Grammys 2016 Preview: Who’s Got the Best Odds for Gold in the Big Four Categories?

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Illustration by Thomas Kuhlenbeck

17 October 2015

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It’s the 2016 kickoff! All the eligible music is on the market, the ballots are in the mail, and Taylor Swift can’t win everything (right?). Now, with 12 months of hits that matter, Billboard sizes up the best chances for gold among the big four categories.

The Recording Academy has completed its annual Grammys screening process, so it’s time again to consider which artists and industry figures will be recognized by their peers at the 58th annual awards on Feb. 15. (To be eligible this year, all recordings must be released between Oct. 1, 2014 and Sept. 30, 2015.) With 83 categories in 30 fields, there is no shortage of potential nominees, but for the sake of -brevity — and sanity — Billboard takes an early look at possible contenders in the general-field categories, otherwise known as the Big Four. Nominations will be announced Dec. 7.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

From squad goals to world-tour guests, from Apple Music to MTV’s Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift never left the spotlight this year, and there’s every reason to believe that this domination will continue on Grammy night. While “Shake It Off” came out in time for the 2014 awards (nominated in three categories, it was shut out), 1989’s October 2014 release qualifies the 5.2 million-seller as practically a lock for an album of the year slot.

The other surest nomination bets come from rap and R&B: Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly was 2015’s most acclaimed and most accomplished hip-hop project; The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness spun off two No. 1 singles (“The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face”) and marked the real arrival of a star who has been rising for a few years.

From the rock world, Alabama Shakes took a major step forward with Sound + Color, but the omnipresent Dave Grohl and his band Foo Fighters, having staked out a spot as the most visible carriers of the rock’n’roll flame, would seem to be in pole position with the Sonic Highways album. (Not to discount Swift’s massive year, but it’s worth noting that three of the last five album of the year honors went to alternative rock acts Beck, Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire.)

Both James Taylor and Don Henley had their highest-charting albums ever on the Billboard 200 in 2015: Taylor’s Before This World became his first No. 1, and Henley’s Cass County started at No. 3. But it has been almost a decade — all the way back to Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard in 2006 — since a baby-boomer icon has made the cut in this category. Don’t count outCarly Rae Jepsen as a surprise contender for her bubble-gum gem Emotion, or D’Angelo & The Vanguard for the neo-soul singer’s long-awaited December 2014Black Messiah. And the phenomenon surrounding Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical Hamilton could give its cast album a nomination.

Taylor Swift’s ‘1989 World Tour’: $173 Million Grossed So Far

Taylor Swift and Keith Urban perform during The 1989 World Tour live in Toronto at Rogers Center on October 2, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. George Pimentel/LP5/Getty Images for TAS

RECORD OF THE YEAR 

It’s tough to say which of Swift’s singles will be the pick here, though there’s little doubt that one of them will be. “Blank Space” probably has a slight edge over “Bad Blood” — unless the latter’s epic all-star video and remix featuring Lamar sways a few voters. But T-Swizz may not be the favorite in this category, since “Uptown Funk!” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars was truly ubiquitous in 2015, spending 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with a video viewed more than 1 billion times. From pro football games to bar mitzvah parties, Ronson’s throwback to Gap Band/The Time/Earth, Wind & Fire-style R&B was bumping everywhere you turned.

Ed Sheeran is developing into the kind of act that becomes a Grammy dynasty, and though he has no new eligible album this year, “Thinking Out Loud” is likely to pick up some nominations. The Weeknd also looks like an easy call for this list: “Can’t Feel My Face” had the kind of summer impact that made it a record of the season, if not the year, while “Earned It,” from the Fifty Shades of Greysoundtrack, has its own following. (If “Blank Space” and “Can’t Feel My Face” both end up on the short list, it will put the production team of Max Martin and Shellback up against themselves.)

On the straight-up pop side, Jason Derulo’s time may have come with “Want to Want Me,” along with OMI’s sweet “Cheerleader” and Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance.” Out of Nashville, Little Big Town’s spare, haunting “Girl Crush” (with a gorgeous lead vocal by Karen Fairchild) and Sam Hunt’s rhythm-driven “Take Your Time” are also in the running. And the unlikely pairing of Justin Bieber with EDM superduo Jack U (Skrillex and Diplo) produced top 10 hit “Where Are U Now,” the most emotional, mature song any of them have yet created.

SONG OF THE YEAR 

Here’s your annual reminder: Song of the year is an award given to songwriters. In theory, it should be a very different honor from record of the year, which is given to performers and producers, but that’s not always the case — last year, four out of five nominees overlapped. Expect more or less the same this time around: Look for “Blank Space,” “Uptown Funk!” and one of The Weeknd’s songs to get tapped. “Thinking Out Loud” would mark Sheeran’s return to this category, following his nod for “The A Team” in 2013.

For its clever, slightly edgy lyrics, “Girl Crush” may be a better bet here than for record of the year. Also in contention: John Legend and Common’s Oscar-winning collaboration “Glory,” which has the kind of powerful emotion and big statement that plays well for this award. Outside shots for newcomers with positive messages: Andy Grammer’s “Honey, I’m Good” and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” And the Lady Gaga and Diane Warren-penned “Til It Happens to You” also has been getting late buzz.

Since moving up Eminem and Kanye West to this level a few years back, song of the year hasn’t made much space for hip-hop (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” is the only rap nominee in the past three years), but if anything might catch voters’ attention, it could be “FourFiveSeconds,” an efficient means of recognizing the cross-genre appeal of West’s Rihanna and McCartney collaboration, Lamar’s “Alright” or Furious 7’s “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth.

Billboard Cover: Lady Gaga Gets Personal About Saving Troubled Teens — ‘I’ve Suffered Through Depression and Anxiety My Whole Life’

Elton John and Lady Gaga photographed on April 17, 2015 at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. Paola Kudacki

BEST NEW ARTIST

Historically the most perverse Grammy category, best new artist is often the toughest to predict, especially in the absence of a breakout blue-eyed-soul British singer from England, the favorite combination in recent years (Amy Winehouse,Adele, Sam Smith). Though “All About That Bass” was up for record and song of the year in 2014, Meghan Trainor herself wasn’t eligible because her album wasn’t released before the deadline; with Title hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200, now it’s her turn. Hozier has a similarly delayed opportunity here — his self-titled debut came out in October 2014. Hunt shook up country music by adding R&B flavor to the genre; his Montevallo album spun off three No. 1s on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

The old-school R&B of Leon Bridges could be a stand-in for the academy’s Brit-soul sweet spot, and Tori Kelly hit big with Unbreakable Smile and some very memorable TV appearances. Walk the Moon and Twenty One Pilots both connected in 2015 but may have too much history to feel like “new artists.” (Talking Is Hard is Walk the Moon’s third album.) Elle King had a smash with “Ex’s and Oh’s,” Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats’ debut broke through thanks to the gospel-soul revivalists’ barn-burning performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and young duo Maddie & Tae hit with “Girl in a Country Song,” a smart and timely retort to the genre’s pervasive “bro country” clichés.

 

Who Are the Likely Big Four Grammy Contenders? A Quick Look

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Alabama Shakes, Sound + Color
D’Angelo & The Vanguard, Black Messiah
Foo Fighters, Sonic Highways
Hamilton Cast, Original Broadway Cast Recording
Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Taylor Swift, 1989
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness,
RECORD OF THE YEAR 

“Blank Space,” Taylor Swift
“Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd
“Cheerleader,” OMI
“Girl Crush,” Little Big Town
“Shut Up And Dance,” Walk the Moon
“Take Your Time,” Sam Hunt
“Thinking Out Loud,” Ed Sheeran
“Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson Feat. Bruno Mars
“Want to Want Me,” Jason Derulo
“Where Are U Now,” Justin Bieber with Skrillex and Diplo

SONG OF THE YEAR 

“Blank Space”
“Fight Song”
“FourFiveSeconds”
“Girl Crush”
“Glory”
“Honey, I’m Good”
“Thinking Out Loud”
“Til It Happpens To You”
“Uptown Funk”

BEST NEW ARTIST

Leon Bridges
Hozier
​Sam Hunt
Tori Kelly
Elle King
Maddie & Tae
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Meghan Trainor

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