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Grammy’s Alternative Nod: The Antidote to Miley, Taylor and Justin

Acts like Neko Case, Tame Impala and the National Find Safe Harbor on Pop’s Outer Fringes

In 1991, the Grammy Awards introduced a category — then-titled Alternative Music Performance — with the intention of acknowledging lesser-known artists for their work on the fringes of pop. In the years that followed, many of the artists who received the award were hardly outside the mainstream, but nonetheless represented a level of aesthetic credibility that was often absent from the frequently stale, and decidedly middlebrow assembly of awards contenders.

Radiohead, Beck, Nirvana and many other critically lauded acts received the award, giving voice and recognition to some of the more musically adventurous and iconic albums of the era. In recent years, the field of nominees has come to reflect the changing landscape of the music biz, with a host of non-major label acts eying the prize, and, on occasion, taking home the award (Bon Iver, Phoenix).

In 2014, the term “alternative” sounds as dated as it seems ambiguous, but for the most part, the category now known as Alternative Music Album has acted as the Grammys’ artistically minded conscience for more than two decades. There have certainly been overlaps with the major categories — last year’s winner, Gotye, also claimed record of the year honors, while the previous year’s winner Bon Iver was also named new artist — but the category more often serves to give nods toward the margins, or even previews of the kinds of emerging artists who will fill out the upper awards brackets in years to come.

This year’s crop of nominees is exceptionally in-tune with the majority of critical opinion, particularly with the nomination of Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City,” which topped both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork’s year-end polls for 2013. Musically rich albums by longtime independent stalwarts Neko Case and the National also received nominations in the category, along with the blistering, psychedelic headrush that is Tame Impala’s “Lonerism.” Nine Inch Nails’ “Hesitation Marks” is the lone nominee that seems a bit out-of-touch, feeling more like a legacy nod than a celebration of Trent Reznor’s most recent opus.

Case, the alt-country songsmith and sometime member of the New Pornographers, was nominated for two Grammys (contemporary folk album, recording packaging) in 2009 for her highest-charting album “Middle Cyclone.” With the nomination of her latest release, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You,” Case finds herself rebranded by the National Academy of Recording Arts as an “alternative” artist, which she finds appropriate. “I think maybe (alternative) music is music paid for and made by the people themselves,” Case says. “I pay for my own music. I make it myself and I don’t have major airplay or any of that stuff.”

Three years after her initial Grammy experience, Case was still surprised, and delighted, to hear she had been nominated this year. “I woke up on a freezing, rainy day, literally next to a Dumpster in Glasgow, Scotland, to find that I had been nominated. So it was a really lovely, lovely way to start my day,” Case says. “I’m very humbled by the whole thing. I don’t think I’m above it or below it. I happen to be here for it and I don’t take it for granted. But I don’t take it so seriously that it drives me somewhere.”

What drives Case is her work, which continues to mature and deepen with each passing year. And though she is critically acclaimed and fiercely independent, Case still sees deep significance in the more commercially minded artists the Grammys tend to focus upon. “There’s a lot of music that gets played on the radio that I can’t stand,” she says. “And honestly, it doesn’t fucking matter. Because if somebody is driving home from work and they hear a Top 40 song that I don’t like, and it makes them feel good, then that is the job of art — period.”

The past year has been a watershed for Australian upstarts Tame Impala, which broke through to a wide audience on the coattails of the band’s heavy-riffing earworm of a single, “Elephant.” In many respects, Tame Impala is the most unexpected entrant in this year’s Grammy class, and group mastermind Kevin Parker has been intensely skeptical of the nomination. “It (the nomination) was obviously pretty surprising,” Parker says. “I immediately thought that we had been included as kind of a list-filler.”

Tame Impala’s “Lonerism” represents something new in the alternative category, showcasing a band that is right on the cusp of breaking out as a significant commercial force. By selecting the album, the Academy looks atypically prescient. Most of the artists it traditionally acknowledges — even the “alternative” ones — are firmly established in the industry, and Tame Impala isn’t quite there yet. Parker isn’t overly familiar with the Grammy Awards — having grown up in Perth, Australia — but he is pleased that his album has been honored. “With ‘alternative’ music, it’s like there’s another goal in mind,” he says.

“I just like the idea that (the category’s) a bit weirder,” Parker adds. “I’m really grateful that it’s not in the ‘rock’ category. My heart stopped for a second when someone said we were nominated for a Grammy. I thought it was for best rock album — that would devastate me.”

Whereas Tame Impala seems to have sprung from nowhere, the National has emerged from the musical underground at a decidedly slower pace. With more than a decade of touring and widely revered albums under their belts, the members of The National transcended indie rock and reached a much wider audience with 2010’s “High Violet.” Last year, the group delivered the gloriously constructed “Trouble Will Find Me” to near-universal acclaim, and notched a No. 3 debut on the Billboard 200 — tying the chart peak of its breakthrough predecessor.

“The Grammys serve a role in the music industry, which I think is a combination of marketing and a celebration of certain achievements, and those things don’t necessarily dovetail with critical acclaim,” says the National’s Aaron Dessner. “I think there are a lot of deserving people who’ve made great records in the past who have not been nominated, so I think it’s exciting that there’s starting to be more underground music getting recognized.”

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