Grammys 2015 Preview: The Lowdown on the Best Rock Album, Best Alternative Rock Album and Best Metal Performance Nominees

U2
Paolo Pellegrin

U2

BEST ROCK ALBUM NOMINEES: THE LOWDOWN

Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams
Producers: Ryan Adams, Mike Viola, Charlie Stavish
Engineers/Mixers: David Labrel, Charlie Stavish
Label: Blue Note Records

Ryan Adams' 14th album -- in a nearly 20-year career -- brings the prolific songwriter his fourth Grammy nod, and serves as something of a reboot. Adams took an uncharacteristic break after 2011's Ashes & Fire to produce discs for Fall Out Boy, Jenny Lewis and Ethan Johns. For his first LP through Blue Note (whose president Don Was is his friend and occasional bassist), Adams took a different approach from the alt-­country and punkier sounds of his previous efforts. Keyboardist Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers isn't the only reason this record so often recalls Petty's early-1980s work. The riffs are big enough, and the choruses more than sufficiently rousing, to fill an arena.

Morning Phase
Beck
Producer: Beck
Engineers/Mixers: David Greenbaum, Florian Lagatta, Cole Marsden, Greif Neill, Robbie Nelson, Darrell Thorp, Cassidy Turbin, Joe Visciano
Label: Capitol Records

From Odelay to Mutations, from Midnight Vultures to Sea Change, Beck's albums have long alternated between frenetic pop and mellow introspection. And even after a six-year gap between the three-time Grammy winner's last LP, the Danger Mouse-helmed Modern Guilt, and this one, the paradigm holds. Morning Phase expands on the template of 2002's soft-rocking Sea Change -- Beck calls this album a "companion piece," with towering orchestrations and bittersweet songs that recall Nick Drake and The Zombies. Morning Phase debuted at No. 3 on the March 15 Billboard 200; has sold 87,000 units, according to Nielsen Music; and earned Beck four Grammy nods -- the welcome return of an artist absent too long.

Beck's 'Morning Phase': The Billboard Cover Story

Turn Blue
The Black Keys
Producers: Danger Mouse, The Black Keys
Engineers/Mixers: Collin Dupuis, Kennie Takahashi, Geoff Neal, Bill Shibbe
Label: Nonesuch

It has been quite a trip for a pair of childhood buds from Akron, Ohio. After eight albums (two of them million sellers), six Grammy wins (and a producer of the year award for singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach), The Black Keys have kept things fresh by constantly refurbishing the blues-rock chassis at the base of their sound. On Turn Blue, the duo explored a melodic psychedelic direction, with several winking Pink Floyd references and lots of lysergic effects. And it kept the new Michael Jackson album Xscape out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 when it summited the chart dated May 31, selling 164,000 units, according to Nielsen Music.

Hypnotic Eye
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Producers: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Ryan Ulyate
Engineers/Mixers: Greg Looper, Ryan Ulyate, Josh Jove, Chase Simpson
Label: Reprise

What does the title of Tom Petty's new album refer to? "I feel like the culture in America is a bit hypnotized by the eyes they keep staring into," he told Billboard in July. "The album is really about what the eyes are feeding them and how they are reacting to it." If Petty sounds a little angry, he is -- the songs ask the question, "Why is the 'human' missing from humanity?" And the sound harks back to the urgent snap of the first two Heartbreakers LPs, released almost 40 years ago. The human part of humanity responded: Hypnotic Eye was this three-time Grammy winner's first No. 1 album, bowing with 131,000 copies the week ending Aug. 3, according to Nielsen Music.

Tom Petty on the 'Good Thing About Getting Old': 'You Know What's Worth Spending Time on and What's Not'

Songs Of Innocence
U2
Producers: Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Flood, Declan Gaffney, Ryan Tedder
Engineers/Mixers: Ben Baptie, Declan Durbridge, Tom Elmhirst, Declan Gaffney, Carl Glanville, Kennie Takahashi, Matt Wiggins
Label: Interscope

Half a billion people got Songs of Innocence instantly through iTunes, and the ensuing fuss threatened to overshadow the music itself. But dial back the tech conversation and pump up the sound of U2's 13th studio album and you'll hear some of the most adventurous music this band has made since 1991's career-reinventing Achtung Baby. U2 has won 22 Grammys, and Songs of Innocence is the work of a band that refuses to rest on its laurels.

BEST ALTERNATIVE ROCK ALBUM NOMINEES: THE LOWDOWN

This Is All Yours
Alt-J
Producer: Charlie Andrew
Engineers/Mixers: Charlie Andrew, Brett Cox
Label: Canvasback/Atlantic

This Leeds, England, trio is no stranger to awards, having won the 2012 Mercury Prize for its debut album, An Awesome Wave. Alt-J's sophomore set swerves from serene calm to intense mania, from electro burbles to Miley Cyrus samples, anchored only by Joe Newman's unmistakable voice and the band's own seemingly instinctive sense of equilibrium. Following in a bloodline that includes such legendary British eccentrics as Syd Barrett and Radiohead, Alt-J continues to honor its predecessors while doggedly forging its own path.

Op-Ed: Why U2's 'Songs of Innocence' Deserves the Rock Album Grammy

Reflektor
Arcade Fire
Producers: James Murphy, Marcus Dravs, Mark Lawson, Arcade Fire
Engineers/Mixers: Marcus Dravs, Tom Elmhirst, David Farrell, Eric Heigle, Mark Lawson, James Murphy, Korey Richey, Pascal Shefteshy, Craig Silvey, Damian Taylor
Label: Merge Records/Capitol Records

When Arcade Fire's The Suburbs beat out Eminem, Katy Perry and Ladies Gaga and Antebellum for album of the year in 2011, it was a David versus Goliath moment for the indie sector of the music business. The group has chosen to follow that peak by taking a left turn, teaming with LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy to bring a new dance groove to its music. The double CD (which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 140,000 units sold in the week ending Nov. 3, 2013, according to Nielsen Music) may have surprised fans, but it opens a new realm of possibilities for the two-time Grammy-winning band.

Melophobia
Cage the Elephant
Producer: Jay Joyce
Engineer/Mixer: Jason Hall
Label: RCA Records

"Melophobia" means fear of music, which of course is the title of a classic Talking Heads album. And while a Pixies influence is considerably more noticeable on this, the Kentucky-spawned band's third LP, there's plenty of odd angles and disorienting sounds in the music. There also are dollops of crunch and funk, gentle falsetto moments, Zappa-esque weirdness and a welcome guest spot from Kills vocalist Alison Mosshart. You never know what's coming next, and that's probably the way Cage the Elephant likes it.

Backstage With St. Vincent: New Style, New Label and a Bold New Album

St. Vincent
St. Vincent
Producer: John Congleton
Engineer: John Congleton
Label: Loma Vista Recordings/Republic

A large part of St. Vincent's allure lies in her extremes -- eyebrow-raising lines like "I prefer your love to Jesus," her ability to swerve from a keening pop melody to violent intensity, from a barbed horn riff to a psychotic guitar solo. Those extremes are in more artful and coherent display than ever on St. Vincent's fifth full-length, which is both her most accessible and most adventurous outing to date. Her first Grammy nomination caps a stunning year for St. Vincent (real name: Annie Clark) in which she performed with the surviving members of Nirvana during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, appeared on Saturday Night Live's season finale, fronted Seth Meyers' band for two nights and toured extensively behind the highest-charting album of her career, peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard 200.

Lazaretto
Jack White
Producer: Jack White
Engineers: Vance Powell, Joshua V. Smith
Label: Third Man Records/Columbia Records

The second solo album from the former White Stripes frontman is more offbeat than his last effort, 2011's Blunderbuss, which was nominated for five Grammys. But that's in keeping with White's career MO throughout his career: Keep moving and never take the easy course (to wit, the first track he unveiled from the album was an instrumental). On Lazaretto -- which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 dated June 28, 2014 -- he serves up his unique blend of Zeppelin-esque thunder, blues riffs and old-school rock swagger. But the album is seldom one thing: There are songs that merge country fiddle and funk bass, and others that revolve around piano and pedal steel. Driven by a limited-edition Ultra LP edition featuring hidden songs, Lazaretto sold 40,000 copies on vinyl in its first week -- the most since Nielsen Music began tracking sales in 1991 -- topping Billboard's Vinyl Albums chart for six weeks.

BEST METAL PERFORMANCE NOMINEES: THE LOWDOWN

"Neon Knights"
Anthrax
From: Ronnie James Dio -- This Is Your Life
Label: Rhino

Anthrax formed in 1981, just a year after this Black Sabbath song -- from the band's first album with late vocalist Ronnie James Dio -- was released. It's one of the best tracks from Dio's overstuffed canon, and Anthrax tackles it with all the reverence and abandon the song deserves, putting its own stamp on "Neon Knights" without overstepping its bounds. Of course, Anthrax has a fine legacy of its own, but here the band gets to play fanboys in supreme fashion.

Mastodon's 'Sun' Shines At No. 1 On Top Rock Albums Chart

"High Road"
Mastodon
From: Once More 'Round the Sun
Label: Reprise

This veteran Atlanta group long has been one of the most bruisingly melodic outfits on the planet, and "High Road" finds the band at full strength. Always one of the more unusual metal acts working, Mastodon combines the crunch of power metal and the intricacy of prog with an ear for hooks rarely heard in either genre.

"Heartbreaker"
Motorhead
From: Aftershock
Label: Udr

After nearly 40 years as a group, Motorhead needs no introduction nor description: The band is practically an adjective unto itself, driven by frontman Lemmy Kilmister's thundering bass and gravelly rasp and the band members' pile-driving guitars and rhythms. From Ace of Spades to Bomber to Orgasmatron to Bastards to the latest effort, there have been few drastic changes -- and none are needed. The act finally won its first Grammy in 2005, and it probably will not be the last.

Slipknot Scores Second No. 1 Album on Billboard 200 Chart

"The Negative One"
Slipknot
From: .5: The Gray Chapter
Label: Roadrunner Records

Slipknot has an impressive tally of Grammy nominations (eight, with one win). The band weathered the death of bassist Paul Gray in 2010 and the departure of original drummer Joey Jordison in 2013, and with its members moving from their 30s into their 40s, the group also has grappled with the knotty problem of how to continue putting on the physically demanding live shows for which it is renowned. But .5: The Gray Chapter showed the band still standing strong. The album was Slipknot's second No. 1 debut, selling 132,000 copies during the week ending Oct. 26, according to Nielsen Music.

"The Last In Line"
Tenacious D
From: Ronnie James Dio -- This Is Your Life
Label: Rhino

Tenacious D is by definition a comedy act -- the D even received a Grammy nomination in that category in 2005. But frontman Jack Black is undeniably a metalhead and a formidable hard-rock vocalist, and he and Kyle Gass approach their contribution to this year's tribute album to the late Ronnie James Dio -- arguably the greatest metal singer of all time -- with genuine respect. In truth, Tenacious D's cover of this song from Dio's 1984 second album has some affectionate fun with metal's conventions -- yes, that's a flute solo -- but it's no joke.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 26 issue of Billboard.

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