Grammy countdown: Can Phoenix best the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Depeche Mode?
The category: Best alternative album.
The field at a glance: The best alternative album field has, in recent years, featured some of the more adventurous picks from Grammy voters. In 2009, the title went to Radiohead's "In Rainbows"; in 2008, the field was arguably more varied than the general album of the year showcase category.
With releases from Björk, the Shins, the Arcade Fire, Lily Allen and the White Stripes represented at the 2008 awards, the best alternative album category lacked only hip-hop in providing a snapshot of the year in music. In a year when Herbie Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters" took top honors, there were far more risk-taking offerings over in best alternative album.
Some of that holds true this year. Phoenix's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" melds ambient, electronic and pop sounds, bringing added textures to its already warm pop and disco tendencies. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "It's Blitz!" turned the guitar into an atmospheric tool, and the band moved between club-ready ecstasy and late-night vulnerability. David Byrne and Brian Eno's "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" was a winning pairing of two music legends, with folksy, just slightly off-kilter melodic orchestrations.
In rounding out the category this year, voters got a little lazy. Death Cab for Cutie EP "The Open Door" doesn't make much sense, as it's a five-track effort that complements rather than expands on the work of 2008 full-length "Narrow Stairs." Likewise, Depeche Mode's "Sounds of the Universe" pleased longtime fans, and was Depeche Mode being rather good at playing Depeche Mode.
And the Grammy goes to: Pop & Hiss is going to bet on Phoenix. The album, the act's fourth, was a breakthrough for Phoenix, and single "1901" has become a budding hit, thanks largely to the ubiquitous car commercial that the song scores. The album is still on the charts -- at No. 88 currently -- and has sold 277,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The sales are solid, and the band has been in front of voters, going back to a high-profile placement on "Saturday Night Live" in early 2009.
Depeche Mode has the name recognition, and "Sounds of the Universe" is a competent effort, but in a category that has recently awarded Radiohead, the White Stripes, Gnarls Barkley and Wilco, Grammy voters will likely go with the younger, on-the-rise act.There's a chance that Phoenix and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs could split the vote, but Phoenix has been a much-buzzed-about act for much of 2009.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Phoenix. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times