Ten years ago, no one would have been able to predict that the most prominent nominees at music’s biggest awards ceremony would include a white English soul singer, a rigidly traditional folk-rock outfit, and an ambitious, high-voiced folkie with a penchant for orchestral flourishes. The 54th Grammy Awards are shaping up to be one of the more fascinating in recent memory, and only partially for the nominees.
Last year saw Montréal’s Arcade Fire nab the coveted Album of the Year award for The Suburbs, an event that may have kickstarted the current wave of indie-flavoured mainstream rock, à la Young the Giant and Foster the People. The win was much talked-about in the ensuing months and it restored the Grammys to a somewhat greater relevance after years of being lambasted as “out-of-touch” by self-appointed music tastemakers. What providence it is, then, that 2011 was rife with acts that, like Arcade Fire, both tore up the charts and tickled the ears of music critics.
First and foremost among these is British neo-soul songstress Adele, whose sophomore release 21 broke several retail records worldwide while appealling to both “serious” listeners and anyone who just happened to turn on the radio at any point during the year. With six nominations, including the all-important trifecta of Album, Song, and Record of the Year, Adele seems poised to dominate the night—and a clean sweep from her would invoke less rage than if, say, fellow six-award nominee Bruno Mars were to accomplish the same thing. It’s her across-the-board appeal that makes her a safe and secure bet to rake in the trophies.
There are other tidbits to consider, though. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences seem to have reached out a more generous hand to rock bands this year, with longtime vets the Foo Fighters and English folk troubadours Mumford & Sons up for Album and Song of the Year, respectfully. The latter band, whose song “The Cave” is also nominated for Record of the Year, are probably the least rockish group to be nominated for such high-profile awards in quite a long time.
Perhaps the only ones who can top them for such a juxtaposition of musical obscurity and prominence of nominations is Minnesotan band Bon Iver, who have been nominated for Song and Record of the Year for “Holocene”. Their self-titled second album, a baroque-pop collection heavy on atmospherics and short on catchy singles, is an odd choice for an institution that generally favours artists who move units rather than minds. The likely rationale is that NARAS is attempting to create buzz by lauding a relatively unknown artist after noticing the sizable attention in the wake of Arcade Fire’s victory. A Song of the Year win for Bon Iver, while unlikely given the more popular competition, would elevate the group’s stature far more substantially than if they only win Best Alternative Album. It would also likely draw the ire of the group’s leader Justin Vernon, who has not only declined to perform at the Grammys but has previously referred to the awards as “ridiculous” and “self-congratulatory”.
And yet there’s someone else who has been surprisingly absent from the Grammy discussion despite normally being a lightning rod of controversy. Kanye West may have seven nominations, more than any other artist this year, but neither My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy nor Watch the Throne, his collaboration with Jay-Z, have been nominated for Album of the Year. To many, this constitutes a major snub as both albums, particularly Dark Twisted Fantasy, were huge sellers that were praised by critics. No clear, immediate reason can be given for this, other than to possibly prevent the notoriously unhinged West from chalking up another outlandish speech on his résumé. Still, as the adage goes, any publicity is good publicity and the exclusion of West from what may be the most prestigious award of the night remains an egregious mistake.
It’s important to note that this may be the first “actual” Grammys of the 2010s, the first to capture the lack of musical cohesiveness that is so far defining the decade. It seems as if we might see more ceremonies where pop megastars rub shoulders with indie rockers and whatever else may eventually fall under the definition of “popular music”. Rock on.