Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes
To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Traveller – Chris Stapleton
1989 – Taylor Swift
Beauty Behind The Madness – The Weeknd
Unlike my Record/Song of the year article I’m going to take an in depth look at the 5 albums nominated this year. All 5 are deserving in different ways and while some I hadn’t listened to before today I think the 2016 nominees is one of the strongest lists we have seen in a long time. There’s one or two big favourites in there, but it really could go anywhere this year.
The only album on the list I hadn’t heard before, Alabama Shakes is a group I’ve literally never given any of my time to. I wasn’t surprised by their inclusion on the list though, appearances across loads of end of year lists put it on my radar. The band are no strangers to the Grammy Awards either, previously nominated for Best New Artist in 2013. Sound & Color makes a big first impression, it’s a kaleidoscope of styles, soulful voices and bluesy guitar. It’s unlike anything else in this year’s category, which as seen by last year’s surprise Beck win could do them plenty of favours. That said, it sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard before, delightfully diverse at times, a track like Gimme All Your Love slinking along before it explodes into a rolling sprint to the finale. Parts of the album are exhilarating, with just enough downtime tracks in between to make the peaks that much more impactful. Of course I haven’t spent anywhere near as much time with Sound & Color than I have with the other albums, but it’s giving me Arcade Fire vibes, previous Album of the Year recipients who Alabama Shakes wouldn’t mind following in the footsteps of.
Kendrick Lamar is going to be the most decorated artist at this year’s Grammy Awards. There is no doubt in my mind that he will have a clean sweep of the rap categories. 2 years ago by far the biggest story from the Grammy Awards was the expected, but still disappointing domination of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis in pretty much all of the categories that Kendrick was nominated in. I personally probably don’t think To Pimp A Butterfly is as good as that year’s album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, but few could deny that this follow up has had a much bigger cultural influence. Anti racism anthem Alright finds itself in multiple high profile categories, but the most surprising thing is how Kendrick manages to be so groundbreaking without having to sacrifice a banging hook when he has one. A song like Momma sees the sort of freestyle rap/jazz hybrid that fills To Pimp A Butterfly flourish, every lyric is expertly placed but is always full of life and energy. It’s refreshing both in the current cold Hip Hop industry and music in general to hear such positivity and vibrancy alongside hard hitting narratives. Not since The College Dropout has a rap album had such a monumental influence, which would make To Pimp A Butterfly a more than worthy winner of Album of the Year.
Many would label Chris Stapleton, the breakout country star of 2015, as the outsider in this category. It took that career changing CMA performance with Justin Timberlake for his first solo release to rocket to the top of the Billboard 200, but Grammy voters had obviously already been paying attention. I said that if Traveller managed to make the cut here it would leap right into the big favourites, a country album that manages to be both a perfect example of the genre and showcase how much country music can be pushed in all directions. Stapleton’s vocals are soulful, every song from Nobody To Blame to standout George Jones cover Tennessee Whiskey he excels in every way. It’s a country album that manages to be a true listening experience. Unlike the last few pop laced country albums to make the biggest category of the night, Lady Antebellum’s breakout Need You Now and Taylor Swift’s Fearless and Red, Traveller wears it’s genre roots on its sleeve, an album designed for country fans that still manages to be more inclusive than most other attempts in recent memory. If there’s going to be a surprisig winner on the night my money is on Chris Stapleton’s glorious debut solo record.
By far the biggest name leading into this year’s nominations, 1989 is the third Taylor Swift album to be nominated for Album of the Year. Of course she is the only nominee to have already won this award before. The only one to have won any of the Big Four in fact, her second album Fearless famously outpacing hot favourites Beyoncé and Lady Gaga for the main prize. 1989 isn’t second fiddle here though, by far her most impressive career statement yet, it’s an album that cemented her status as a worldwide superstar. Suddenly labelled as pop, but not much has changed as the marketing would have led you to believe. The same slick songwriting that saw her dominate at the Grammys in years past is here and shines brighter than ever. Blank Space is the culmination of her entire journey so far, a career defining song that helps to make 1989 an album that would more than deserve this award on the night. I’d say the only thing stopping her from winning is the fact it would be a second win, Taylor doesn’t ‘need’ Album of the Year.
I feel like I keep repeating myself when I talk about the year that The Weeknd had in 2015, but it feels great to see an artist you have rooted for for years achieve more than you ever imagined they could do. With Beauty Behind The Madness the most impressive thing is always how little the music itself has changed. It’s obviously a much tighter package than his previous records, but songs like The Hills, Often and Acquainted couldn’t have been performed by anyone else. With two #1 Hot 100 hits, it’s second only to 1989 in terms of chart success among these albums, something I doubt anyone expected, Can’t Feel My Face being the obvious song to mention here. Going into the nominations The Weeknd was my hot favourite. Beauty Behind The Madness is the sort of breakout album I feel like voters would get behind, a RnB/Hip Hop/Pop album that has the hits to get casual voters on side, while the album is good enough for Weeknd fans to have his back to. Now? I think he might have a difficult time against arguably stronger ‘albums’ elsewhere in the category.
So we have 5 worthy nominees and potentially worthy winners too. I’m shocked that there really isn’t a dud in the category this year, especially when the likes of Pharrell Williams’ G I R L and fun.’s Some Nights have been nominated in years past. Alabama Shakes are probably the outsiders here, as I can see a lot of the indie/rock voters being more convinced by a Chris Stapleton win here. I think The Weeknd may be out of the race too, despite it being the breakout album of 2015. I feel he would depend a lot on the voters who will opt for Kendrick Lamar instead. Abel will win his very first Grammy in 2016, but it won’t be for Album of the Year.
That leaves the final 3 and I really can’t make my mind up. My heart tells me 1989 is the album that deserves it the most. The most cohesive pop album in recent memory it’s by far the best album of Taylor Swift’s career. It’s the album that dominated charts, playlists and stadiums across the world for the last 18 months so why shouldn’t it be the most deserving for this award? I’d say that if voters don’t want to make Taylor Swift the youngest two time winner of Album of the Year Chris Stapleton could stand a chance. He’s overtaken The Weeknd as the outside pick here.
All of that said though I think this award is Kendrick Lamar’s to lose. A lot was said 2 years ago when he left the show empty handed and in a year when racism has been at the forefront of talk in pop culture 2016 is exactly the right time for Kendrick to win this award. To Pimp A Butterfly would only be the third Hip Hop album to ever win the top award of the night, the first in 12 years, I think he’s the best choice here.