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Searching for a Heart of Gold: Five Records that Would Solve the Grammy's Rock Crisis

Michael Lovito

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Courtesy of Gossip Cop

Complaining about Grammy nominations is, in most cases, a waste of breath. Any serious music fan recognizes that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences tends to reward commercial success instead of artistic achievement and that the sheer volume of music released each year makes it impossible to assume that a panel of octogenarians will pick the best records of the year to give golden gramophones too.

And yet, I‰’m going to complain about the Grammys. More specifically, I‰’m going to complain about the nominations for best rock album. The Grammy‰’s definition of “rock‰” has always been malleable, but, in the past, the category could usually be trusted to produce a few nominations for old stalwarts (Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young) while throwing a bone to younger, more “relevant‰” names that toed the line between critical appreciation and mass success. It‰’s not always the most exciting selection of records, but given the proper context, it tends to be appropriate enough.

The nominations this year, however, are an absolute mess: a mix of artists who peaked five years ago or have only the most middling cultural impact. Honestly, if the following selection of records are the five best commercial rock records of the year, the genre probably isn‰’t in decline. It‰’s probably already dead.

But rather than tirelessly rant over how bad the Academy‰’s taste is, I‰’ve decided to propose five records that should have been nominated for the Best Rock Album Grammy at this year‰’s ceremony. In the interest of making (reasonably) realistic suggestions and not just listing my five favorite records of the year, I created a three step system for making the perfect, most infallible argument about an industry award show ever:

1. Figure out five broad “types‰” of albums the Academy tends to nominate

2. Talk about whatever bad record the Academy nominated and what type that record is

3. Suggest they should have nominated another record that falls into the same type but is actually good

Without further ado:

The Singer/Songwriter Album

This kind of nomination has been largely dominated by three artists: Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Sheryl Crow. In other words, old white folks who play guitar, often with a folk or country influence. 

Past Nominees include:

-Chris Isaak (Forever Blue)

-Tom Petty (Wildflowers)

-Sheryl Crow (Sheryl Crow, The Globe Sessions, C‰’mon C‰’mon)

-John Fogerty (Blue Moon Swamp, Premonition)

-Ryan Adams (Gold)

-Neil Young (Prairie Wind, Living with War, Le Noise)

-Bruce Springsteen (The Rising, Magic, Wrecking Ball)

-Jack White (Blunderbuss)

What They Nominated This Year:

James Bay ‰ÛÒ The Chaos and the Calm

Courtesy of The Beat

I don‰’t like Ed Sheeran very much but I understand his appeal: he writes “introspective‰” and “sensitive‰” music, sometimes with only the aid of an acoustic guitar, but does so with a youthful vivacity that when executed correctly lends him a sort of unexpected sex appeal. James Bay is kind of like Ed Sheeran, in that he‰’s British and young and plays guitar, but he does his best to sound old and strip himself of any sex appeal at all by writing painfully boring ballads about the vaguest relationship problems you can think of, and with an air of melodrama that a 25-year-old should be both too old and too young to take seriously. It‰’s an album full of a guy closing his eyes and singing overwrought lines about love and relationship problems and it‰’s a boring ol‰’ slog for anybody who likes their songwriters to have, I don‰’t know, a sense of character or flavor or really any kind of texture or element that isn‰’t “I mean what I‰’m singing so hard!‰Û

What They Should Have Nominated:

Craig Finn ‰ÛÒ Faith in the Future

Courtesy of If It’s Too Loud

In his main project The Hold Steady, Craig Finn sings about drug abuse and homeless teenagers and a bunch of other ostensibly tragic stuff but makes it sound like a lot of fun. Finn‰’s second solo album is a much more uneasy affair that manages to meld the personal (unrequited love on “Christine,‰” the unifying power of music on “Going to a Show‰Û) and the existential (the right wing militia imagery of “Maggie I‰’ve Been Searching for Our Son,‰” the overt 9/11 narrative of “Newmyer‰’s Roof‰Û) in a collection that covers a wide swath of the human experience. It‰’s not about aging, per se, but it is about being older, which seems like the kind of narrative Grammy voters would go for, but, alas, we get teary McLimey pants instead.

The “Rawk‰” Album

This is probably one of the more abstract trends, but albums nominated in this category can usually be described as “modern rock,‰” which is an inherently relative term, but if we want to define it, we would probably look at the modern rock charts, which are full of bands that aim for an arena rock sound but, because nobody really listens to arena rock anymore, end up borrowing heavily from alternative genres to fill everything out. This kind of nomination used to go to a lot of post-grunge bands, including Foo Fighters (I like their early stuff too, Dave Grohl superfan, but they practically invited the genre) but because of changes in taste now go to pop/rock bands who could also be loosely defined as bluesy or Southern.

Past nominees include:

-Nickelback (The Long Road)

-Foo Fighters (The Color and the Shape, There is Nothing Left to Lose*, One by One*, In Your Honor, Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace*, Wasting Light)

-Tonic (Head on Straight)

-Hoobastank (The Reason)

-Velvet Revolver (Contraband)

-Daughtry (Daughtry)

-Kings of Leon (Only by Night, Come Around Sundown, Mechanical Bull)

What They Nominated This Year:

Highly Suspect ‰ÛÒ Mister Asylum

Courtesy of Modest Panic

I had never heard of this album, or this band, until it/they were nominated for a Grammy. Some lazy research shows that the band is from Cape Cod and used to have a “reggae vibe‰” before they moved to Brooklyn, where this album, their debut, was recorded. There‰’s no easy way to transition to this so I‰’m going to come out and say it: this album is a mess, a confusing concoction of almost every song, genre, style and trope that at various points in the 21st century people may have referred to as “real‰” rock. The juxtaposition of heavily distorted guitars with the album‰’s otherwise slick production harkens back to post-grunge, as does the lead singers voice, which sounds like Chris Cornell‰’s, but stripped of its higher register and sense of real danger. There are also flecks of the not actually bluesy “blues rock‰” of bands like Band of Skulls and arena rock posturing of bands like Wolfmother, but it lacks any semblance of charisma and instead replaces it with clichÌ©d nu metal complaints (I do too many drugs! I had a tough childhood! Living in a big city‰’s hard! I have lots of loveless sex!). Some people would be inclined to call this “arena rock,‰” and they‰’re right, but it’s more arena rock in the sense that it‰’s the kind of bland yet marginally exciting rock music before the refs drop the puck in a hockey arena than the kind of music you‰’d expect to hear live, in concert at an arena, because you need more than generic jams like these to sell 20,000 tickets.

What They Should Have Nominated:

The Dead Weather ‰ÛÒ Dodge and Burn

Courtesy of Third Man Records

I shouldn‰’t have to tell you why an album featuring Jack White on drums, Alison Mosshart on vocals, Dean Fertita on guitar, and Jack Lawrence on bass should be nominated for a Grammy, but fine, if you insist: Dodge and Burn reintroduces the world to the mystique that used to define rock music and rock stars. Alison Mosshart revives the art of the front person by alternating from sounding like she‰’s minutes away from stabbing you with a broken bottle (“Let Me Through‰Û) to batting you around like a ball of yarn (“Mile Markers‰Û). Meanwhile, Jack White delivers the first song in the past four years that is most likely not about his ex-wife with “Three Dollar Hat,‰” which, in addition to his creepy as hell vocal, has an absolutely chilling bass line.

It feels like most aggressive rock music released nowadays is aggressive as a way of highlighting the songwriter‰’s cynicism or an exercise in absurd, surface level thrills. Dodge and Burn is the first rock album in a while to feel legitimately dangerous, thrilling and sexy, all at once while keeping a scrim between the band and the listener. It‰’s the kind of album that allows the listener to treat it as art if they want too, or as a big dumb rock album if they want, a versatility much too rare in these modern times.

The Alternative Music Category

There‰’s a Grammy category for Best Alternative Album who‰’s nominations tend to be as messy as the Rock Album category, featuring actual alternative rock acts while serving as a refuge for artists like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers before an electronic category was established in the past. Given the blurry line between alternative rock and most rock released post-Nirvana, artists who would be more comfortable in one category are often nominated in the other. 

Albums nominated as rock that should have been nominated as alternative include:

-Garbage (Version 2.0)

-The Killers (Hot Fuss)

-PJ Harvey (Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea)

-Wilco (Sky Blue Sky, The Whole Love)

-Muse (The 2nd Law)

What They Nominated This Year:

Death Cab for Cutie ‰ÛÒ Kintsugi

Courtesy of The Wild Honey Pie

Look, I have nothing bad to say about this album. Death Cab for Cutie have a lot of fans and were a very big band in their era, and this is a fine record that plays to their strengths (Ben Gibbard‰’s songwriting paired with clean guitars and electronically-filled out production) and very little of their weaknesses (anything that sounds like “I Will Follow You Into the Dark‰Û), and it‰’s kind of interesting to hear a band that was once described as “one guitar and whole lot of complaining‰Û grow up. But it‰’s definitely a “late career‰” record from a band that seems like they‰’ve said all they need to, really, so it doesn‰’t feel like it says much at all. It‰’s a pleasant listen, but pretending that it‰’s one of the best rock albums of the year (or a “rock‰” album in the traditional sense of the word) is like pretending that today‰’s high schoolers still watch The O.C.


What Should Have Been Nominated:

Courtney Barnett ‰ÛÒ Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtesy of Rolling Stone

If we’re being honest, this slot should have gone to Alabama Shakes‰’s fantastic Sound and Color, whose single “Don‰’t Wanna Fight‰” was nominated for both Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance. But Sound and Color was nominated for Best Alternative album, so I will give it to another deserving record. It feels silly to introduce Courtney Barnett to you because she‰’s pretty much skyrocketed to indie success (well, what passes for success in the post-Internet music industry, at least), so I‰’ll make the case for Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit a Grammy. The album is buoyed by Barnett‰’s songwriting and, more specifically, her lyrics which plumb the mundane and turn them into nuggets of fuzz pop delight. It‰’s incredibly charming and relatable in that respect, and exercises a great deal of range by featuring the one of the best pure rock singles of the year in “Pedestrian at Best‰” alongside the best “rock ballad‰” of the year with “Depreston.‰” Unlike most music, which amplifies emotions to levels that they would otherwise to inappropriate to amplify to or reveal emotions that would otherwise remain unrevealed, Barnett‰’s acts as the perfect mirror for our own uneventful, yet not entirely unpleasant, lives, and turns into something that‰’s not fist pumpingly awesome, is at the very least a whole bunch of fun.

The “Ambitious‰” Album

The rock opera is one of the most often mocked tropes of rock and roll excess but, when executed well, can represent a singular, career-defining work. In the past, the Grammys have tended to nominate commercial rock acts who release really long albums intended to pursue a central theme or story, especially if the band hasn’t been quite as adventurous in the past. 

Past nominees include:

-Green Day (American Idiot, 21st Century Breakdown)

-Red Hot Chili Peppers (Stadium Arcadium)

-Muse (The Resistance)

-Queens of the Stone Age (…Like Clockwork)

-U2 (Songs of Innocence)

What the was Nominated This Year:

Muse ‰ÛÒ Drones

Courtesy of Provolve Entertainment

Hoo boy. Steven Hyden described Raditude as the record that would “make you feel like an asshole for liking Weezer,‰” and I‰’d suggest that Drones has (or should have) a similar effect on people who like Muse. Matthew Bellamy had always flirted with silliness in the past, but albums like Origin of Symmetry, Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations got away with all the references to aliens and conspiracy theories by being the some of the best stadium rock albums of the 00s (seriously, Muse used to be so legit). Drones, on the other hand, wears its tin-foil-hat-wearing heart on its sleeve while pumping out what feel like tracks that read like facsimiles of past Muse songs. It feels like Muse is trying to make up for the more electronically focused The 2nd Law by turning the rock qualities of this record up to 11, so that means lots of guitar finger tapping, nigh-operatic wailing and really obnoxious drums all mish-mashed together. One time at summer camp we dared my friend to drink this concoction of soda with a bunch of really sugary candy‰’s mixed in, and I feel like the headache he got from that must be equitable to the headache one gets listening to this album. At least there wasn‰’t an ersatz R. Lee Ermey yelling at my friend throughout it.

What Should Have Been Nominated:

Titus Andronicus ‰ÛÒ The Most Lamentable Tragedy

Courtesy of Consequence of Sound

I‰’ve already written at length about how much I love Titus Andronicus here, but those write-ups don‰’t really say much about how great of an album The Most Lamentable Tragedy is so let me yell at you about it again: The Most Lamentable Tragedy is the best record of 2015. The fact that it manages to weave a story through 29 tracks without coming off as overstuffed, redundant or pretentious, and actually makes the story pretty clear (boy gets sad, boy gets happy, boy gets girl, girl rejects boy, boy goes insane) while still acting as a representation of Patrick Stickles‰’s bipolar disorder is already pretty astounding, but pulling of this grand story through some approachable and invigorating rock songs is what makes it a true triumph. Musically, it‰’s an inspired exploration of the band‰’s musical heritage, built on the bedrock of Titus‰’s Replacements-inspired punk rock while featuring variations of power-pop, heavy metal, arena rock, bar bands, Irish folk and, yes, even a dash of musical theater. Is my praise of this album inspired by my New Jersey bias? Maybe a little bit, but even if you don‰’t think all of this connects, you have to at least respect the big swing Titus Andronicus took with this album, or, at the very least, admit it‰’s better than Drones.

The Hard Rock/Metal Album:

Metal has a very complicated history with the Grammys that started when Jethro Tull won the inaugural award for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance for Crest of a Knave despite being neither a hard rock or heavy metal band. This lead to the creation of separate Hard Rock and Heavy Metal categories (and then merging them into one category, and the removing “of hard rock‰” from the category‰’s game) and the occasional nomination of a metal album (or at least what your dad would consider metal) in the Rock category.

Past nominees include:

-Aerosmith (Nine Lives, Just Push Play)

-Rage Against the Machine (The Battle of Los Angeles)

-Limp Bizkit (Significant Other)

-Metallica (Death Magnetic)

-AC/DC (Black Ice)

-Led Zeppelin (Celebration Day)

-Black Sabbath (13)

What They Nominated This Year:

Slipknot – .5: The Gray Chapter

Courtesy of Louder than War

I went through kind of a metalhead phase when I was younger but I would never claim to be an expert in the genre, so I apologize in advance if actual fans disagree with me. But I‰’d venture a guess that most of them agree that Slipknot is a relic of the sad era that was nu-metal, even if they may have aged a bit better than Korn or Limp Bizkit. This album was the band’s first without longtime drummer Joey Jordison, and his absence is felt by the presence of very generic metal drum beats that serve as a microcosm for the boilerplate nature of the rest of the album. When the band does branch out, it‰’s in songs like “Lech‰” which features a dark electronic atmosphere that, while making the record more textured, also make it feel even more like an artifact from 1999. Have I become the out of touch rock critic I would have hated as a teenager? Maybe, but it‰’ll take much more than a threat to my street cred to admit that this is one of the five best rock albums of the year.

What They Should Have Nominated This Year:

Torche ‰ÛÒ Restarter

Courtesy of Angry Metal Guy

Ok, ok, you caught me, this is pretty much the only metal record I listened to this year, so I kind of had to fit it in this spot. But what can I say, I find Torche‰’s oddly uplifting brand of sludge metal a blast to listen to. I mean, has there even been a more effective merging crushing riffs and poppy energy than on “Loose Men?‰” The groups devotion to feedback and vamping probably makes them more akin to bands like The Melvins or Helmet than, say, Metallica, but they represent a unique side of rock‰’s heavier stylings that I think makes them worthy of recognition.

….And just like that, I‰’ve fixed the Grammys. You can all thank me later.

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Searching for a Heart of Gold: Five Records that Would Solve the Grammy's Rock Crisis