Dear Grammy voter,
It’s been a while! Hope you’re well.
I’m getting in touch, of course, because it’s that time again: First-round voting for the 61st Grammy Awards — in which you and your colleagues in the Recording Academy are sorting out nominations for the music industry’s most coveted prize — opened last week and will run through Oct. 31.
Which means I’ve got just a few days to help guide your picks with my unsolicited advice.
The most recent ceremony, as I’m sure you remember, was a doozy. After assembling a rather forward-looking set of nominations for the 60th Grammys (which took place in January), you guys reverted to type with a deeply conservative slate of winners headed up by Bruno Mars.
Who is great, by the way! You should definitely go see him play this weekend at Staples Center. But handing Mars the awards for album, record and song of the year over the culture-shaping likes of Kendrick Lamar, Luis Fonsi and Lorde? That just demonstrated the academy’s attachment to old values — and its inability (or unwillingness) to judge art using fresh criteria.
So you’ll have to forgive me if I think you could use the assistance.
I see you’ve already taken steps to showcase more new voices — or to ensure the Grammys remain as “relevant as possible,” as you put it in a statement — by increasing the number of nominees in the major categories.
Now, when nominations are announced Dec. 5, eight acts or titles (instead of five) will compete for album, record and song of the year and best new artist.
If I’m being honest, though, I’m not sure this represents a serious improvement. It kind of feels like a get-out-of-jail-free card — one likely to result in virtue-signaling nods for acts that stand little chance of actually winning a Grammy.
It also threatens to dilute the prestige of a nomination, as arguably happened when the Oscars began allowing up to 10 films in the race for best picture.
But what’s done is done. And hey, speaking of the Oscars, at least you didn’t create (and then quickly scrap) a cynical Grammy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Music.
Here, then, are some pointers — and some warnings — for the big prizes as well as a few of the smaller categories.
Album of the year
The takeaway from last year’s nominations was that for the first time a white man wasn’t in the running for the flagship Grammy. That wasn’t a good thing because white dudes are bad; it was a good thing because white dudes didn’t make the year’s most impactful music — and you in the academy appeared to grasp that.
The same could be said for music released during this latest eligibility period (Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018). But with the added space for more nominations, I’ll admit I’m worried you’re going to reflexively sneak one in for U2’s corny “Songs of Experience” or Justin Timberlake’s ostensibly rootsy “Man of the Woods.”
Beyond the sure things — I’m thinking of Taylor Swift’s “Reputation,” Drake’s “Scorpion,” Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Everything Is Love” — use this newly roomy category to recognize Kacey Musgraves’ funny and heartfelt psychedelic-country album, “Golden Hour,” and the smart, sex-positive “Dirty Computer” by Janelle Monáe. Give some thought to the adventurous soundtrack that Kendrick Lamar put together for “Black Panther.”
And if you simply must spring for a white guy, consider Post Malone, whose “Beerbongs & Bentleys” says plenty about how young hip-hop musicians think (or don’t) about the lines separating rock, rap and R&B.
Record of the year
If Drake’s name doesn’t come to mind instantly here, I don’t know what to tell you.
The Canadian rapper’s “Nice for What” and “In My Feelings,” each of which topped Billboard’s Hot 100 for weeks at a time, should be locks in a category intended to honor singles that catch the sound and spirit of a given year.
But Drake faces stiff competition. “This Is America,” by Childish Gambino, lived up to its title with an intensely unsettling vision of two of our national pastimes: racism and gun violence.
And though Fonsi was robbed of this prize at the 60th Grammys — where his “Despacito” was clearly the right choice — you voters have to acknowledge the continued importance of Latin pop with a nod for Cardi B’s summer smash “I Like It.” To ignore this record is to ignore a changing American reality.
Song of the year
As you know, song of the year is meant to honor songwriters (as opposed to record of the year, which recognizes performers and producers).
With that in mind, I’d like to see Ariana Grande and her co-writers nominated for “No Tears Left to Cry,” the twentysomething pop singer’s wise-beyond-her-years response to the horrific terrorist bombing of her concert last year in Manchester, England.
Also consider Musgraves, whose lovely “Butterflies” extends an insect metaphor further than you might’ve thought possible, and Charlie Puth, whose “Voicenotes” album is full of sophisticated harmonic ideas and clever turns of phrase.
Last year, after ages in which you largely ignored hip-hop in this category, you nominated songs by Jay-Z and Logic. Do it again this time with “The Story of Adidon,” Pusha T’s masterfully composed takedown of Drake.
Best new artist
Rumor has it you’ve barred Cardi B and Post Malone from being nominated for best new artist because they were already too visible when the window of eligibility opened.
That’s silly. This category is squishy by definition — academy rules refer to a “breakthrough into the public consciousness” — so the rules should be equally bendable for two new stars who inarguably moved music in 2018.
But OK, fine, you’re the boss.
Just don’t use one of their two rightful slots to nominate the painfully dull Bebe Rexha. Go with Ella Mai, the crafty R&B singer behind “Boo’d Up,” and Juice WRLD, the emo-rap sensation responsible for “Lucid Dreams.”
Given the number of high-profile hip-hop releases that came out in 2018 — some of them without even a connection to the inescapable Kanye West — you’ve got your work cut out for you in best rap album.
But though I’m usually dismissive of your well-intentioned habit of rewarding subpar work by a musician who recently died, you should make room for at least one slightly smaller-scale project, and that’s “Swimming,” the disarmingly tender album that Mac Miller released just weeks before he died at age 26 in September.
And last but not least: Please remember Willie Nelson!
You overlooked his wonderful 2017 album “God’s Problem Child,” but fortunately the country legend gave you two opportunities to nominate him this year — first with April’s gorgeous “Last Man Standing,” well suited to a nod for best country album, and then with last month’s “My Way,” a sly Sinatra tribute that deserves consideration for best traditional pop vocal album.
Imagine that: an old white man we can both get behind.
Until we speak again,
Your friend Mikael