The Grammys have always had the trickiest job of the four awards shows that make up the “EGOT” mantle. With more than 100 albums coming out every week, and digital technology allowing artists to pick up the slack with EPs, singles, music videos, and other one-off projects, winnowing popular and classical music down to nominees in 84 categories is an absurd task — and the Grammys’ results have often reflected that ridiculousness.
Sunday night’s ceremony, however, had a spanner thrown into its works last week, when the Recording Academy, the organization that puts on the show, abruptly fired its CEO, Deborah Dugan, whose term had only begun in August. Dugan has lashed back with a detailed EEOC complaint outlining what she saw as corruption across the Academy, including cronyism within the nomination process, profligate spending, as well as sexual harassment charges against the organization’s general counsel.
Dugan’s ouster came in the wake of a task force’s report suggesting big changes to the Grammys and the Recording Academy, which included an increase in the number of female Grammy voters and a shift in the way ballots for the “big four” categories — record, song, and album of the year, as well as best new artist — are tabulated. If implemented, the changes would have resulted in what Dugan called in a December interview with NPR “a major restructuring to allow for immediate diversity." That restructuring seems to be out the window, or at least temporarily lost in a thicket of memos and depositions.
Adding to those storms is the infighting currently plaguing Boston-born rockers Aerosmith, named person of the year by the Recording Academy’s charity arm MusiCares. They’re currently being sued by founding drummer Joey Kramer, who won’t be playing with the band on Sunday. (He had been on a break from playing because of injuries, and the band, according to his suit, made him audition to get his job back.) The band is going on without him, at least as of press time.
And the show is, as well. There are 84 trophies to be given out on Sunday, first during the afternoon livestream, which begins at 3:30 p.m. on www.grammy.com, and then on the telecast, which airs on CBS at 8 p.m. (Expect the livestream to host the bulk of the award presentations, as the performance lineup for the show is pretty heavy.) The nominees in the big four categories are fairly unobjectionable, although Bon Iver’s presence in two of them makes one wonder when the voters will listen to other indie rock records (there are so many out there!). The nominees in the rock categories are a bit of a mess, owing to the genre’s sprawling, yet weirdly fence-ridden nature in 2020; five nominees doesn’t seem like enough for even the most narrowly defined category.
Note that the picks I’ve made — for the “big four” categories and four others of note — are an attempt to read tea leaves that’s very influenced by the old way of doing things. The Grammy story for this year is still developing in an unprecedented way, the repercussions of which will be made plain on Sunday’s telecast.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
Given to the people responsible for the piece of recorded music deemed the best of the Grammys’ eligibility period (Oct. 31, 2018-Aug. 31, 2019)
Should and will win: Lil Nas X’s genre-agnostic mosey “Old Town Road” was the defining pop phenomenon of this Grammy year’s eligibility period — it just dropped out of the Hot 100 this week — and its singsong hook and flipped Nine Inch Nails sample helped turn it into pop’s biggest tent of the past year and change, with boot-scooter Billy Ray Cyrus, K-pop megastars BTS, and Walmart yodeler Mason Ramsey all inspired to strut their stuff on remixes.
Also nominated: “Hey, Ma,” Bon Iver; “Bad Guy,” Billie Eilish; “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande; “Hard Place,” H.E.R.; “Talk,” Khalid; “Truth Hurts,” Lizzo; “Sunflower,” Post Malone and Swae Lee.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Will win: Lana Del Rey’s “Norman [Expletive] Rockwell!” has serious-artist pomp and serious pop appeal, and its critical and commercial success should be well balanced by a golden gramophone.
Should win: Billie Eilish’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” is all world-building and weird noises, balancing the stuff of nightmares with a winking sense of fun that the sometimes-too-serious “Rockwell!” lacks.
Also nominated: “i,i,” Bon Iver; “Thank U, Next,” Ariana Grande; “I Used to Know Her,” H.E.R.; “7,” Lil Nas X; “Cuz I Love You (Deluxe),” Lizzo; “Father of the Bride,” Vampire Weekend
SONG OF THE YEAR
Given to the songwriters behind the composition deemed the best of the Grammys’ eligibility period.
Will win: Tanya Tucker’s “Bring My Flowers Now” packs pathos, humor, and gimlet-eyed wisdom into its short running time — and it was co-written by Grammy-beloved Brandi Carlile, who was nominated in this category last year for “The Joke.”
Should win: The title track of Taylor Swift’s “Lover” is one of its best songs, a disco-ball-lit slow dance filled with quietly joyful lyrical imagery.
Also nominated: “Always Remember Us This Way,” Lady Gaga; “Bad Guy,” Billie Eilish; “Hard Place,” H.E.R.; “Norman [Expletive] Rockwell,” Lana Del Rey; “Someone You Loved,” Lewis Capaldi; “Truth Hurts,” Lizzo
BEST NEW ARTIST
Will win: Even though Lizzo has been doing her thing since 2010, there’s no denying that she leveled up in 2019 — and her slow-and-steady path to success makes a win here the type of feel-good story the Grammy voters love. (It also gives the category more fodder for an eventual renaming, but the Grammys have a lot on their plate at the moment.)
Should win: Rosalía’s fusion of flamenco with músico urbano has resulted in exhilarating songs like the persistent “Aute Cuture” and the gossamer “Con Altura,” dissolving ideas of pop boundaries in the process.
Also nominated: Black Pumas, Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, Maggie Rogers, Tank and the Bangas, Yola
BEST ROCK SONG
Will and should win: Brittany Howard stepped away from Grammy favorites Alabama Shakes with her first solo album, “Jaime”; “History Repeats,” off that album, has the feel of a Sly Stone cut, its loose opening verses giving way to full-on boogie. The rock categories always seem to have the toughest time threading their needle — Howard is up in this songwriting category against material by resurgent prog-metallers Tool, agit-poppers The 1975, indie jammers Vampire Weekend, and guitar slayer Gary Clark Jr. — which means Howard should easily triumph here.
Also nominated: “Fear Inoculum,” Tool; “Give Yourself a Try,” The 1975; “Harmony Hall,” Vampire Weekend; “This Land,” Gary Clark Jr.
BEST RAP PERFORMANCE
Will win: The triumphant “Racks in the Middle” was the final release by Nipsey Hussle, the socially conscious Los Angeles MC who was murdered last March. Its spare beat backs triumphant verses by Hussle and current Hot 100 chart-topper Roddy Ricch — and its winning a trophy will be a perfect punctuation for the show’s Hussle tribute, which will feature Ricch, DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, and others.
Should win: MC DaBaby’s “Suge” is twisty and unexpectedly catchy, with DaBaby comparing his fortunes to that of Death Row mogul Suge Knight over a bare-bones bass.
Also nominated: “Middle Child,” J. Cole; “Down Bad,” Dreamville, featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EarthGang, and Young Nudy; “Clout,” Offset, featuring Cardi B
BEST COUNTRY ALBUM
Will win: Tucker’s 25th album, “While I’m Livin',” recalls the country music that dominated even pop airwaves during her initial ascent, with the added bonus of hard-won wisdom — and giving her a Grammy for this would rectify the losses sustained by her earlier hits like “Delta Dawn” and “Strong Enough to Bend.”
Should win: Pistol Annies’ no-nonsense songs certainly have some roots in Tucker’s catalog, but the way Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley built on her vision of outlaw womanhood on the stunning “Interstate Gospel” made for one of the decade’s best albums, regardless of genre.
Also nominated: “Desperate Man,” Eric Church; “Stronger Than the Truth,” Reba McEntire; “Center Point Road,” Thomas Rhett
PRODUCER OF THE YEAR, NON-CLASSICAL
Will win: Jack Antonoff’s work on two of this year’s biggest critical and commercial successes — Taylor Swift’s “Lover” and Lana Del Rey’s “Norman [Expletive] Rockwell!” — further established him as a behind-the-boards presence who lets his collaborators’ individual talents shine.
Should win: Ricky Reed helped turn Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You” into a self-affirming springboard for Lizzo’s long-overdue breakthrough — and he showed off his versatility through work with country belter Maren Morris, scuzz-rockers FIDLAR, and bliss-popper Maggie Rogers.
Also nominated: Dan Auerbach, John Hill, Finneas