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When the Emmy nominations were handed down last Thursday, it started me thinking about the Grammy Awards. The year-long eligibility period doesn’t end for another two months—until Sept. 30— but there are a number of fine titles already out that are serious contenders for album of the year.
Looking ahead, here are the top 10 albums released so far that could be in the running. I’m not including any sets coming out between now and the cut-off, but September is already stacked with some major names, including Bob Dylan, Pink, Mumford & Sons, Ne-Yo, Green Day, and Dave Matthews Band, who clearly could be contenders.
These are in alphabetical order by artist instead of by any kind of rank and are my educated guess based on Grammy watching, not necessarily my wish list. In recent years, the album of the year contenders have by and large dovetailed with the year’s top pop sellers and we’ve seen a move towards nominating titles by younger pop acts (The artists whose works were nominated for Grammy album of the year this year were all 25 and under other than the Foo Fighters). However, there’s still the likely nod to a veteran act whom the voters feel may not have previously gotten his or her due or for whom they hold great fondness. Additionally, there are occasional left field choices that no one can predict.
Fiona Apple, “The Idler Wheel...”: Apple’s first set in several years was greeted in many quarters with devoted fanboy and fangirl praise and then it seems to have fallen out the larger collective mind fairly quickly. However, she has the kind of tortured artistry that Grammy voters like to reward.
Dr. John, “Locked Down”: A critical rave, the album nicely blends a heritage artist like Dr. John with a current hitmaker/tastemaker, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who pulls a delightful deftness out of Dr. John a.k.a. Mac Rebennack. Auerbach’s presence helped expose Dr. John to an audience whose parents may not have even been born when he scored his one and only Top 10 hit, “Right Place Wrong Time” in 1973.
Norah Jones, “Little Broken Hearts”: Like a number of artists singled out in this list, Jones took some adventurous turns with “Hearts,” pairing with Danger Mouse for a stunningly dark album full of gorgeous sonic and lyrical explorations.
Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange”: Released to universally strong reviews, “Channel Orange” is an exceptionally intimate, interesting R&B album that appeals to a wide audience. Plus, Ocean’s story is a compelling one that complements, instead of overshadows, the music. If he can keep momentum going, he’s the closest thing to a sure bet for a nomination.
Bonnie Raitt, “Slipstream”: Grammy favorite Raitt’s first album in seven years showcases her seemingly effortless guitar work as well as her always touching, raspy vocals. Every year, the Grammys look to honor veteran artist and she could fall into that slot, although even suggesting that she’s in any way a token nominee denigrates her great work on “Slipstream.”
Lionel Richie, “Tuskegee”: It’s the feel-good story of the year. Richie is beloved and the album is the top-selling release of 2012 after One Direction’s “Up All Night.” Richie has a tremendous cross-section of Grammy voters that he could draw upon her: R&B and pop contingencies, the country crowd, and veterans. Then again, the album could fall through all the cracks. What will be really interesting is to see if “Tuskegee” gets a best country album nod.
Rihanna, “Talk That Talk”: The Grammys showed Ri-Ri love this year for “Loud” by providing the artist her first album-of-the-year nomination. “Talk” isn’t as strong as “Loud” and it’s hard to imagine an album-of-the-year winner with a song like “Birthday Cake” on it, but the strength of “We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been” could propel it.
Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball”: As he did with “The Rising," The Boss taps into these troubled times and crafts an album full of what we need to hear, even if we don’t want to. Plus, the strength of a number of cuts, including “Rocky Ground,” “Jack of All Trades,” and “We Take Care of Our Own” are undeniable, even if the album as a whole is not consistently great.
Usher, “Looking 4 Myself”: Seven studio albums in, Usher released a tour de force that displayed a new maturity, without sacrificing his famous playful or sexy sides. He fearlessly incorporated other styles in a way that never felt forced or contrived, but instead seemed to be a natural evolution.
Jack White, “Blunderbuss”: Even if you’re not a huge fan of the music, his sincere, loving embrace of so many American music forms through his various projects makes it impossible not to be a fan of the person. Luckily, with his first solo project, White crafted an intriguing album that recalls an earlier, analog era filled with surprising pockets of sound around each corner.
Best New Artist
I'll go into this more fully in a future posting, but the best new artist category has some clear frontrunners this year. Here are my best guesses for who will get a nod.
Carly Rae Jepsen
*UPDATE: BIllboard's Keith Caulfield just questioned how I could leave One Direction off this list. I can't. I don't think they'll win, but they absolutely should be one of the finalists for best new artist and I should have included them.
Who did I leave out? Which artist and albums are you rooting for?