Going into the nominations for the 2020 Grammy Awards, which will be announced Wednesday morning, there are some big question marks: Will Lil Nas X take the old town road to Staples Center, or be told to hit the highway? Might Taylor Swift, nearly shut out of nominations on her last album, have her awards reputation redeemed on this one? Could Maggie Rogers be the next bearer of the traditional Grammy princess tiara?
And there are also some big exclamation points: Billie Eilish! Lizzo!! When it comes to those two almost certainly dominating the Grammy conversation, and punctuation, suspense is not an issue.
Here are some predictions about how things are likely to go down when the nominees are unveiled in the 8 a.m. ET hour Wednesday at a live-streamed press conference. But first, some caveats: The Grammys are traditionally much harder to handicap than the Oscars because the final five nominees in most categories are selected by committees that winnow down the top 20 popular vote-getters — and committees have agendas that may involve boosting dark horses and slowing the momentum of big names. (See: the elevated Grammy profile of H.E.R. last year, and the non-existent one of Ed Sheeran.) Also, this will be the second year that the top four all-genre categories will have eight nominees apiece, instead of five, as it was from 1959-2018. That means we have to super-size our crystal ball. But here goes:
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
This would be Billie Eilish’s to lose, if it weren’t for that spoiler Lizzo… or vice versa. What’s for sure is that the only 100 percent sure things in the category also happen to be the only 100 percent sure things in the best new artist category. That’s a narrative the Grammys love —pitting freshman against freshman in a no-lose scenario that all but guarantees headlines the day after the awards will be about the telecast rewarding fresh talent, not overly familiar standbys.
That still leaves six slots for those who will end up happy just to have been nominated. At the top of the “very likely” list is Taylor Swift, a previous two-time winner of this top prize. You could argue that if the Recording Academy declined to nominate “Reputation” two years ago, they might not love “Lover” so much, either. But several things augur in Swift’s favor for a nomination, if not a win. Two years ago, we were still in the five nominees era; if there’s been eight slots that year, surely she would have gotten in. More importantly, though, the culture seems to have embraced Swift’s move back into the light in a way it didn’t with her shadowy “Reputation,” and it hasn’t hurt that she’s come out of the closet as (to borrow a pejorative-that-shouldn’t-be-one from the far right) a social justice warrior.
From there, we have Maren Morris’ “Girl,” which just won the CMA Award for album of the year, as the likely country entry in one or two of the Grammys’ all-genre categories. Tyler, the Creator’s “Igor” feels like an unstoppable bet to represent envelope-pushing hip-hop.
Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” ticks off the same boxes we just lined up for Swift: a superstar who was unjustly nearly ignored on her previous project, but is unlikely to meet the same fate in a field expanded to eight. You might downgrade her chances, versus Swift’s, just a little because she did tear the Grammys a new one last year in a dispute over what to perform on the telecast. But rather than hold it against her, the committee may just as likely feel like it’s magnanimous to show there are no hard feelings, and to compensate for past nomination oversights by rewarding a fast follow-up that’s on the same high level.
For the remaining two slots, let’s go out on a limb and forecast a strong possibility for two albums that haven’t come up as much in the conversation. Many in the music community feel it’s time to reward Gary Clark Jr. for being a musical virtuoso who’s also come into his own as a songwriter, and for honoring traditional music forms while pushing their envelopes. “This Land” would be the album to do the honoring on, and the recent Hollywood Bowl headliner has immense appeal to older voters, even if the album was far from ubiquitous.
And the Academy could well decide this top category merits a third freshman, or freshwoman: Maggie Rogers. To have three female upstarts vie in the album category as well as for best new artist would be a good kind of unprecedented.
But should we prove wrong on any of the above eight, as we absolutely will be, here are nine more that could take their place. Bruce Springsteen got his best reviews since the early ‘00s for “Western Stars,” and having a film version in theaters surely didn’t hurt, although the Academy seems disinclined toward rewarding veterans in top categories anymore. Khalid’s “Free Spirit” was a sophomore monster that helped elevate him to the status of arena headliner. Lana Del Rey’s “Norman F***ing Rockwell” was one of the year’s best reviewed albums and certainly stands a good shot. Lewis Capaldi could join Lizzo, Eilish and Rogers in navigating this category as well as best new artist. Beyoncé, who for all her wins is still perpetually seen as Grammy-robbed in major categories, could slip in, barely, with the live “Homecoming” album that really didn’t get much attention as an asterisk to the Netflix special. The Jonas Brothers could find love for their comeback project as a whole. Megan Thee Stallion could cross this preliminary finish line, too. Rosalia’s “El Mal Querer” would make a big statement that the Grammys and the Latin Grammys really don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Two mega-albums we think we can count out: The “A Star Is Born” soundtrack was handicapped by coming out one week after the end of the previous eligibility period in 2017. “Shallow” was nominated a year ago even though it only came out a week before the full album. A various-artists album that’s covered in dust is a hard sell. Also, although the Grammys seem likely to make amends for recently overlooking Swift and Grande, it’s a longer shot they’ll do the same for another passed-up superstar, Ed Sheeran, whose recent album of duets wasn’t as well-regarded as the more deserving “Divide.”
Sheryl Crow’s collaborations project looms as the faintest of possibilities — if everyone who appears as a guest star voted for it, it’d be halfway to a nomination — but Academy committees don’t much care nowadays about legacy Grammy sweepers, nor is her touting “Threads” as her final album release the kind of thing that rouses sentiment. (If the Academy didn’t give an album nomination to David Bowie when he died, they’re not likely to give one to Crow for bowing out of the CD market.) Madonna‘s “Madame X”? Pretty much an impossibility, no matter what the faithful are praying for… but feel free to troll us till the cows come home if she pulls out an upset.
RECORD AND SONG OF THE YEAR
The other top categories all offer opportunities for Eilish or Lizzo to go for a sweep — here, with “Bad Guy” and “Truth Hurts,” respectively, as record and/or song of the year. (As you probably know, record goes to the artist and producers and more reflects the overall sound and personality of a hit song, whereas song is predicated on the strength of words and music alone… or, as the kids know it, “topline.”)
Swift took an interesting approach to splitting up her strengths between categories. She reportedly submitted “You Need to Calm Down” for record of the year and the title track of “Lover” for song. “Calm Down” was beloved for its LGBTQ-boosting message and droll activist attitude, and could make it into a field of eight. But “Lover,” in which she sweetly and self-knowingly promises to be “melodramatic and true,” is the one she wants to stand behind as a songcrafter, and it probably stands the stronger chance in its respective category.
But let’s consider an obvious record of the year frontrunner. Could the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” lose for record of the year, much less be denied a nomination? Well, sure, although you’d be hard pressed to imagine that possibility while it’s playing. It’s this year’s version of “Happy” — the ubiquitous song of good cheer whose ubiquity and cheer you don’t mind. Of course, “Happy” didn’t turn out to be a big awards-winner… but there was no good-will narrative surrounding Pharrell Williams the way there is around the brothers’ comeback, there are no minions to cloud the Academy’s judgment this time, and it has actual sex appeal.
The other obvious record frontrunner is Lil Nas X’s (and Billy Ray Cyrus’s) “Old Town Road” — albeit a very handicapped frontrunner, in that it’s far and away the biggest hit of the year and also deeply and truly polarizing. Think “Despacito,” a similarly huge and not universally beloved tune that was nominated for record and song two years ago but failed to win any of its three nominations. Reaction falls between between “C’mon, if we can’t reward something that ignites an entire nation to sing along, what can we?” and “We just need to take the ‘academy’ out of our name if a two-minute one-hit wonder is the height of artistic excellence.” It’ll be fascinating to see which view prevails.
Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” just entered its third week at the top of the pop charts — so it’d be a shoo-in if it’d peaked a month earlier, to really influence voting. It may be one anyway, since its six-month climb to the top surely allowed any music lover as informed as most Grammy voters sufficient time to hear it and form a judgment. And Academy judgments often swing in the direction of very young singers who become massively popular by sounding old — or, to put it another way, millennials who manage to get classic balladry to the top of the pops in spite of the odds stacked against that.
If those are good bets for six of the eight slots in record and song, there’s a lot of competition to go around to edge almost any of them out, including Khalid’s “Talk,” Maren Morris’ “Girl,” Maggie Rogers’ “Light On,” Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes,” Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Senorita,” Dan + Shay’s “Speechless,” Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” J. Cole’s “Middle Child” or, realistically, dozens of other possibilities, highly dependent on how poptimistic the blue-ribbon committees are feeling.
BEST NEW ARTIST
Billie Eilish, Lizzo and Maggie Rogers as clear nominees — these truths we hold to be self-evident. For the remaining five slots: Lewis Capaldi would be a near-lock, if his three-week run (and counting) at No. 1 didn’t arrive a smidgeon too late to boost him in the voting. He runs the same risk/reward ratio as Summer Walker, as a late peaker who could benefit from the additional late exposure if it wasn’t truly too tardy. Megan Thee Stallion is a likely bet, and it’s harder to imagine the Academy would leave Rosalia out here than it is to believe they might pass her over for album, record or song.
Juice WRLD stands a solid chance of joining Megan in the category as a young hip-hop champion. Morgan Wallen, Carly Pearce and Runaway June are mainstream country’s best bet for inclusion; although all face long odds, they do carry over some heat from being nominated for best new artist at the CMA Awards. (The CMAs’ winner, Ashley McBryde, would have been eligible for the Grammy last year, and was surprisingly passed over.) Alternative country artist Tyler Childers probably stands a stronger chance than the mainstream country upstarts, if his having two albums doesn’t make him feel too established — and there’s speculation he could pull off a Sturgill Simpson-style upset to claim a nomination for album of the year, though that’d be a risky betting proposition.
That leaves the $64 billion Lil Nas X question. The Academy is still traumatized by the legendary A Taste of Honey win in the late ‘80s, and that institutional memory informs any discussion when one-hit wonders are considered. Lil Nas now counts as a two-hit wonder, but still, with just one EP and no full-length albums out, it’s hard to get a feel for what kind of career he’ll have. And it’s altogether possible he’ll be denied a nomination in a category that the Academy sees as prophecy and investment — but if wonderfully bizarre narratives counted as much as gambling on futures, this 20-year-old would ride into the sunset with a gramophone in his satchel.
Whatever happens Wednesday morning, you can count on a lot of these being wrong. That’s part of what makes the Grammys fun, compared to the Oscars, where the forecasting is down nearly to a science: Naysayers may rag, rightly or wrongly, on the committee process subverting the popular vote, but it does ensure that, come Christmas morning, as it were, music fans really can’t be sure if they’ll be getting socks, coal or a new Cadillac.