but the nominees in this field are more festival darlings than radio favorites. Which is a significant split that speaks to the often-confusing fragmentation of this already-pretty-split-up rock subgenre. Alabama Shakes have an album of the year nomination under their belt for the artistic leap forward Sound & Color, but don’t count out 2005 winner Wilco, who have dad-rock name recognition on their side.
Will win: Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Should win: Björk – Vulnicura
Best urban contemporary album
This relatively new category seems to have been conjured so that the 2013 ceremony could somehow award Frank Ocean, who was one of only three nominees during its first go-round. This year’s fuller, if Ocean-free, slate is fairly representative of the strongest “contemporary vocal tracks derivative of R&B” out there. Pity, then, that the self-loathing bummer known as The Weeknd, the Canadian import whose endless bad vibes got one of 2015’s biggest pushes, will probably take the prize over its competitors, all of which are more enjoyable and compelling. The Internet’s Ego Death is splendidly weirder; Lianne La Havas’s Blood is full of nerve; Kehlani’s You Should Be Here has youthful élan; and Miguel’s Wildheart wears its protagonist’s insecurities and deep-seated emotions on its sleeve.
Will win: The Weeknd – Beauty Behind The Madness
Should win: Miguel – Wildheart
Best R&B album
Jazmine Sullivan’s Reality Show finds the Philadelphia-born belter – who racked up her ninth, 10th and 11th career Grammy nominations this year – inhabiting a wide array of characters, all of whom are richly drawn and given extra life by Sullivan’s powerful voice. It’s a huge step forward for Sullivan, who took a hiatus from music in 2011, and for R&B, which has been increasingly marginalized as a genre thanks to the shifting winds of radio formatting and retail contraction. Her being up against Leon Bridges, the talented Texan whose debut sounds excavated from a 60s cache of soul sides, and D’Angelo, the legendarily reclusive funk genius whose Black Messiah should really have been given more shine in the Big Four categories, means that a victory for her is a long shot, but it’s long overdue.
Will win: Leon Bridges, Coming Home
Should win: Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show
Best rap album
Drake, Nicki Minaj and J Cole all have star power – and Drake has claimed victory in this category before – but the best rap album race has to boil down to Compton vs Compton. Will the old head Dr Dre, coming off a year in which he entered pop’s firmament for good, win? Or will Lamar, who idolized the outlaw-rapper-turned-headphone-mogul as a child, solidify his station as leader of the next generation? I mean, it’s the Grammys, so probably the former. (At least Eminem and Macklemore held off from releasing anything during the eligibility window.)
Will win: Dr Dre – Compton
Should win: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Best country album
Having performed so well at the CMA awards (and in the shopping frenzy following it) and as this year’s country guy in the album of the year category, this one is probably Stapleton’s to win in a walk. But Ashley Monroe’s The Blade was one of 2015’s best albums; the Pistol Annie’s second full-length is full of self-lacerating humor and instantly hummable choruses, and Monroe’s steely soprano puts her on par with Dolly Parton.
Will win: Chris Stapleton, Traveller
Should win: Ashley Monroe, The Blade
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