When the final award of the evening is handed out at the Grammys on Sunday, one thing is certain: Whoever wins for album of the year was at least worthy of the honor.
That hasn’t always been the case when the Recording Academy presents the annual ceremony. It has a dubious history when it comes to celebrating the previous year’s most deserving album. (Christopher Cross’s self-titled debut over Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”? Really? Really.)
This year’s field, though, is the strongest and most competitive in recent memory. It’s free of surprises and veteran performers — and, rather glaringly, of female artists — but every nominated album was a juggernaut in its respective genre: Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” (R&B), the Black Keys’ “El Camino” and Jack White’s “Blunderbuss” (blues-tinged indie rock), Mumford & Sons’ “Babel” (Americana), and Fun.’s “Some Nights” (pop).
Even then, I would be very surprised if Ocean didn’t take it in a cakewalk. It’s not the album everyone knows or loves, nor did it produce a big hit like “I Will Wait” from Mumford & Sons’ “Babel,” but “Channel Orange” was arguably the most-discussed album last year.
And rightly so. It had all the trappings for the road to Grammy domination: an incredible backstory (Ocean posted an open letter describing how some of it was inspired by falling in love with a man who didn’t feel the same way), forward-thinking production, and songs that were emotionally resonant and approachable to mainstream Grammy voters.
Don’t discount the power of Mumford & Sons’ exuberant folk-pop, or the broad appeal of the Black Keys, who make classic jams that father and son and mother and daughter can all get behind. For the sake of familiarity, White, at 37, could be considered the old-timer in this category, having won and been nominated previously for his work with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and Loretta Lynn. The nomination alone is the reward for Fun.
Genre distinctions seem to matter in the album category; when Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” was the unlikely victor in 2008, it was a major victory for the jazz world. The same went for the Americana community when the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack won in 2002.
R&B is long overdue. Unless your definition is loose enough to include OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” which won in 2004, R&B hasn’t taken the top honor since Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” in 1977. (Take that, “Frampton Comes Alive!”)
The academy also loves a dark horse, as if to mess with our expectations and provide that moment that gets us worked up on social media for a few hours. When Arcade Fire, a popular indie-rock band, won the award in 2011 — besting boldface artists such as Eminem and Lady Gaga — even frontman Win Butler seemed incredulous: “What the hell?” he said as he stepped up to the podium.
An immediate backlash ensued — including the flimsy criticism that the academy should honor mega-selling acts that bring money into the industry — but Arcade Fire’s upset win paved the way for this year’s nominees. It took the Black Keys more than a decade to break through to the Grammys, winning three of them in 2011 for “Brothers.” This year they cracked the top categories, including album of the year, record of the year, best rock performance, best rock song, and best rock album.
Even when the award goes to a questionable choice, sometimes the academy doesn’t even nominate a deserving candidate. I maintain that Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was robbed last year and should have bumped Rihanna’s “Loud” from the category.
You can’t get it right every year. Let’s look back at 1985 when Lionel Richie’s “Can’t Slow Down” triumphed over more deserving heavyweights: “Purple Rain” (Prince & the Revolution), “Born in the U.S.A.” (Bruce Springsteen), “She’s So Unusual” (Cyndi Lauper), and “Private Dancer” (Tina Turner).
Then again, the academy hasn’t exactly been ahead of the curve when it comes to recognizing trailblazers. In 1964, the year the British Invasion forever changed pop music, the best-album nominees the next year included Barbra Streisand, Henry Mancini, the cast recording for “Funny Girl,” Al Hirt, and winners Stan Getz and João Gilberto. In other words, it was your parents’ idea of album of the year. (The Beatles scored their first album nomination in 1966 for “Help!” – and lost to Frank Sinatra’s “September of My Years.”)
It’s remarkable, then, that more than four decades later, the same category is dominated by artists pushing forward in their respective fields. No matter who wins, none of us should be able to say what Arcade Fire’s Butler once uttered: “What the hell?”