There was a time, not so long ago, when the Grammy Awards – how shall we put this delicately? – were not the hippest thing going. Or, to put it less delicately, it was easy to imagine that academy members cast their ballots after waking from spontaneous lunchtime naps and discovering their dentures floating in their soup.
There were years when few or none of the words Best New Artist seemed to apply to the winner in that category, like when Debby Boone received the honor following her 1977 debut album, a work that, in hindsight, may not have measured up to contemporaneous debuts by Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Television and the Sex Pistols. But those four legendary acts were not even nominated that year, having been deemed less worthy than Shaun Cassidy, Andy Gibb, Stephen Bishop and Foreigner. There was also 2001, when Shelby Lynne won the award following the terrific I Am Shelby Lynne – notwithstanding that it was the sixth full-length release in a career that then spanned a dozen years.
There, of course, was also the time when a band of middle-aged flute-wielding gnomes won the award for Best Metal Album.
But everything changed around the turn of the millennium when the people behind the Grammys decided to stop being polite and start getting surreal. That’s when they decided to throw an everyone-in-the-pool party, an event that, if not all things to all people, was at least all things to some people and some things to all people. Since then, the show has been a sometimes-garish, typically-entertaining, head-on smash-up of pop divas, indie rockers, hip hop wizards, country hell-raisers and victory-lapping icons, appearing separately and together and giving genre-bending performances, all presented and punctuated by host LL Cool J, whose banter often seems to come straight out of NCIS: Incoherence.
As long as you’re willing to surrender to the swirling peculiarity, the show is gobs of fun. And the winners – much more often than not – are worthy. In the last decade or so, Album of Year has gone to the likes of OutKast, Arcade Fire, Adele, Daft Punk and Beck. Even when the award has seemed like recognition for lifetime achievement, it has gone to the kinds of titanic artists (Ray Charles in 2005, Herbie Hancock in 2008) that no one can begrudge.
The 58th annual iteration of the awards happen this coming Monday, February 15. Here is some of what to watch for.
Kansas City Connections: Though you’re not likely to hear much about their categories during the broadcast, several Kansas City artists have been honored with nominations. In the Best Engineered Album, Classical category, Kansas City boasts two of the five nominees: The Kansas City Symphony’s recording of Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3, 'Organ' and the Kansas City Chorale’s collaboration with the Phoenix Chorale on Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil. Joyce DiDonato, a native of Prairie Village, is one of five finalists in the Best Classical Solo Vocal Album category for Joyce & Tony – Live from Wigmore Hall, recorded with her accompanist, Antonio Pappano. Local favorite (and former KC resident) Karrin Allyson is up for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Many A New Day: Karrin Allyson Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein. And though UMKC Conservatory professors Zhou Long and Chen Yi were not specifically nominated, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s recording of their composition Symphony: ‘Humen 1839’ is up for Best Orchestral Performance.
The Big One: Even in years when the Grammys as a whole missed the mark, their track record for winners in the Album of the Year category is surprisingly good (though there are some definite head-scratchers, as the list makes clear). This year, we’re guaranteed a high-quality winner because the five nominees represent some of the best hip-hop, classic country, modern rock and radio-ready pop to emerge in the past year and a half: To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar; Traveller by Chris Stapleton; Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes; 1989 by Taylor Swift; and Beauty Behind the Madness by The Weeknd. The smart money is on Kendrick Lamar, who scored eleven nominations this year, more than any other artist. To Pimp a Butterfly is a sprawling, head-spinning tour de force that gained the greatest heft in the cultural-critical consciousness this year. A dark horse is Stapleton’s sublime Traveller. A win over Lamar would almost certainly inspire a Kanye tirade that surpasses his reaction from last year when Beck topped Beyoncé for the award.
Bridge Favorites: In addition to Alabama Shakes in the Album of the Year category, plenty of artists who have put their stamp on The Bridge are up for major awards, including Courtney Barnett, whose well-deserved nomination for Best New Artist was one of the best surprises of the year. Bob Dylan is up for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for Shadows In The Night, his collection of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra (Dylan’s competition consists of Tony Bennett, Seth MacFarlane, Josh Groban and Barry Manilow, making this the first and only time those five names will be uttered together). Death Cab for Cutie’s Kintsugi is nominated for Best Rock Album, where one of the competitors is Slipknot (it’s hard to imagine that Death Cab and Slipknot belong on the same planet, let alone in the same category, but rock and roll is a big tent). And five Bridge favorites – Alabama Shakes, Bj?rk, My Morning Jacket, Tame Impala and Wilco – will compete for Best Alternative Music Album.
Performances and Remembrances: The list of performers includes Adele, Kendrick and Rihanna, plus the through-the-looking-glass combo of Justin Bieber, Skrillex and Diplo. But the most anticipated performances may be tributes to the towering figures that we’ve lost in the past year. With the spate of shocking deaths in the past six weeks, it’s easy to forget that B.B. King passed just nine months ago. His music will be celebrated by Chris Stapleton, Gary Clark, Jr., and Bonnie Raitt, while Lady Gaga is slated to pay tribute to David Bowie. Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White – both of whom died in the past couple of weeks – were already scheduled to be honored as their bands receive lifetime achievement awards, and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, who passed on January 18, is sure to be honored in some fashion.
The Grammys will air on Monday, February 15 at 7:00 p.m. central time on CBS.