This installment of Essential Tracks directs its microphone toward Grammy-nominated artists who are unlikely to receive prime-time ceremony shout-outs but whose recorded achievements will likely endure long after the telecast ends.
Jazmine Sullivan, "Let It Burn" (RCA). Sullivan earned early attention for her 2008 song "Bust Your Windows," an upbeat post-Amy Winehouse revenge fantasy. A few years later the 28-year-old surprised many when she announced an early retirement after her second album failed to hit.
Luckily that didn't stick. Sullivan is up for three Grammys, including best R&B album for her third collection, "Reality Show." Her synth-heavy single "Let It Burn," a simmering late-night ballad from the album, is nominated in the Grammys' traditional R&B performance and R&B song categories, which puts her up against D'Angelo, the Weeknd, Miguel and Lalah Hathaway among others. Sullivan's renewed success confirms her ear and her smarts. It also proves that her approach to R&B has expanded since "Bust Your Windows." It doesn't hurt that "Let It Burn" was co-written by Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, but Sullivan is hardly a passenger on "Reality Check." She's driving this time around, and it shows.
Bomba Estereo, "Amanecer" (Sony Music). Colombian dance band Bomba Estereo mixes electronic beat music with pop structures planted in their native country's cumbia rhythms. An infectious live band, the group earned ink in 2015 after actor and former rapper Will Smith returned to his hip-hop roots for Estereo's "Fiesta." That track blends a hardened bass beat, rolling snares and the occasional dubstep electro-wobble. "Amanecer," nominated in the Latin rock, urban or alternative album category, doesn't always opt for dance floor tempos. On "Somos Dos," singer and rapper Li Saumet slows the tone and the emotion. Nuanced acoustic guitar strums and maracas support album-closer "Raiz." Intertwined with echoed, psychedelic flourishes, it caps "Amanecer" with a beautiful resignation.
Bill Frisell, "Guitar in the Space Age" (OKeh). As comfortable as a campfire on a cold night, the 14 songs on "Guitar in the Space Age" find an expert jazz guitarist orbiting classic pop and rock songs of the 1950s and '60s. Across this meditative collection — nominated for a contemporary instrumental Grammy — Frisell, bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz transform AM and FM radio standards. Songs sound both familiar and newly born: Link Wray's "Rumble," the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," the Byrds' rendition of Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn" and the Chantays' classic surf jam "Pipeline," among them. Frisell slows Duane Eddy's magnetic "Rebel Rouser" to a crawl, elasticizing that central guitar line to open before generating up-tempo momentum that revs forward until it hits the coda.
Lee Ann Womack, "Chances Are" (Sugar Hill). A song taken from Womack's exquisite album "The Way I'm Livin'," "Chances Are" is nominated for country song and country solo performance Grammys. Written by Hayes Carll, the song's sublime final couplets are a lesson in metered precision: "Every heart has got a story/ But mine just has a few more scars/ But they could heal if you would hold me/ And tell me what my chances are." The veteran country chart-topper Womack teamed with her hit-making producer husband, Frank Liddell, on "The Way I'm Livin'," and they sure can pick songs. Among the highlights are versions of Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend," Julie Miller's "Don't Listen to the Wind" and Bruce Robison's "Nightwind."
Caribou, "Our Love" (Merge). Longtime fans of Caribou founder Dan Snaith's projects might have been forgiven for rubbing their eyes at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival last year. Despite the dumbed-down big-ticket EDM thumpers populating the Sahara tent a few hundred yards away, a crammed smaller stage was dense with teens and twentysomethings losing their marbles to the relatively nuanced, subtle sounds of "Our Love." An outlier nominee in the dance/electronic album category, Caribou's album draws inspiration from the entirety of house and techno music, focusing on both early rave bleeps and blurps and up-to-the-minute textures. Whether "Our Love" will upset Skrillex and Diplo, Disclosure, the Chemical Bros. and Jamie xx is another matter altogether, but some of us can dream.