fun., Gotye and Mumford & Sons came away with some of the 2013 Grammy Awards’ biggest honors. See who else took home golden gramophones and catch up on what you might have missed last year.
Album of the Year
It's fitting that the Mumford & Sons have titled their new album Babel, a Biblical reference to man's attempt to build a structure to reach the heavens. In just three short years, Mumford and Sons have gone from a quaint roots-rock group from London to one of the biggest new bands on the planet with 2011's Sigh No More, and their follow-up attempts to match that ambition by outdoing that album's already sprawling, epic roots-rock tunes. The disc is loaded with more big, important, grab-you-by-the-collar anthems like the title cut and "Whispers in the Dark," which are heightened this time around by the addition of bold horns and sweeping strings. There's no doubt that Mumford and Sons have the gift of crafting arena-ready anthems like they're U2 Unplugged, but after a half-dozen attempts on Babel, that emotional, gut-punching impact loses its visceral force.
Singer-guitarist-lyricist-sometimes-drummer Marcus Mumford also has an almost annoying fixation with the past: His band even toured via vintage railcar for their Railroad Revival Tour last year. But thanks to his gentlemanly disposition and his gravelly baritone, his sepia-toned narratives of sin and redemption ("Ghosts That We Knew") come off as genuinely quaint and convincing. That tack works best when his band tones down the noise to let his thoughts ring through. As the Tower of Babel allegory warns, sometimes it's better to scale things back.
Record of the Year
Stepping out from behind the piano/drums of Melbourne indie pop three-piece the Basics for the third time, Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist Wally De Backer, aka Gotye's first solo record in five years, Making Mirrors, reveals a love of the '80s pop scene, which extends far beyond the usual influences of the current nu-synth brigade. Unexpected chart-topper "Somebody That I Used to Know," a collaboration with New Zealand vocalist Kimbra, is an oddball break-up song whose stuttering rhythms, reggae hooks, and hushed vocals sound like the Police as remixed by the XX.
Song of the Year
fun. is one of those bands that came seemingly out of nowhere to ascend to the top of the charts. Usually, those groups piggyback the steez of some other currently radio-ruling act. fun. doesn’t. On its breakout second album, the New York trio draws from hip-hop, power-pop, emo, ’70s art-rock, singer-songwriter balladry, contemporary R&B and Broadway; a combo you’ll likely only find right here. Singer Nate Ruess — who also writes the ardent lyrics and highly sing-able melodies — has a Freddie Mercury thing going on vocally, and Some Nights opens with a flurry of Queen-y harmonies and symphonic gallantry. But after that, all bets are off. The runaway success of “We Are Young,” the first substantial rock song in ages to not only top the pop charts but also put a justified critic’s darling, avant-R&B diva Janelle Monae, on the radio where she belongs, is particularly amazing considering that Ruess’s first band, the Format, was dropped by the same major that now distributes both fun. and Monae.
Best Pop Vocal Album
It's been nine years since Kelly Clarkson was crowned as the inaugural American Idol, and in that time she's remained the show's ideal; she's a technically gifted singer with charm to spare, an inviting smile, and a knack for inhabiting hooks like they're barnhouse lofts squirreled away on Texas farm. Even the most Idol-allergic music consumers have embraced the combination of melody, perfectly calibrated guitar grit, and wailing that made up her 2004 hit "Since U Been Gone"; other songs in her catalog, like the sassy "Walk Away" and the girl-group throwback "I Want You," are similarly indelible.
In keeping with Clarkson's career — and the ethos of Idol — her fifth album takes its inspirations from all over the pop map. While Dr. Luke and Max Martin, who shepherded "Gone" and the lead single from Clarkson's previous album All I Ever Wanted, aren't present, the producers in the mix give Stronger a texture that shows how the genre of "pop" can be a jumping-off point, and not an endgame. "You Love Me" is muscular guitar-pop with gorgeous new-wave flourishes blossoming on its pre-chorus; "Dark Side" has a delicate lullaby threaded throughout; "Honestly" opens with a floating haze of guitar distortion that could be mistaken for a chillwave track. The through line between all these stylistic leaps is Clarkson's voice, a formidable instrument that knows when to get vulnerable and when to absolutely blow. (Chillwavers could probably stand to learn a lesson or two from her.)
What gives Stronger its extra oomph is the confidence exhibited by Clarkson as she sings lyrics about self-acceptance being a key to love ("Dark Side") and rumor mills that she wishes would stop churning ("You Can't Win"). Escaping the Idol machine has been a great thing for Clarkson, who sometimes takes on the role of the pop world's ombudsman when she's defending her former show against the "authenticity" police or rolling her eyes at former Idol meanie Simon Cowell's declarations that she's not interested in being a pop star. That Stronger allows her to drop the façade that other pop stars might depend on for dear life, and address both the characters in her songs and her audience directly, speaks both to Clarkson's charm and to her growing maturity as an artist.
Best New Artist
fun. is one of those bands that came seemingly out of nowhere to ascend to the top of the charts. Usually, those groups piggyback the steez of some other currently radio-ruling act. fun. doesn't. On this, its breakout second album, the New York trio draws from hip-hop, power-pop, emo, '70s art-rock, singer-songwriter balladry, contemporary R&B and Broadway; a combo you'll likely only find right here. Singer Nate Ruess — who also writes the ardent lyrics and highly sing-able melodies — has a Freddie Mercury thing going on vocally, and Some Nights opens with a flurry of Queen-y harmonies and symphonic gallantry. But after that, all bets are off. The runaway success of "We Are Young," the first substantial rock song in ages to not only top the pop charts but also put a justified critic's darling, avant-R&B diva Janelle MonÃ¡e, on the radio where she belongs, is particularly amazing considering that Ruess's first band, the Format, was dropped by the same major that now distributes both fun. and MonÃ¡e. That Arizona band teamed with Redd Kross/OFF! bassist Steven McDonald for its second album, 2006's Dog Problems, and Ruess and McDonald continued honing their smarty-pants eclecticism on fun.'s 2009 debut Aim and Ignite, with the help of its multi-instrumentalists Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost, formerly of Steel Train and Anathallo. Here the trio trade McDonald for Jeff Bhasker, a hip-hop/R&B guy who produced monster hits for Kanye West, Jay-Z and BeyoncÃ©. Together, they layer seemingly incompatible genres with reckless but radio-friendly glee, as if a music nerd's iPod somehow got into the hands of a Bruno Mars.
Best Dance/Electronica Album
Nominated for five Grammy Awards, shortlisted for the prestigious BBC Sound of 2012 poll, and courted by everyone from Chicago producer Kaskade to metal icons Korn, former From First to Last frontman Sonny Moore's transition from post-hardcore vocalist to dubstep producer couldn't have realistically gone any smoother. However, despite his unprecedented success, there's still a question as to whether he can apply his now trademark, demonic, wobble bass drops and thumping syncopated beats to a whole album. Named after the battle cry of the lost boys in Steven Spielberg's Hook, his fourth consecutive EP Bangarang (also his first Top 40 entry in both the UK and US) suggests he'll have to be on his game on the forthcoming full-length Voltage if he's to avoid an Emperor's New Clothes scenario. While the bombastic Wall of Sound displayed on 2010's Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites initially provided a unique take on the UK dubstep genre, Skrillex's lack of progression means there's a distinct sense of déjà vu among its seven tracks, particularly on the relentless, scattershot bleeps, chopped-up vocal hooks, and repetitive loops of opener "Right In" and the rap-metal fusion of "Kyoto." Even when he does think outside the box -- as on "Right on Time," a percussive, hard house collaboration with 12th Planet and Kill the Noise which eventually builds into a feverish slice of happy hardcore, and "The Devil's Den," a chaotic hook-up with Wolfgang Gartner which takes in everything from old-school rave to ska to techno — the results are more headache-inducing than thrilling. There are a few more encouraging signs, such as the Doors-featuring "Breakin' a Sweat," which combines proggy guitar hooks, psychedelic organ chords, and Jim Morrison samples with a snarling, Prodigy-esque vocal and a filthy slab of dub bass to produce one of the year's most unexpectedly successful partnerships, and the multi-layered trance of closer "Summit," given an ethereal sheen thanks to Ellie Goulding's lilting tones, both of which suggest Skrillex should utilize his melodic leanings more often. But overall, Bangarang is a disappointingly formulaic affair which hints for the first time that the wheels may soon slowly begin to fall off.
Best Rock Album
The Black Keys, Akron's unsuspecting blues-rock saviors, faced ridiculous pressure in following up their expansive 2010 breakout effort, Brothers. Big things happened in the subsequent year: The duo (vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney) graced the cover of Spin, tucked away three GRAMMYs, played SNL and raked in huge piles of advertising cash — big-deal developments for a band that recorded their debut album in a basement nearly a decade earlier. Brothers found the band at a creative and commercial high-point, simultaneously embracing soulful pop melodies and the spirited muscle of their live shows, even as they gently experimented with psychedelic overdubs — emphatically darting away from the sleepy, awkward soundscapes of the Danger Mouse-produced identity crisis Attack & Release.
On El Camino, the Black Keys are done trying to impress anybody, sounding wonderfully unhinged throughout the album's compact 38 minutes. The name of the game is hard-hitting focus; spontaneity; keeping it simple, stupid; never over-thinking or over-cooking any swampy chorus or tossed-off lyric ("Hey, my my, she's a money-maker/ Hey, my my, she's gonna take ya," goes one gem). After only producing one Brothers track (the emphatic "Tighten Up"), Danger Mouse returns to man the boards — and though his approach on Attack & Release was heavy-handed, never quite gelling with the duo's style, he takes a wiser backseat approach on El Camino. His presence still lingers (check that whirring Hammond organ and retro-glock twinkle on the hooky "Dead and Gone"), but this time around, he's adapted to the Keys' raw rock approach, instead of forcing a synthesis with his bread-n-butter symphonic electro-pop.
The looseness is intoxicating. "Money Maker"'s beastly bass lags behind a millisecond or two, pushing and pulling in gnarly blues warfare with Auerbach's guitars. Carney, charmingly, still swings with the finesse of a caveman on Ritalin — despite his finest efforts at a multi-tiered groove on standout "Stop Stop," dude nearly trips over his own drum sticks. Those sassy female vocalizers on "Gold on the Ceiling" would fit nicely onstage in a broke-down backwoods bar. The acoustic-ballad-turned-electric-stomper "Little Black Submarines" unintentionally evokes Tenacious D channeling Led Zeppelin, and the result is a goofier (yet no less rocking) "Stairway to Heaven" demoed in a truck-stop bathroom stall. Meanwhile, "Sister" is the Black Keys at their glammiest and hammiest, Auerbach's fuzz-bathed, bee-stung guitars layered impeccably over a wicked Carney stomp.
Perhaps the Black Keys are America's finest rock band only because the competition is so depressingly slim. Regardless, with two straight knock-outs on their resume, these guys have clearly earned the title.
Best Alternative Album
Stepping out from behind the piano/drums of Melbourne indie pop three-piece the Basics for the third time, Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist Wally De Backer, aka Gotye's first solo record in five years, Making Mirrors, reveals a love of the '80s pop scene, which extends far beyond the usual influences of the current nu-synth brigade. The hugely experimental follow-up to 2006's Like Drawing Blood doesn't discriminate against other decades, as evident on the impossibly uplifting '60s retro soul of "I Feel Better," the '70s West Coast harmonies of the ethereal lullaby-like closer "Bronte," the '90s Beck-esque scuzzy garage rock of "Easy Way Out," and the 2000s hushed, claustrophobic dubstep of "Don't Worry, We'll Be Watching You." But seemingly unaffected by the constant comparisons with the likes of Sting and Peter Gabriel, it's the era of early new wave, dub, and worldbeat which defines its 12 tracks. Unexpected chart-topper "Somebody That I Used to Know," a collaboration with New Zealand vocalist Kimbra, is an oddball break-up song whose stuttering rhythms, reggae hooks, and hushed vocals sound like the Police as remixed by the XX, "Smoke and Mirrors" echoes the avant-garde pop of Gabriel's So, with its pounding tribal drums, orchestral flourishes, and new age melodies, while there are also nods to George Michael's "Faith" on the acoustic gospel-pop of "In Your Light"; the impassioned Aussie rock of Midnight Oil on the ecologically themed "Eyes Wide Open," and electro pioneer Thomas Dolby on the strange, vocodered vocals, spoken word samples, and skank guitars of the trippy "State of the Art." Familiar they may be, but some credit has to go to De Backer for managing to weave these eclectic retro sounds into a cohesive affair, which proves that along with recent efforts by Art vs. Science and Architecture in Helsinki, Australia is fast becoming one of the biggest purveyors of quality experimental pop.
Best R&B Album
fun., Gotye and Mumford & Sons came away with some of the 2013 Grammy Awards' biggest honors. See who else took home golden gramophones and catch up on what you might have missed last year.
Best Rap Album
Drake shot to the upper echelon of hip-hop fame by bypassing nearly every single rule of traditional cred-getting, and none of the ensuing jokes about his role as Wheelchair Jimmy on DeGrassi: The Next Generation or his own penchant for soft-batch hashtag-rap have knocked him back down. If anything, sophomore album Take Care actively doubles down on the things that make him so contentious among traditionalists — the emotional exposure, the singsong delivery (now manifested more often as straight-up R&B singing), the lyrical focus on relationships — but infuses them with a subtle dose of self-aware ambivalence.
He still acknowledges success — the first line on the album is "I think I killed everybody in the game last year, man" — while "Underground Kings" and "Crew Love" are human-scale acknowledgments that he can afford nice cars and expensive vacations. Yet he still carries himself as though his main concern is connecting with other people without letting status obscure his intent. Most of the people in question are women; they get romantically flattered ("Make Me Proud"), ruefully drunk-dialed ("Marvin's Room"), anxiously reconciled with ("Take Care") and coldly, then regretfully, dumped (the Stevie Wonder feature, "Doing it Wrong").
In the process, Drake foregoes hashtag gimmickry and stretched-to-fatigue punchlines in favor of straightforward confessions, letting the guests — including top-form Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Andre 3000 and mentor Lil Wayne — fill in the pull-quotes. The production does the rest — a gauzy atmosphere of post-Dirty South beats, built around muted, glowing ambient tracks from Noah "40" Shebib, T-Minus and one-shots from Boi-1da, Just Blaze, Jamie xx and Lex Luger — and the sound complements the nuances of Drake's voice in a way that subsumes it almost completely. The end result is an album that feels like the most integral fusion of hip-hop structure and R&B soul-baring since 808s and Heartbreak.
Best Country Album
In a sense, it's possible to measure the progress of the Zac Brown Band by the magnitude of their guest stars. In 2010, they consolidated the breakthrough of 2008's Foundation by enlisting Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson for duets — elders whose very presence suggested they were passing a torch (although, to be sure, Buffett has a far greater pull on Brown's sound than Jackson). Two years later, it is the Zac Brown Band who occupy the power position, drafting in peers, not idols, to play alongside. And it is a diverse batch: twee, twiddly Jason Mraz co-writes the sprightly opening cut, "Jump Right In," with Zac, Trombone Shorty colors "Overnight" with some New Orleans funk, and upcoming folk/blues troubadour Amos Lee sings on "Day That I Die," each guest representing a different field for the ZBB, each suggesting the range of this ever-evolving nominal country band. And at this point, the Zac Brown Band would fit the grander stages of such worldly, knowing vaguely hippie enclaves as Bonnaroo better than they would a rocking country outlet somewhere in the Deep South. But Southern they are, in sensibility and sound, reflecting not the dusty beer joints and cutthroat honky tonks of the middle of the 20th century but the sports bars and sandy beaches of the present, the kinds of places where the kin of the Allmans feel as Southern as the descendants of George Jones...and where a bearded soft rock crooner like Zac Brown is happy to make evident his debt to James Taylor. Brown's sweeter side isn't hidden here but it's not quite as prominent as it's been in the past, either. He has plenty of soft, crooning melodies but there's a bit of bluegrass and a bit of reggae, a little blues and a lot of rock. Above anything else, Uncaged is a Zac Brown Band album, one that emphasizes the range of this quintet and its elastic interplay. It is the sound of a band operating from a position of considerable strength: they're confident, assured, even playful, having fun bending the rules and blurring boundaries, eager to please but never pandering. It's the rare album that suggests how good the band would be in concert yet still sounds vibrant on record.
Best Jazz Vocal Album
Now Esperanza Spalding is making even the Grammys look hip. In her first outing since she was named Best New Artist in 2011, Spalding puts a dozen tunes into her stylistic spin cycle for a tour de force of pop glitter, jazz swing, folk moodiness and a dollop of hip-hop swagger on the dense-but-dazzling Radio Music Society. This is the work of an artist who refuses to choose, mocking genre labels with guileless ambition. (Her original concept was to pair this disc with the classically-oriented, string-laden Chamber Music Society back in 2010, until her record company convinced her the menu would be too large for public consumption.)
By ignoring boundaries, Spalding upends expectations. She enlists august jazz tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano to provide a dulcet lilt to a Stevie Wonder cover ("I Can't Help It") and hip-hop titan Q-Tip to play glockenspiel and co-produce the jazzy tribute to her native Portland, Oregon("City of Roses"). Assembling a phalanx of 23 players and vocalists for a flashy, powerhouse "Radio Song," she sings about the giddiness of being seized by a new jam coming out of the speakers as her own electric bass wends its way through the song's buoyant center. Three songs later, with just the sparse backing of organist James Weidman, she tells the saga of a man falsely imprisoned for 30 years on a bogus murder conviction. On Radio, both extremes are fair game.
As was the case with Chamber Music Society, Spalding's vocals are her ace in the hole. Her range is limited, but her assured and agile phrasing is ideal for carrying out her talk/sung approach. It enables her to credibly pull off a bluesy, big-band-like torch song ("Hold On Me") and to surf atop a youth choir on the anthem "Black Gold." And then there's "Vague Suspicions," a dense and sophisticated number with Jack DeJohnette on drums, about the tacit accommodations Americans make to avoid thinking too much about the consequences of drone strikes and the other elements of remote-control war. It's a grim, simmering number, its closing moments featuring Spalding sarcastically cooing, "Next on channel 4: celebrity gossip." It's a typically astute and self-aware take from an artist who is the closest thing jazz has to a young celebrity.
Best Jazz Instrumental Album
Freedom from stylistic constraints has never been an easy thing for Pat Metheny. As one of jazz's greatest composers, guitarists and texturalists, he's compiled on a stockpile of characteristic compositional devices. Any Metheny fan can identify his white-noise-spewing guitar synths and Ornette-style "out" constructions from 40 paces. But Metheny's tools never become clichÃ©s; they're just steps from which he keeps climbing.
Unity Band is yet another example of Metheny's perpetual growth spurt. Metheny's first record to feature a tenor saxophonist since the mighty 80/81 (with Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker), it sounds both familiar and fresh. Metheny sandblasts new creative paths through well-worn terrain, joined by tenor player Chris Potter, perennial Pat Metheny Group drummer Antonio Sanchez and inspired young bassist Ben Williams. Potter is a muscular foil for Metheny, inspiring him to comp and solo with abandon. The guitarist, though typically brilliant, can sometimes sound hamstrung by his dense PMG studio arrangements. But revamping his afore-mentioned compositional tools through new band mates, Metheny sounds truly inspired on Unity Band.
Metheny's bittersweet acoustic guitar (is there a better acoustic jazz guitarist?) opens "New Year" with a bossa nova lilt, quickly drawing you in. Metheny is soon subsumed by Potter's astringent tenor, followed by group solos over a Metheny-trademarked, high-flying vamp section. Fret-encompassing swoops ("vroom vroom") and guitar synth caterwaul infuse the funky Latin sashay of "Roofdogs," the band firing smoke and sparks as Potter's soprano sax solo winds through solar flare like explosions. Here on soprano, and elsewhere on bass clarinet, Potter shakes clean his hefty Brecker influences to improvise with originality. Sanchez storms Unity Band as well, constantly stoking the intensity level as Williams responds with graceful solos and empathetic support. His solo bass introduction (another Metheny device) to "Come and See" leads to heated solos all around over a feverish pulse. An acoustic guitar-driven ballad, "This Belongs to You," follows, then "Leaving Town," which touches on old PMG favorite "James" in its melody and overall shape. The bell-like chord structure of "Interval Waltz" recalls master guitarist Jim Hall, creating a lovely arc of an arrangement, leading to a beautiful guitar solo over a floating swing pulse. "Signals (Orchestrion Sketch)" is like nothing on any Metheny record, its clattering, Frank Zappa styled (Varese? Stravinksy?) orchestral bed emoting like humorous robots beating street percussion. "Then and Now" sounds a bit like Weather Report's "A Remark You Made" in spirit, followed by closer, "Breakdealer," which with its clunky race to the finish, is Unity Band's only deal-breaker.
Should Pat Metheny replace his main group with the freshly minted Unity Band? The guitarist is re-inspired by material that hints at years of development to come, and this is one killer band. But probably not. Metheny's vision is too broad to be contained by one band and one band alone.
Best Reggae Album
In 1972, Jimmy Cliff's performance in The Harder They Come introduced U.S. filmgoers to the vibrant desperation ofKingston life, and his inspirational yet tough-minded songs highlighted the movie's soundtrack. Already an established hitmaker at the time, Cliff seemed poised to become Jamaica's first international superstar. Instead he misjudged American audiences, pitching vague homilies and pop professionalism to the AM crowd, allowing Bob Marley to leapfrog past him by assuming a prophetic mantle and exciting hip FM rockers with his political defiance.
On Rebirth, Cliff now eyes a more judicious audience: middle-aged rockers weaned on punk and alternative. Shepherded by his producer, Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, the 64-year-old rides the lithe throwback grooves of reggae revivalists the Aggrolites and Hepcat with a young man's grace, particularly on two smartly chosen covers — the Clash's "The Guns of Brixton," which transplanted Cliff's character from The Harder They Come into a London slum, and Rancid's "Ruby Soho." ("Rebel, Rebel" is good too, but it's not the Bowie tune.) Cliff's political complaints haven't grown much more specific — "World Upside Down" cries out against "Too much injustice," then proposes "love" as the answer. But his exhortations not only retain the warmth and humane spirit of old but have gained depths of pained sympathy with age, especially when he laments how "They took the children's bread/ And gave it to the dogs."