Are the Grammys Relevant?

The Grammy Award nominees for 2011 were announced earlier this week.

The first question that comes to mind for listeners like me is “Are the Grammy Awards relevant anyway?”.  This particular awards organization walked in the weeds for many years.  Awarding Milli Vanilli a Grammy for anything other than Best Fraudulent Release was just the tip of the iceberg.  For the longest time, the Grammys seemed more invested in propping up a dying industry in order to sell more records in the traditional dead zone of Q1 than any other legitimate reason.  Record of the Year often came down to “what were the biggest selling records of the past year?” and they seemingly threw a dart at the wall.  And any organization that awards trophies for “Best Improvised Jazz Solo” and “Best Contemporary Christian Music Song” and “Best Album Notes” and “Best Banda or Norteno Album” (WTF?) is just BEGGING to be lambasted in the blogosphere.  Seriously, who gives a flying fadoo about these categories?

But in recent years, there has been a strange movement by the Grammy nomination committee to pick a few entries that are actually (horror of horrors!) somewhat in line with critical thinking.  Last year, Arcade Fire won Album of the Year for The Suburbs, which seemed like a quantum shift at the time.  It caused a palpable and legitimate amount of controversy in the mass media, despite having a fairly prominent profile among the trendsetters all year.  Finally, Album of the Year wasn’t selected solely by whatever sold well or whatever had the most record company cash behind it; the album was chosen because it just happened to be REALLY GOOD.  It was a beautiful day for popular music.

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (vinyl)

This year’s nominees for Album of the Year include Adele, Foo Fighters, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna.  So it appears that, in this category at least, it’s business as usual.  Pick the highest sellers of 2011, throw in a wildcard to appease the rock fans (Foo Fighters) and see what happens.  Bo-ring.

But the nominees for Best Rock Performance are more interesting.  This category features Coldplay’s “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” up against The Decemberists’ “Down By The Water”, Foo Fighters’ “Walk”, Mumford & Sons “The Cave”, and Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower”.  The Foos picked a good year to release a strong album, because “Walk” actually has a chance in this category.   But we shall see what transpires in February.  And who knows; maybe you’ll hear some of these artists discussed in my forthcoming Best of 2011 series (stay tuned!).

Best Alternative Album is a category that I usually keep my eye on.  The world of “alternative” music is so fractured and decentralized that it’s impossible to wrap my head around how they can condense it to five nominees, let alone one singular winner.  But this year, this category comes down to the ubiquitous Torches by Foster the People against the excellent Codes & Keys by Death Cab for Cutie, Circuital by My Morning Jacket, The King of Limbs by Radiohead, and the inescapable beauty of Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore release.  It’s almost impossible to handicap this category.  I think Bon Iver should win it, but Justin Vernon’s project is nominated in so many categories that it might not pull it off here.  At the end of the day, I’m just happy that these five releases are going to get some extra exposure in early 2012; I’ve heard them all and they are all worth listening to.  I’m still not convinced that the releases by My Morning Jacket or Radiohead or Death Cab for Cutie are the best albums of their respective canons, but they are solid releases all the same.

Things could be worse.  The Grammy voters could be choosing between Black Eyed Peas, Beyonce, and the Dave Matthews Band for album of the year, like just a couple of years ago.  And let’s not even talk about some of the nominees in the late 1980s and 1990s, when Avril Lavigne and Boyz II Men and Matchbox Twenty ruled the airwaves.  Yikes.

In the whole scheme of things, the Grammys aren’t essential to the music industry.  But at least they’re trying to recognize some significant artists in a few categories these days.

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