Get ready for the Grammys: Our picks

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Kendrick Lamar performs Friday, Oct. 30, at ACL Live for an upcoming episode of KLRU's long-running music television show, "Austin City Limits." Photo by Scott Newton, courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits.

Our selections on a variety of top Grammy categories. In the interest of brevity we’ve eliminated many of the overlapping song/performance categories for each genre, opting to focus on albums.

Taylor Swift plays the Georgia dome on Saturday, October 24, 2015. Robb D. Cohen /RobbsPhotos.com

Taylor Swift plays the Georgia dome on Saturday, October 24, 2015.
Robb D. Cohen /RobbsPhotos.com

Record of the Year

  • “Really Love,” D’Angelo and the Vanguard (from “Black Messiah”)
  • “Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars (from “Uptown Special”)
  • “Thinking Out Loud,” Ed Sheeran (from “X”)
  • “Blank Space,” Taylor Swift (from “1989”)
  • “I Can’t Feel My Face,” the Weeknd (single)

D.S.S.:  The award will likely go to the ubiquitous hit “Uptown Funk” or possibly Grammy fave Swift, but I’m going to pull for the underdog, D’Angelo. This category awards performance (as opposed to songwriting) and everything about “Really Love,” from the swells of strings and sensuous whispers in French to the graceful walking bass and subtle counter melodies that frame D’Angelo’s silky falsetto, is an exquisite study in musical sensitivity and sonic detail.

P.B.: “Uptown Funk” did finish atop the Billboard singles charts for 2015, but I’m inclined to think Sheeran may have the edge with Grammy voters, as “Thinking Out Loud” strikes a chord similar to Sam Smith’s Grammy-sweeping “Stay With Me” last year.

Kendrick Lamar performs Friday, Oct. 30, at ACL Live for an upcoming episode of KLRU's long-running music television show, "Austin City Limits." Photo by Scott Newton, courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits.

Kendrick Lamar performs Friday, Oct. 30, at ACL Live for an upcoming episode of KLRU’s long-running music television show, “Austin City Limits.” Photo by Scott Newton, courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits.

Album of the Year

  • “Sound and Color,” Alabama Shakes
  • “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kendrick Lamar
  • “Traveller,” Chris Stapleton
  • “1989,” Taylor Swift
  • “Beauty Behind the Madness,” the Weeknd

D.S.S.: In 2014, hip-hop fans were outraged when Macklemore’s “Heist” bested Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D city”  for Best Hip-Hop Album, a situation Macklemore exacerbated with a clumsy public apology afterward. In light of that and the recent #oscarssowhite controversy, this is the year for Grammy voters to do right. Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” was as musically adventurous as it was culturally vital. Years from now when we look for an album that encapsulates the energy of 2015, this is the one we’ll pull. It’s an outcry against the racial strife that has colored the last couple of years presented through the deeply personal lens of a young artist who has emerged as one of the most important voices of his generation. The fact that he rejected all the trappings of commercial hip-hop to instead make an album that goes deep into avant-jazz and new-school funk makes it all the more phenomenal.

P.B.: Lamar’s album is one of those moments where critics and the masses converge to anoint a new superstar. He fully deserves this award, though Alabama Shakes’s record is a similar case of great art that reached a wide audience. Beware the Grammys awarding the mega-selling Taylor Swift, though.

Ed Sheeran performs at the Frank Erwin Center on May 6, 2015.

Ed Sheeran performs at the Frank Erwin Center on May 6, 2015.

Song of the Year

  • “Alright,” Kendrick Duckworth, Mark Anthony Spears  and Pharrell Williams, songwriters (Kendrick Lamar, from “To Pimp A Butterfly”)
  • “Blank Space,” Max Martin, Shellback & Taylor Swift, songwriters  (Taylor Swift, from “1989”)
  • “Girl Crush,” Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna & Liz Rose, songwriters (Little Big Town from “Pain Killer”)
  • “See You Again,” Andrew Cedar, Justin Franks, Charles Puth & Cameron Thomaz, songwriters (Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth from “Furious 7: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”)
  • “Thinking Out Loud,” Ed Sheeran & Amy Wadge, songwriters (Ed Sheeran from “X”)

D.S.S.: Again, let’s go with Lamar. In a year when black Americans were bombarded with a never-ending stream of bad news, Lamar provided the incredibly uplifting and necessary message “We gon’ be alright,” adopted as an anthem by the Black Lives Matter movement. The energy he conjured performing the song live at ACL Live last year was utterly exhilarating.

P.B.: “Alright” was a more momentous touchstone, to be sure, but the Grammys have a pretty steady track record of rewarding safer stuff. Again, Sheeran’s song seems right down the center of voters’ collective aesthetic.

Courtney Barnett from Melbourne, Australia, performs during the NPR Music SXSW Showcase at Stubb's in Austin on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. Lukas Keapproth/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Courtney Barnett from Melbourne, Australia, performs during the NPR Music SXSW Showcase at Stubb’s in Austin on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. Lukas Keapproth/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Best New Artist

  • Courtney Barnett
  • James Bay
  • Sam Hunt
  • Tori Kelly
  • Meghan Trainor

D.S.S.: Grammy voters seem likely to stand with Trainor, whose “All About the Bass” was admittedly one of the most infectious songs of the last several years, but I’m pulling for Courtney Barnett. The young Australian is a master of artful and unexpected lyricism, but don’t get it twisted, she’s also one of the fiercest guitar shredders in modern rock.

P.B.: I suspect Barnett has to settle for an “it’s an honor just to be nominated” philosophy here. She’s easily the most creative of this lot, but Hunt is the only nominee who came close to Trainor’s commercial impact, and he’s not likely to have a shot at categories outside the country genre. It’s Meghan’s moment.

Florence and the Machine headlines the Samsung stage and closes out the second weekend at Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Sunday October 11, 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Florence and the Machine headlines the Samsung stage and closes out the second weekend at Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Sunday October 11, 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Best Pop Vocal Album

  • “Piece By Piece,”  Kelly Clarkson
  • “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” Florence + The Machine
  • “Uptown Special,” Mark Ronson
  • ” 1989,” Taylor Swift
  • “Before This World,” James Taylor

D.S.S.: Let’s be honest, Taylor Swift rightfully owns this category and “1989” provides everything we generally look for in a pop album and then some. But I’m secretly hoping for an upset scenario where Swift and Ronson voters cancel each other out and the beautifully ornate pop of “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” the most introspective and vulnerable release of Florence Welch’s career, floats to the top.

P.B.: The winner will be named Taylor. But Swift, or James? The former is far more likely, for the reasons noted above; but don’t count out the boomer bloc of Grammy voters migrating en masse toward their beloved Sweet Baby.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist James Bay performs at ACL Live on December 17, 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist James Bay performs at ACL Live on December 17, 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman.

Best Rock Album

  • “Chaos and the Calm,” James Bay
  • “Kintsugi,” Death Cab For Cutie
  • “Mister Asylum,” Highly Suspect
  • “Drones,” Muse
  • “5: The Gray Chapter,” Slipknot

P.B.: It’s somewhat surprising to see Death Cab in this bunch rather than the Alternative category, but they’re a long shot. Bay seems most likely to emerge here; his competition for the coveted Best New Artist award is too stiff, but this is an easier field to beat.

D.S.S.: “Drones” was a very uneven release for concept rock juggernaut, Muse, but I still wouldn’t be surprised to see them walk off with this one. I’m pulling for James Bay whose “Hold Back the River” was one of the year’s best rock songs.

Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday October 3, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday October 3, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Best Alternative Music Album

  • “Sound & Color,” Alabama Shakes
  • “Vulnicura,” Björk
  • “The Waterfall,” My Morning Jacket
  • “Currents,” Tame Impala
  • “Star Wars,” Wilco

P.B.: Here’s where Alabama Shakes gets its just desserts. Most of these nominees are worthy, but the Shakes, though an odd fit stylistically for the “Alternative” category, are doing something really special in their young career, while the likes of Björk and Wilco are basically extending accomplished careers.

D.S.S.: “Vulnicura,” Björk’s haunting elegy to a long-term relationship, crafts stunning beauty out of stark vulnerability, but “Sound & Color” is such a broad reaching, ambitious platter it deserves the win.

D'Angelo performs in Atlanta in June of 2015. (Akili-Casundria Ramsess/Special to the AJC)

D’Angelo performs in Atlanta in June of 2015. (Akili-Casundria Ramsess/Special to the AJC)

Best R&B Album

  • “Coming Home,” Leon Bridges
  • “Black Messiah,” D’Angelo and the Vanguard
  • “Cheers To The Fall,” Andra Day
  • “Reality Show,” Jazmine Sullivan
  • “Forever Charlie,”  Charlie Wilson

DSS: After several years mired in a rut of formulaic song structure and autotuned hooks, R&B is going through an amazing resurgence. The Jazmine Sullivan and Andra Day albums were both very, very good and Leon Bridges’ overnight rise to superstar status is one of the great success stories of modern music, but this award is D’Angelo’s.

Photos courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits. Photos by Scott Newton.

Kendrick Lamar tapes an episode of ‘Austin City Limits.’ Courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits. Photos by Scott Newton.

Best Rap Album

  • “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” J. Cole
  • “Compton,” Dr. Dre
  • “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” Drake
  • “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kendrick Lamar
  • “The Pinkprint,” Nicki Minaj

D.S.S.: King Kendrick, “King Kunta,” All hail the king.

Christopher Alvin "Chris" Stapleton plays a sold out show in Atlanta during January 2016. Robb D. Cohen /RobbsPhotos.com

Christopher Alvin “Chris” Stapleton plays a sold out show in Atlanta during January 2016.
Robb D. Cohen /RobbsPhotos.com

Best Country Album

  • “Montevallo,” Sam Hunt
  • “Pain Killer,” Little Big Town
  • “The Blade,” Ashley Monroe
  • “Pageant Material,” Kacey Musgraves
  • “Traveller,” Chris Stapleton

P.B.: Will Stapleton repeat his CMA Awards success in the Grammys’ country categories? It’s almost certainly either him or the bigger-selling Hunt here, though Musgraves and Monroe are significant rising stars.

Jason Isbell and band perform at Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic at the Circuit of the Americas on Saturday July 4th, 2015. Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Jason Isbell and band perform at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic at the Circuit of the Americas on Saturday July 4th, 2015. Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Best Americana Album 

  • “The Firewatcher’s Daughter,” Brandi Carlile
  • “The Traveling Kind,” Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
  • “Something More Than Free,” Jason Isbell
  • “Mono,” Mavericks
  • “The Phosphorescent Blues,” Punch Brothers

P.B.: Grammy voters lean toward the established veterans in this category, which would seem to favor Harris and Crowell. Artistically, though, nobody in this genre came close to Isbell in 2015, and his record topped the rock, country and folk charts upon its release. It’s his time.

Singer-songwriter Patty Griffin performs during the SIMS Foundation's 20th Anniversary Star Party at KLRU Studios on December 5, 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman.

Singer-songwriter Patty Griffin performs during the SIMS Foundation’s 20th Anniversary Star Party at KLRU Studios on December 5, 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman.

Best Folk Album

  • “Wood, Wire & Words,” Norman Blake
  • Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, self-titled
  • “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” Rhiannon Giddens
  • “Servant of Love,” Patty Griffin
  • “Didn’t He Ramble,”  Glen Hansard

P.B.: Austin’s own Griffin has a legitimate shot at her second Grammy with a fascinating record that, like many falling into this category, pushed well beyond the bounds of the folk genre. But expect the voters to award the very deserving Giddens, who won in 2011 as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops but has had a spectacular coming-out as a solo artist.

Other Austinites nominated are Hayes Carll, whose “Chances Are” (recorded by Lee Ann Womack) is up for Best Country Song; choral group Conspirare, seeking a second straight Best Choral Performance award for “Pablo Neruda — The Poet Sings”; and the Bismeaux Records design team of


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