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The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences introduced the Best Alternative Music Performance category in 1991 in anticipation of punk breaking later that year (and permanently renamed the award in 2000). Over the past two decades, the changing demographics of the nominees have reflected the ever shifting and hotly debated definition of the word “alternative.” The Foo Fighters’ debut was nominated for in 1996, but without changing their sound much at all they’ve since migrated to—and dominated—the Best Rock Album category. This year, the award continues to struggle with its identity with a field that’s more unpredictable than usual: There’s no lock like Beck or The White Stripes present and no big commercial breakthrough for a long-running band like the last two winners, Phoenix and The Black Keys.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver
WHO: Log cabin Kanye yacht rock beard yadda yadda yadda.
PROS: The only nominee also up for major categories like Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist.
CONS: A bit more Pitchfork than the category usually skews toward, even as it leans ever more “indie.”
NPR APPEAL: Justin Vernon has probably appeared on every music program NPR has in the past year short of A Prairie Home Companion.
CLEAR CHANNEL APPEAL: “Holocene” hasn’t touched a single Billboard airplay chart.
Death Cab For Cutie, Codes and Keys
WHO: The Pacific Northwestern sadsacks whose next collection of breakup songs will be a lot less sympathetic to listeners who know they were written about Zooey Deschanel.
PROS: This is Death Cab’s fourth time in this category—they were even nominated in 2010 for a stopgap EP filled with outtakes from the album they were nominated for in 2009!
CONS: They’ve never won, and it doesn’t seem like this is their year to break the pattern.
NPR APPEAL: Death Cab For Cutie is probably a less central band for the NPR set than they were a few years ago, but the NPR site still streamed the album, and the Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla did the obligatory All Songs Considered appearance on their promotional rounds.
CLEAR CHANNEL APPEAL: The lead single “You Are A Tourist” topped Billboard‘s Alternative Songs chart for a week in July.
Foster The People, Torches
WHO: A guy named Foster and some other people.
PROS: Easily the biggest hit in a category where the top seller wins more often than not.
CONS: The album wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed, falling outside of the Pazz & Jop’s top 200.
NPR APPEAL: The band performed on World Café and did a Tiny Desk Concert.
CLEAR CHANNEL APPEAL: “Pumped Up Kicks” was one of the biggest songs on both pop and rock radio all year, and at one point three of the album’s singles were in the top 25 of the Alternative Songs chart (a feat not achieved since Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill).
My Morning Jacket, Circuital
WHO: Kentucky roots rockers who’ve made a slow rise from cult favorites to festival headliners with a top-10 album.
PROS: The most Boomer-friendly trad rock nominee in this year’s field.
CONS: The furthest thing from household names in the category, they got a nod three years ago for Evil Urges and felt like a filler nominee then just as they do now.
NPR APPEAL: Appearances on World Café, On Point, and Fresh Air.
CLEAR CHANNEL APPEAL: 2008’s “I’m Surprised” hit No. 6 on Billboard‘s Adult Album Alternative singles chart, but nothing from Circuital has reached similar heights.
Radiohead, The King of Limbs
WHO: The Most Important Band of Their Generation at the ebb of their importance.
PROS: Thom Yorke and his boys are the big dawgs of the Alternative Music Album category, with a record seven nominations—one for every album (and one EP!) since OK Computer—and tying The White Stripes for most wins with three.
CONS: The King of Limbs has received the closest thing to indifference the band has ever experienced in their long, celebrated career.
NPR APPEAL: Forget All Songs Considered—these guys get the red-carpet treatment on All Things Considered.
CLEAR CHANNEL APPEAL: “Lotus Flower” only managed to climb to No. 33 on the Alternative Songs chart, which means you’d have to sit through at least five airings of “Creep” before hearing it on mainstream radio even once.
FINAL PREDICTION: Winning a Grammy would help Justin Vernon have a good winter. (Get it?)