The Grammys’ Producer and Album of the Year Categories: Soulmates?

Historical Grammy trends show that the winner for producer of the year is often a bellwether for who'll win album or record of the year.

Finneas Pharrell Williams Grammy producers
Finneas: Matty Vogel; Williams: Andrew White/Kintzing

Do the Grammys’ producer of the year nominations provide any kind of bellwether for which singles or albums will win in the top categories? Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa should hope so.

Of the five talents who are nominated for producer of the year (non-classical) s this year, only two had anything to do with any of the recordings being put up in the top four all-genre categories. Those would be Jack Antonoff, who worked on Taylor Swift’s “Folklore,” and Andrew Watt, who put in duties on Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia.” Based on what’s gone down with the Grammys in the past, this overlap says a lot about these two producers’ chances of winning in their category — and also about Swift’s and Lipa’s odds of prevailing in theirs.

Antonoff enjoys the advantage there, as he worked on seven out of 17 tracks on “Folklore,” whereas Watt did just one song with Lipa, “Break My Heart.” But either association will give them a big leg up on fellow nominees Dan Auerbach, Dave Cobb and Flying Lotus.

But how far do the mutual advantages go? Variety looked at the winners in the album, record and producer of the year categories since the turn of the century, to see how often they’ve lined up. Here’s what we found:

Going back to the year 2000, the designated producer of the year has also picked up an additional trophy for either album or record of the year 10 times out of 21. In six of those instances, the winning producer has picked up awards for all three marquee categories. Those trifectas were achieved by Finneas in 2020 (for his work with Billie Eilish), Greg Kurstin in 2017 (a big year for Adele), Pharrell Williams in 2014 (the year Daft Punk broke), Paul Epworth in 2012 (an earlier big Adele year), Rick Rubin in 2007 (when the Dixie Chicks swept all) and Arif Mardin in 2003 (when Norah Jones was a debuting behemoth).

Looking specifically at cases where the winning producer also picked up an album of the year trophy, that’s happened eight times out of 21 this century. Besides the aforementioned eight instances where the designee took all, Steve Lillywhite got doubly awarded for producer and album in 2006 (honoring his work with U2) and T Bone Burnett did it in 2002 (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”).

Similarly, there were eight instances out of 21 in which producer and record of the year lined up. Beyond those winner-take-all cases mentioned above, Jeff Bhasker got both producer and record in 2016 (the year of Mark Ronson’s and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”) and Ronson accomplished that two-fer in 2008 (when Amy Winehouse won record for “Rehab” but, incredibly, lost album to Herbie Hancock).

So we can say that in the contemporary era, the producer award goes to someone who’s also winning for either album or record of the year roughly half the time. So what happened in the 11 out of 21 years where there was no correlation? In many of those cases, a well-regarded big name does get swept in over lesser lights who helmed rewarded work.

In 2019, for instance, Pharrell Williams prevailed as producer, while the relative upstarts who produced the album of the year, Kacey Musgraves’ “Golden Hour,” didn’t even merit a nomination. The year before that, Bruno Mars won in the top categories, but the producer award went to Kurstin for the second year in a row, as if the Grammys just couldn’t stop thanking him for the previous year’s Adele work. Other top producer names who won their professional category in a year in which they didn’t also prevail for album or song include Ronson, Dr. Dre, Max Martin, Danger Mouse and Brendan O’Brien.

So it’s pretty clear there are two paths to winning producer of the year: be associated with a winning album or record, or be a huge name in pop in your won right. In the 2021 contest, there’s really no one who qualifies by only the latter criteria (although Auerbach did win once, in 2013).

No nominee for producer of the year for 2021 is also nominated for both producer and record as well. But Antonoff is the lone nominee who stands a chance at walking away with even one of the big three awards on top of a producer trophy, for “Folklore.” The Grammys limit the number of producers who can be nominated and win in the top categories, so even though Watt did a song for Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia,” he was not given an official album of the year nomination himself for handling her song “Break My Heart.”

So, even though Antonoff has never won producer before and was only nominated for it for the first time this year, he’d have to be the closest thing the Grammys have to an odds-on favorite this year, given the Recording Academy’s tendency to think no producer is an island. And Swift can take some premonitory comfort in seeing that the Grammys do know Jack.