While Album of the Year is the most prestigious Grammy award and also the most confusing (witness Herbie Hancock’s “The Joni Letters” defeating Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” in 2008), Best Pop Vocal Album, in comparison, tends to be mainstream and populist. In other words, it’s the category where Grammy voters seem to be more swayed by commercial than critical success. In recent years, the contenders usually have been mostly well-known and current, with no Herbie Hancocks and Tony Bennetts hogging the sentimental vote.
For the second consecutive Grammys, none of the Best Pop Vocal Album nominees are up for Album of the Year, a reflection less of the quality of the nominees than the Record Academy’s recent efforts to be more inclusive in the major categories.
Female artists often dominate the contest, and this year, it’s five against one. Will the ladies cancel each other out, leading to a Shawn Mendes victory for his eponymous third album? “Shawn Mendes” actually has a lot going for it besides its namesake’s gender: A commercial and critical success upon its release last May, it’s also the only nominee to have scored a nod in one of the three big categories. The first single, “In My Blood,” is up for Song of the Year. Mendes’s biggest hurdle may be the lack of an irresistible narrative: As a 20-year-old up for his first two Grammys, he’s hardly overdue.
His friend and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” duet partner Camila Cabello, however, has a couple of strong narratives. The ex-member of Fifth Harmony pulled off a pop rarity with “Camila” — she left a successful group and became an even bigger star on her own — and her song “Havana,” one of the most ubiquitous hits of 2018, was shunned by the major categories. Still, she faces some stiff competition.
Pink’s nod for “Beautiful Trauma” feels mostly like force of habit. She’s had four nominations in the category — second only to Kelly Clarkson — and still no wins. This year, she occupies the overdue-veteran slot with her seventh album and first in five years. Pink has won three career Grammys but only one for her solo work, so “overdue” is part of the storyline here — although the album’s first single, “What About Us,” nabbed a Best Solo Pop Performance nod last Grammy cycle, which might make the album feel too 2017.
Kelly Clarkson, whose two wins in this category are matched only by Adele, has been releasing albums almost as long as Pink has, so she has veteran’s cred, too. But despite its warm critical reception, “Meaning of Life” was Clarkson’s first album not to at least go gold, and her first non-holiday release not to spawn at least one Top 10 single.
Of the three vets in the running, Taylor Swift enjoyed the most commercial success with “Reputation,” and its predecessor, “1989,” also won in this category. However, Grammy voters may feel as if they’ve rewarded Swift enough over the years and decide to spread the love by handing this award to Ariana Grande for her fourth album, 2018’s “Sweetener.”
The 26-year-old singer has yet to win a Grammy and her narrative is powerful, to put it mildly: it includes the 2017 bombing at her concert at the UK’s Manchester Arena, the drug-overdose death of her ex Mac Miller last September, and her recent high-profile break-up with “SNL” star Pete Davidson, but it also includes a triumphant No. 1 album and a string of recent blockbuster singles — and “Thank U, Next,” her fifth album, is dropping the Friday before the Grammys, just a few months after the release of “Sweetener.”
Despite all that, she scored just a pair of Pop category nominations this time around — no big nods — so a victory here seems likely. At the very least, it could be a dress rehearsal for 2020: On the basis of the songs she’s released from “Thank U, Next” so far, 2020 nods for Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year seem likely. It’s a good thing she’s gotten used to saying “Thank U”…