Say what you will about this year’s Grammys — it feels like it’s going to be a downer. It’s got a slate of performers that are either Usual Suspects (Adele, Bruno Mars, Alicia Keys) or inexplicable odd couples (Metallica and Lady Gaga?), its parade of stars will likely feel less monumental than the memorial tribute reel, and the cause of holding back a national sense of discontent and ennui will fall largely on the shoulders of Beyoncé and Chance The Rapper. With most of the other big nominees and guests of honor feeling like emissaries from a Republic Of Pure Malaise, the closest thing there is to a novel bit of fun for this year’s Grammys is the chance to pick out all the first-time nominees and see what sort of shot they all have at starting their own legacies Sunday night. Will we reward the sad boys of pop that have put us through so much? Will an outlier of a young star point ahead to a new generation of music for our resistance-fueled times? Who’s the Christopher Cross of this group? Let’s see if we can figure it all out.
WHO: Lukas Graham
CATEGORY: Record Of The Year; Song Of The Year, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance (all for “7 Years”)
UP AGAINST: Adele (“Hello”), Beyoncé (“Formation”), Rihanna ft. Drake (“Work”), Twenty One Pilots (“Stressed Out”); Mike Posner (“I Took A Pill In Ibiza”), Justin Bieber (“Love Yourself”); Sia featuring Sean Paul (“Cheap Thrills”)
WHY NOW: Because the pop charts felt horribly, oppressively unenjoyable in 2016, and “7 Years” feels like the amount of time we’ve had to deal with this nuisance. It sounds like the “Bad Day” of self-parodying Millennial growing-pain anxiety, except without all that pesky acknowledgment of actual real-world problems. Trivia time: This is the highest-charting Danish Hot 100 single (#2) since Jørgen Ingmann’s “Apache” in 1961. Unless the 2028 equivalent of Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band makes this into a breakbeat classic, it’ll be a mark of shame on the country that did us such good in giving us King Diamond.
WILL THEY WIN?: They’re up against Rihanna for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Adele and Beyoncé for Song Of The Year, and all three of them for Record Of The Year. So no.
WHO: Twenty One Pilots
CATEGORY: Record Of The Year; Best Pop Duo/Group Performance (both for “Stressed Out”); Best Rock Performance; Best Rock Song; Best Song Written For Visual Media (all for “Heathens”)
UP AGAINST: see the Lukas Graham entry and throw in David Bowie (“Blackstar”), Alabama Shakes (“Joe”), Beyoncé ft. Jack White (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), Radiohead (“Burn The Witch”), Metallica (“Hardwired”), Highly Suspect (“My Name Is Human”), Justin Timberlake (“Can’t Stop The Feeling!”), Pink (“Just Like Fire”), Skrillex & Rick Ross (“Purple Lamborghini”), Shakira (“Try Everything”), and Peter Gabriel (“The Veil”)
WHY NOW: There is literally a dedicated Wikipedia page listing all the awards and nominations Twenty One Pilots have received. Granted, one of their Grammy-nominated songs, “Heathens,” comes from the soundtrack to the movie Suicide Squad — does anybody want to mull over the phrase “award-winning motion picture Suicide Squad“? — but both it and “Stressed Out” were big hits, and as the closest thing there is to a genuinely new-ish, actually rock-ish band to get this popular in who knows how long, they’ve got at least some measure of industry cred.
WILL THEY WIN?: They are up against so many industry juggernauts it’s not even funny, and might split the “being a kid was easy, being a grownup is hard” vote with Lukas Graham. Best Rock Song is the best shot they have, and good luck betting against a posthumous David Bowie Grammy.
WHO: Chance The Rapper
CATEGORY: A ton of them, including Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song (both for “No Problem”), and Best Rap Album (Coloring Book)
UP AGAINST: The world, but Drake in particular, who has an opposing entry in every category except Best New Artist
WHY NOW: The mixtape wiseass who once used a $5,000 video budget to go on a shopping spree with Hannibal Buress has grown into a spiritual-minded, hugely talented household name en route to becoming the biggest thing out of Chicago since Kanye.
WILL HE WIN?: He’s bound to nab at least one of those little gramophones, unless a majority of voters somehow wind up liking Views more than the listening public and decide Chance will have plenty more shots in the future. Either of the categories that give nods to the glorious, lights-out “No Problem” not only give him the best opportunity, the track’s the most deserving in a walk.
WHO: Anderson .Paak
CATEGORY: Best New Artist; Best Urban Contemporary Album (Malibu)
UP AGAINST: Kelsea Ballerini, the Chainsmokers, Chance The Rapper, Maren Morris (Best New Artist); Beyoncé, Lemonade; Gallant, Ology; KING, We Are King; Rihanna, Anti
WHY NOW: .Paak went from a “who’s this guy” feature on Dr. Dre’s Compton to one of the most prolific and acclaimed R&B newcomers since Frank Ocean, with both Malibu and his Knxwledge collab group NxWorries’ studio debut Yes Lawd! earning waves of praise.
WILL HE WIN?: “Best New Artist” hasn’t been the career-killing curse it used to be back in the Starland Vocal Band/Debby Boone/A Taste of Honey years, but .Paak and Chance the Rapper might wind up vote-splitting the hip-hop/R&B contingent — not unlike Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris’s dueling country breakthroughs — and ensure those damned Chainsmokers get rewarded for their remora-like chart presence. As for Best Urban Contemporary Album? .Paak might get some bonus points for being a singer-songwriter, but being in the same category as Lemonade and Anti would make his case challenging no matter what. At least performing with A Tribe Called Quest will make for an honor in itself.
CATEGORY: Best R&B Performance (“Cranes In The Sky”)
UP AGAINST: BJ The Chicago Kid (“Turnin’ Me Up”), Ro James (“Permission”), Musiq Soulchild (“I Do”), Rihanna (“Needed Me”)
WHY NOW: The Knowles Sisters felt like actual counterparts rather than contrasting sides for the first time possibly ever, with both Lemonade and A Seat At The Table critically acclaimed #1 albums that addressed black femininity and defiance in powerful ways. “Cranes In The Sky” is a personal ballad fused with a message song, the overdevelopment of a gentrifying city used to describe the inner turmoil of aching to ignore the towering developments blotting out the long-range view of her own life. And while it was written in 2008 — concurrent with the looming real-estate crash — it wound up hitting at the lingering, deeper anxieties that accompanied last year’s developing unease.
WILL THEY WIN?: It depends on if the voters prefer the idea of giving it to a timeless-sounding two-person collaboration with a multitalented industry lifer — “Cranes” was co-written by Raphael Saadiq — or a cutting-edge, committee-written commercial blockbuster from one of the 21st century’s biggest hitmakers. Call this a toss-up.
CATEGORY: Best Rap Performance (“Panda”)
UP AGAINST: Chance The Rapper ft. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz, “No Problem”; Drake ft. The Throne, “Pop Style”; Fat Joe & Remy Ma ft. French Montana & Infared, “All The Way Up”; ScHoolboy Q ft. Kanye West, “THat Part”
WHY NOW: Good question. By now its memetic sheen has worn off multiple times over — it’s no “Black Beatles” or “Bad And Boujee” whether you compare it as a song or an internet joke — and people who don’t dismiss Desiigner as a faux-Future are probably more likely to give their respect to his appearance on “Father Stretch My Hands,” which more or less sampled “Panda” into near-redundancy. Still, it’s hard to ignore how much of a hit it really was, even if there are more interesting sources of inspiration than one of the goofier-looking BMW luxury crossovers.
WILL THEY WIN?: If it does, it won’t be a “Thrift Shop”-caliber eyeroller, but it’ll feel like a small-scale robbery one way or another — Chance feels like a far more natural runaway with this one.
CATEGORY: Best Dance/Electronic Album (Skin); Best Dance Recording (“Never Be Like You”)
UP AGAINST: Bob Moses, “Tearing Me Up”; The Chainsmokers featuring Daya, “Don’t Let Me Down”; Riton featuring Kah-Lo, “Rince & Repeat”; Sofi Tukker, “Drinkee” (Best Dance Recording); Jean-Michel Jarre, Electronica 1: The Time Machine; Tycho, Epoch; Underworld, Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future; Little Louie Vega, Louie Vega Starring…XXVIII
WHY NOW: The ’90s baby Australian producer born Harley Edward Streten benefitted from a massive push behind his nominated sophomore album Skin, with Best Dance Recording nominee “Never Be Like You” winning the 2016 “Hottest 100″ listeners’ poll for Australian radio station Triple J. Skin is an all-star feature-fest of a record (Beck, Raekwon, and Little Dragon all on the same record!), so its star power might just outrank its “pretty good but nothing special” critical reception.
WILL HE WIN?: The Grammys’ dance music category has always been kind of weird — institutional greats like Madonna, Daft Punk and Chemical Brothers have won their share in the past, but lately it’s felt like a “just give it to Skrillex” auto-vote. This year feels like a different kind of weird: Flume aside, Best Dance Recording feels like an inevitable Chainsmokers coronation, while the presence of three vastly different legacy acts — techno legends Underworld, house icon “Little Louie” Vega, and ambient new-age precursor Jean-Michel Jarre — makes Best Dance/Electronic Album wildly unpredictable.
WHO: Jean-Michel Jarre
CATEGORY: Best Dance/Electronic Album (Electronica 1: The Time Machine)
UP AGAINST: See Flume’s entry
WHY NOW: The cynical answer is that the nominating committee added up “has been recording electronic music forever,” “there are a lot of well-known guest stars from multiple generations of pop and electronic music,” and “his album is literally titled Electronica,” and subsequently came away with “important album by a legacy act.” Not to belittle Jarre in the least — everyone who gives a damn about electronic music should own his late-’70s landmarks Oxygene and Equinoxe — but casual listeners largely ignored Electronica 1 while diehard genre specialists and longtime fans were hostile and/or baffled. It’s a big, ambitious something-for-everyone sort of mess; bonus points for getting Pete Townsend on the same roster as Fuck Buttons, at least.
WILL HE WIN?: Never underestimate the power of a lengthy guest list, even if a savvier voting bloc would give Underworld the nod.
CATEGORY: Best Metal Performance (“Shock Me”)
UP AGAINST: Gojira (“Silvera”), Korn (“Rotting In Vain”), Megadeth (“Dystopia”), Periphery (“The Price Is Wrong”)
WHY NOW: A critically acclaimed cult band beloved by heshers and indie rockers alike, Baroness’s profile rose in a near-tragic, band-upheaving way when their bus crashed just outside of Bath, England and left two members with fractured vertebrae that contributed to their departure from the band. Their album Purple made for a strong comeback story, and the melodic, anthemic “Shock Me” gave them a more accessible side that made it a solid radio hit.
WILL THEY WIN?: Despite the laughable early history the Grammys had with metal (throw your horns for Jethro Tull), Best Metal Performance winners have been strictly canon from 1990 through 2014: Metallica, Tool, Iron Maiden, Motörhead, and Slayer are just the most well-known of the recipients over the years. (The unlikely two-fer of comedy doofs Tenacious D winning in 2015 and the over-the-top Satanic Swedes of Ghost notching a win last year were as iconoclastic as it’s gotten.) Megadeth’s nomination here is their tenth, and unless there’s a voter conspiracy to prevent a situation where longtime Alex Jones enthusiast Dave Mustaine winds up giving a weird political acceptance speech, expect them to finally notch a win on the basis of them “being due.”
WHO: Mike Posner
CATEGORY: Song Of The Year (“I Took A Pill In Ibiza”)
UP AGAINST: Beyoncé, Adele, Bieber, Lukas Graham
WHY NOW: Remember EDM? Now imagine it earnestly nodded at but otherwise negated by a very sincere acoustic guitar man who realizes how very, very shallow all those hedonistic trappings of fame are and how much more at home he feels with people who remember when music was made by people and not machines, man. It’s the twerpiest way to say “Disco Sucks” on record. Then it got remixed by some Norwegians and turned into a second-tier Royksopp song, because when people see a song title like that they at least expect some bassbin fodder. It fits nicely within our current zeitgeist, which is to say it’s aggravating and confused and no fun at all.
WILL HE WIN?: Do the Grammys give out a lot of statuettes to songs about feeling alienated from the industry that is currently hosting said awards?
CATEGORY: Best Rock Album
UP AGAINST: Cage The Elephant (Tell Me I’m Pretty), Gojira (Magma), Panic! At The Disco (Death Of A Bachelor), Weezer (Weezer)
WHY NOW: Because sooner or later “Only True ’90s Kids Remember” is going to have to schlep its way towards the uncomfortable nostalgic torch-passing to the early ’00s, which was the golden age of pretty much nothing. Why not get ahead of the curve by celebrating the comeback of the century-straddling pop-punk icons at a time when the people who grew up with pop-punk are now at Peak Consumer Age, and yearn for a chance to participate in a now-dead economy which would have otherwise enabled them to spend the amount of money needed to build a pool for the primary reason of seeing some naked dudes? Figures that these guys had to wait this long for a Grammy nomination, and then get it for an elder-statesman album about feeling shittier than you did when you were a teenager.
WILL THEY WIN?: Punk is the dadrock of our times, so bank on it.
WHO: Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts
CATEGORY: Best Recording Package (Human Performance)
UP AGAINST: Ciarra Pardo & Robyn Fenty (Rihanna, Anti); Jonathan Barnbrook (David Bowie, Blackstar); Sarah Dodds & Shauna Dodds (Reckless Kelly, Sunset Motel); Eric Timothy Carlson (Bon Iver, 22, A Million)
WHY NOW: As an indie rock frontman, Parquet Courts’s Andrew Savage is unlikely Grammy-bait, even if you can click with the Elvis Costello-via-Jonathan Richman spark to his music. But the artwork, design, and layout of Human Performance is eye-popping enough that it makes for a fine candidate to counter the digital era’s .JPG-and-done approach to album art.
WILL HE WIN?: Not when Blackstar is in the running — though Savage has admitted to being OK with that. “I’d rather lose to David Bowie’s art director than to Blink-182’s shitty music,” he told MTV.
WHO: William Bell
CATEGORY: Best Traditional R&B Performance (“The Three Of Me”); Best Americana Album (This Is Where I Live)
UP AGAINST: BJ the Chicago Kid (“Woman’s World”), Fantasia (“Sleeping With The One I Love”), Lalah Hathaway (“Angel”), Jill Scott (“Can’t Wait”); The Avett Brothers (True Sadness), Kris Kristofferson (The Cedar Creek Sessions), Lori McKenna (The Bird And The Rifle), The Time Jumpers (Kid Sister)
WHY NOW: Maybe a better question is Why These Categories: Bell being nominated for two categories that give him competition from both BJ The Chicago Kid and Kris Kristofferson puts him in a pretty unusual spot. Bell, for those unfamiliar, is best known for writing Albert King’s god-tier blues classic “Born Under A Bad Sign,” along with being a Stax icon known for cuts like R&B top ten hit “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” and Judy Clay duet “Private Number.” The 1999-established “Best Traditional R&B Performance” is a vague category, but until Beyoncé won in 2010 it was generally awarded to whoever best fit the category “had a hit in the 1970s.” More noteworthy is his nod for Best Americana Album: This Is Where I Live might have deep Southern roots, but the “Americana” umbrella-genre has typically meant revivals and updates of folk and country music, at least in the most general terms. Thankfully, Mavis Staples’s 2011 win for You Are Not Alone was enough of a reminder that gospel-rooted soul was part of the Americana fold, even if it might’ve gotten a boost from the presence of alt-country majordomo Jeff Tweedy, so Bell winning wouldn’t be too far afield.
WILL HE WIN?: Jill Scott and the Avett Brothers seem like the toughest competition in both these categories, but never underestimate the power of a veteran finally being given a chance to work with a co-writer and producer, John Leventhal, that benefits his American-classic voice.
WHO: John Doe (with Tom DeSavia, Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of LA Punk)
CATEGORY: Best Spoken Word Album
UP AGAINST: Amy Schumer (The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo), Carol Burnett (In Such Good Company), Patti Smith (M Train), Elvis Costello (Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink)
WHY NOW: Funny how this category consists entirely of Vanguard Women Comedian Autobios and Aging Punker Memoirs this year. Funnier still that John Doe’s first-ever nomination for anything is for a “personal history of LA punk” that comes more than two decades after Henry Rollins won this category for Get In The Van, which wound up beating Ben Kingsley’s audiobook of Schindler’s List, Ken Burns’ Baseball, Kenneth Branagh doing Hamlet, and a recording of Gregory Peck reading the Bible. Alternative Nation, woooo!
WILL THEY WIN?: Doe’s competition isn’t nearly as monumental as Rollins’s was, but the legendary member of X has the bad luck to go for his first award in an oversaturated market for punk nostalgia. He’ll likely lose to overdue repeat nominee Burnett, trendy choice Schumer, or punk icon vote-splitter and career spoken-word great Smith.
WHO: Kip Winger
CATEGORY: Best Contemporary Classical Composition (Winger: Conversations With Nijinsky)
UP AGAINST: A bunch of classical composers who were not responsible for “Seventeen”
WHY NOW: Why anything?
WILL HE WIN?: Uh…