The Grammy Awards aren’t fair. Neither is life. Chaos rules. Snubs will happen, and who’s to say where to lay blame? With the Recording Academy’s 11,000-plus voters, a mysterious lot whose membership lacks transparency? Failed PR campaigns? God? All of the above?
Sound conspiratorial? Two words: The Weeknd. His glaring omission from last year’s nominations rankled both the artist and nearly everyone who pays attention to the Grammys, leading to the abolition of the so-called “secret committees” that could overrule the voting bloc. For better or worse, this year, no Weeknd-sized whiffs disrupted the proceedings. Shoe-in artists and major pop figures including Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish and H.E.R. landed multiple nods. Ditto Doja Cat, Lil Nas X and Brandi Carlile.
But this year’s nominations did come with the inevitable left-field surprises and snubs. Below, some of the most notable.
Jon Batiste scores 11 nominations. Batiste is best known as the affable bandleader for CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” The New Orleans-born pianist’s big laugh is instantly recognizable during the comedian’s monologue, and in jazz circles he’s a respected player. But straight talk: He’s hardly torn up the pop charts or the critics’ lists. The versatile album for which he’s nominated, “We Are,” peaked at No. 86 on the Billboard 200 and dropped off the next week. “Freedom,” which is nominated for record of the year, has a paltry 5 million spins on Spotify. (By comparison, Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” recently surpassed 1 billion.)
Something about Batiste’s skills and approach, however, resonated with Grammy voters. In addition to the above, Batiste’s work is nominated for traditional R&B performance, R&B album, improvised jazz solo, jazz instrumental album, American roots song and performance, score soundtrack for visual media, music video and contemporary classical composition.
Arooj Aftab nabs a best new artist nomination. Among the 10 best new artist nominations are pop star Olivia Rodrigo, rapper Saweetie and producer-songwriter Finneas (who has won eight Grammys with sister Billie Eilish), each of whom were expected to earn academy kudos. Few were blindsided by seeing rappers the Kid Laroi or Baby Keem among the 10 nominees, and rising country singer Jimmie Allen’s nomination made sense. Which is to say, though varied in instrumentation, nine of the 10 acts released albums full of pop-structured songs in 2021 — Glass Animals, Arlo Parks and Japanese Breakfast included.
And then there’s Aftab. Until Tuesday morning, the 36-year-old Brooklyn-based singer and composer’s most prominent appearance was on Barack Obama’s summer playlist. She’s never performed on network television and issued her 2021 album “Vulture Prince” not through a major label but on the New York experimental label New Amsterdam.
Born and raised in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Aftab has earned attention with “Vulture Prince” for its seven meditative, minimal works that draw inspiration from a free-flowing South Asian lyric poetry form known as the ghazal. Singing mostly in Urdu, the Berklee College of Music-trained Aftab combines stringed instruments, synthesizers and the occasional percussive accent with multi-tracked layers of her pitch-perfect voice. Oddly, the work isn’t even nominated in the global music album category; rather, its song “Mohabbat” earned a global music performance nomination.
ABBA’s long game paid off. Those who measure musical success through Grammy trophies might stop to ponder the plight of ABBA. Bereft of a single Grammy nomination despite its multi-decade run of worldwide smashes, the Eurovision-winning Swedish quartet somehow managed to survive the Recording Academy’s indifference and eke out a career. Earlier this month, the band released a new album, “Voyager,” preceded by September’s lead single, “I Still Have Faith in You,” just before the voting deadline. The strategy, if they had one, paid off with their first-ever Grammy nomination: “I Still Have Faith in You” landed a record of the year nomination.
Justin Bieber’s did too. Bieber is many things, but he’s seldom been accepted by the Recording Academy’s old guard as an Artist Worthy of Consideration. This year, though, Bieber’s eight nominations establish just that. His work appears in three of the four major categories: record of the year and song of the year for “Peaches,” and album of the year for “Justice (Triple Chucks Deluxe).” Bieber also landed pop solo performance for “Anyone,” pop duo/group performance (with Benny Blanco) for “Lonely,” as well as pop vocal album, R&B performance and music video.
Country music? Maybe next year. With each of the four major categories generating 10 nominees, 40 slots were in play this year. Of them, only one true-blue country artist, Jimmie Allen, earned a major nod. Voters slammed the stable doors on established stars including Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Mickey Guyton, Maren Morris and Sturgill Simpson. (Whether Brandi Carlile makes country music in 2021 remains unresolved.) That left Allen, a Delawarean by birth, to represent the genre via his best new artist nomination. He did so through the work on “Bettie James Gold Edition,” a beefed-up version of his “Bettie James” EP that features collaborations with artists including Nelly, Tim McGraw, Pitbull, Mickey Guyton and Monica.
Did somebody say Kacey Musgraves? The belle of the ball in 2019, when her sublime “Golden Hour” earned album of the year and country album Grammy Awards, Musgraves seemed a lock for a major nomination. Alas, her post-divorce album “Star-Crossed” was mostly ignored by the academy, save two nominations for “Camera Roll,” in the country song and country solo performance categories. (The pop-leaning “Star-Crossed” was deemed ineligible for country album.)
BTS comes up short … again. Apparently 50 billion BTS fans can be wrong, or at least more of them need to infiltrate the Recording Academy. Despite the group’s worldwide dominance, the K-pop phenoms earned just one nomination, in pop duo/group performance category, for their song “Butter.”
Swifties are not gonna be happy. It’s hard to feel sorry for Taylor Swift right now given her very good year (and decade and career). Last year she won album of the year for “Folklore” and her re-recorded “Red (Taylor’s Version)” is the No. 1 album in the country. Still, a tiny violin doesn’t take up much space so let’s bust it out to acknowledge that, despite all the acclaim, Swift received only one nomination this year: Her soft pandemic comforter “Evermore” is among the album of the year contenders, but that’s it. Still, she can rest easily knowing that, like perhaps only Beyoncé, her very absence is a kind of presence.
Black voices run the table for spoken word album. Among Grammy watchers, who gets nominated for spoken word album has long been fodder for wonderment. The category has been part of the ceremony since its 1959 inception and has celebrated a banquet’s worth of boldfaced names: Dorothy Parker, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Morrison, John F. Kennedy, William Shatner, Flea, Tiffany Haddish and Neil deGrasse Tyson among them. But this year for the first time, all the nominees are Black. They include LeVar Burton’s reading of his sci-fi book “Aftermath”; Don Cheadle’s reading of the late Congressman John Lewis’ “Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation”; poet and spoken word artist J. Ivy’s “Catching Dreams: Live at Fort Knox Chicago”; Dave Chappelle and Amir Sulaiman’s “8:46″; and Barack Obama’s reading of his memoir, “A Promised Land.”