For the last twenty years, the award for Album of the Year, the biggest Grammy honor of them all, has tended to go to two types of people: young women and old men. Female solo artists under 30 (Lauryn Hill, Taylor Swift) and male veterans over 40 (Tony Bennett, U2) have dominated the category for two decades with only a few exceptions: the youngish male rappers in Outkast, the wide range of musicians on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and the thirtysomethings in the Dixie Chicks and the Arcade Fire. This year, that pattern’s unlikely to be broken, with only one of the five nominees falling outside either of those two categories.
WHO: The savior of the music industry, with six million units sold and counting.
PROS: The youngest of the three women in the category (she’s three months younger than Rihanna), as well as the highest-selling and most musically Grammy-friendly. Back in October, Chris Molanphy broke down Adele’s odds being crowned the album of the year by Billboard, the Grammys and the Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics poll. Critical consensus proved elusive, but she still looks like a lock to have the ninth album crowned as both AOTY and the year’s top seller (following such blockbusters as Thriller, Rumours and Jagged Little Pill).
CONS: The Grammys love a curveball, even if there’s not quite anyone who seems like an obvious Steely Dan to Adele’s Eminem.
“REAL MUSIC” CRED: That voice, the heartbreak in those songs, even her body type have all been held up as reasons why Adele is more “authentic” than her peers.
VICARIOUSLY REWARDED EARLIER ACHIEVEMENTS: Her first album, 19, got her five Grammy nominations and two wins, but 21 has so clearly eclipsed all of her debut’s accomplishments that it would clearly win on its own merits.
Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
WHO: ’90s survivors who rose to the top of the mainstream rock heap through persistence and a total lack of competition.
PROS: In the absence of any comeback albums from senior citizens like Robert Plant or Eric Clapton, the relatively spry (he’s 43) Dave Grohl is this year’s token old guy, the closest thing we’ve got to a Boomer-friendly option for NARAS’s aging constituency.
CONS: It’s the lowest-selling album in the category; its presence feels like a half-hearted token rock band pick to diversify the field. Not that those factors hurt Arcade Fire last year.
“REAL MUSIC” CRED: Grohl built a studio in his garage and recorded the entire album on analog equipment, and his band plays instruments.
VICARIOUSLY REWARDED EARLIER ACHIEVEMENTS: The Foos were nominated in this category four years ago for Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, which lost to Herbie Hancock; artists tend to win later on than with their first nomination in a category. Also, perhaps voters will want to belatedly acknowledge the band for earlier hits like “Everlong,” to say nothing of the fact that Wasting Light reunites Grohl with a couple of people who helped make a little album called Nevermind.
Lady Gaga, Born This Way
WHO: The most important, galvanizing pop star of, oh, two or three years ago.
PROS: Born This Way sold a million copies in a week.
CONS: Gaga’s sales sprint was no match for Adele’s marathon.
“REAL MUSIC” CRED: Lady Gaga’s perceived artistic integrity exists on a sliding scale that depends on who she’s being compared to at any given moment: next to Britney, she’s a genuine talent who plays an instrument and writes her own songs, but next to Adele, she’s a dance pop confection with a silly stage name who privileges style over substance. Still, an album featuring contributions from Clarence Clemons, Brian May and Mutt Lange has upped her Boomer appeal considerably.
VICARIOUSLY REWARDED EARLIER ACHIEVEMENTS: The more beloved The Fame Monster was nominated in the same category a year ago, so the Grammys may want to collect their late pass now, but more likely they’ll wait to give AOTY to her 2021 live album where she plays her hits on piano while wearing a t-shirt and jeans.
Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans
WHO: A Hawaiian kid with a pompadour who became pop radio’s most unlikely new golden boy.
PROS: An adult contempo-friendly singer/songwriter with a finger on the pulse of the pop zeitgeist, his win could be a throwback to the mid-’80s, when Lionel Richie and Phil Collins both took home Album of the Year trophies.
CONS: He’s the only nominee who’s not in the favored mold of young woman or older guy.
“REAL MUSIC” CRED: He writes all his own songs and has penned hits for others, and his production team The Smeezingtons is up for Producer of the Year.
VICARIOUSLY REWARDED EARLIER ACHIEVEMENTS: Doo-Wops & Hooligans was released in late 2010; last year, Mars managed a staggering seven nominations for the songwriting and featured-artist credits on the hits (Cee-Lo’s “Forget You,” B.o.B’s “Nothin’ On You,” and Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”) that paved the way for his solo career.
WHO: The red-haired siren from last year’s album cycle—who’s already been replaced by this year’s model.
PROS: The most ubiquitous nominee outside of Adele, with three chart-topping singles off Loud alone.
CONS: Her annual assembly line of albums has always felt more like a delivery system for those radio-dominating singles, and it felt a bit awkward to see Loud‘s nomination announced the week after its follow-up, Talk That Talk, hit stores.
“REAL MUSIC” CRED: Although she’s asserted more and more of a role in the direction of her music and career in recent years, Rihanna is still the most easily dismissed “major-label puppet” in the category. The Barbadian pop princess rarely even sings anything vaguely Caribbean anymore. And with several similarly successful young pop stars who actually write their own material also nominated, Rihanna seems a bit out of place, a la Katy Perry last year.
VICARIOUSLY REWARDED EARLIER ACHIEVEMENTS: If the AOTY category were as brazenly populist four years ago as it is today, Ri-Ri’s 2007 blockbuster Good Girl Gone Bad probably would’ve gotten a nod over that Vince Gill box set.
FINAL PREDICTION: Adele does, indeed, have it all in this category.