Here we are, once again, at that time of year when attention starts to turn toward music and the impending Grammy Awards occurring next week. In previous years, we’ve tried letting the kids make predictions, looking only at new artists, and other versions of attempting to select winners. None of them have been remotely accurate.
Having come to the conclusion that those in the recording academy who cast votes for these entries are most likely certifiably insane, I want to spend my Grammy review time this year taking a more serious look at what was nominated. Many of these nominations are deserving of an award. Others, as always, are clueless and insulting.
There are 84 categories of Grammy awards and it would take more time than I have in my schedule to cover even half of those, especially when a large chunk of the awards don’t go to individual songs but entire albums of work. I’m not sure who exactly gets paid to sit around and critically listen to all that music, but it’s not me.
What I’ve done is limit myself to the single tracks nominated in the seven areas I feel most comfortable discussing. Those are:
- American Roots
- General Field
Just to be clear, “General Field” is how the academy describes that overall set of awards such as Record of the Year and Song of the Year. For those who’ve been asleep for a while, one might also note that the Recording Academy no longer separates categories by gender. There is no “best male/female vocalist” in any genre.
For most the genres, we limited our reviews to Best Solo Performance, Best Duo/Group Performance, and in some categories, Best Song. Even with those limitations, we still have a rather lengthy list. If one is bound and determined to listen to every second of every song, be prepared to spend the better part of the day with headphones stuck on your head.
As we go, clicking on the title of each song links to it on Spotify. I’ve composed all our reviewed songs in a single playlist that we’ll include at the end of the article. Any title marked with an * is nominated in more than one category.
There’s a lot to discuss and to hear, so let’s get started on this task quickly.
Pop is the broadest and most inclusive genre, encompassing most anything that one might find on the Billboard Top 100 list. Anyone who listens to an adult contemporary or top 40 radio station is likely to be familiar with these songs. Still, there are a couple of outliers that don’t quite seem to fit and seem to skew the categories. This is also a genre where songs that are public favorites don’t always win. Let’s look at the songs.
Wait, Beck’s still relevant? I honestly thought they’d disbanded or something. Apparently not. This song is evident that the group is somehow stuck in the 90s and managing through time travel to send their music into the future.The clap track on this song kills me and the pan flute is one of the most pretentious things heard in this year’s nominees. I would like to believe that most of the music-listening world has evolved beyond finding this enjoyable. Yet, would the song be here if it didn’t have fans? This is a disappointing song that time hopefully forgets quickly.
When even grade school kids know all the words to the song and can dance to it, we know the song has achieved a high level of penetration. This is a powerful and memorable performance of a song that uses Latin rhythms and tempos to capture an image of a fantasized society where everyone is beautiful and everyone knows how to tango. The Pentatonix cover of the song only helped fuel the song’s popularity. The live recording is the version nominated and well worth the listen. Just be prepared to dance wherever you are.
Be aware: This song comes with an “explicit” tag attached. This song generated plenty of controversy when it was released last year, but in an interesting and ironic turn, Grande’s feminist anthem actually mentions God more often than do the majority of the songs nominated in the Gospel/CCM category. I wish I was kidding. Ariana is riding a popularity wave and her millions of fans are very vocal in their support for the singer, especially when she broke up with her boyfriend. I might worry that the Recording Academy could come under attack is Ms. Grande doesn’t win something. Is the song any good, though? It’s listenable and its message resonates with women. Personally, I don’t think it’s her best option and the recent release of Seven Rings may prove distracting.
Everyone is so focused on “Shallow” that it is easy to overlook Gaga’s other nominated work. Joanne, which is her given name, is an acoustic song with more of a folk feel to it than what we would generally consider pop. When the strings enter about half-way through, they feel a bit forced, as though someone at the record label decided that, “Wait! We’ve not spent enough money on this song. Let’s add strings!” Gaga doesn’t need any help here. In fact, there are moments throughout the song when it feels as though she’s channeling Joan Baez. Joanne is a wonderful contrast to the heavily-produced “Shallow” and does much more to show off Gaga’s voice.
Christina Aguilera knows how to do a big, powerful anthem and this is yet another in the long list of anthems that punctuate her career. There are plenty of pro-feminist songs with overtones of the #MeToo movement nominated this year and this is the loudest, most likely to slap someone in the face of all those songs. There’s little doubt by the end of the first verse that Xtina is fed up with all the bullshit and is ready to kick some ass. Then, as she is prone to do on these big songs, she enlists some help from a friend. This time, it’s Demi Lovato who matches Christina’s level of angry quite well. The Academy should be warned: upset Christina and she just might bitch slap a presenter.
Again, here we go back to the 90s. At least this time around the song itself is a little more contemporary but the synth drums and a cappella break at the bridge are classic Backstreet maneuvers sufficient to give one whiplash from the force of the throwback. While I’m sure that those original Backstreet fans that have never been able to completely adapt and move on with their lives are excited that the boys are nominated again. Coping with the progress of time doesn’t come easily for everyone. The sound is ultimately dated and the song isn’t enough to justify a comeback from a group that most of the world didn’t miss in the first place.
Tony Bennett is 92 years old, still recording, still performing, and still being nominated for Grammy awards. In my opinion, they should give him his own category and just mail him the trophy. The man has no peers—they’re all dead. Putting him in a contest with anyone else is inherently unfair. Over the past several years, we’ve seen the crooner do duets with several people, some of which haven’t worked especially well. Diana Krall’s more mature and professionally developed voice is the best match yet. Her rich vocal tones blend nicely with Tony’s voice, even if he is starting to crack around the edges a bit too often. I wish they had done this album say ten years ago when Bennett was still able to match pitch without having to slide into every note. Even now, though, there’s no one in Tony’s league. That doesn’t mean he’ll win in such a broad category, but the man deserves a trophy.
This is classic Maroon 5 with plenty of rhythm and Adam Levine singing notes too high for human ears to hear. Every dog in the room perks up with this song comes on, though. Maroon 5 has a predictable formula for their hits and this song follows that pattern so well that if one is listening and not watching the video they might become distracted. The break with Cardi B. jolts one’s attention back to the song because her hard-hitting rap style is so diametrically opposed to the smoothness of Adam’s voice that one might think their device has jumped tracks or had an emotional breakdown. This is meant to be a song that is supportive of the women in one’s life and there’s no question that there’s an “awww” moment at the end of the video where Levine is standing with his wife and baby. Lovely picture. If one is just listening to the song, though, it comes off like most men’s response to the #MeToo movement: hollow and short of any real content.
I have a feeling that, at this point in his career, Timberlake is trying to make sure he has enough Grammy-nominated tracks to complete a “Best of …” box set. That seems to be the only reason for this song to even exist. Sure, having Chris Stapleton sing along gives Timberlake some crossover airplay, which probably adds nicely to the bank account. Musically, though, this song is nothing special compared to anything else for which Timberlake’s been nominated. In fact, I’m a little surprised this one made it onto the Grammy list at all. Halfway through the song, I left to go refill my coffee cup. I didn’t feel as though I’d missed anything when I returned.
This is the one exception I’m making to the rule about albums. The song itself isn’t nominated and the song from the album that is nominated is in the American Roots genre. More on that later. I’m including this song, though, because it adequately represents the entire album. Willie is 85 years old and one has to wonder if there’s any chance he’ll make it as long as Tony Bennett. Listening to this song, and the accompanying album, one gets the feeling that Willie doesn’t expect to make it as long as Tony Bennett. There’s a melancholy feel here, not the triumphant success that we get from Sinatra or Elvis. Willie actually makes the song feel sad, as though it’s the last song he sings before hanging up his guitar and bandana for good. My god, we hope that’s not what’s happening. I will say, he makes one feel all the feels here. Those above a certain age might want to have a tissue handy.
One sure way to feel old is to consider oneself fairly well versed in the rock music genre and then realize that one knows absolutely nothing about any of the nominees except that one was dead before the song was ever released. Ouch. I had to listen to a lot more than just the nominated songs before I felt comfortable commenting intelligently. The good news is that I came away with a couple of new bands that I really enjoy hearing. The bad news is that, once again, there a couple of nominees that cause me to question the Recording Academy’s sanity. What seems obvious is that no matter who wins there will be plenty of fans who think their favorite band was robbed, and they may very well be correct. The Academy doesn’t exactly have a strong record of “nailing it” in this category so we’ll have to see what happens.
At first listen, this appears to be another one of those rock songs with drug-induced lyrics that make absolutely no sense. That’s not necessarily unheard of in this category. There were plenty of hits in the 1970s that made no sense at all. What the song addresses, however, is the online society that reviews everything. Yes, we’re looking at you, Yelp. The lyrics are the type of statements one makes when leaving an online review. The title, “Four Out Of Five” refers to the number of stars one might leave for a product or service. If the lyrics sound like nonsense, that’s probably intentional. Most reviews are absolutely nonsense. The strong part of the song is the incredible harmonies, especially in the bridge, that remind one of the more important bands of the 70s. This is a band worth getting to know. There’s a skill level I hope we see continue.
If sentimentality counts for votes, and it often does, then this song is a sure winner. After all, who wants to deny a dead man his last award? There’s an eerie feeling, though, that sends a few shivers up my spine while listening. When the song opens with the line, “Standing beside an open grave … your life decided … “ it is difficult to not read some serious foreshadowing into it. One of a group of songs Cornell had recorded but not released prior to his death in 2017, one might consider us fortunate to have ever heard this song at all. Fortunately, Chris’ widow, Vicky, found the tapes and made sure they received the proper treatment. We are fortunate to hear Cornell’s soaring vocals one more time. This song is a rare and final treat. Still, it feels jarring when the song abruptly ends, like the jerk on the end of a rope. My stomach wrenched at the thought. We lose too many brilliant musicians to mental illness. Perhaps this song can be a reminder that people who appear strong often need help, too.
Gun violence gets the attention in this guitar-heavy rock tome trying to bring its cause to our attention. If the number of gun-related deaths is any indication, however, we’re not listening. Part of the problem here is that the lyrics alone are not strong enough for the song to stand out. The hard driving rhythm and screaming guitars, both of which are admittedly well done, sound like so many other angry songs of the 2000’s that it is too easy to reach over and turn down the volume. Before the lyrics have a chance to really click in one’s ears they’ve likely already decided that they’ve heard this song before and hit the “skip” button. This is the challenge with songs in support of a cause: if the music is not enough to slap one in the face repeatedly, few are likely to actually hear the words.
Nostalgia is big when creatives in a field have difficulty coming up with something original. I won’t say that is necessarily the case with the band Greta Van Fleet, but the 70s throwback is so strong they should all be wearing paisley shirts with bell bottom jeans and rope sandals. The band has a couple of other nominations so I came to like them by the time I was done. Unfortunately, this particular song picks up on the mommy issues that were so prevalent among bands in the 70s and it’s not especially attractive. “Momma” this, “Momma” that … is anyone’s mother evening listening? Juxtaposed against all the feminist-leaning songs this year, this comes across woefully out of touch and in need of therapy.
This band based on the brother/sister duo of Lzzy (no i) and Arejay Hale is at times reminiscent of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and at other time the drum-driven sound of an 80s hair band. Lzzy’s vocals are pretty impressive and at times threaten to overshadow the band. When we get close to that point, though, Arejay’s drums come bursting through and the instruments take the spotlight. I have a feeling that I would totally enjoy seeing Halestorm in concert somewhere. This is the kind of music that is best experienced live. Unfortunately, that means it doesn’t transition well to recorded play where it feels as though we’ve heard this all before. Nostalgia sounds are not always the good thing we want them to be, even when they’re done well.
This is more what I expect from a rock song in 2019. The 20-second intro is a nice hook that keeps repeating throughout and easily incites movement even when the lyrics are lacking. This is a song with which one can connect and simply enjoy for the next four minutes without feeling that they have to leave immediately to rush out and save the world. If the old American Bandstand were still around, the song would rate well for being “easy to dance to.” Bonus points: the bridge is such a throwback to The Doors but it’s well done, not heavy handed enough to make the transition back feel awkward. This is the song that left me liking the band. I can handle more of this.
Why is this band still getting nominated for Grammys? This song is so commercial that it should only be 30 seconds long. Unfortunately, the intro alone is 38 seconds and reminiscent of a whiskey ad. That whiskey is cheap and tastes like the stuff dripping from underneath a 1984 Buick. The song can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. The bridge gets all soft and pretty with a Hammond organ taking off so much of the rock edge that this begins to sound like a pop song. Which direction are we going with this? I’m baffled that this is nominated for Best Rock Song. Perhaps someone at the Academy owes Tyler Joseph their life or something. Music quality is not why this song is on the list.
There are times when one can easily ignore the “explicit” tag next to a song title. Don’t make that mistake with this song. Small children do not need to be in the room when it is playing. That being said, I’m still trying to figure out what the song’s title has to do with the rest of the song. Okay, the name gets yelled out twice during the song. There’s still no obvious correlation and, if anything, the scream interrupts the flow of the music. Not that anyone is likely to mind the interruption. I’m guessing the sole purpose for this song existing is someone’s inherent need to do a bit of head banging and it delivers from the start with a 30-second intro that sends one’s neck into auto-response mode. You’re going to at least nod your head a little. I’m over the whole dual vocals an octave apart, though. That technique is SO 20 years ago. Please don’t make me yawn so hard, it hurts when my head is bobbing.
Writers Jack Antonoff and Annie Clark have created the perfect song for the media-addicted generation that cannot seem to put their phones down. St. Vincent provides the perfect voice to drive the point home. This is how rock in 2019 should sound. I had heard the full version a couple of times before and definitely agree with its nomination for Best Rock Song. However, if one really likes this song, they’ll want to listen to the piano-only version with no background vocals. St. Vincent’s voice is mesmerizing and the musicality of the composition is crystal clear. St. Vincent is one of the few rock acts I would consider paying outrageous ticket prices to see—not that I’d actually go because I’m a cheap old man on a budget—but I’d at least consider it. If the Academy would let me vote, this one would get my pick. They won’t let me vote.
Remember, those of you over the age of 50, those 70s bands that would don face paint and invoke satanic imagery that made your parents uncomfortable? Remember how we all thought we’d left that behind? Guess what, the band Ghost has brought it back with a spooky apocalyptic song threatening death and destruction at the hands, or teeth, of a massive plague of rodents. If the visuals are not enough to give one nightmares, you should probably be in therapy. Often. The strong point of this song are the incredible harmonies with bonus points for the harpsichord. We’re definitely feeling some throwback vibes here and to some extent we don’t mind all that much. Still, the constant repetition of the word “rats,” especially toward the end, is more than a touch creepy and should never be the last song one hears before going to bed in downtown New York.
Know this before I even start: it’s been 30+ years since I’ve liked anything about contemporary country music. I grew up with my parents listening to it all the time. If we were in the car, the radio was on a station such as KFDI in Wichita or KVOO in Tulsa. Both were only AM stations back then, but their reach was broad and their sound was pure country: Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. Country music sounds nothing like that now and if anyone does sound like those legends, the idiots at the Recording Academy put them down in the American Roots categories competing with Blues and Folk artists, which does no one any good. There are two bright spots among this years nominees. The rest … well, don’t expect any roses from me.
I’m still trying to figure out how it is that Loretta Lynn has a song in the Country category but Willie Nelson and John Prine get sent to the purgatory of American Roots. I’m glad she’s here, and will be more than a bit upset if she doesn’t get the award, but my expectations are low since the Recording Academy clearly doesn’t know what it’s doing with Country music. Loretta’s song feels the divide between old and new as well, not to mention the divisiveness across the country. Hers is another in the list of songs looking for hope and healing, bringing people together. She does so with a classic country sound that hides the fact she’s old enough to be the grandmother of most the other artists nominated. It is good to hear her voice again. Let’s hope people who matter pay attention.
Somewhere in Nashville, a record producer apparently decided what folks there were writing wasn’t good enough and went searching for something different. What they found were some early recordings by Elton John of songs he wrote with Bernie Taupin. The songs are some of Elton’s favorites and include hits such as Rocket Man, Honky Cat, and The Bitch Is Back. Someone handed Sir Elton a big ol’ royalty check and he gave them permission to do a compilation album, country style. Just go ahead and say yuck now. Maren Morris gets Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, from Elton’s 1972 album, Honky Chateau. Understand, back in the early 70s, recording executives didn’t know what to make of Elton so they tried, laughably, to make him country by putting fiddles, pedal steel, and mandolin in the instrumentation. The sound isn’t country, but at least they tried. Ms. Morris’ cover doesn’t even try and comes out sounding more Pop than the original. They even dropped the mandolin. This song, and the whole project, is a disaster.
Ms. Musgraves has been touted by some as the new Taylor Swift of Country music. For those too young to remember, the Pop superstar got her start in Country music before transitioning to where she belonged in the first place. Arguably, Ms. Musgraves seems to be on a similar path. If this song is any indication, she’s ready to make that crossover now. Without question, te song has a lot of appeal in both genres and Musgraves’ fan base hits that same teen female demographic as Swift’s. If it weren’t for the pedal steel in the band it would be difficult to call this Country music at all. I think this song proves she can compete in the Pop category. Her record producers might do well to help her make that jump now while there’s time. Once she turns 40 the Recording Academy may try putting her under the American Roots label as well.
Country music’s core demographic never has been an especially prosperous one. By and large, they are hard-working, blue collar men and women who often live in rural or agricentric areas and frequently struggle to make ends meet. These are the folks often referred to as “salt of the earth.” Millionaire hits those dear folks right where their heart is with themes such as the value of a “good woman,” beat up cars, and the importance of love above everything else. Chris is blessed with a strong country twang to his voice so it’s difficult to put him anywhere else even when he’s singing with Justin TImberlake. Here, there’s plenty of acoustic guitar playing rhythm under that electric lead that could stand to be turned down a touch and enough sentiment to serve as a dipping sauce at a backyard barbeque. One still gets the feeling Stapleton is trying to not sound as country as he is. Go ahead, son, pull those boots on and wear that cowboy hat proudly.
No. I never have bought into the idea of Keith Urban as Australia’s version of Country and this song is the perfect reason why. Okay, it’s nice that Nicole let’s him keep his music career as a hobby, but her Oscar and 94 other awards far outweighs his four Grammys and CMA awards. What’s important to realize is that Urban’s awards were gender-specific in years where, let’s be honest, the competition was pretty weak. This year’s nomination feels more like a courtesy nod than a serious entry. The song is far from being the strongest of the nominations and just barely has enough bent tones and hints of twang to sound remotely Country. This is middle-of-the-road pablum. The nomination pads his resumé a bit and he can go back to judging singers who are, far too often, better than him.
THIS IS NOT A COUNTRY SONG! Sure, the boys have a decent country twang to their voices but that’s not enough to get past the fact that every other element of this song is one hundred percent rock-and-roll and rightly deserves to be in that category. The hard bass line and screaming guitars are so far past the country music line as to make the vocals irrelevant. In fact, strip the song down to the lengthy instrumental break (cut way back for radio play) and this song
I’m sitting here listening, and listening, and listening, waiting for the moment this turns and decides to be a country song. That turn never happens. Instead, yet again, we have another Pop song too weak to actually make it in that category, so hey, might as well try Country. Production kills this song, over reaching from the single piano at the start to the not-so-subtle strings and background vocals on the last verse. Play this song without announcing the artist and no one is likely to put it in the country genre, which is an ongoing problem with this entire category. The song is nominated multiple times within the genre but there’s no way it’s strong enough to deserve a win.
LIttle Big Town is known for its harmonies as much as anything and those play heavily into making this song appealing, right after the fact that almost everyone can identify with the emotion of the song. Country music loves talking about love, either having it or losing it and losing it tends to create the bigger hits. This time, the group pierces the heart with lyrics one might group in with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” only slightly less heart breaking. Slightly. The lyrics are strong enough that one doesn’t really care if the verses sometimes sound a little too Pop. It’s a rare person who doesn’t understand the feeling of losing love like this. Grab a tissue and have yourself a dirty cry. You won’t be the only one.
One sees this duo listing in the nominations and has to wonder if the young Ms. Morris can come close to matching the seasoned Vince Gill. The verdict is: sort of. The harmonies between them work well enough because Vince has been down this road before, is an amazingly talented musician, and knows how to blend with just about anyone. However, when Gill takes the second verse solo, this becomes a different song. For those few seconds, the song really sounds Country and when Ms. Morris comes back in for the chorus it’s like being slapped in the face with your dad’s aftershave. The message here is similar to that of Loretta Lynn’s and is likely the reason Gill agreed to do the song. .
This song is confusing. Since when do Country songs come with a digital click track? Oh, wait, Ms. Rexha isn’t Country, is she? In fact, when one looks at the other matchups on the album on which this song appears, one sees names like Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, and 2 Chainz. Florida Georgia Line is so out of their element on this one it isn’t even funny. One has to really stretch to nominate this song in any category and I can only think that it’s nominated for Best Country Duo/Group because all the other options sucked really, really badly. The one good thing about this song is that it’s short. The impossible contrast between vocal tones only hurts for three minutes.
Meh, I guess I can let this one slide. As a composition, which is where it’s nominated, it hits the Country market with all the big issues, especially a futile love and alcoholism. One could reasonably question whether this is about an actual relationship or some poor guy’s excuse for not starting one, but that’s ultimately irrelevant. Emotion runs deep with this song and that’s what ultimately matters with a good country song. I do wish it wasn’t so damn heavy on the production. This is one of those songs that would play better stripped bare with a guitar and maybe a stand-up bass. The music should be as raw as the lyrics and the heavy-handed kitchen sink production ruins that.
Another songwriting entry, let’s count down all the country clichés the song hits in the first verse: Daddy, Granny, screen door, church, Momma, trucks, getting drunk … And that’s just the start of this song that seems to pit country veteran against the rookies. The song gets to the crux of many of Country music’s problems: living the life versus just singing the songs. Oklahoma-raised Shelton was the perfect person to voice this song. He still owns and regularly visits a home in Southwestern Oklahoma despite spending a great deal of time in LA and Nashville. Shelton also gives the song a lot of country “street cred,” which never hurts this time of year. While the song hits all the typical topics, though, it’s a bit too smooth and a bit too gentle to get a person’s attention. This easily becomes background music where the message becomes lost. A more driving tempo would make a lot of difference here.
Do not confuse this with the song of the same name performed by the Steve Miller Band. This song isn’t nearly that good. Yet another song about lost love and breaking up leaves one with the opinion that country music writers must be a lonely bunch of people. Granted, there are numerous references to horses and cowboys and barn doors and gates, all part of an extended metaphor for leaving a relationship. But once again, between Musgraves’ Pop voice and a truck load of production the song didn’t need what we end up with is a Pop song with country references. For all the songs this year about love lost, this one leaves its listener feeling lonely, and possibly in search of a new radio station.
I strongly dislike this category and remain quite upset at the Recording Academy for trying to lump traditional Blues, Folk, Bluegrass, and traditional Country all in the same bucket to compete with each other. This category is a disservice and disrespectful of all the songs nominated. They are all too different and cover too broad a spectrum of music to consider any one of them better than the other. While far from being a new category, it’s one of the most stupid moves the Recording Academy has ever made and there’s no damn good reason for it to continue. As a result, I’m a little more sympathetic toward the songs that got stuck here. They all deserve better.
This is a big, hard-driving blues anthem that is best served by a big New Orleans-style band complete with harmonica and accordion in heavy doses. Fast-tempo’d from the very start, this song doesn’t take a break or even slow down until everyone in the band has had their say. One can easily imagine that in a concert setting this is the song that sets up a 20-minute jam session with everyone in the neighborhood sitting in on the fun. Sure, there are some lyrics here, and the whole idea of telling someone to “kick rocks” is as brash and defiant as the music itself. The lyrics are almost irrelevant, though,
Over the past few years I’ve come to deeply appreciate the massive talent abiding in the body of Jon Batiste. This young man can run with the big dogs in any genre tossed at him and the fact that he’s been doing just that since he was a teenager speaks to how deeply and personally he understands music as an entity. Jazz is where he’s most at home, though, and what he does with this old standard is heart-stopping. In most every other cover of this song, especially Van Morrison’s, the dirge is treated with lush orchestration, a heavy, mournful introduction, to help set the mood. Jon doesn’t need any of that. He jumps right in with nothing but his piano, slowly adds some mournful background vocals, and eventually a single trumpet. As a result, this may be the most emotional rendition of this song yet. One probably wants a stiff drink nearby when listening to this one because it’s going to hit all the feels.
It is the fully orchestrated version of this blues piece that is nominated and it’s easy to understand why it’s nominated. The song powerfully packs a lot of emotion into 3:44. Equally as compelling is the stripped-back “acoustic” (not really) version. Here, East’s heartfelt vocals shine more than in the full version where they sometimes get overshadowed a bit. This is one of those rare songs that works well late on a Saturday night, a snifter of brandy in hand, maybe a good cigar, while contemplating all the worries of the world and deciding that none of it really matters all that much. If one can time the brandy and cigar to end at the same time as the song, you’re ready to go to bed and sleep well. A song like this is the heart and soul of blues and deserves to be in a blues-only category.
It’s not fair to Willie or anyone else that this song is included in this category. This is pure honky-tonk country, the kind of music that country music embraced until it up and decided it needed to feel more stadium worthy instead of the corner of a backstreet bar. This is what Willie does best and he does it with a touch of his trademark humor. “I don’t want to be the last man standing,” he sings, referring to the fact that all his peers are gone. Then, one can almost hear that grin spread across his face when he adds, “Well wait, maybe I do.” Unlike the severe sadness of his “My Way” cover, Willie takes his role as the oldest man on the stage with a quick tempo and a sense of humor in this song that does its best to keep listeners from feeling too down about the fact he’s the only Outlaw left standing.
This song feels older than it is. In fact, when I first heard it my instant response was to check to see who else had covered it. The answer is: no one. Womack perfectly captures the smoky tone we’ve heard previously in artists such as Bonnie Raitt. Ms. Womack’s not that little girl on the big ol’ stage anymore. She is her own defining presence and this song takes advantage of that maturity. If it has some trouble finding a radio home it might be because it could easily be dropped into just about any playlist and work, from country to blues to pop. Womack can handle the rough-edged tone and pull emotion from every note.The line “even Cinderella had to find her own way home,” resonates and I won’t be surprised if there aren’t at least a half-dozen covers this next year. I don’t see anyone topping Womack’s version any time soon, though. This is gold.
Many throughout the music world are keenly aware of how divided the United States is right now and the Grammy nominations have plenty of songs written to address that issue, offering hope, encouraging healing. At 79, Ms. Staples understands this issue better than most because she’s suffered through the racism and division at its worst. A respected member of both the Rock-and Roll and Blues Halls of Fame, Staples gives us the kind of action that invokes action. “I’m gonna build a bridge” flies directly in the face of the chants to build a wall. Mavis knows that walls are not the answer. The song is powerful, but ultimately one has to ask whether any of these songs are doing any good? Perhaps radio stations need to start putting the bulk of them on high rotation, let that message sink in a bit more.
This two-time Grammy winner is another country legend the Academy is afraid to let in the country category because he’d steal all the awards from the young folks who’ve taken over that genre. Prine flexes his country muscle with a rough-voiced song that everyone else wishes they could record but can’t. One has to have lived through some deep shit and clawed their way out to give this song the raw kick needs to resonate. That experience is obvious from the first note and is a large part of what makes this song work for him. I’m not sure anyone younger than 60 could even come close.
Having multiple nominations in the same category is not unheard of for an artist, but for the 72-year-old Prine it is an example of how flexible and varied his style is. Summer’s End is a more full-toned ballad inviting a lost love to “come on home.” Know that there’s a heart-wrenching backstory to this song that becomes more evident when one sees the video. This may be the only nominated song that hits hard at the opiate epidemic and the video gives Prine’s words extra meaning. This is John’s first original material in 13 years and there are places where his age shows, his words slurring on occasion and his voice trailing off the end of phrases. Summer’s End is a special song that deserves a lot of airplay and all the attention it can get.
R&B has long been my choice for chill. Anytime I need to calm down and get over myself, R&B is where I turn and it rarely lets me down. The very nature of the genre, however, requires it to be constantly evolving and this year we see some especially significant changes starting with The Carters releasing their first album together, bringing two powerhouse talents to bear in a field that seems ready-made for them. At the same time, there are some “old school” voices in the mix that remind us how beautiful a seasoned voice is. If the rest of the nominations get one worked up, this is where we go to settle back down.
Long As I Live is Old School R&B. Ms. Braxton’s voice has only grown more smokey and sultry with time, making her distinguishing vocals all the more appealing. If her music was your groove “way back when,” then this song is going to feel as comfortable as your favorite pair of pajamas. When the song talks about “I’ll never get old,” we feel the richness of Ms. Braxton’s voice and are thankful that she’s still recording, still performing, and likely to keep doing so for quite some time. Equally impressive, though, is the size of Ms. Braxton’s more youthful fan base, Millennials who either weren’t around or were too young to care when she took home her first Grammy. Hers is a voice one cannot help but love and this song promises there’s going to be plenty to love for a long time.
They finally did it. Jay-Z and Beyoncé brought their real-life hookup into the studio and the results were everything we hoped. Well, perhaps everything I hoped. The blending of hip hop and pop into a smooth R&B sound didn’t exactly please fans on the outer edges of the other genres. Those fans will have to get over their disappointment, though,because this album significantly changes the course of R&B in its brilliant merging of two of music’s biggest talents. Summer employs a traditional R&B band, complete with Hammond organ and a jazz flute. Carefully layered on top of that sound are Beyoncé’s smooth vocals. This song would have garnered a nomination if the accolades ended there. What puts the song over the top, though, is Jay-Z’s break that layers his contemporary sound over the old-school tracks. We may well be witnessing a historic moment for the R&B genre. Everyone else should take note.
My how Donny Hathaway’s little girl has grown! Nominated multiple times this year, Lalah makes a strong return this year with a dark, smooth sound that keeps the strong harmonies of her 90s recordings with a more contemporary instrumentation. I swear that’s a sitar I’m hearing in this song. Her voice has matured quite a bit from those early recordings and she seems ready to take her place in the current R&B market. She’s still a bit of an outlier in the genre, though, the influence of her daddy’s music still present. Y O Y isn’t edgy, which is not a bad thing but definitely separates her from the other nominees. This is a good song with a good sound, though, and Lalah makes her presence known all across the Grammys this year. It’s going to be interesting to see where she goes next.
Best Part is almost perfect. The acoustic start is one of the most beautiful openings of any song nominated this year. If only the producers would have stayed acoustic all the way through. Unfortunately, as the song goes and and gradually adds a distracting warbly synthesized sound, the whole tone becomes a meddled mess that distracts from the quality of the vocals. I looked for an acoustic version and couldn’t find one, which makes me sad. H.E.R. has a great sound and the vocals deserve a lot more attention than they are given in this recording. There’s no way for me to know whose idea the synth was, but perhaps next time they’re in the studio H.E.R. would do better to just unplug the electronics and stick with a natural sound.
PJ stands out from the other Best R&B Performance nominees in a couple of ways. First, he’s the only solo male voice in this female-dominated category. Second, First Began is the only song nominated with a tempo marking faster than snooze. Add in some soaring strings toward the end and his is a very different take on R&B from what everyone else in the category is offering. In fact, one might argue that this song might do better were it in the Traditional R&B Performance category. After all, PJ’s sound does have a little more old school swing to it. He’s not afraid to take this inherently laid-back attitude and make it move a little bit. Perhaps it says something about our collective mood that we’ve leaned so heavily into the slow songs this past year. First Began is a nice break that, if nothing else, keeps us from falling asleep in our easy chair.
A high, sustained violin line with harp and glockenspiel has one half-expecting Nat “King” Cole’s smooth vocal to gently walk into the song. Leon Bridges’ amazing tenor isn’t quite the same tone as Coles but fits this song well and defines what makes the Traditional R&B category different from the regular R&B category. One can almost feel Bridges standing on the stage of the Apollo Theater dressed in a sharp suit in front of a full orchestra. The biggest problem I have with this song is that it’s barely three minutes long. One hardly has time to settle into the soft groove before the song is over, leaving one’s ears longing for more.
Ms. LaVette’s cover of this Bob Dylan song has some challenges. First, it not only has to overcome the expectation one might have from Dylan’s recording, but Aaron Neville’s well-known cover also. Those are some mighty big musical shoes to fill and not just any voice can step there. To some degree, Ms. LaVette’s voice has a touch of that grit one hears in Dylan, though hers is one developed through years of living rather than the natural tone Dylan possesses. She’s nowhere close to being as smooth as Aaron, but she does come closer to his tempo, shortening the song considerably from Dylan’s six-minute marathon. LaVette puts a little more “mean” in her streets and more emotion in the urgency of her voice. It’s nice to get a woman’s take on this song. One might want to listen two or three times before moving on.
There’s something about starting a song whose entire focus is honesty by singing the verses in falsetto. Granted, Major’s falsetto is on point and well tuned. We don’t hear him struggling to reach the notes as is often the case with other vocalists. Still, one has to question whether the move was really in the best interest of the song. When he drops into his full voice, the song is stronger, its message more clear and earnest. In moving back and forth one gets the impression that he might be afraid of his natural voice the way someone with anorexia is afraid of eating too much. Yet, the more he makes that transition the more one wishes he’d honestly stay with his natural tone.
Who the fuck thought up this disaster on vinyl? First, covering the Bee Gees and calling is Traditional R&B is just wrong on every conceivable level. Second, even adding YEEBA’s soulful voice is not enough to yank this song out of the disco mire. No matter what one does, there’s still a mirror ball and backlight dance floor and some fool strutting around in a white suit
Made For Love – Charlie Wilson with Lalah Hathaway
R&B loves a good duet and Ms. Hathaway’s voice is a nice match for Wilson, allowing him to relax a bit so that his vocals don’t always feel quite so forced as they do when he’s in his upper register. Still, Charlie has to put a lot of effort into staying on top of the sound. I’m not suggesting anything’s going on other than Wilson’s not as young as he once was and that’s starting to show a bit. This is still a great song that I’m enjoying listening to. Added note: Charlie’s currently on tour. He’ll be at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 15. Those who have expendable cash would likely enjoy the experience. It’s nice to know that Oklahoma can produce something other than country musicians.
Come Through and Chill is one of the more contemporary sounds in the R&B categories and, like a lot of people, I’m still wondering if the original title might have been Netflix and Chill because this is exactly that kind of song. I can see the streaming service not approving of the reference, though. The instrumentation here is rather thin compared to others in the category but the touch fits the song. What doesn’t fit as well is the rapped bridge or the rather creepy idea that it takes three guys to convince someone to come over and hang out. I mean, those other two guys aren’t staying, are they? Or is Miguel only trolling for kinky mates? Not that it matters, I suppose, but it just seems a bit heavy-handed, dude.
Can an R&B song be too smooth for its own good? Feels Like Summer pushes that envelope a little harder than necessary. This is one of those songs that is so consistent in rhythm and dynamics that it can sit in the background and no one notice. Seriously, the needles on the mixing board couldn’t have moved the entire song to get a sound this consistent. I’m not saying the song is boring, mind you. Feels Like Summer is a cool song and deserves a spot on everyone’s summer playlist. We need songs like this. Do we need them winning Grammy awards, though? Probably not. Were this to become a trend, we’d all be falling asleep in places where we don’t need to be falling asleep.
Oh, wait, everything I just said about Feels Like Summer? Copy and paste that here as well. The deathblow for this song is the harp on hyper reverb. Listening to that, all brain function shuts down and one immediately enters a comatose state. This song is so smooth and so pretty that one has to focus, and focus hard, to make it all the way to the end. There’s not even enough coffee at Starbucks to help. Next time you have insomnia, give this a try; it’s safer than watching CSPAN.
Being raised in church and having played so much gospel music over the eons one might think that the Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music genre would be my favorite. It’s not. It used to be, back some 40 years ago, but I don’t even recognize this flaming pile of horse manure. Out of everything we listened to here, only two dared to mention God and only one directly referenced scripture (totally out of context). What these categories have become is little more than subpar R&B songs that were too weak to run in a regular category. These are songs designed for the megachurch, for people who want to be seen going to church but don’t want the burden of having to actually believe anything. I had to listen to two hours of hymns after I finished this category. B. B. McKinney has to be rolling in his grave.
This feel-good pseudo-Christian garbage is yet another in a too-long line of megachurch anthems that has no depth or spiritual meaning to it at all. If one is looking for any mention of God they’re not going to find it here. Why? Because God would just get in the way of You. This is a bastardization of the gospel that encourages people to focus on what they can do, not what Jesus can do through them. The line “Lay hands on your money” sent me straight to the nearest trash can so I could vomit. I’m willing to give contemporary gospel songs a little leeway, but this is so far over the line that one has to say “enough” and turn off the nonsense. I’d rather listen to Stryper.
Unlike the other songs in this category, Won’t He Do It wasn’t actually recorded for church so, in a way, it’s unfair to hold it to those standards. Won’t He Do It is from the soundtrack to the television series Greenleaf, which is all about the dark underside of a Memphis-based megachurch in trouble with the IRS, the FBI, and a whole list of other folks. One has to guess they’re not sitting in much favor with God, either. Of course, TV church is nothing like real church, even though the average megachurch does its best to present that level of production every Sunday. This song is heavily produced in a way that strips it of any form of sincerity. The R&B feel is too easily adaptable for mainstream audiences and has no real message to it. Perhaps it was popular with fans of the series, but it is not a seriously Christian song.
Never Alone – Tori Kelly with Kirk Franklin
Kirk Franklin has had a strong influence on gospel music for several years so it’s not the least bit surprising to see this song on the list of nominees simply on the power of his presence alone. While Franklin does get writing credit on the song as well, though, his actual participation is limited to about five seconds worth of an excerpt from a sermon. That’s it. Five seconds. The rest of the song is solid R&B. Ms. Kelly has a pleasant-enough voice and the song doesn’t make any critical errors. As an R&B song, it’s rather nice, though probably not a Grammy nominee. What this song is not is Gospel. Five seconds of Kirk doesn’t cut it. Insert eye roll here.
Cycles – Jonathan McReynolds with DOE
Recorded live, Cycles brings the sounds of church to the background of this song almost like orchestrated vocals. We hear the audience when the engineer decides we need to hear the audience, punctuating McReynolds’ vocals. In one sense, this song distinguishes itself within the category by actually mentioning “the devil.” Nowever, none of that does enough to keep this from sounding like the anthem for an overly-enthusiastic twelve-step group. If anything, the song is dismissive and disrespectful of mental illness, which is a problem the contemporary church has failed to address adequately. Too much of the song wastes time suggesting that one’s faith is a cure for depression. No. Do not listen to that tripe. Get yourself to a professional and get some real help. If one really needs help breaking the cycles of mental illness and destructive behavior, see a therapist.
A Great Work is the only song in the gospel category that is actually based on scripture: Philippians 1:6. The verse reads thus:
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
There is a temptation here to think, “Finally, a gospel song that dares to quote the Bible!” Unfortunately, that excitement wanes as one listens to the song and gets the impression that everyone is little more than God’s Home Improvement Project and that once he’s done with you he’s going to set you on a shelf with his other pretty little projects. The song takes the scripture completely out of context (not the first time that’s happened). I’m sure it’s another song that’s fun to perform in front of an enthusiastic audience and I know from experience how easily one can mistake the thrill of that excitement for something it absolutely is not: the presence of deity. Health and prosperity is not the gospel of Jesus and, regrettably, that’s where this song goes, right down the trash chute.
One has to be theologically brain dead to even pen the words “reckless love of God.” How is it remotely possible for God to be reckless about anything? Are we saying that our relationship with God is haphazard, accidental, and left to chance, for that’s certainly what “reckless” infers. If that’s what one believes, I would dearly love to see the scripture they interpret as supporting that theory. This is feel-good pablum that tries to make God relatable by bringing him down to a human level when there’s zero biblical authority for doing so. God cannot be reckless about anything and still be God. If one is confused about the love of God, let me suggest one take a listen to this or this or even this. God’s love is a lot of things but reckless is not on that list.
Lauren Daigle, Jason Ingram and Paul Mabury have written a very nice pop song with only the most distant of religious inferences.Unfortunately, the song doesn’t have any edge to it so to put it in the Pop category means it would be completely ignored. It’s totally inappropriate for CCM, though. Let’s stop playing with meaningless inferences that one has to struggle to understand. Gospel music needs to take to heart the words of the apostle Paul at the beginning of his letter to the Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ…” I am rapidly growing tired of repeating myself in this category.
Are megachurches doing Vegas-style production numbers now? That’s exactly what this song feels like. Drop down the mirror ball and turn on the lasers. The music itself is dance worthy and the oft-repeated line of “let him move you” is just the sort of phrase to get a pentecostal congregation on its feet. I can see this being really popular with those dear souls who show up for church on Sunday still half-lot from Saturday night. Turn up the volume and everybody bust a move. Perhaps next they’ll install a full-service bar in place of the communion table. I’m sure that will really help attendance. You do know I’m being sarcastic, right? Please nod your head in rhythm if you understand.
Another dance song? I know it has been a minute since I darkened the door of a church, but the line, “You just got away with somethin’” doesn’t seem to fly with the basic tenets of Christianity. If anything, this sounds more like someone added a few extra voices to the hook of a hip-hop song. Using the word “grace” doesn’t make the song Christian any more than cracking one egg on a sidewalk makes an omelette.
Known is a very pleasant pop love song. Sing it to your significant other on Valentine’s Day, it’s perfect for that. Actually, this cliché ridden song is more appropriate for a 14-year-old audience that still has fantasies about perfect love and hasn’t been jaded by being dumped via Facebook. What’s Christian about the song? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’m done.
Finally, and thank you for sticking in there this long, are the awards that are televised, the ones that everyone cares most about. Sure, getting any Grammy is a career booster, but getting Song of the year or Record of the year is bankable in terms of negotiating deals with record labels. It’s reasonably safe to say that all these songs have already received a great deal of airplay, have had their spot on the Billboard charts, and sold hundreds of thousands if not millions of units. Winning in one of these categories typically means another bump in sales and can help boost a winter tour. These are biggest awards on the list so let’s see what we’ve got.
I Like It – Cardi B. et, al
Cardi B has been immensely popular this year, even putting herself in the middle of some political conversations. All of her non-musical activities translates to huge sales of her songs. What’s interesting about her nomination this year is that the song isn’t an original. Instead, it’s a cover of Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 Boobaloo hit, I LIke It Like That. The original was extremely important to New York’s Latino community and the revival of the song has brought some of that excitement back, even though all the “guest” artists Cardi piles on is perhaps a bit excessive. The song is so popular that there’s even a four-second clip, and a brightly smiling Cardi, in Pepsi’s lead Superbowl ad. However, interestingly enough, it is the only nominee in the Best Record category that isn’t nominated elsewhere. That could be a sign that it doesn’t quite have what it takes to win this year.
I’m still trying to figure out how this song, released in November of 2017, qualifies for this year’s awards. The song, part of a massive undertaking by Carlile and Nashville producer Dave Cobb, was the first release from the album, By The Way, I Forgive You. The rock-country aria is dedicated to those trying desperately to survive “The Joke” of American politics. The late Paul Buckmaster provides a rich string arrangement to go with the warm piano and some pretty impressive drums. The song has been out long enough that some of its original
This has been Donald Glover’s year in a number of different ways. After premiering the song on Saturday Night Live, views for the video shot through the roof, instantly catapulting the song up the charts. Some have called the song frightening while others call it genius. The video is loaded with metaphors and symbolism related to race and gun violence in the US, making it one of the most important records to permeate American society this year. The challenge is whether the Recording Academy as a hole is ready to give the Best Record award to a rap song. Historically, the Academy has a thing for sentimental ballads that are easily remembered and sung by a large number of people. This Is America hardly fits that requirement. This one is unique to Glover and it’s difficult to image anyone else even attempting the song. It’s downfall may be the fact that it’s too unique.
Is Drake as popular as Childish Gambino? Does it really matter? Both musicians have some rabid fans but Drake hasn’t spilled over into the mainstream this past year in the way Donald Glover has and God’s Plan isn’t as powerful a song as This Is America. In fact, the song has some significant problems. Someone set the autotune on high for this one right from the start to the point it becomes annoying after about four seconds. Add in the fact that, like many of Drake’s songs, this one is repetitive and void of any kind of melody and it’s difficult for this song to grab hold outside its base audience. Old ears like mine have difficulty with songs like this, though. When I have difficulty identifying a melody my mind shuts off rather quickly. The song may win in another category but probably not this one.
No song on the list has received as much hype as has Shallow. The song from A Star Is Born has already won the Golden Globe for best song and the popularity has only grown. When Gaga called Cooper onstage to sing the song with her at a recent concert, the moment instantly went viral. That creates a problem for the Academy, though. Are they voting for the song itself or for all the public sentiment and popularity it has? To some degree, they need to consider both and no one will be terribly surprised if it wins. At the same time, though, The Joke is easily the stronger composition and this wouldn’t be the first time the Academy ignored other wins to go with a better song. This one could honestly go either way.
All The Stars – Kendrick Lamar with SZA
I’m not sure why this song was nominated. I’ve listened to it enough times to think that perhaps, just maybe, it’s SZA’s presence on the song that saved it from complete Grammy obscurity. Lamar’s parts are so heavily autotuned that one might wonder if the producer needed him in the studio at all. I’m more likely to believe that it is the song’s presence on the Black Panther soundtrack that provided the nomination for the song. Were this song to come along on its own, there’s no way it would be on this list.
Rockstar – Post Malone, 21 Savages
For old ears like mine, Post Malone’s Rockstar is difficult to hear. There are a couple of four-measure hooks that are repeated ad nauseum for a little over three and a half minutes. Add to that the fact that, at least from where I’m sitting, the song glorifies the very kind of toxic masculinity that we’re trying to remove from our society. With lyrics about “fuckin’ hoes and popin’
The Middle is a unique song in that one probably wouldn’t expect German producer Zedd to pair with a Country artist like Maren Morris. Trade rumors tell that Zedd went through twelve other people before settling on Maren. The song had a long road before its eventual release but all the careful attention to detail pays off with a song that has a light Pop feel to it that’s not too fast but not the typical ballad, either. This is an easy love song, the type of tune that might be playing on the radio when a young couple falls in love. As such, it’s well within the Academy’s standard modus operandi that the song could stand a chance of winning. However, given that it was released all the way back in January of last year and didn’t quite receive the same level of attention as The Joke, there’s some question as to whether enough Academy voters actually remember it.
In case you weren’t paying attention, Boo’d up was the romantic love song for the summer of 2018. There’s no way to count how many wedding receptions had this song on the playlist or how many relationships were brought together. The “different” song on Ella Mai’s EP Ready, even Mai wasn’t expecting the song to receive the response it has. Now she finds the easy R&B song nominated in multiple categories in addition to Song of the Year, something that hasn’t happened to a pure R&B ballad in more years than I can remember. Why the song is such a hit seems to baffle record producers but I am pretty certain it’s proof that solid
In My Blood is one of those songs made for karaoke night when you’ve had a bad day and don’t care that you can’t actually sing. Generally speaking, I doubt there’s a Millennial in the US that can’t relate to this song on one level or another. In fact, that relatability is likely why it has done so well. There are emotions and experiences here that resonate with this generation of young adults more than any other song this season. Whether the song wins or loses the Grammy, it is still likely looking at a very long life on the karaoke circuit. What better way is there to address one’s miseries than by singing them out? Songs like this don’t always hit the very tops of the charts. With so much emotion and honesty present, it’s the kind of song one remembers throughout their life.
There you have it. I’ve done all my brain will allow me to do. The entire playlist of all the songs we’ve reviewed is below. We hope this has been enjoyable.
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