I normally don’t get too worked up about the Grammy Awards. It’s a fun spectacle to watch, but I have rarely felt invested in the outcome. There was that one time, though, when Beck won Album of the Year for “Morning Phase,” an album I listened to incessantly for a while. I jumped up and cheered when he won, not only because I loved the album and he was the underdog (humble and loveable), but also because it meant inevitable whining from Kanye West (not humble).
I might jump even higher if Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” wins Album of the Year on Sunday. He’s got big competition, of course, from Beyoncé and Adele, and I guess you can’t count out Drake and Justin Bieber — WHAT? I think I must have missed something.
For me, Simpson is the same kind of underdog Beck was, and a similar kind of artist. Simpson didn’t make a record with a battalion of producers and guest artists on board like the other nominees this year. Beyoncé’s album has 35 people who get credit for helping to make it. Simpson, who produced his album himself, has four people credited: three engineers/mixers and a mastering engineer. This was all his baby.
Simpson has an old-school country voice, but he pushes the definition of country music on “Sailor’s Guide.” I didn’t expect to hear punchy, soulful horn arrangements on a “country” record, and there were a lot of other great surprises, too, including a great cover of a Nirvana song.
I’ll admit I don’t keep up with popular music like I used to, but this year’s batch of Best New Artist nominees threw me for a complete loop. I had not heard a song by any of the five artists nominated this year. No joke.
I have a lot of friends who like to stay in their bubble, just listen to music from their high school or college days, but I’ve always enjoyed discovering new music. Still, it’s not often over the past 20 years that I have become a fan of an artist nominated for Best New Artist before the Grammys. I have to go back to 1995 to find Best New Artists whose albums I bought before they were nominated — that was a good year, with Sheryl Crow (that year’s winner), Counting Crows and Green Day.
There was only one “better” year for me. In 1980, I bought the albums of four of the five Best New Artist nominees: Dire Straits (still one of my favorite records), Rickie Lee Jones (who won), The Blues Brothers and The Knack.
Looking back at some years’ Best New Artist winners, you have to wonder what the Grammy voters were thinking. Starland Vocal Band over Boston? A Taste of Honey over The Cars and Elvis Costello? And, let us never forget 1990, when the award went to Milli Vanilli over Indigo Girls and Neneh Cherry, only to be taken away when it turned out the Milli Vanilli members didn’t actually sing on their record.
Over the past week I have been on a mission to not be such a lame old guy. I listened to the 2016 albums released by all the Best New Artist nominees: The Chainsmokers, Chance the Rapper, Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris and Anderson .Paak (“the dot is for detail,” he says). I will say, there is not a dud in the bunch.
The Chainsmokers are a DJ duo (Drew Taggart and Alex Pall) who blend pop, dance, indie and hip-hop influences, and their big hit was “Closer,” as in becoming more close, not someone who closes. It’s a pretty good song to work out to, but I wouldn’t give them a trophy for it.
I liked Chance the Rapper’s album well enough. It surprised me at times with gospel-oriented passages, but there was a lot of vocal processing going on and with all the guest artists I didn’t really get a sense of who Chance the Rapper was or what he was all about.
Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris are both purveyors of hook-laden pop country. They were fun to listen to as workout music, but it was nothing groundbreaking. If I wanted a safe bet, I’d probably put money on Morris winning the Grammy.
As annoying as I find the “dot” in his name, Anderson .Paak for me had the most compelling album (“Malibu”) of the five new artist nominees. If we could have a new James Brown, he might be it, as he has a great raspy voice for soul raveups. “Malibu” mines a lot of musical veins, including hip-hop, rock, funk and R&B, and there’s a jazziness to his work that was refreshing. Some of the songs are punctuated with campy retro-sounding recordings, maybe from old documentaries, which added to the fun. I’d give him the hardware this year.
For next year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences ought to give some serious consideration to nominating Andrew Joslyn for his “Awake at the Bottom of the Ocean,” which comes out today. Joslyn is a Seattle-based composer, songwriter, producer, arranger and violinist who contributed to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Grammy-winning album, “The Heist.”
Joslyn’s compositions on the new album combine rock and pop with classical orchestral arrangements, helped by a variety of guest vocalists, including Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age). Joslyn skews more toward the classical influences than Jeff Lynne did with Electric Light Orchestra, and it’s a potent and unique mix. I haven’t heard anything like this since XTC’s “Apple Venus, Vol. 1” album, and it’s great to hear such skillful playing of orchestral instruments, not to mention hearing somebody taking chances and trying something outside the same old formula.
Rock on …