The four top categories every year at the Grammy Awards are Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. The first three can be a bit confusing. How, for instance, is Record of the Year different from Album of the Year? Well, in Grammy terms, an album must have five different tracks and a total playing time of a minimum of 15 minutes or a total playing time of at least 30 minutes, with no minimum track requirement. And Record of the Year is not an album but a song.
So, (scratching head) one might ask, how is it different from Song of the Year? Well, because Record of the Year recognises not only the artist’s performance in the recording of a song but also the contributions of producers and engineers in the recording. And Song of the Year? It’s simply an award for the person who wrote the song and, as we know, it often might not be the singer.
Now that we have those Grammy definitions out of the way, let’s browse this year’s nominations for music’s top annual awards. The Grammys will be presented at a ceremony hosted by talk- show host Trevor Noah on 31 January. This year’s nominations for the top categories, from the point of view of popularity, aren’t a big surprise. Record of the Year includes Beyoncé’s Black Parade, Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage (also featuring Beyoncé), Billie Eilish’s Everything I Wanted, and songs by Black Pumas, Dua Lipa and Post Malone. Album of the Year has, among others, the latest albums by Coldplay, HAIM, and Taylor Swift. Again, not big surprises. And Beyoncé, Eilish and Swift reappear on the list of nominations for Song of the Year.
The really pleasant surprise is tucked away in a category lower down. It’s the one titled Best Rock Performance. It’s a category that recognises the artist for his or her performance in the recording of a song. The biggest highlight of this year’s Grammys is that the six nominees for Best Rock Performance are all women. Fiona Apple is on the list for her song Shameika; Big Thief (lead singer Adrianne Lenker) for Not; Phoebe Bridgers for Kyoto; HAIM (comprising the sisters Este, Danielle and Alana Haim) for The Steps; Brittany Howard for Stay High; and Grace Potter for Daylight.
It’s quite an achievement that six women (or bands fronted by women) hog this category but it’s also because these artists put out what one could easily count as being among the best albums this year. Among the six, however, Phoebe Bridgers stands tallest. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter features as a nominee in three other categories as well: Best New Artist; Best Rock Song (again for her song, Kyoto); and Best Alternative Music Album for her new album, Punisher.
Remarkably quickly, Bridgers has emerged as one of the most talked about musicians on the alternative scene. Besides her solo work (she has two albums to her credit), she has been part of the supergroup of a trio of women, boygenius; and she has collaborated with singer-songwriter Conor Oberst in a band called Better Oblivion Community Center. Bridgers debuted Kyoto singing from her bathtub on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show. It’s a song about her quotidian life, and there is nothing profound about it, but her calm style of singing and the catchy lyrics (Day off in Kyoto, got bored at the temple/ Looked around at the 7-11/ The band took the speed train, went to the arcade/ I wanted to go, but I didn’t), accompanied by cool, laid-back music, make it an instant earworm. But then which song on Punisher isn’t? Bridgers is a hop and a step away from becoming a big alt music star.
At 43, Apple is a veteran compared to Bridgers. But her new album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Shameika is from the album), a product of her social distancing during the pandemic, is a daring attempt at deconstructing and challenging pop music norms. Like Punisher, it’s a record you cannot but listen to from start to finish at one go. Big Thief’s Not is from their album Two Hands, which many consider the five-year-old band’s best album till date. Last year, the band performed the album in full at an intimate setting in London and it was touchingly overwhelming. The Haim sisters’ (the oldest is 34 and the youngest 28) new album, Women In Music Pt.III (the nominated single is on it), is funky, disco-inspired and so upbeat that even a couch potato like me wanted to dance to it.
Brittany Howard, 32, already has a storied career, with her band Alabama Shakes and solo. Her debut solo album, Jaime, is nominated for a Best Alternative Music Album award too. Her brand of southern rootsy, soul inflected rock is infectious and Stay High is one of the highlights of the album.
Grace Potter, 37, who has also performed with her band, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, released Daylight (the title song is the one nominated) after a gap of four years. It is a comeback album, which, with her roaring vocals and foot-stomping Americana rock, also makes for a compelling listen.
All the six women nominated for this year’s Best Rock Performance are incredibly talented. But in my opinion, when they say “And the Grammy goes to...”, two names pop up on the top of the list, Bridgers and Apple. We will have to wait till the end of January to see if I am wrong!
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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