PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Week In Pop is moving to Mondays! Today’s installment will be the final Thursday column. Look for the first Monday column just four days from now, on Jan. 27.
The Grammys are this weekend. You probably know this because the Recording Academy is mired in scandal right now, with allegations of corruption ranging from a compromised nomination process to a rape coverup. Barring a surprise appearance from Fiona Apple, Kanye West, or Soy Bomb, chances are no one will speak of this during Sunday night’s broadcast. The show must go on, even if it’s all cancerous rot backstage.
OK, so maybe in the absence of both Deborah Dugan and Neil Portnow no one will be available to make a speech against music piracy, though I suspect someone at the academy will be conscripted to deliver the annual lecture. Surely all the performances will go on as planned, the usual assortment of young pop stars plus old-people bait including 80% of Aerosmith. And the Recording Academy certainly will not cease handing out awards. Who will win them? And who deserves to? Read on for my picks in the four general field categories plus assorted genre contests of interest.
Album Of The Year
Bon Iver – i,i
Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Ariana Grande – thank u, next
H.E.R. – I Used To Know H.E.R.
Lil Nas X – 7
Lizzo – Cuz I Love You (Deluxe)
Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride
Who should win: Look. I am on record as a Father Of The Bride obsessive. It was my favorite album released during the October 2018-August 2019 eligibility period. It’s a richly rewarding, exploratory collection of songs from one of today’s smartest songwriters. As a contented family man uncomfortable with my comfort in a dying world, it met me where I’m at. I was delighted by its surprise nomination. It may well be deserving of this award. But the last thing I need is a bunch of takes comparing one of my favorite albums ever to Beck’s Morning Phase or some shit. Y’all can keep the backlash.
I’m in the tank for brand-name indie rock, so I also love i,i, but most of the same logic applies there, and it’s frankly not as good as FOTB. Nominating what amounts to an extended “Old Town Road” single in the album category was a laughable misstep and/or troll move, so 7 is out. So is I Used To Know H.E.R.because no one outside a very specific industry bubble considers it a landmark work. So is thank u, next because despite its above-average quality and zeitgeist-friendly content, it’s missing some of that spark that made Grande’s egregiously snubbed Sweetener a more worthy nominee. So is Cuz I Love Youbecause Lizzo is fun but more like 7/10 fun, not hand-her-all-the-trophies fun.
Speaking of shtick that wears thin at album length, I am still bewildered as to why critics (including my Stereogum colleagues) all collectively decided Norman Fucking Rockwell! was the Lana Del Rey album to anoint as a masterpiece. It has more classic songs than your average LDR release — in particular, “Venice Bitch,” “The Greatest,” and the title track are close to the top of the Lana pantheon — but listening from start to finish remains a perilously sleepy proposition. That said, NFR! does have Classic Album Energy and would be an acceptable winner in this category if it comes down to that.
The superior choice, though, is WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Billie Eilish’s album sounds like the present becoming the future in real time — or is that the future becoming the present? You get the point. Like many of the artists who’ve changed the sound of pop, she and her brother presented their own weird personal vision and trusted an audience to gravitate to it. They ended up with an intuitive, engaging, fearlessly unique collection of songs, a generational statement from an actual teenager whose potential now feels boundless.
Who will win: [Extremely “bury a friend” voice] Billie. In the past couple years she has ingratiated herself to the aged almost as effectively as she’s won over her peers. Rock dads like Thom Yorke and Dave Grohl love her. So do talk show hosts like James Corden and Jimmy Kimmel. Why do you think she leads the field with eight nominations? The industry has embraced her. Her time is now.
Record Of The Year
Bon Iver – “Hey, Ma”
Billie Eilish – “bad guy”
Ariana Grande – “7 Rings”
H.E.R. – “Hard Place”
Khalid – “Talk”
Lil Nas X & Billy Ray Cyrus – “Old Town Road (Remix)”
Lizzo – “Truth Hurts”
Post Malone & Swae Lee – “Sunflower”
Who should win: Record Of The Year goes to the year’s best single, so ostensibly my pick should be “bad guy,” which I dubbed the best pop song of 2019. It would certainly be a cool choice, but come on. “Old Town Road” was a cultural phenomenon, joyous intergenerational near-nonsense that broke records as easily as it tore down genre barriers. Not only did it rule 2019, it just plain ruled. Give Lil Nas X his due.
As for the rest of the field: “7 Rings” is probably the most annoying song by an artist I love. “Hey, Ma” and “Hard Place” feel out of place here. “Sunflower” and “Truth Hurts” are both good but are not on the same instant-classic level as “bad guy” and “Old Town Road.” And “Talk” is vaguely enjoyable adult-contemporary product from an artist who has profited richly from vaguely enjoyable adult-contemporary product.
Who will win: Grammy voters live for vaguely enjoyable adult-contemporary product!
Song Of The Year
Lady Gaga – “Always Remember Us This Way” (Natalie Hemby, Lady Gaga, Hillary Lindsey, & Lori McKenna)
Billie Eilish – “bad guy” (Billie Eilish O’Connell & Finneas O’Connell)
Tanya Tucker – “Bring My Flowers Now” (Brandi Carlile, Phil Hanseroth, Tim Hanseroth, & Tanya Tucker)
H.E.R. – “Hard Place” (Ruby Amanfu, Sam Ashworth, D. Arcelious Harris, H.E.R., & Rodney Jerkins)
Taylor Swift – “Lover” (Taylor Swift)
Lana Del Rey – “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” (Jack Antonoff & Lana Del Rey)
Lewis Capaldi – “Someone You Loved” (Tom Barnes, Lewis Capaldi, Pete Kelleher, Benjamin Kohn, & Sam Roman)
Lizzo – “Truth Hurts” (Steven Cheung, Eric Frederic, Melissa Jefferson, & Jesse Saint John)
Who should win: This is a songwriting award, so it’s less about the final product than the composition itself. The distinction is somewhat blurry, but my colleague Tom Breihan might sum this one up like so: “Respect motherfucking craft.”
Just because I am invoking a Taylor Swift meme does not mean I am lobbying for “Lover”; I do not share the consensus that it’s an essential Swift song. (“The Archer,” on the other hand…) As for the other nominees: Half the reason “bad guy” is so cool is its production, so that’s out. “Hard Place” could not be more boring. “Truth Hurts” feels more like a meme than a song. “Someone You Loved” is a powerhouse in the context of weepy adult contemporary ballads but withers against more sophisticated competition. “Bring My Flowers Now” is moving, as is Tanya Tucker’s comeback in general, but it does not strike me as the very best song of the year. “Always Remember Us This Way,” although a banger, is not even the best song from A Star Is Born. (Yes, A Star Is Born is somehow still eligible for awards.)
That leaves “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” This would be a phenomenal choice for the lyrics alone. “Goddamn, manchild/ You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you’” is probably the best opening line of any eligible song. Not long after that she hits us with “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news.” From there this lounge-ready piano swoon continues to work brilliantly as a character sketch and a summation of the vibe Del Rey has spent her whole career cultivating. It’s the most writerly candidate for this writing award.
Who will win: The Grammys seem to have cooled on Swift in recent years, or else I would predict “Lover” here. To my knowledge the Grammys have notcooled on Adele, so they’ll probably go for “Someone You Loved,” which is the next closest thing.
Best New Artist
Lil Nas X
Tank And The Bangas
Who should win: Rosalía should win. The astonishing El Mal Querer plus her run of 2019 singles adds up to maybe the finest collection of music during the eligibility window by any artist, new or otherwise. She’s incredible. Award her. If not her, award Billie Eilish. None of the other contenders are making music nearly as good or interesting as those two.
I do like Maggie Rogers, Yola, and Lizzo, just not up against this competition. Lil Nas X gatecrashed 2019, and “Panini” suggested his musical talents extend beyond “Old Town Road,” but I have a hard time believing he’s going to build an illustrious career as a recording artist. As for Tank And The Bangas and Black Pumas, the nomination alone was enough of a signal boost, don’t you think? Does anyone without a vested business interest in these bands actually believe either one is the best new artist? (Then again, maybe someone with a vested business interest in them has a vote.)
Who will win: Seems like either Eilish or Lizzo will claim this. They usually hand Best New Artist out early in the broadcast, so if one of them does win, they’ll immediately become the frontrunners in all the other major categories too.
Best Alternative Music Album
Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
James Blake – Assume Form
Bon Iver – i,i
Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride
Thom Yorke – Anima
Who should win: As previously stated, I thought Father Of The Bride was the best album anybody released last year, so obviously I think it should win this category. This was Big Thief’s year, so U.F.O.F. would also be a worthy victor, but I’d rather they win for the superior Two Hands next year instead. It would be hard to get too worked up about another awesome Bon Iver album winning, if it comes to that. Although there’s not really a bad album in this category, neither the lovestruck Assume Form nor the paranoid Anima would be a satisfying winner — both begin to feel like a slog eventually.
Who will win: Given that Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver are both up for Album Of The Year, it’s gotta be one of those, right? Both artists have won this category before, too. Back against a wall, I’d guess i,i has a slight edge due to “Hey, Ma” also being up for Record Of The Year and Bon Iver being Best New Artist alumni.
Best Rap Album
Dreamville – Revenge Of The Dreamers III
Meek Mill – Championships
21 Savage – I Am > I Was
Tyler, The Creator – Igor
YBN Cordae – The Lost Boy
Who should win: Igor isn’t even really a rap album, but it’s by far the best of these picks. The rest comprise a murderer’s row of the extremely OK. What a blasé year for this category.
Who will win: I’d like to think it will be Tyler, but maybe the Academy will try to make a political statement by honoring 21 Savage or Meek Mill?
Best Pop Vocal Album
Beyoncé – The Lion King: The Gift
Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Ariana Grande – thank u, next
Ed Sheeran – No.6 Collaborations Project
Taylor Swift – Lover
Who should win: I’ll tell you who shouldn’t win: Ed goddamn Sheeran. I liked Beyoncé’s Lion King album well enough, but beyond “Brown Skin Girl” I cannot recall a single second of music from it. Lover is strong but too uneven to justify the length. And everything I said about the Ariana and Billie albums above still applies, so I’m awarding this one to WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Who will win: A loss by Eilish here seems unlikely.
Best Urban Contemporary Album
Steve Lacy – Apollo XXI
Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
Georgia Anne Muldrow – Overload
Nao – Saturn
Jessie Reyez – Being Human In Public
Who should win: The difference between Urban Contemporary and R&B as defined by the Grammys is somewhat confusing — several R&B contenders could seemingly be moved over here and vice versa — but as they’ve stacked it up, this is a fascinating collection of albums. I like Steve Lacy a lot better as a sideman than a leading man, so the dreary Apollo XXI is out. I’ve previously stumped for Jessie Reyez’s EP, but it is an EP, so that would be an odd choice. Nao and Georgia Anne Muldrow both served up such rich, distinct visions of R&B (I mean, “Urban Contemporary”) that it would be cool to see either one walk away with a trophy. But honestly, Cuz I Love You is too fun to be denied here. I liked it when it dropped, and no amount of noise surrounding Lizzo since then has changed that opinion.
Who will win: Is there any question that Lizzo will win this?
Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical
Jack Antonoff (Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Kevin Abstract, Red Hearse)
Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys, Yola, Night Beats, Dee White, etc.)
John Hill (Carly Rae Jepsen, Cage The Elephant, Young The Giant, Imagine Dragons, etc.)
Finneas (Billie Eilish)
Ricky Reed (Lizzo, Maggie Rogers, Fidlar, Maren Morris, etc.)
Who should win: Finneas has a much smaller sample size than the rest of these dudes, but in terms of quality and influence, it’s hard to argue against him. There’s a reason he’s suddenly so in-demand. I could see an argument that a producer with only one album to their name should not win this award, in which case I’d hand it to Jack Antonoff, who has repeatedly proven to bring out the best in his collaborators.
Who will win: This is a true crapshoot, but I’d rank Antonoff as the frontrunner with Ricky Reed right behind him as a legit contender.
Best Rock Song
Tool – “Fear Inoculum” (Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor, Adam Jones, & Maynard James Keenan)
The 1975 – “Give Yourself A Try” (George Daniel, Adam Hann, Matthew Healy, & Ross MacDonald)
Vampire Weekend – “Harmony Hall” (Ezra Koenig)
Brittany Howard – “History Repeats” (Brittany Howard)
Gary Clark Jr. – “This Land” (Gary Clark Jr.)
Who should win: The rock categories remain reliably batshit every year, partially because rock has become a completely meaningless word. I love that Tool is competing against Brittany Howard, the 1975, Vampire Weekend, and Gary Clark Jr. “Fear Inoculum” slaps, too, but I don’t want it to beat “Harmony Hall” — an essay, an anthem, a machine, a masterpiece, truly and genuinely one of the best songs I’ve ever heard and no this is not hyperbole. It towers over everything else, even a burner from that killer Brittany Howard LP and a 1975 tune that gets better every time I hear it.
Who will win: Gary Clark Jr. was created in a lab to win Grammys; he’s probably got this one in the bag.
That’s it for this extremely selective Grammys preview. See y’all Sunday night? And then again Monday? (In case you missed the note at the top of this column, The Week In Pop is moving to Mondays!) OK? OK.