Unlike last year, when Adele swept the “Big Three” Grammy Awards, this year the top prizes are likely to be spread around. Mumford & Sons, Gotye and fun. all have reason for optimism heading into the 55th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10. But, despite critical acclaim and media buzz, Frank Ocean may be shut out in the marquee categories.
Let’s take a closer look at the “Big Four” Grammy races. (To answer to a common question, Record of the Year honors a particular recording of a song, while Song of the Year honors the song itself.)
Record of the Year
The nominees: The Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” fun. featuring Janelle Monae’s “We Are Young,” Gotye featuring Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You,” Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
The discussion: The Clarkson, fun., Gotye and Swift singles were all #1 hits on the Hot 100, which gives them an edge in terms of familiarity. Ocean’s song has climbed as high as #32. The Black Keys’ song peaked at #64.
Swift has won six Grammys. The Black Keys and Clarkson have each won two. Swift was nominated in this category three years ago with “You Belong With Me.”
Swift’s song, while engaging, is a little slight to win this award. (And everybody knows that it was just the first single from her album Red, which will be vying for an Album of the Year nomination next year.) Clarkson’s smash has strong feminist appeal. It’s the first hit by an American Idol alumnus to receive a Record of the Year nomination. And Clarkson’s surprising nomination for Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA Awards shows how broad her support is. But I think the two front-runners are “Somebody That I Used To Know” and “We Are Young.” The Gotye record has the classy sound of old hits by Sting—who is a 16-time Grammy winner. The fun. record has the grandeur of old hits by Queen—which never won a Grammy.
The pick: Gotye featuring Kimbra. This would mark the second year in a row that the year’s best-selling song has walked off with Record of the Year. Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” earned both distinctions last year.
Trivia note: This marks only the second time in Grammy history that there have been six nominees (instead of the usual five) in this category. It previously happened in 1962.
Album of the Year
The nominees: The Black Keys’ seventh studio album El Camino; fun.’s sophomore album Some Nights; Mumford & Sons’ sophomore album Babel; Frank Ocean’s solo debut album Channel Orange; Jack White’s solo debut album Blunderbuss.
White has amassed nine Grammys, mostly for his work with the White Stripes. That duo’s Elephant was nominated in this category for 2003.
Mumford & Sons paved the way for the current folkie revival, which has boosted such varied artists as The Lumineers and Phillip Phillips. Also, the band has yet to win a Grammy, so it’s overdue. Mumford & Sons’ breakout moment occurred on the Grammy telecast two years ago when they performed in a folk-themed segment with Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers.
I initially thought Ocean might win in this category, but his record sales haven't kept pace with his critical acclaim. Ocean's only hope of an upset stems from the fact that these four other albums are all in the broad pop/rock genre and could conceivably split the votes.
The pick: Mumford & Sons.
Trivia note: Artists who are featured on albums that win Album of the Year also receive Grammys. That’s potentially good news for Andre 3000, John Mayer and Earl Sweatshirt, who are featured on Ocean’s album, and for Janelle Monae, who is featured on fun.’s album.
Song of the Year (a songwriter’s award)
The nominees: Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team” (which he wrote), Miguel’s “Adorn” (which he wrote), Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” (which she co-wrote with Tavish Crowe and Josh Ramsay), Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” (which was written by Jorgen Elofsson, David Gamson, Greg Kurstin & Ali Tamposi) and fun.’s “We Are Young” (which the trio co-wrote with their producer, Jeff Bhasker).
The discussion: The awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year often go to the same work, but Gotye’s song wasn’t eligible to compete for Song of the Year because it contains a sample (from Luiz Bonfa’s 1967 song “Seville”).
The Jepsen, Clarkson and fun. songs were all #1 smashes. The Miguel and Sheeran songs made the top 20, but have yet to crack the top 10. Miguel’s soulful hit, which echoes classic Marvin Gaye, is also nominated for Best R&B Song. The other four nominees are all pop songs. This makes Miguel stand out, which could work in his favor.
I originally thought that Jepsen’s song would win here. “Call Me Maybe” was the most ubiquitous and widely-parodied song of the year, similar to such past winners as Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” But Grammy voters rarely embrace teen pop. (Though Jepsen is 27, on this smash she sounds like a giddy 16-year old.)
Clarkson’s empowering song has a positive message, similar to such past winners as Eric Clapton’s “Change The World” and U2’s “Beautiful Day.” It could easily win. But I think the safest bet would be to go with my runner-up in the Record of the Year contest.
The pick: “We Are Young.”
Trivia note: Here’s an oddity: Sheeran, Miguel and Jepsen were all passed over for a nomination as Best New Artist. Go figure.
Best New Artist
The nominees: Alabama Shakes, fun., Hunter Hayes, The Lumineers, Frank Ocean.
All of these artists except Alabama Shakes are nominated for best album in their “home genre” categories. fun.’s Some Nights is nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album, Hunter Hayes’ Hunter Hayes for Best Country Album, The Lumineers’ The Lumineers for Best Americana Album and Ocean’s Channel Orange for Best Urban Contemporary Album. Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls was passed over for a nomination for Best Americana Album. Couple that with the fact that their album has the slimmest sales of the five and I’d say they were lucky just to be nominated.
fun. is nominated for all four of the top awards. Ocean is nominated for three of the four. That almost by definition makes these two artists the front-runners here. fun. is the ninth artist in Grammy history to receive nominations in all four of the top categories in one year. Seven of the first eight artists to do this (Bobbie Gentry, Christopher Cross, Cyndi Lauper, Tracy Chapman, Mariah Carey, Paula Cole and Amy Winehouse) went on to win as Best New Artist. Only one of the eight (India.Arie) came up short in the new artist category. (India.Arie lost to Alicia Keys, who should have received noms in each of the top four categories herself, but inexplicably fell short for Album of the Year.) Bottom line: You can bet against fun., but you’re defying Grammy history.
The pick: fun.
Trivia note: This is the first year since 1991 that no female solo artists have been nominated in this category. Female solo artists have traditionally had an edge in this category, having won it in 13 of the last 20 years.
To My Readers: I’ll take a closer look at each of the key musical fields as we get closer to the awards on Feb. 10.