Every year I point out in this headnote that the Grammys seem weirdly-placed in the “major awards season” television situation. I feel this still, although I will say that as these things become harder to take seriously in general, they become less like the odd duck and more sort of like a standard way-too-long television awards show.
This is an especially interesting year from where I’m standing, also, since it seemed like there was very little consensus activation this year in terms of what people liked all-around. Kacey Musgraves, Janelle Monae and Brandi Carlisle are all heavily-nominated here, and they were about as close to the sort of monolithic-universal approval that used to happen all the time 1. But since there wasn’t much in the way of huge, heavy-hitting pop releases that stuck around this year 2, there seems to be a little bit more room for things to get, if not actually weird, then at least closer to something like what people are actually listening this year.
That said, it’s not without its changes. They’ve expanded the bigger categories to include more people, which is nominally a way to be more inclusive, but turned out practically to be a way to include more country artists. I mean, I’m sure it won’t work that way every year, but it worked that way this year. So there’s that. And here’s the rest of it 3
Best Music Film
Another thing that happens every year: every frigging year I start this off with this frigging category. I have no idea how to evaluate yet another Elvis documentary that doesn’t reveal anything, nor about an Eric Clapton documentary made while he’s still alive. Itzhak Perlman is neat. Whitney was also fine, I guess. I liked that it tried to stem the narrative that she was a mere bystander to her own life and career (and, unfortunately, downfall), which is good. I like when people have agency.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Whitney
Best Music Video
I mean, it’s probably actually “This is America,” which is at least layered and visceral, but I kind of want to be the sort of person that thinks it’s “Pynk”, which is no less imagistically impressive and well-choreographed, but is also very funny, and is probably the best song ever written about Tessa Thompson’s swimsuit parts.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, “This is America”
Producer of Year, Non-Classical
I’m more than happy to call this for Pharrell – he came up with “Stir Fry” and “Apeshit” and a pretty righteous NERD album. Good job, my dude.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Pharrell Williams
Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical
I skipped the best engineered album category for classical because I don’t have the proper material to evaluate the engineering – I would assume that that’s the sort of determination one would need access to a higher-quality version of the recording than I am willing to shell out for 4, this is not necessarily the case for popular music, and I’m pretty happy commenting on it here. The only records here that sound like they might actually reflect the process of playing instruments and/or singing to make sounds that are captured are the albums by Beck, Bahamas and the Milk Carton Kids, which are all actually pretty bad, but the Milk Carton Kids one at least sounds ok.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ryan Freeland & Kenneth Pattengale, for the Milk Carton Kids album All the Things I Did and All the Things I Didn’t Do
Best Instrumental Composition
This has pretty well converted itself to the “best song from a movie or whatever” category, and is almost never, like, an Aidan Baker song. That’s kind of disappointing. Especially since I have to consider all of this at so many different awards shows that it’s made more boring by its ubiquity.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Alexandre Desplat, “The Shape of Water”
Best Song Written for Visual Media
Totally different from “Best Instrumental Composition” because 1) it has the fact that it’s from a movie or tv show right there in the category name and 2) it can have singing on it. So this is where we find “Shallow”, and also the far-lesser “This is Me” (ew), “Mystery of Love” (presented without comment), “All the Stars,” which I thought was going to be the winner but it turns out that this is the year that “Remember Me” from Coco is nominated, and that’s the best song, so there you have it.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: “Remember Me”, Coco
Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media
The Black Panther and Blade Runner 2049 scores are good, but I’m still way into Coco guys.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Coco
Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media
So…the soundtrack to a musical counts as a compilation soundtrack 5, which is weird to me. I actually don’t like any of this, but I’m happy to say that Stranger Things is the best one, since it’s the one that did a good enough job. It may have been the best part of the show’s second season, in fact.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Stranger Things
Best Comedy Album
Hard to argue against Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, here. I mean, Chris Rock’s return was welcome, and I like Jim Gaffigan, and even have plenty of good things to say about that Dave Chappelle, but Annihilation is a one of a kind thing.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Patton Oswalt, Annihilation
Best Folk Album
This is probably Joan Baez’s last album, and it’s hard not to be impressed by that. Especially since it’s up against a good-but-not-great Punch Brothers album, a completely-forgettable Iron & Wine album, and an acceptable Mary Gauthier album. Oh, and a Don Flemons album. His name is funny.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Joan Baez, Whistle Down the Wind
Best Contemporary Blues Album
Upon listening to all of this, and considering all of it, I have very few opinions about it. More than I do for some of the footnoted “not considered” category, and enough that it’s up here, but not that many. So I’m going to give it to Fantastic Negrito.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Fantastic Negrito, Please Don’t Be Dead
Best Traditional Blues Album
I do like Elvis Bishop. That about wraps it up for my feelings about the blues, guys.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Elvis Bishop’s Big Fun Trio, Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here
Best Bluegrass Album
These are all fine. The bottom categories that are hyper-specific non-popular genres usually do pretty well. In the interest of keeping the word count reasonable, I’ll call it here for Wood & Wire and move along.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Wood & Wire, North of Despair
Best Americana Album
I’ll tell you this much: people are really into this Brandi Carlile album and, like, I do not quite get it. Lots of times things become famous for reasons I don’t understand, and I’ve pretty well learned to deal with it, but this one is just utterly baffling. I guess it’s fine. It’s not a patch on the John Prine album, though.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: John Prine, The Tree of Forgiveness
Best American Roots Song
John Prine is in this category twice, and that’s pretty cool because, as previously mentioned, The Tree of Forgiveness is really good. But I actually like this Mavis Staples song (written by ONAT favorite Jeff Tweedy) a bit better than the songs that are here nominated, so I’m happy to let it go that way.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mavis Staples, “Build a Bridge”
Best American Roots Performance
So I don’t actually have a joke about how I think it would be funny if Anderson East and Dave East were actual brothers, because I don’t know what the punchilne to that would be, but I’m using the fact that I want to make that joke to cover for the fact that while I am generally positively-disposed to more-or-less all of these people, this category is pretty dull.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Willie Nelson, “Last Man Standing” (I guess)
Best Country Album
This is the best this field has looked in years, and maybe the first time since I started doing this that my favorite pop/mainstream country album has actually been eligible. This is a real moment for me – either this field is getting better, or getting dumb enough to enjoy it. I’ll take it either way, though.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Best Country Song
This is a real cold shower after the high of the albums category, however. Even the people in this category I’m ordinarily not opposed to – namely Blake Shelton and Vince Gill 6 – are failing to show up, except for Kacey Musgraves again. Since she’s also booked to perform the thing, I’m going to guess she’s going to go home with a lot of Grammys. Consider this a stated hunch.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kacey Musgraves, “Space Cowboy”
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
Kacey Musgraves didn’t come up with a duet this year, so there’s pretty much no saving this crop. I guess I like that Little Big Town song ok.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Little Big Town, “When Someone Stops Loving You”
Best Country Solo Performance
The problem with this “performance” bit is that it sometimes refers to just the regular song as it is on the record and sometimes means something else. I’m ok either way I guess, because it comes down to Loretta Lynn and Kacey Musgraves, and while “Butterflies” isn’t a great song, it is a great vocal performance, so she gets it again, although by less of a margin than in the other categories.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kacey Musgraves, “Butterflies”
Best Rap Album
Mac Miller’s death is real sad, and that gives his record some weight, and makes it clear just how impressive it is that he managed to make anything at all, given his mental state/the state of his addiction. Pusha-T had to overcome the fact that his producer/label-head’s brain completely melted in the run-up to Daytona, and people really like that record also. Way to go, everybody. I think the Cardi B record is better.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
Best Rap Song
Red light green light red light green light red light green light it’s “King’s Dead” the end.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future & James Blake, “King’s Dead”
Best Rap/Sung Performance
I’m sad that I wasted my “joke about the lyrics of the song” opportunity already, and even sadder that there’s absolutely no way to go back and rewrite that last entry with the current level of technology available to me, because I’ve taken great glee in the year or so that it’s been out in pointing out that it very much sounds like the chorus to the best rap/sung performance of 2018 says that all the stars are kosher. Which is nice, if you’re trying to keep your diet in accordance with rabbinical law and you like to eat stars.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA, “All the Stars” (f Kendrick Lamar)
Best Rap Performance
While “King’s Dead” has both the aforequoted “red light green light” bit and Future’s hip hop history joke couplet, and is generally a great song, I actually think “Bubblin” is a little better. So it goes.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Anderson.Paak, “Bubblin’”
Best R&B Album
I don’t mind H.E.R., and I rather like Leon Bridges. That makes this category fairly easy to deal with, but also I am entirely without strong feelings here, so I don’t have much else to say about it.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Leon Bridges, Good Thing
Best Urban Contemporary Album
So after several years, I think the logline on the difference between Urban Contemporary and R&B as the Grammys divide them is that one of them could be rappers, and the other isn’t I guess. In any event, Miguel and Chris Dave both made very good albums this year. The Carters made a super-good album that proved that Beyonce is also a great rapper. But that Meshell Ndegeocello album is mind blowing. It’s basically the best thing a covers album can be. I haven’t taken it out of rotation since it came out. It’s so good, y’all.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism
Best R&B Song
Of course, thinking that I’ve got it all figured it out, in terms of the genre distinctions down here, si the fact that there are no Urban Contemporary categories beyond “Album,” and that the U.C. nominees are sprinkled here in R&B song and R&B performance, which just muddies the waters further. Anyway, I like the H.E.R. song here more than the Childish Gambino song or anything involving J. Cole, so it’s the winner.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: H.E.R., “Focus”
Best Traditional R&B Performance
Here, as though the waters of what is and is not R&B aren’t muddied enough, we have the “traditional” R&B category, and I am truly baffled. This is where Leon Bridges is again,though, so at least it’s not a total loss.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Leon Bridges, “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand”
Best R&B Performance
So this seems like it’s meant to be the sort of culmination of all of the other R&B categories, since it pulls from all of them to get here, which really makes it clear that actually these are all pretty apples-to-apples comparisons, and there’s very little reason to keep them in so many different categories. I guess it spreads the wealth around. Anyway, I feel like The Carters are kept out of many of these categories, but “Summer” is a very good song.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Carters, “Summer”
Best Alternative Music Album
I like Bjork so much more than I like anything else in this field that it seems silly to pretend to deliberate about it.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bjork, Utopia
Best Rock Album
I think I comment every year that every year I think this is as bad as this category can get, and every single year it is somehow worse than the year before. I suppose this year might not be worse than the year before. It’s really hard to quantify these things. But like, three of these songs are by dumb novelty-bands, and three of them are by bands that left their best days behind long, long ago 7. I guess that Alice in Chains record almost shows up to work. Sad state of affairs, guys.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: None of this is rightful, but the Alice in Chains record nearly makes it.
Best Rock Song
This isn’t quite as existentially disheartening, largely because of the St. Vincent song. I’m not a particular fan (nor am I interested particularly in Jack Antonoff, who cowrote the song), but she’s at least a driven musician doing her own thing genuinely, and that’s about all I could really ask for. Still not going to listen to it on purpose anytime in the foreseeable future, but it’s fine.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: St. Vincent, “Masseduction”
Best Metal Performance
For all that the “Rock” categories are a pretty miserable affair, this one is surprisingly good. Underoath isn’t great. Trivium and Between the Buried and Me are at least standard-issue just-fine metal. High on Fire made a pretty great Lemmy-worshipping album this year, and it’s good to see them honored for it 8. But my love of Deafheaven knows no bounds, and needs no further explanation here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Deafheaven, “Honeycomb”
Best Rock Performance
….aaaand we’re right back in the garbage heap. Let’s show pity on the surviving members of Chris Cornell’s family, call it for him and be done talking about rock music at the Grammys for another year, shall we?
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chris Cornell, “When Bad Does Good”
Best Dance/Electronic Album
Jon Hopkins is not Johns Hopkins, the hospital. He’s Imogen Heap’s keyboard player. Just wanted to get that clarification out of the way. SOPHIE has done some really cool production work, but like all PC Music folks tends to fall down a bit when it comes to her own records. Sofi Tukker and Justice are probably not up to being in the same category. Tokimonsta is almost always the best part of the records she produces, and her own record is pretty good, so I guess it’s her, although on another day I would have said exactly the same thing about SOPHIE.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tokimonsta, Lune Rouge
Best Dance Recording
This category always makes me feel so old. I kind of like the Virtual Self song. I think it has to be that one, because considering which of these is “better” than the other made my mind touch the void.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Virtual Self, “Ghost Voices”
Best Pop Vocal Album
I don’t hate the Camila Cabello album, although I don’t much like it. I don’t hate the P!nk album, although I don’t much like it. I like just about everything about Arianna Grande’s career and life in the public eye except for her music, but this is explicitly an albums category, so I guess we’re back to P!nk.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: P!nk, Beautiful Trauma
Best Traditional Pop Album
I want to run the numbers on how many years Tony Bennett is nominated for this. It’s so many. I am sort of impressed by his ability to keep churning it out year after year. Not impressed enough to listen to it more than is absolutely necessary, but kind of impressed anyway. I like the Willie Nelson album fine, and I like the Seal album well enough, and these pop album categories are rough because I don’t really know how to compare the two.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Willie Nelson, My Way
Best Pop Duo/Group Performance
Now the field opens up to eight, which really ups the number of terrible things to consider here. “Shallow” is probably the front-runner here, and it’s also the best song here, which isn’t actually saying much, considering that I don’t actually like “Shallow”. Still and all, it serves its purpose, and it’s better than, say, another utterly identity-free Zedd/Maroon 5/Justin Timberlake song. Or whatever Tony Bennett is doing back up here. Go away, Tony Bennett.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, “Shallow”
Best Pop Solo Performance
I suppose I would feel better about the Grammys listening sensibilities if they just decided what genre Beck was in and let that be that, but he’s here. I will say that “Colors” is his best song in years 9, so props for that. I guess it’s probably Lady Gaga again that actually deserves the win here. “Joanne” is an ok song. It’s better than the other songs here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lady Gaga, “Joanne”
Best New Artist
True story: Cardi B is disqualified by the academy from being in this category because she has been nominated for Grammys previously 10. Post Malone is disqualified from being in this category for having sold a bunch of copies of records that he made previously 11. In case that was something likely to disappoint you. That said, it seems like Bebe Rexha and Luke Combs have both been around forever, so they should also be eliminated. And Margo Price isn’t new, even if most people just heard her in the last year or so. And Greta Van Fleet is a novelty fake-tribute act, and should be ineligible for anything except a kick in the groin. Jorja Smith and Chloe x Halle have long careers ahead of them as predictable record-sellers and awards-nominees in the field of polite pop-inflected R&B. We come to Dua Lipa, then, by elimination, but also because her voice is weird! Her songs are interesting! Her videos are full of deeply weird choreography!
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Dua Lipa
Song of the Year
As always, some of the choices here are utterly baffling. This happens every year. This year there are more of them, so they are even more baffling. The Brandi Carlisle and Ella Mai songs are fine, really, but are they, like, “Song of the Year” good? I will argue that they are not. I’m done trying to figure out the thing with Drake or Shawn Mendes. I also don’t know how this particular Zedd song is any better than any other Zedd song. “Shallow” is a fine main-song-from-a-movie type thing, but Bradley Cooper’s Kris Kristofferson impression still doesn’t really do it for me. “This is America” is a fine song I guess, but it’s mostly a great video, and this isn’t an award for the video. That leaves us with SZA. I already said the thing about it sounding like all the stars are kosher, so that’s pretty much all I have to say on the matter.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA, “All the Stars” (f Kendrick Lamar)
Album of the Year
Look, it’s not that I don’t like the Brandi Carlisle album. I mean, I don’t, but that’s not because it’s bad, it’s because it’s emphatically not my thing. But, like, she’s nominated for so many awards. So many. It’s weird. I don’t understand it. See above w/r/t Drake. They’re both still better than Post Malone. Cardi B’s album is good, but too long. Kacey Musgraves’s album is good, and not too long, but I think I actually do like the Black Panther soundtrack more.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Various Artists, Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired By
Record of the Year
As always, when we get to this category I’m pretty well on the record about all of it, so it’s basically a matter of formality to mention that I think “I Like It” is not one of the stronger songs on Invasion of Privacy, and give it to SZA again.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA, “All the Stars” (f Kendrick Lamar)
And there it all is. Tune in on Sunday to see some of the least-exciting nominees, plus Cardi B, do some performing. It’ll be uh…fun.
Oh, and it’s likely that they’ll shit the bed again, which will also be fun. Yay!
- and it’s still not hard to find people that summed up the year without mentioning any of them, except maybe Janelle Monae. ↩
- even the seemingly-indomitable Drake didn’t really stick around much, and while Lady Gaga has what amounts to two records in consideration for these things, Joanne didn’t yield big hits and “Shallow” was kind of an outlier. ↩
- with the following exceptions, which I skipped this year: Best Contemporary Classical Composition; Best Classical Compendium; Best Classical Solo Vocal Album; Best Classical Instrumental Solo; Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance; Best Choral Performance; Best Opera Recording; Best Orchestral Performance; (these are all here because I really have absolutely no ear for Classical music as it currently exists – I’m a classical classicist, I guess – and no idea how to develop one quickly enough for it to make for an informed decision here); Producer of the Year, Classical; Best Engineered Album, Classical; Best Production, Immersive Audio; (these are all here because in order to evaluate them I’d need access to higher-quality audio for all of them than I’m inclined to have – I’d have to buy them in a high-quality format, and that gets expensive for something that I have no real interest in owning – so it’s better to just leave them down here and pretend like the people choosing the award are doing the right thing for once); Best Remixed Recording (I don’t know what this category is evaluating and I’m not familiar with the material); Best Historical Album (Sometimes I go through this one and try to figure it out, this was not one of those times); Best Album Notes (this is another issue of access); Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package; Best Recording Package (I have almost never cared about the packaging of a record, ever); Best Arrangement, Instrument or Vocals; Best Arrangement, Instrument or A Capella (I guess I could probably figure these out, but, again, I’d need access to higher-quality audio and I’m not even remotely familiar with the material); Best Musical Theatre Album (musicals are stupid); Best Spoken Word Album (These are all very long and potentially very boring, but I probably should have figured it out anyway); Best Children’s Album (I don’t like children’s music, and don’t generally think it should exist); Best World Music Album (I reject the notion, this year as always, of “World Music” as a single coherent genre. All music is made in the world, and this is a ghettoized category or music made in idioms that the Grammy voters are less familiar with, and I think it would be better off just to leave it be and not bother); Best Reggae Album (My familiarity with reggae music ends in 1989, with the death of King Tubby); Best Regional Roots Music Album (this is a borderline-case with “world music”, and it was easier for my conscience to just leave it out and not pretend to know what I was hearing); Best Tropical Latin Album; Best Regional Mexican Album; Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album; Best Latin Pop Album (in the past I have done the Latin categories, and enjoyed them, and I do have some familiarity here, but this year I didn’t know any of the material and found it easier to focus on the things I did know); Best Roots Gospel Album; Best Contemporary Christian Music Album; Best Gospel Album; Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song; Best Gospel Performance/Song (I know so little about present-day praise music that I would basically be guessing); Best Latin Jazz Album; Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album; Best Jazz Instrumental Album; Best Jazz Vocal Album; Best Improvised Jazz Solo (my connection to jazz is through the weird Peter Brotzmann/Bill Orcutt/Jamie Branch weird/free/experimental stuff, the hip-hop-associated Kamasi Washington/FlyLo/Thundercat stuff, or the London-based scene that I associate with Shabake Hutchings’s band, which is linked by Mackaya McCraven to the Chicago stuff, and so I have basically no affinity for any of this, and chose to ignore it, since the category itself is less about taking joy in the new and current and more about hidebound historicity, which I am opposed to as a stance, now as always); Best New Age Album (I don’t even know what most of this is, really); Best Contemporary Instrumental Album (I listen to tonnes of contemporary instrumental music, but none of it is in this mode, and I have no idea what we’re evaluating here) ↩
- not to put too much behind the curtain here, but while it’s true that I buy almost all of the music that I care about, I don’t actually care about most of this, and am happy to use Spotify or, if it really comes down to it, YouTube, and that’s not what I’d call a reasonable environment for listening to the engineering on a classical recording. ↩
- unless it’s to an animated movie, I guess? Because Coco is a musical – it has diagetic music and everything! – and it’s above in the score soundtrack. ↩
- albeit via Maren Morris, whose music is awful. ↩
- there are three of each because Weezer falls into both categories. ↩
- although it wasn’t nearly as good as the record that Matt Pike’s other band, Sleep, made last year ↩
- the video is especially great – Allison Brie is very funny. ↩
- which makes sense, but which was officially announced, which is weird. Also she was rumoured to be submitted for the category in 2018 but not nominated, which is funny. ↩
- again, perfectly sensible. But why tell us that? Of course that’s why he’s not nominated for best new artist: he’s not a new artist. ↩