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From the Beastie Boys to Michelle Obama, here’s your Grammys audiobook playlist

Michelle Obama
Former First Lady Michelle Obama reads the audio edition of her bestselling memoir “Becoming.”
(Chris Pizzello / Invision)

The Grammys’ spoken word category belongs to audiobooks.

The field of nominees has included different practitioners of the form since the 1980s ushered in the CD era. But the Recording Academy hasn’t ventured far beyond the bookshelves for determining the winners since 1992, when it honored the audio recording of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Civil War.”

With sales of audiobooks approaching $1 billion in 2018, the format is booming. The advent of digital audio now allows a library’s worth of listening to travel on our phones and take us far beyond the bounds of traffic while stuck behind the wheel.

This year’s Grammy contenders include a bestselling memoir from a former first lady, a look inside a New York City trio at the heart of a musical movement, a filmmaker reveling in the powers of poor taste, an orchestral meeting of music and poetry, and a songwriter’s eclectic account of his cancer journey.

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Here’s a rundown ahead of Sunday night’s awards.

‘Becoming,’ Michelle Obama

With more than 50 weeks (and counting) on bestseller lists, this memoir from Michelle Obama has sold more than 11 million copies and is one of the top-selling autobiographies ever written, according to its publisher.

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(Random House Audio)

With a frank, conversational style, Obama “doesn’t write so much as talks to her readers,” according to The Times review of the book, which covers her early life leading up to and beyond her family’s time in the White House. “I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving,” she begins, a reference to the constant sound of her great-aunt’s piano students rising through the floorboards as she grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

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Obama reads the audio edition herself, and behind her engaging delivery, “Becoming” sounds effortless. In terms of handicapping her Grammy chances, she has some family history on her side in the spoken word category. Her husband, Barack, won in 2006 for his memoir “Dreams of My Father.” (Penguin Random House, 19 hours and 3 minutes)

‘Beastie Boys Book,’ Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz

While Obama’s book may be the category favorite in terms of reach, the Beastie Boys deserve credit for continuing to expand their medium’s potential. The Beasties’ landmark album “Paul’s Boutique” broke new ground in hip-hop in 1989 for incorporating a latticework of outside samples to forge their original vision. Now the audiobook of their story adds a mixtape-like roster of famous contemporaries and fans to tell their story alongside surviving members Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz.

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(Random House Audio)

Reminiscent in spirit of George Saunders’ 2017 audiobook “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which had a roster of 166 vocal performers, “Beastie Boys Book” includes Steve Buscemi, Amy Poehler, Colson Whitehead, Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow. These contributors and others look back with honesty (and a little embarrassment) at the influential, idiosyncratic band’s history and legacy.

The book also functions as a memorial for the Beastie Boys’ late Adam “MCA” Yauch, who died in 2012 and casts a long shadow while being described as the force behind their most innovative moments. But the key voice may be the band’s original drummer Kate Schellenbach, who receives a heartfelt apology from the surviving Beastie Boys for being shut out by the band along with, crucially, a chapter of her own to respond. (Penguin Random House, 12 hours and 41 minutes)

‘Mister Know It All,’ John Waters

Sometimes described as the “Pope of Trash,” filmmaker, author and mustached bon vivant John Waters knows his way around an outrageous story: He created the cult classics “Pink Flamingos,” “Polyester” and “Female Trouble.” Previously the author of the dryly funny first-person books “Role Models” and “Car Sick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America” (also nominated for a Grammy in 2015), Waters now looks back in “Mister Know It All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder” on his early movies while offering life advice with his trademark twisted world view.

John Waters
(Macmillan Audio)

“Accept that something is wrong with you — it’s a good start,” Waters says in his self-read audiobook. “Something has always been wrong with me too. If you let me be your garbage guru, I’ll teach you how to succeed in insanity and take control of your low self-esteem.” In playful moments such as these, Waters’ voice in your head sounds like the bent guidance of a cult leader — which, in a sense, he happily is. (Macmillan Audio, 10 hours and 2 minutes)

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‘Sekou Andrews & The String Theory,’ Sekou Andrews & The String Theory

Born in Berkeley, Sekou Andrews is a poetry slam veteran who specializes in what he calls “poetic voice” — an uplifting combination of inspirational speaking with verse.

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(California Music)

Those two skills can be heard on this recording, which finds Andrews hurtling through crescendo after crescendo as he calls out hopeful messages such as “Our bodies are instruments that harness good vibes, our cells keep our score, or music is alive” over the steady drive of a backing orchestra.

Forbes called him “the de-facto poet laureate of corporate America,” which can sound a little like faint praise depending on your views of art and poetry. But Andrews is the first poet nominee in this category since Maya Angelou in 2008, which is the sort of company anyone can get behind. (California Music, 38 minutes)

‘I.V. Catatonia,’ Eric Alexandrakis

Spanning 61 tracks at just over four hours, this work from a classically trained pianist is among the year’s more unsung Grammy nominees with a work two decades in the making.

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(Eric Alexandrakis )

At 24, Eric Alexandrakis was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1999. He translated the horrors of chemotherapy and personal uncertainty into art using a four-track recorder into “I.V. Catatonia: 20 Years as a Two-Time Cancer Survivor,” which was then released on CD. After a subsequent second diagnosis, he underwent more treatments that spurred him to revisit the experience for this digital release.

Incorporating bracing elements of noise rock and found sounds mixed with piano, guitar and distorted spoken word snippets, Alexandrakis’ expression of that experience is not always easy listening. But it wasn’t intended to be. (Minoan Music, 4 hours and 2 minutes)

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Barton is a former Times staff writer who is based in Portland, Ore.


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