First things first: Are there any other awards ceremonies that have multiple-hour primetime specials simply to announce nominations? The Grammy Nomination show has gone from minor curiosity to something of a baffling spectacle — all buildup with no payoff. Big-name performers come out, announce the importance of the award in question in a manner strikingly similar to how that same award is introduced at the Grammys themselves, and then — no winner! Nothing! It’s like going to see Die Hard and having the projector break down just before the “Yippee-ky-yay” part. The ratings will tell the level of success, I’m sure, but from the look of my Twitter feed, there were a whole lot of people tuning in to watch Bruno Mars talk about who might win an award in three months.
But enough griping. Because as tin-eared as the Grammys are in a lot of ways, they’re getting more things right than they have in a long time. That an act like Bon Iver — an artist from a genuine (and genuinely great) indie label — could be considered for as many awards as he was is an encouraging reflection of a musical landscape in which market share and label size and amount of advertising capital are becoming increasingly irrelevant. It was even hard to get too mad at the major-label nominees. (Get well soon, Adele.) Still, it’s not like me to be all flowers and sunshine: In that spirit, here are five artists and albums we would have included on our ballot.
Album of the Year
The Brits got it right: Awarding Harvey her second Mercury Prize was both a statement on her own genius as well as a reflection of the direction in which this industry should be heading. At 41, Harvey is both a seasoned industry veteran as well as one of its most consistently adventurous artists. At a time when she should be simply remaking paler versions of her earlier work, Harvey continues to challenge herself, swallowing up other styles of music whole in the case of her awe-inspiring Let England Shake, calypso, reggae and old British folk music and reconfiguring it to suit her own aims. She, more than anyone else, is representative of what an artist in 2011 should look like: operating with little regard to expectations or genre conventions, taking advantage of the fact that technology has made the world smaller to explore any subject she finds fascinating, and above all else beholden of no one or nothing outside her own personal vision.
Alternative Album of the Year
In past years, the Alternative Album of the Year Grammy has gone to artists on the verge of taking a particularly iconoclastic vision to a larger audience R.E.M. won for Out of Time, which launched the biggest single of their career, Tom Waits won for his masterpiece Bone Machine and Radiohead won for OK Computer, the record that took them from charming little Britpop band to worldbeating rock visionaries. In short, the award should go to someone with chutzpah, and if there was a ballsier, more ostentatious, grand-scale record in 2011 than M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, I certainly didn't hear it. Anthony Gonzalez is rapidly approaching the stage where he can fill arenas, and his songs are already waiting for him there. Dreaming is full of 70mm songs, all of them drenched in color and boundless in scope. He sets the bar out the outset with the towering "Intro," showing off his own astonishing growth as a vocalist before confidently ceding the reins to Zola Jesus who carries the song, like a great billowing white flag, across the finish line. The words they're singing: "Carry on, carry on." It's the sound of a confident artist pushing bravely and bullishly forward.
Record of the Year
For an industry that has successfully nominated both Cee-Lo's "Fuck You" and, this year, Pink's "Fuckin' Perfect," giving the nod to a song that begins, "Fuck California" should be no big thing. Fortunately, EMA's song isn't just about shock value what begins as a nasty lashing out at a state that did her no favors slowly morphs into something more arresting. Erika Andersson, from beneath a haze of reverb, rifles through a bleak catalog of loss and longing before boldly swiping an old Bo Diddley lyric and personalizing it, transforming it from a declaration of hedonism into a heartbreaking statement on the terror of youth: "I'm just 22, and I don't mind dying." It was one of the year's bravest musical declarations.
Best New Artist
OK, realistically, there's no universe in which this would ever happen. I know that. But for sheer blunt force and ferocity, no young band impacted harder than NYC's own The Men. You want scuzz? Here's 41 minutes of it. You want drums that wallop like a sledgehammer to the Adam's apple and guitars that rip through flesh like band saws through butter? Guess what: The Men are here to oblige. Leave Home had more raw power and in-the-red dynamics than any other rock record this year. Also, can you imagine what a Men performance during the Best New Artist segment of the telecast would look like? And is it crazy that I imagine fellow nominee Nicki Minaj might be the first to rush out to join them onstage?
Best R&B Album
Charles Bradley is the walking embodiment of R&B, a fiery, passionate singer who soaks his songs in sweat and commits full-body to every last fillip and syllable. He sings what he knows: The 63-year old singer spent a lifetime watching his dream deferred before the excellent Daptone records, knowing talent when they see it, added him to their roster. His record plays like biopic when he pleads, "Why is it so hard to make it in America?," it's clearly coming from a place of personal experience. More importantly, Bradley can sing about heartache without ever sounding despondent. That his first follow-up single was a cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," a song that opens with the line, "I want to live, I want to give," is evidence that Bradley's gaze never wavers from the sunlight in the distance.