Not to plead hardship, but trying to handicap what records might win Grammy nominations is unlike the guesswork for any other top entertainment awards show. Tens of thousands of potentially eligible new recordings are released every year, and then individual categories have their own nominating committees to winnow through preliminary voting, making sure that wild cards slip in and it’s never a pure popularity contest. With that said, there are sure bets every year — and those that are sure until they’re not. (We’re looking at you, famously MIA “Shape of You.”) Right now, there is an expectancy of a major Taylor Swift vs. the Weeknd smackdown, while taking into account that, given the Grammys’ fickleness in the past, it’s possible Swift won’t figure in much at all — kind of like another election we can think of that’s absolutely guaranteed to be either a landslide or squeaker.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Weeknd’s “After Hours” is really the only contender you could bet the family jewels on without blinking an eye. But Swift is as near to a sure-thing as anyone without a bloody nose gets this year. Going on recent experience, that may seem counterintuitive, since the nominations review committee found a way to exclude “Reputation” and even last year’s more widely acclaimed “Lover” from the final eight. What will likely make “Folklore” unavoidable for a top slot is not just that it’s Swift’s best-reviewed album ever — ranked 88 on Metacritic’s critical average, when all her previous efforts were in the 70s — but because it has a narrative That Fits This Year. It was conceived, executed and released during the pandemic. That work ethic would make for a good story even if the music didn’t represent such an adventurous step, and even if its risk-taking hadn’t paid off off in the most repeatedly chart-topping album of the year. When it comes down to the wire in January, you can argue that optics may weigh heavy and Grammy voters may still feel that 2020 is better suited to rewarding a Black artist who hasn’t won it before than a white one who has… or just favor bop-lore over a walk in the woods. But that’s a discussion we can take up when nominations come out around Thanksgiving, assuming that the blue-ribbon committee doesn’t do anything so scandalous as leaving either of these top-ticket choices out.
Looking at the intersection of albums that had Metacritic averages above 85 this year and albums that realistically have a hope in hell of being recognized by the Recording Academy, that’s a short list. “Folklore” is in that critically top-ranked tier, and “After Hours” isn’t, so advantage Swift there. Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is ranked as the best-reviewed album of the year, but you’d have to set the odds as even on the committee elevating an album that left almost as many people puzzled as it did enraptured, however brilliant. Aside from Swift’s album, Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” is by far the safest bet to carry over from the Metacritic upper ranks to an album of the year nomination; it’s a dance party with major critical cred points, a rare hat trick.
Bob Dylan has not been nominated for album of the year since 2001’s “Love and Theft” and last won it four years before that; the blue-ribbon committee that narrows down the nominations, once seen as overly solicitous toward veterans in this category, has in recent years gone the other the other way. But “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is his most acclaimed album since that previous winner, so if they’re going to set aside ageism for any rock god, chances are good it’d be for this. Others on Metacritic’s esteemed best-reviewed list include Run the Jewels, Haim, Phoebe Bridgers and Perfume Genius, any one of whom could get in with the right pep talk from influential Academy members.
But what of bona fide popular successes, to which the voting membership is not averse? Harry Styles’ highly regarded and still resurgent “Fine Line” didn’t make the Metacritic upper ranks, but it did just get named one of the 500 greatest albums of all time on Rolling Stone’s revised list. That honor is farther down on the list of reasons to nominate than its two smash singles and the fact that dads and daughters alike dig it. Influential factions could boost the chances of breakout album smashes by the likes of Luke Combs, currently the hottest thing going in country, or Bad Bunny, who’d have the first Spanish-language album ever nominated here. Lady Gaga hasn’t gotten a nom in the category since 2011, and the commercially middlin’ “Chromatica” may not reverse that, but she’s running on higher levels of good will than when “Joanne” got passed over. The big question may be whether she and Dua Lipa are seen as competing for the same party-pop slot: Is the town, or the dance card, big enough for the both of ’em?
The Chicks are the only act in contention that can say they won album of the year with their previous studio album; of course, with that previous winner having been 14 years ago, past results may not be an indicator of present success, but a nomination, at least, is in the realm of possibility. And how about Lil Baby, Megan Thee Stallion, Jason Isbell, Roddy Ricch, the Highwomen, Future, Halsey, Miranda Lambert, Mac Miller and DaBaby? The eligibility period may have ended, but the window for longer shots like these is still wide open.
SONG OF THE YEAR / RECORD OF THE YEAR
The Recording Academy and its chroniclers make yeoman efforts every year to distinguish between these two top categories for the benefit of puzzled citizens. A handy guide: If you love the feel of the production and the general vibe, it’s a “record of the year.” If you can’t stop gushing about the middle 8, that might be a “song of the year.” (Just kidding about that — we all know no pop songs have bridges any more.) And sometimes, schematics do guide which tracks get nominated in which category, like last year, when Swift’s camp submitted different tunes for record and song. But in practicality, there’s so much overlap that the categories bear considering together. To wit: in the past four years, the same song got both record and song three out of four times. Case rested.
The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” looks like an obvious front-runner. In these categories, though, unlike album, his chief competition won’t come from Swift — who has a good, but not completely certain, shot at a nod with the vibey “Cardigan.” Here, it’s Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” that tells a story about 2020, and it’s not about its means of creation but addressing brutality, prejudice and the Black Lives Matter moment. There’s not a lot of competition for that kind of topicality anywhere else in the top categories, which gives Lil Baby very grown-up chances for figuring into these two races. It wasn’t as ubiquitous as “Blinding Lights,” Post Malone’s “Circles,” Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” or Megan Thee Stallion and Beyonce’s “Savage,” to name some near-shoo-in-level songs. But it will be hard to resist rewarding “The Bigger Picture” in some way if there is a collective voter urge to make the 2020 winners’ list go down as relevant, not agnostic, to the national mood.
Lipa could prevail, though, with “Don’t Start Now” if voters decide the real reigning mood of 2020 was “we want to get out of the damn house” after all; it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the smash is not at least on the final list. The same goes for Styles’ “Adore You”; although it might split some votes with his almost equally popular “Watermelon Sugar” if both are submitted, which song to coalesce around probably won’t be that problematic for his boosters. The returning champion in both these categories, Billie Eilish, has a similar “problem” of dual 2020 successes, but “Everything I Wanted” is likely to slip into contention ahead of her Bond theme, assuming that the Grammys do want to keep her in the mix between album cycles.
The big question: After never giving BTS a single nomination before now, are the Grammys willing to pass “go” and put them up in a top category? Top 40 radio being won over to “Dynamite,” when their success at that format felt for a long time like it might follow a frost in hell, would indicate they’re finally primed for proper Grammy acceptance — and not just an ARMY-baiting on-air performance slot — although it remains to be seen if the committee might rather reward them for all that they represent, as new artist contenders, or for an undeniable single. Also looking good is Maren Morris’ crossover hit “The Bones”; although she was surprisingly passed over for an album nomination last year, the biggest single off said album reestablished her crossover bona fides by going No. 1 at AC as well as country, and the combination of Nashville voters mobilizing alongside the song’s many pop-world friends should make her hard to ignore this time. And Gaga? Although “Chromatica” does not seem like a certain album contender, double-teaming the Grammys with Ariana Granda and “Rain on Me” probably represents her surer path to a top nod.
Summer Walker is the cred pick to beat. Yet the field is stronger than it has been for years and years in which prognosticators had to stretch to think of even five likelies. Country music alone, as a genre, has fielded four solid contenders — who could, of course, cancel each other out — between the suddenly burgeoning superstar Morgan Wallen, the debuting No. 1 hitmakers Ingrid Andress and Gabby Barrett, who both represent triumphs in a lopsidedly male format, and Mickey Guyton, a Black woman who just wowed the ACMs with one of two press-blitzing socially conscious songs.
Is Doja Cat a leading contender, or did some loose remarks get her canceled? The jury remains out. Pop Smoke would be the first posthumous nominee for new artist, ever — are the Grammys willing to go there, in a category that’s usually seen as making a claim on predicting future success? Maybe not, but his getting even a nomination would make for an exciting headline, and the Grammys like those, too. Phoebe Bridgers is a very strong bet to slip into the kind of indie slot the nominating committee has felt was important before. And … BTS? It no longer feels like fun conjecture, but actual dynamite the Grammys might be playing with, even with little overlap between their fan base and the average Recording Academy chapter. Affirming the moment is a big motivating factor in 2020, even if it’s not one you as an aging cis male white guy are quite sure you recognize. Eight-ball says: BT-yes.