We all know the Grammys--that behemoth of the American music industry that theoretically dispenses the final word on the best music of the year. It's a flawed system (and has seen a fair share of famous boycotts and rebuffs over the years), but, whether we like it or not, it does wield a lot of might over determining the fates of many musicians in America (and abroad). Every year we take a look at the nominations and do a little run down of highlights and some of our favorites from the list. This year, the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, our highlight reel spans from the tippy top of mainstream hip-hop to retro re-releases of '70s and '80s Somalian pop. Check in January 28 for the awards ceremony. Enjoy!
Record of the Year
The big boss of the awards. Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and Bruno Mars have been riding their heights of fame for years now and there’s already been millions of words said about them (though I will say that Childish Gambino’s album Awaken, My Love! and this particular song, “Redbone,” are fantastic, bringing Parliament-Funkadelic and contemporary hip-hop together into the present). The most notable presence on this list is the one and only “Despacito” by the Puerto Rican musicians Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, featuring Justin Beiber. It would’ve been hard to go through this year and not hear this song.
One of the most played songs of the year (four billion+ views on YouTube!), “Despacito” is a major crossover track. It has brought Puerto Rican reggaeton deep into the mainstream, inspired increased tourism to Puerto Rico, elevated Daddy Yankee to being the most listened to artist on Spotify and garnered a slew of multiplatinum certifications across the world. Justin Bieber got in on the action after a while, widening its reach while also offending many in a live performance when he “forgot the words” and replaced some of the Spanish lyrics with “dabba dabba dabba” and “burrito.” Oops. Remezcla has a thoughtful analysis of the broader implications and context of “Despacito." (On a side note, “Despacito” was banned in Malaysia for being “un-Islamic” and its lyrics “not suitable to be heard”).
1. “Redbone” -- Childish Gambino
2. “Despacito” -- Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber
2. “The Story Of O.J.” -- JAY-Z
4. “HUMBLE.” -- Kendrick Lamar
5. “24K Magic” -- Bruno Mars
Best New Artist
These young artists have exploded onto the big time music scene this year. Of these, we’d recommend Khalid and SZA in particular. The two are both pushing some buttery smooth, full-bodied but minimalist sounds that feel at least partly like a gorgeous, haunting evolution of the neo-soul of the early ‘00s.
1. Alessia Cara
3. Lil Uzi Vert
4. Julia Michaels
Best Dance Recording:
This one is very exciting for us here at Afropop. Innov Gnawa is a local New York City band who has been featured on our website and in our programs several times, from Moroccan Music Today to Festival in Fes and in features about Gnawa in New York City (Gnawa Springs Eternal, etc). We’ve also premiered a different electronic music collaboration the producer Nickodemus did with Innov Gnawa’s leader, Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. This year, Innov teamed up with the renowned British electronic music producer Bonobo for this subtle and gorgeous tune, “Bambro Koyo Ganda.” The song is off Bonobo’s excellent new album, Migration, which is also nominated in the Best Dance/Electronic Album category. Big up to Innov Gnawa for the nomination! They’re up against big names in the electronic music world like LCD Soundsystem and Gorillaz.
1. "Bambro Koyo Ganda" -- Bonobo Featuring Innov Gnawa
2. "Cola" -- CamelPhat & Elderbrook
3. "Andromeda" -- Gorillaz Featuring DRAM
4. "Tonite" -- LCD Soundsystem
5. "Line Of Sight" -- ODESZA Featuring WYNNE & Mansionair
17. Best R&B Performance
All great songs here, but two stand out big time: "High" by Ledisi and "The Weekend" by SZA. With 12 Grammy nominations under her belt, Ledisi's an old hand at this game and well deserves it. You hear that voice? Her transcendent vocal acrobatics are out of this world. SZA, as we mentioned before, is a relative newcomer and is on her way to that multi-Grammy stardom for sure. This song, "The Weekend," is glorious.
1. "Get You" -- Daniel Caesar Featuring Kali Uchis
2. "Distraction" -- Kehlani
3. "High" -- Ledisi
4. "That's What I Like" -- Bruno Mars
5. "The Weekend" -- SZA
Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album
There’s some solid sounds in this category, most notably the Puerto Rican rapper Residente (of the famed Calle 13) and inimitable Colombian electro-tropical band Bomba Estéreo. Bomba Estéreo released this bomb album, Ayo, this year. Afropop has a review of the album here. This track, "Química," is absolute fire.
1. Ayo -- Bomba Estéreo
2. Pa' Fuera -- C4 Trío & Desorden Público
3. Salvavidas De Hielo -- Jorge Drexler
4. El Paradise -- Los Amigos Invisibles
5. Residente -- Residente
Best Traditional Blues Album
The best thing on this list is Eric Bibb. Bibb is a deep bluesman from New York City, peddling his soulful, rich velvet voice and simple, subtle blues guitar from a current home base in Sweden. His work has been consistently great since the ‘80s, including collaborations with Malian guitarists Habib Koite and Djelimady Tounkara. This album draws parallels between today’s wave of migration to Europe from North Africa and the Middle East with the movement of former African-American sharecroppers from the South to the industrial North in the early parts of the 20th century. Beautiful sounds.
1. Migration Blues -- Eric Bibb
2. Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio -- Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio
3. Roll And Tumble -- R.L. Boyce
4. Sonny and Brownie's Last Train -- Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi
5. Blue and Lonesome -- The Rolling Stones
Best Contemporary Blues Album
Solid blues from some contemporary American favorites, namely Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo. On TajMo, two titans of the blues, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ come together on this album for some old school, pared down tunes.
1. Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm -- Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm
2. Recorded Live In Lafayette -- Sonny Landreth
3. TajMo -- Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo'
4. Got Soul -- Robert Randolph and The Family Band
5. Live From The Fox Oakland -- Tedeschi Trucks Band
Best Reggae Album
This category is always brimming with goodness. We’re happy to say that Afropop has reviewed two of these albums – Avrakedabra by Morgan Heritage and Chronology by Chronixx – and interviewed one of the artists, J Boog, about his Grammy nomination last year for Rose Petals EP. J Boog’s nominated album this year, Wash House Ting, is a real gem (and features some members of Morgan Heritage). Two of the albums nominated this year – both Wash House Ting and Lost In Paradise – come from the flourishing scene of trans-Pacific Polynesian reggae. Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley delivers as always, with his signature blend of roots reggae, dancehall and hip-hop.
1. Chronology -- Chronixx
2. Lost In Paradise -- Common Kings
3. Wash House Ting -- J Boog
4. Stony Hill -- Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley
5. Avrakedabra -- Morgan Heritage
Best World Music Album
This category is a complicated one. We often see artists who we've featured in this Grammy category -- a category and common label that attempts to encompass an entire world of music. What determines whether an album gets labeled as World Music as opposed to reggae, Latin jazz, pop or r&b? Who gets to decide? It’s not exactly a label chosen by artists themselves but one given by record labels, presenters or media. Generally, if the music comes from outside a “Western” context and doesn’t explicitly sound like music with mainstream popularity or recognition in the U.S., it tends to get labeled as World Music. When observed from the outside, the distinctions between musics outside the major markets in the United States, Europe or Latin America tend to get elided. From that vantage point – informed by at least a bit of abstracting exoticism – Pakistani qawwali, Malian kora music, Colombian bullerengue, Tuvan throat singing and Arab pop are all given the same boat to ride in. Often, the kinds of music that can gain recognition as World Music are more “traditional,” “roots” oriented or easily digestible by Western sensibilities. Sometimes outstanding, innovative international musicians get left in a kind of limbo: too cutting edge or American-inspired to be “World Music” but lacking the global buzz to get headway in another category.
Of course, the label is partly practical: it’s not realistic to expect that every music in the world can have their own Grammy categories or receive equal recognition by mainstream American music industries. But as other music markets grow and become more globally connected, it will be a boon to see more subtlety and artistic self-determination in the way the world’s music is recognized by the (American and European) power players. Reggae, for instance, achieved an international status that afforded it its own Grammy category in 1985, years after its origins in the '60s. The category “Best Tropical Latin Album” only came about in 1984 and the Grammys only began recognizing Regional Mexican and Tejano music as distinct categories in the early ‘00s. As the world’s musical culture crosses borders more fluidly, it will be interesting to see how the category lines adapt and grow. One wonders when Nigerian Afrobeats, rising rapidly on the global scene and majorly cross-pollinating with mainstream American hip-hop, will garner a Grammy nomination in the major hip-hop or r&b categories – or be given a category unto itself.
To add to the frustration of flawed labels, the Grammys tend to have a very narrow vision when it comes to nominating artists. It’s not so hard to predict at least one of the names that will come up in that list of five. This isn’t to say former Grammy winners and nominees Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Buika and Tinariwen don’t deserve the praise. It is to say that if an entire world of musicians can be deemed to fit this category, we should be seeing many more new names.
At any rate, the show must go on. This year, we have some Spanish flamenco (Vicente Amigo), flamenco-inspired vocal wonder from the Equatoguinean-Spanish singer Buika, Israeli/Brazilian fusion (Anat Cohen and Trio Brasiliero), classic South African isicathamiya from four-time Grammy winner Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Tuareg blues from Malian stars Tinariwen.
1. Memoria De Los Sentidos -- Vicente Amigo
2. Para Mi -- Buika
3. Rosa Dos Ventos -- Anat Cohen and Trio Brasileiro
4. Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration -- Ladysmith Black Mambazo
5. Elwan -- Tinariwen
Best Recording Package
If you didn’t take the time to scroll deep down in the nomination list, you probably missed this one. The album El Orisha De La Rosa by nonagenarian Colombian bullerengue singer Magín Díaz has been a favorite here at Afropop, brimming with fabulous songs from traditional bullerengue to reimaginings of the music with an impressive roster of contemporary Colombian musicians like Systema Solar and Monsieur Periné. And the packaging is in fact excellent as well, with beautiful technicolor art and layout by Carlos Dussan, Juliana Jaramillo, Juan Martinez and Claudio Roncoli. This summer, Afropop interviewed Manuel Garcia Orozco, A.K.A. Chaco, one of the producers of the album.
Best Historical Album
In a sweet surprise, two of the albums nominated in this category have been covered here on Afropop: Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From the Horn of Africa, and a compilation of retro Burkinabé music called Bobo Yeye: Belle Epoque In Upper Volta (this album also is nominated for “Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package”). They’re two excellent compilations that revive the faded sounds of the golden ages of music in Somalia and Burkina Faso and deserve the recognition.
Best Classical Compendium
This one is also something of a surprise. Nominated is Les Routes De L'Esclavage, conducted by the eminent Jordi Savall. Afropop recently attended a live performance of this work at Lincoln Center in New York City. The album (and performance) attempt to tell the story of transatlantic slavery from 1444 to 1888 by bringing together 32 musicians from three continents, including Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko, Moroccan oud player Driss el Maloumi and American gospel quartet The Fairfield Four.
Tune in Jan. 28 for the awards ceremony!