Grammys 2010: An early look at album of the year (Part 2)
GRAMMY AWARDS 2010
For the first time, the Grammy eligibility year has been moved up from the end of September to the final day of August. In making the change, the eligibility period for the 2010 Grammy Awards was shortened to 11 months (the Grammy year will be back to a 12-month cycle, with the new qualifying dates, for the 2011 awards).
Ultimately, this means that heavy hitters such as Mariah Carey and Jay-Z will now have to wait until 2011 to see their albums get Grammy recognition. An album now must be released no later than Aug. 31 to be in the Grammy running.
That means it's time to look at the albums most likely to be lauded by Recording Academy voters in the album of the year field, Grammys' biggest prize. Note, however, what follows is not a reflection of the year's best albums. No discussion of that sort could happen without mention of Metric's "Fantasies," Lily Allen's "It's Not Me, It's You" and on and on and on.
For now, however, get your pencils and scorecards ready. Here's an early look at some of the works most likely to receive album of the year attention when Grammy nominations are unveiled at the end of the year.
This is Part 2 of the installment. Click here for Part 1 to see what you missed. Pop & Hiss will be back to see how wrong we all were in December.
Green Day, '21st Century Breakdown'
Grammy potential: The East Bay pop-punk band already has three Grammys to its name, and two stemming from 2004's "American Idiot." The latter, in fact, scored a nod for album of the year, signaling Green Day's complete makeover from snotty, bored suburbanites to socially conscious rockers with new-found theatrical ambitions. It hit a number of Grammy sweet spots. "American Idiot" was a blockbuster success, revitalizing Green Day's career, and doing so with grand, artistic ambitions.
Grammy deserving: With "21st Century Breakdown," the band continues down the same path it set forth on "Idiot," creating an album fit for Broadway or the mosh pit. Like "Idiot," "21st Century Breakdown" is the work of a veteran band still willing to take chances. The album has more of a direct theme than "Idiot," and at 18 tracks, the concept may be stretched a bit thin, but songs such as "Horseshoes and Handgrenades" and "Last Night on Earth" reveal that Green Day hasn't lost is ferocious edge while developing its softer, sweeter, more Grammy-friendly side.
Whitney Houston, 'I Look to You'
Grammy potential: Plenty have been waiting for Houston's return, and you can bet Recording Academy voters are among her most ardent supporters. She has six Grammy wins to her name, including an album of the year trophy for her work on the soundtrack to 1992 film "The Bodyguard." While her 2002 album "Just Whitney" failed to snare an album of the year nod, she's largely been missing in action since, at least if you were looking for her outside the tabloids. If "I Look to You" is a moderate critical success -- and early signs are that it is -- then Houston's album of the year prospects will be judged on the marketplace. If it's a hit, book it. If she's fading from the top 10 by time Mariah Carey releases her "Memoirs of An Imperfect Angel" on Sept. 29, Houston may be relegated to pop and genre fields.
Grammy deserving: Initial reactions to "I Look to You" are positive, although not glowing. Houston's weapon was her voice, and it's lost some of its thrill. A scaled-back Whitney, especially one paired with A-list producers, from R. Kelly to Stargate to Akon, isn't necessarily all that different from any number of pop divas. That all being said, "I Look to You" may play it safe, but it's a pleasurable listen from start to finish. "Million Dollar Bill" is blissfully retro, and "Salute" packs a feisty, kiss-off punch.
Taylor Swift, 'Fearless'
Grammy potential: And here, ladies and gentleman, is your 2010 front-runner for the Grammy album of the year. The country princess is not only the biggest star of the moment, she's been embraced by the Recording Academy. Swift, remember, was the standout star of last year's first-ever prime-time Grammy nominations special. She also performed on the awards with Miley Cyrus, despite not having a nomination. Additionally, her "Fearless" may very well end up the best-selling album of 2009, as well as the release with the most Grammy nominations. She has critics in her corner, including at least three from the Los Angeles Times, and her album has already spawned three hits. This is the year of the Swift.
Grammy deserving: If anything holds back Swift from taking this category, it may be the fact that while she's received generally favorable reviews, she's far from critic-proof. Additionally, those who have witnessed her award-show performances, including her duet at this year's Grammy telecast with Cyrus, saw a young singer whose vocals don't always rise above an amateur level. But that is not her appeal. She's pitched as an ol'-fashioned singer/songwriter, and one with upstanding moral values who relates to her fans by filtering teen issues through an adult prism. It does, however, walk a line between honest and calculated, and voters would be right to let her get one or two more albums under her crystal-emblazoned belt before giving her the top prize.
Phoenix, 'Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix'
Grammy potential: The only problem standing in Phoenix's way is whether or not enough voters will hear them. Phoenix has released an album that's right in the Coldplay sweet spot, and the French pop band has steadily built its career over four albums. Longtime Grammy observers may be rolling their eyes at the band's inclusion here, as Phoenix still belongs to a cult audience, even if that fan base is growing. Yet the band has spent 15 weeks on the top 100 of the pop charts, and is coming back to the U.S. for a fall tour. A long shot at this point, but the band is one more television performance from breaking out. It's also important to note that with music sales down, it's easier for an act like Phoenix to stand out, and the group brings a level of credibility to the telecast, something the Grammys reacquired last year when they embraced Radiohead.
Grammy deserving: "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" is a warmly inviting record, the rare pop record that successfully emerges ambient textures with exuberant melodies. There's a hypnotic quality to nearly all of these songs, be it the way the vocals fade into synths in "Girlfriend," or the guitars that get lost in a disco rush in "1901." A stylistic leap over the band's prior efforts, and the group has already been rewarded. This is its first to reach the U.S. pop charts, and it has already sold more than 100,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. There's no way it could ever win, sadly, but it deserves to be in the conversation.
Grammy potential: Whitney isn't the only comeback story this year. Maxwell hasn't released an album since 2001, and "BLACKsummers'night" is already a commercial success. Six weeks after its release, and it's still in the top-15 on the U.S. pop charts, resting this week at No. 11. Maxwell has never been nominated in the top category, but he's no Grammy stranger, and has been up for best R&B album. It's possible for both Maxwell and Whitney to get nominated, as "BLACKsummers'night" is pure R&B elegance, and Whitney's "I Look to You" is essentially a straight-up pop album.
Grammy deserving: Maxwell should have been nominated for an album of the year when he released his 1996 debut "Maxwell's Urban Suite Hang," and this is probably his best release since. The Los Angeles Times' Ann Powers gave it four stars, writing that Maxwell's "music is libidinally compelling because it is complex. Following the example of his acknowledged influence Al Green, Maxwell's singing teases out the subtle gradations of feeling in a lyric." And it hits a span of emotions without telegraphing them, as it's a seductive, yet devastatingly heartbreaking record. Look for it on year-end lists, and look for it in this field.
Pop & Hiss will be back close to the unveiling of the Grammy nominations to offer our final Grammy picks for album of the year.
Photo, top left: Whitney Houston. Credit: EPA
Photo, top center: Taylor Swift. Credit: Associated Press
Photo, top right: Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. Credit: Getty Images