I'm going to do something I haven't done since 2011: wade into the waters of predicting which albums will be nominated this year for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. (AOTY) Nominations will be announced December 6.
This year, the conventional thinking is that the five nominees will be Adele, Beyoncé, David Bowie, Drake and Radiohead. And guess what? That's probably going to be wrong, since every year--without fail--there is at least one surprise in the Grammy's top category. To try to get a handle on the AOTY "surprise factor," here's a look at what I viewed as the surprises in recent years.
Nominees: Taylor Swift (winner), Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Alabama Shakes, Chris Stapleton
Last year was one of the easiest years to predict in recent memory. Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar were considered locks, and The Weekend was a likely nominee. There was also quite a bit of talk about Alabama Shakes. Foo Fighters' omission was perhaps the biggest surprise; however, that Chris Stapleton got it instead wasn't a major upset, as he was definitely in the running (as was D'Angelo). This slate presents a nice balance of genres, better than if Foo Fighters had been nominated, since that would have yielded two rock albums.
Biggest surprise: No Foo Fighters
Nominees: Beck (winner), Beyoncé, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell
This was a bigger surprise year. Beyoncé and Sam Smith looked like locks going into the nominations, but the other three nominees, although talked about to some extent (especially Beck), were certainly not universally considered frontrunners, especially Pharrell, whose name I do not recall at all in the talk before the nominations. Instead, there was considered talk for Jack White (a 2012 nominee), Miranda Lambert and Sia. The Frozen Soundtrack and Tony Bennett/Lady were also bandied about. Ed Sheeran's nomination was a surprise since, demographically, he's similar to Sam Smith (male, white, British, pop), and the nominees tend to be diverse. Pharrell was a surprise because although "Happy" was a massive hit, its parent album wasn't really. My hunch is that Pharrell's nomination may have been driven by his behind-the-scenes work, making him a bigger name among Grammy voters than music listeners.
Biggest surprise: Pharrell
Nominees: Daft Punk (winner), Taylor Swift, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, Sara Bareilles
This one almost went like clockwork, except for one major major doozy. Daft Punk, Taylor Swift and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were not at all surprises here. Kendrick Lamar was more a long shot, but he certainly had a lot of support. The big surprise here--and it was a huge one--was the inclusion of Sara Bareilles. Nobody was talking about this album as a potential nominee. It wasn't a particularly big album either commercially or critically. Yet, there it was. So who didn't make it? An equally big surprise for the omission of Justin Timberlake. His first album in 7 years looked like a sure-thing. However, I think his move to nominate The 20/20 Experience as a double album, rather than just submitting the vastly superior Part 1, may have been his undoing. Part 1 was a huge success: sales in the U.S. over 2 million and a 75 average at Metacritic--his highest among four albums. Part 2 was definitely less so: it sold less than half the copies as Part 1 and has a Metacritc average of 60--his lowest score. Submitting only Part 1 would've given voters a strong album with several hits (Mirrors, Suit & Tie). Submitting Part 1 and 2 provided them a bloated experience with a hit-and-miss second half.
Biggest surprise: No Justin Timberlake
Nominees: Mumford & Sons (winner), Frank Ocean, The Black Keys, Jack White, Fun.
This was sort of an odd year, as there weren't a lot of obvious choices. There was some talk that Drake or Coldplay could be nominated, but I don't think it was a major shock that they were not.
Biggest surprise: Fun
Nominees: Adele (winner), Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Rihanna
This was a year of a lot of surprises. Going into the race, I think most people assumed this would be a Kanye West vs. Adele contest. West had been nominated three times previously without a win, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was his most acclaimed work yet. Its omission from the slate was a major surprise--probably the biggest of all the surprises mentioned here--and cleared the way for Adele's easy victory. The other thing that was a surprise was the dominance of pop music, with four of the five nominees. Bon Iver looked like a pretty good bet for alternative nomination, but instead it had to settle for a Record of the Year nomination for "Holocene."
Biggest surprise: No Kanye West
So what do I suspect will the surprises this year? By their very nature, this is hard to predict. I think Beyoncé and Adele are clearly the safest picks this year, and consider them "safe" choices. Any of the other three could be vulnerable. My money is on David Bowie is being the least vulnerable, given the level of acclaim for his album, his untimely death early this year and Grammy's tendency to nominate well-established artists. Drake would be next on my list. For him is that the album was a major commercial success in an era where there are few highly successful albums; against him is that the album didn't get the greatest reviews. Yet, I doubt the Grammy folks would instead put up Kanye West, given his recent antics, or Chance the Rapper, who has yet to really break through to the mainstream. I think Radiohead is the most vulnerable. I like their album, but it's no OK Computer, Kid A or In Rainbows (their three albums that have been nominated). I think they could be displaced perhaps by a country album. Sturgill Simpson, Maren Morris and Margo Price all released acclaimed country albums this year that could draw enough support for putting a country album on the slate. A longer shot is Rihanna, whose Anti release turned out to be a surprisingly strong album.