Too timid to embrace the future, and too enamored with TV ratings to truly honor the groundbreaking music being made outside the mainstream — this is where the Grammy Awards finds itself on the eve of its 56th annual telecast.
The past five years or so have seen the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (or NARAS) vacillate between honoring genuine artistic achievements and caving to the need for eyeballs (only occasionally have those diametrically opposed goals actually overlapped).
This year’s crop of nominees tends more toward the latter — Jay Z leads the class of ’14 with nine total nominations; Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams follow close behind with seven nods apiece — although it is gratifying to see NARAS acknowledging pop music’s current, sizable debt to hip-hop.
Still, of those multiple nominees, only Kendrick Lamar’s stunning debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, garnered any critical acclaim. The rest are being roped in for what has become an annual showcase/victory lap for those already occupying a healthy slice of the pop cultural conversation — Grammys are, increasingly, an afterthought on the very show intended to hand them out.
So, while it’s a time-tested critical reflex to assess the major categories and take a stab at who will walk away from the Staples Center with a golden gramophone (or three), the Grammys continue to struggle with relevance in an age when it’s possible to glance at Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook to really gauge what’s having a lasting impact, and what is merely a flash in the proverbial pan. (For a full list of the nominees, visit grammy.com.)
Record of the year
A category anchored by two of 2013’s unqualified smash hit singles — Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines — this battle also features Top 40 darlings (Imagine Dragons’ Radioactive; Bruno Mars’ Locked Out of Heaven) and the rare critical and commercial favorite in Lorde’s ubiquituous Royals. Daft Punk is scheduled to perform and won a pair of dance/electronica Grammys in 2009, so it’s possible NARAS would make the bold choice to honor the French electronic music duo in one of the major competitions. But, as is the case in most of the categories in which she finds herself nominated, this prize is Lorde’s to lose.
Should win: Daft Punk, Get Lucky
Will win: Lorde, Royals
Album of the year
Perhaps the most schizophrenic of the “Big Three” Grammy contests, this category finds Sara Bareilles up against Kendrick Lamar, Daft Punk, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Taylor Swift. Macklemore & Lewis and Swift feel like sops to sales juggernauts, while Lamar and Daft Punk split the critical difference, leaving Bareilles the odd performer out. It’s highly unlikely the songstress walks away with the prize (in her case, the “honor to be nominated” line is likely her only consolation), just as it’s long odds for Swift to nab the trophy. While it would be gratifying to see Lamar win for his tough, confident record (or, frankly, Daft Punk, for its luminous homage to analog music-making), Macklemore & Lewis stand a better chance of claiming victory.
Should win: Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city
Will win: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
Song of the year
Of all three main categories, this one provides the clearest snapshot of what mainstream pop radio sounded like in 2013 (absent Blurred Lines and Get Lucky, of course). In any other year, Pink and Nate Ruess’ ballad Just Give Me a Reason would be a lock to win, and the same could be said for Katy Perry’s Roar. Bruno Mars’ Locked Out of Heaven, while catchy, is too lightweight, particularly compared to Macklemore & Lewis’ poignant, timely Same Love and Lorde’s inescapable, snide smash Royals. While it would be heartening to see NARAS tip its cap to history and honor Same Love in the same year as sweeping same-sex marriage laws were enacted, Royals seems destined for another coronation.
Should win: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Same Love
Will win: Lorde, Royals
Best new artist
A true grab bag of musicians covering the musical spectrum, the best new artist category is perennially a headscratcher. The 2014 edition is no different, featuring artists far too critically beloved and/or cultishly adored to win (James Blake, Kendrick Lamar) and those being honored simply because one or more of their songs was a big fat hit on radio (Ed Sheeran, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis). That leaves East Texas native Kacey Musgraves, and while her record Same Trailer Different Park was one of 2013’s true knockouts, it’s likely she’ll earn plaudits from the country crowd before she earns any Grammy gold (although I’d love for NARAS to prove me wrong). That leaves one final Heist for Macklemore & Lewis to pull off.
Should win: Kacey Musgraves
Will win: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Best rock performance
Nowhere is the Grammys’ tension between past, present and future more evident than in this bizarre, borderline absurd assemblage of nominees. Where else can you find a pair of decades-old rock acts (David Bowie and Led Zeppelin) going up against bands young enough to be considered virtual grandchildren (Alabama Shakes, Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age and Imagine Dragons)? It’s a peculiar mix, and one with no clear-cut favorite. Bowie’s surprise comeback, The Next Day, was well-received, and of the whippersnapper nominees, only Imagine Dragons made any significant impact in the main.
Should win: David Bowie, The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
Will win: Imagine Dragons, Radioactive
THE 56TH ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS
• 7 p.m. Sunday
• KTVT/Channel 11