Which album are you gunning for at the Grammys? If you’re a regular reader of this site, chances are you’re hoping Daft Punk gets lucky with an Album Of The Year win for Random Access Memories, or perhaps you’d prefer if Kendrick Lamar took home top honors for good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Both acts are critical favorites that also scored major commercial success this year. But you know who scored even more commercial success? Taylor Swift and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Given chart figures, it seems likely that more Americans are pulling for Swift’s Red (one of the fastest-selling albums of all time) or Macklemore’s The Heist (which spawned three inescapable 2013 hits) to reign. The point is this: When the Grammy nominations came out last month, it wasn’t entirely shocking to see any of those four albums nominated for Album Of The Year. You can make a reasonable case for any of them. But there was one more album that seemed to have crashed the gate, one whose inclusion in the category was both unpredictable and inexplicable. That album was The Blessed Unrest, the fourth studio album by Sara Bareilles. Some people were probably thinking, “Who?” Others were probably more like, “Ewww.” And Bareilles devoted fan base probably exclaimed, “Oooooh!” But regardless of how they felt about The Blessed Unrest‘s nomination, nobody saw it coming.
So, who is she? Bareilles palled around with Maroon 5 back in the ’90s when they were a Weezer knockoff called Kara’s Flowers, then sang in an a cappella group at UCLA (she does look kind of like Anna Kendrick). After college, she gigged around L.A. venues like the singer-songwriter haven Hotel Cafe and self-released her debut Careful Confessions in 2004. After inking a deal with Epic in 2005, she released Little Voice in 2007 and scored what remains her biggest hit with the album’s leadoff track. “Love Song,” which went to #4 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart, was one of those Top 40 hits that you hear dozens of times without ever knowing who it’s by. It’s a jaunty little piano number with an effortlessly singable chorus and a sharp arrangement. The best word for it is “pleasant” — I like it, and while I can imagine someone not liking it, hating it seems unnecessarily harsh. If it’s still not ringing a bell, here you go:
In a flash of foreshadowing, the Grammys nominated “Love Song” for Song Of The Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 2009. By then, Bareilles had settled into a steady routine of packing midsize venues, growing her fervent fan base little by little. That fan base proved its purchasing power in 2010, when Bareilles’ third album Kaleidoscope Heart debuted at #1. Her biggest hit from that album, “King Of Anything,” only made it up to #32 on the Hot 100, but it was still certified platinum with 1.4 million in sales — and, crucially, it was nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal at the Grammys. Bareilles was enough of a star that in 2011 she was hired as a judge for the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off, though she left after just one season and was replaced by Jewel (who, Stereogum metal overlord Michael Nelson assures me, has been far superior).
So Bareilles had quietly carved out a massive career by the time The Blessed Unrest dropped last July 12. The album would have been yet another #1 for Bareilles if not for Jay Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail. Again, the album’s biggest single, “Brave,” was a jaunty, uplifting bit of piano-pop. Again it stalled out well before the Top 10 (it peaked at #22). But again, it went platinum anyway. And now it’s carried Bareilles to another Grammy nomination, this time in the Album Of The Year category. The cult of Bareilles is not to be trifled with!
Before The Blessed Unrest scored its big nomination, I had never listened to Bareilles beyond a handful of singles. (If you’re like me, you heard “Brave” over and over again last fall in a Windows commercial and mistook it for Katy Perry’s “Roar” until the vocals came in.) But I gave the album a couple spins this week in search of clues as to why Grammy voters deemed it worthy competition for Taylor Swift, Macklemore, Daft Punk, and Kendrick. What I found was a winsome but unremarkable album of M.O.R. pop. Some tunes match singer-songwriter vibrato with a crisp digital backbeat; others are gentle piano ballads with really nice horns; still other pair orchestral flourishes with state-of-the-art pop production. Parts of the album veer into Norah Jones Starbucks lounge music, though occasionally a song with bite will rear its head, like the nasty piano riff on “Eden.” Lyrically, a line like “I’m starting to believe in the power of a name/ ‘Cause it can’t be a mistake if I just call it change” is not exactly profound, but it works as well as any of the Dear Diary platitudes that inlay the ballads on Swift’s Red. At its core, The Blessed Unrest is the audio equivalent of Grey’s Anatomy — you might not realize they still make ‘em like this, but when you happen upon it, you can see why it still attracts an audience.
Does that mean it deserves to be up for Album Of The Year? Absolutely not. That would be like giving a James Beard Award to Bob Evans or awarding a Pulitzer to The Family Circus. Particularly in a year with so many other enticing possibilities on the table, I’m going to be monumentally pissed off if Bareilles wins. But here’s the thing: She might win! The Grammys’ ongoing fascination with Bareilles suggests she’s more of a dark horse than those of us who scoffed at her nomination realize. Look at everything she’s conquered without most of the world noticing. Can she charm herself all the way to music’s most coveted award? It doesn’t seem out of the question. Be brave, Grammy viewers!
Here’s who should win — and who will — in the major categories and a smattering of others that interest me. (Find the full nominees list here.)
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Sara Bareilles – The Blessed Unrest
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist
Taylor Swift – Red
Who should win? As discussed above, Bareilles, for all her charms, does not belong in this race. Even though I’ve defended the guy, the thought of Macklemore winning grosses me out. I could live with Swift, who has matured from a country ingenue into a genuine pop powerhouse, or with Daft Punk, who deservedly managed the rare feat of achieving critical and commercial success simultaneously. But c’mon, Kendrick made the best album out of these five. He should win.
Who will win? Not Kendrick — not in a billion years, not unless the Grammys are seriously turning over a new leaf here. From where I stand, the race is between The Heist (which the Grammys might see as turning over a new leaf, but wouldn’t really be) and Red (which would cement Swift’s burgeoning status as a Grammy darling always and forever; she won in 2010 for Fearless). I’d rather listen to Swift over Macklemore any day, but alas, I think this is going to be the year the Grammys shower Macklemore with accolades thinking they’re showing hip-hop with accolades.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
Daft Punk featuring Pharrell – “Get Lucky”
Imagine Dragons – “Radioactive”
Lorde – “Royals”
Bruno Mars – “Locked Out Of Heaven”
Robin Thicke featuring T.I. & Pharrell – “Blurred Lines”
Who should win? “Get Lucky,” obviously.
Who will win? “Blurred Lines,” unfortunately.
SONG OF THE YEAR
“Just Give Me A Reason” – Jeff Bhasker, Pink & Nate Ruess, songwriters (Pink Featuring Nate Ruess)
“Locked Out Of Heaven” – Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine & Bruno Mars, songwriters (Bruno Mars)
“Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry & Henry Walter, songwriters (Katy Perry)
“Royals” – Joel Little & Ella Yelich O’Connor, songwriters (Lorde)
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert – “Same Love”
Who should win? “Royals” gets my vote; Lorde and Joel Little wrote a song that was new, was good, was everywhere.
Who will win? Please don’t let it be P!nk and Nate Ruess. Feeling like “Same Love” is going to take this. Wouldn’t be shocked if “Royals” won, but again, this seems primed to be the year of Macklemore.
BEST NEW ARTIST
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Who should win? Neither Kendrick Lamar nor James Blake would be a bad choice, even if neither is exactly “new.” (Since when does that matter in this category?) I’d be just as pleased to see Kacey Musgraves take this too. But as with the Album Of The Year race, my heart is with Kendrick.
Who will win? How could it not be Macklemore?
BEST ALTERNATIVE MUSIC ALBUM
Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Tame Impala – Lonerism
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
Who should win? It would be hard to get mad about any of these albums winning a Grammy; this category is all quality, as opposed to last year when Gotye inexplicably won for Making Mirrors. (“Somebody That I Used To Know” was great, but we’re really going to honor the guy’s whole album over M83 and Fiona Apple?) Still, the clear choice in my mind is Modern Vampires Of The City, the album that captivated me like no other last year.
Who will win? NIN and Vampire Weekend have both been nominated in this category before but never won. Given Trent Reznor’s growing prestige thanks to his Oscar win and the Grammys’ irrepressible fondness for older musicians, I think Hesitation Marks has the edge here.
BEST DANCE/ELECTRONICA ALBUM
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Disclosure – Settle
Calvin Harris – 18 Months
Kaskade – Atmosphere
Pretty Lights – A Color Map Of The Sun
Who should win? Every time Disclosure releases another video, like they did yesterday, I’m once again taken aback by how many absolute jams Settle includes. It’s an instant classic. It deserves to win this category. But it won’t…
Who will win? …because Daft Punk will win, and in any other year that would be splendid.
BEST RAP PERFORMANCE
Drake – “Started From The Bottom”
Eminem – “Berzerk”
Jay Z – “Tom Ford”
Kendrick Lamar – “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Featuring Wanz – “Thrift Shop”
Who should win? As explained during Stereogum’s year-end festivities, “Started From The Bottom” is the song I couldn’t shake last year; I constantly found myself unconsciously spouting “Now we here!” Furthermore, so much of hip-hop is about mythmaking, and that song takes mythmaking to mythical proportions. Plus it bangs.
Who will win? You usually give the edge in the genre categories to artists that are also nominated in major categories, so Kendrick and Macklemore seem like the frontrunners here, but I actually think Jay Z will win because he’s become such a name brand.
BEST R&B PERFORMANCE
Tamar Braxton – “Love And War”
Anthony Hamilton – “Best Of Me”
Hiatus Kaiyote Featuring Q-Tip – “Nakamarra”
Miguel Featuring Kendrick Lamar – “How Many Drinks?”
Snarky Puppy With Lalah Hathaway – “Something”
Who should win? Miguel and Kendrick, obvs.
Who will win? Miguel and Kendrick, I think. The Grammys love traditionalists like Tamar Braxton and Anthony Hamilton, but they’re probably going to want to compensate for robbing Kendrick elsewhere, and Miguel wowed everybody (or at least wowed Kelly Clarkson) at last year’s ceremony.
BEST RAP/SUNG COLLABORATION
J. Cole Featuring Miguel – “Power Trip”
Jay Z Featuring Beyoncé – “Part II (On The Run)”
Jay Z Featuring Justin Timberlake – “Holy Grail”
Kendrick Lamar Featuring Mary J. Blige – “Now Or Never”
Wiz Khalifa Featuring The Weeknd – “Remember You”
Who should win? J. Cole and Miguel. For almost a year solid, “Power Trip” coming on the radio has triggered instant bliss.
Who will win? Jay Z is competing against himself in this category, which probably hurts his pull, but I still think he’ll take home the statuette for one of his duets here. Let’s give the edge to “Part II (On The Run)” because the Grammys giving the win to a power couple seems to make sense.
BEST RAP ALBUM
Drake – Nothing Was The Same
Jay Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail
Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist
Kanye West – Yeezus
Who should win? Do I even need to say it?
Who will win? I would predict Macklemore because I really think he’s going to run the table on Sunday, but I could also see the Grammys following Macklemore’s lead here and saying Kendrick’s album was the better rap release (the thought being that Macklemore’s album, although it features rapping, is more of a pop release). Certain Grammy voters apparently feel the same way. So I do think Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City will win this.
BEST RAP SONG
“Fuckin’ Problems” – Tauheed Epps, Aubrey Graham, Kendrick Lamar, Rakim Mayers & Noah Shebib, songwriters (ASAP Rocky Featuring Drake, 2 Chainz & Kendrick Lamar)
“Holy Grail” – Shawn Carter, Terius Nash, J. Harmon, Timothy Mosley, Justin Timberlake & Ernest Wilson, songwriters (Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl & Krist Novoselic, songwriters) (Jay Z Featuring Justin Timberlake)
“New Slaves” – Christopher Breaux, Ben Bronfman, Mike Dean, Noah Goldstein, Louis Johnson, Malik Jones, Sham Joseph, Elon Rutberg, Sakiya Sandifer, Travis Scott, Che Smith, Kanye West & Cydel Young, songwriters (Anna Adamis & Gabor Presser, songwriters) (Kanye West)
“Started From The Bottom” – W. Coleman, Aubrey Graham & Noah Shebib, songwriters (Bruno Sanfilippo, songwriter) (Drake)
“Thrift Shop” – Ben Haggerty & Ryan Lewis, songwriters (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Featuring Wanz)
Who should win? Word on the street is second verse of “New Slaves” is “the best rap verse of all time…meaning … OF ALL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RAP MUSIC, PERIOD.”
Who will win? Our dear friends Ben Haggerty and Ryan Lewis, of course!
BEST COUNTRY SOLO PERFORMANCE
Lee Brice – “I Drive Your Truck”
Hunter Hayes – “I Want Crazy”
Miranda Lambert – “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Darius Rucker – “Wagon Wheel”
Blake Shelton – “Mine Would Be You”
Who should win? I’ll defer to my friend and yours Tom Breihan, who included Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck” in his year-end top 10.
Who will win? Probably Darius Rucker or some shit.
BEST COUNTRY ALBUM
Jason Aldean – Night Train
Tim McGraw – Two Lanes Of Freedom
Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
Blake Shelton – Based On A True Story
Taylor Swift – Red
Who should win? Taylor. (Or Kacey Musgraves.)
Who will win? Taylor. (Sorry, Kacey Musgraves.)
BEST ROCK PERFORMANCE
Alabama Shakes – “Always Alright”
David Bowie – “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”
Imagine Dragons – “Radioactive”
Led Zeppelin – “Kashmir”
Queens Of The Stone Age – “My God Is The Sun”
Jack White – “I’m Shakin'”
Who should win? Even though I like Bowie’s song better than QOTSA’s song, “My God Is The Sun” feels more rock to me.
Who will win? Imagine Dragons has to win something, right?
BEST ROCK ALBUM
Black Sabbath – 13
David Bowie – The Next Day
Kings Of Leon – Mechanical Bull
Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day
Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
Neil Young With Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill
Who should win? Here I’ll take Bowie over Queens.
Who will win? Led Zeppelin, which will be fucking hilarious because they belong in the Best Historical Album category along with Pictures Of Sound: One Thousand Years Of Educed Audio: 980–1980.
PRODUCER OF THE YEAR, NON-CLASSICAL
Who should win? Like everyone else in the world, I loved what Pharrell did in 2013. But Rechtshaid had a hand in so many of the year’s best albums — Vampire Weekend, Haim, Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX — that he’s easily the sentimental pick for any internet music dork, including me.
Who will win? The Grammys love “authentic” old-school roots music, which suggests Tweedy, and they love manufactured pop, which suggests Dr. Luke, but I would be very surprised if Pharrell didn’t take this.
BEST SONG WRITTEN FOR VISUAL MEDIA
“Atlas” – Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion & Chris Martin, songwriters (Coldplay, from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
“Silver Lining” – Diane Warren, songwriter (Jessie J, from Silver Linings Playbook)
“Skyfall” – Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth, songwriters (Adele, from Skyfall)
“We Both Know” – Colbie Caillat & Gavin DeGraw, songwriters (Colbie Caillat Featuring Gavin DeGraw, from Safe Haven)
“Young And Beautiful” – Lana Del Rey & Rick Nowels, songwriters (Lana Del Rey, from The Great Gatsby)
“You’ve Got Time” – Regina Spektor, songwriter (Regina Spektor, from Orange Is The New Black)
Who should win? After it soundtracked this magic moment, it’s hard not throw my support behind “Young And Beautiful.”
Who will win? Don’t bet against Adele at the Grammys.
Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes debuts on top of the Billboard 200 albums chart this week, giving the Boss his 11th #1 and thereby breaking a tie with Elvis Presley for the third most #1s all time behind Jay Z (13) and the Beatles (18). As Billboard notes, Bruce already became the first artist to score #1 albums in the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s when Wrecking Ball debuted on top in 2012. High Hopes reigned with only 99,000 in sales, making it Springsteen’s first release of the Soundscan era (since 1991) to move less than 100,000 copies in its first week. By comparison, his post-9/11 statement The Rising racked up 525,000 in its first week back in 2002.
The Frozen soundtrack, dethroned by Springsteen after two weeks on top, nonetheless stayed strong at #2. Other top 10 debuts: The latest Kidz Bop compilation, Kidz Bop 25(!), which sits at #3 after selling 76,000 copies. Last week’s featured release, Jennifer Nettles’ That Girl, posted a respectable 54,000 to debut at #5 on the Billboard 200 and easily claim the #1 spot on the country albums chart. And Switchfoot’s Fading West debuted at #6 with 39,000 in sales. Maybe the most notable stat from the albums chart, though, is the precipitous drop for Kid Ink. The crossover rapper scored a #3 debut last week for My Own Lane, but he’s way down at #21 this week. Guess that lane got a lot narrower, huh?
Over on the Hot 100, Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber” is definitively not going down; it remained at #1 for a third straight week after four consecutive weeks at #2 behind Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster.” Billboard notes that “Timber” also rules the Hot Rap Songs chart for a third straight week, which is indicative of problems in the way Billboard is defining “rap.”
As with last week, “Timber” tops the Hot 100 without topping any of its three component charts: Katy Perry and Juicy J’s “Dark Horse” rules Digital Songs, OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars” leads all Radio Songs, and Beyoncé and Jay Z’s “Drunk In Love” has conquered Streaming Songs. (Bey and Jay are performing that song together at the Grammys, by the way!) In other words, even though “Timber” remains tops overall, America is spreading the love right now, singles-wise. Also notable is the continued persistence of the ballad “Say Something” by A Great Big World with Christina Aguilera, which returns to #4 on the Hot 100 thanks largely to about 500 YouTube plays this week by my wife.
Kylie Minogue – “Into The Blue”
Minogue signed with Roc Nation last year, which means she and Grimes have the same management. Since then, she’s been busy judging The Voice UK (alongside will.i.am, Tom Jones, and the dude from Kaiser Chiefs, incidentally), but that hasn’t kept her from recording her first album since 2010’s Aphrodite. The lead single from Minogue’s 12th album (title TK) is “Into The Blue,” which was scheduled for release last week but which snuck its way onto the internet early, as music does. I’m fine with the leak because “Into The Blue,” while not Minogue’s greatest triumph or anything, is still the best pure pop song I’ve heard in this young year. You really can’t go wrong with classic pop songwriting and state-of-the-art production.
Jennifer Lopez – “Girls”
Last week we heard West Coast ratchet king DJ Mustard’s growing influence on pop in the form of Nic Nac’s production on Zendaya’s superb “My Baby” remix. This week it’s in a beat by Mustard himself for an A-list star — and yes, thanks to her American Idol hosting gig and last year’s Grammys leg incident among other things, J.Lo is still a very big deal. “Girls,” though, is pure mediocrity from all involved. What could have been a banner moment for both Lopez (putting her stamp on pop’s rising sound) and Mustard (stepping into a different stratosphere of celebrity) is just plain flat. Nothing ratchet about that!
Aloe Blacc – “The Man (Remix)” (Feat. Kid Ink)
Aloe Blacc has come a long way from “I Need A Dollar,” though not necessarily for the better. You may recognize the soul singer’s voice from his roots music turn on Avicii’s EDM/Mumford mashup smash “Wake Me Up,” which increased Blacc’s festival poster font size by soooo many pixels. Blacc’s own album is coming in March, and his “Your Song”-interpolating single “The Man” now has a remix featuring fellow rising star Kid Ink. Thanks to Sir Elton, “The Man” is catchy as hell, and Blacc handles the vocals with ease, but it’s hardly a proper showcase for the guy. He brought a unique presence to his other hits, whereas literally anybody could be behind this slice of post-Lupe-Fiasco-crossover pop.
Stine Bramsen – “Prototypical”
Alphabeat singer Stine Bramsen has gone solo, and “Prototypical” is her warning shot. It’s a big, dramatic way to return to the spotlight, and it deserves to be a hit. The chorus kills, with a simple, undeniable backbeat and an aggressive hook that you won’t mind sticking with you. And it doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at under three minutes. You’re welcome.
Meg Myers – “Desire”
“Desire” manages to sound both feral and carefully produced, and it’s the most explicit song I’ve heard this year. Myers just comes right out and says she wants to fuck you, and it’s almost as jarring as when Trent Reznor said it 20 years ago. She also sings, “Desire, I’m hungry/ I hope you feed me.” It’s super catchy and, obviously, a little bit NSFW even without nudity. Bonus points for Steve Stevens’ Eddie Van Halen tribute guitar-solo-as-orgasm theatrics.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Justin Bieber was arrested on suspicion of DUI and drag racing because of course he was. Check out that mug! [Idolator]
- Miley Cyrus is getting her own episode of MTV Unplugged, which, yes, still exists when MTV wants it to. The show airs Wednesday 1/29 at 9 p.m. [MTV]
- Cyrus’ buddy and future tourmate Sky Ferreira is now working with Troy Carter, known for managing Lady Gaga, Eve, and violin pixie Lindsey Stirling. [Popjustice]
- Calvin Harris, Jay Z, Will Smith, and Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh helped develop a new HBO comedy series called Higher set in the world of electronic music. [Deadline]
- Native Spanish speakers Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez have recorded a song for the World Cup even though Brazilians speak Portuguese. [Billboard]
- One Direction will be singing about the letter “U” on Sesame Street next season. [YouTube]
- The Wanted, aka the Bravery to 1D’s Killers, are splitting up. [The Wanted]
- Country singer Trace Adkins got into a drunken altercation with a Trace Adkins impersonator on a cruise ship [TMZ]
- Katy Perry used to accept payment in avocados. [GQ]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME