Grammys 2016: Here’s how to get nominated for music’s biggest prize

Country singer Sam Hunt
Country singer Sam Hunt
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Moving units, moving the needle or moving aging voters with fond memories of their youth: These are three surefire ways to earn a nod for music’s most prestigious prize, as we saw once again when the Recording Academy announced its nominations for the 58th annual Grammy Awards.

Near the top of the heap are two artists skilled at doing all those things at the same time.

Taylor Swift’s “1989” and the Weeknd’s “Beauty Behind the Madness,” both up for the coveted album of the year award, are huge commercial hits that use familiar sonic elements (including textures lifted from 1980s-era pop and R&B) to tell vivid personal stories set in an age of digital distraction.


FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards | Complete list of nominees

Each lives at the point where commercial and creative ambition meet, an established Grammy sweet spot, and embodies the idea that music can connect with a mass audience at a moment when listeners can’t even agree on how to listen.

Spotify? The radio? A good old-fashioned CD? Swift famously held “1989” back from streaming on Spotify and still dominated pop culture for most of the year — a clear demonstration that the Grammys couldn’t ignore her if they wanted to.

Yet the Recording Academy has never wanted its flagship ceremony, scheduled for Feb. 15 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, to be seen as strictly a popularity contest. Unlike the American Music Awards or the Billboard Music Awards, the Grammys thinks of itself as an arbiter of quality and importance, a beacon for what matters (or what ought to, anyway).

So the nominees for album of the year also include Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the Compton rapper’s deeply complicated meditation on race in America; it’s the latest in a long line of albums that may have been more respected than listened to by Grammy voters.

The Grammys thinks of itself as an arbiter of quality and importance, a beacon for what matters (or what ought to, anyway).

And the category has two albums by young acts rejuvenating beloved old styles: Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller,” full of scuffed-up country tunes, and “Sound & Color” by Alabama Shakes, a road-tested outfit that implicitly stands for the value of hand-played rock ‘n’ roll.

Neither seems likely to actually win the thing come February — but then, neither did Beck before he took album of the year at the last Grammy Awards with his rootsy “Morning Phase.”

You can see the same tensions at work in the other major categories, such as record of the year, where Swift’s “Blank Space” and the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” — both state-of-the-art pop productions — are nominated alongside Ed Sheeran’s plaintive “Thinking Out Loud,” which would have fit in on an early-'70s James Taylor album. (Speaking of Taylor, he’s probably as surprised as anyone to find his “Before This World” up against “1989” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Piece by Piece” for the pop vocal album prize — just one of the wonders of taxonomy that the Grammys offer every year.)

Song of the year reflects more of the Grammys’ social conscience with Lamar’s bruised but hopeful “Alright,” and “Girl Crush,” Little Big Town’s country hit that slyly argues for the acceptance of same-sex romance in that often hidebound genre.

The category also includes “Blank Space,” a welcome recognition that what Top 40 stars do is as dependent on traditional songwriting as on technological wizardry.

If those nods feel like progress for the Grammy Awards, though, the nominations for best new artist lack a certain imagination. James Bay, Tori Kelly and Meghan Trainor are all reasonably popular and sufficiently talented, at least if a strong natural singing voice is still what we’re looking for in our new artists.

But none seems especially attuned to the specifics of 2015 — let alone 2016, when these awards will be handed out.

That leaves the R&B-inspired country singer Sam Hunt, a true species of his era, to duke it out against the wry Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett for a trophy that ostensibly represents the soul of the Grammys’ future.

Like it or not, whoever wins will tell tomorrow something about today.

Twitter: @mikaelwood