From Beyonce’s Surprise to Thom Yorke’s BitTorrent Gamble, It’s Been a Game-Changing Grammy Year
Beyoncé to Bruce to Bono: An analysis of the dark horses and big bangs as the qualification period closes, and the competition heats up.
The 12 months covered by this year's Grammy Awards (from Oct. 1, 2013 to Sept. 30, 2014) revealed a music community that was prepared to try just about any strategy to make an album release feel like an event. Beyoncé went with the sneak attack at dawn, complete with videos for every song. U2, of course, chose the direct assault through iTunes, while Thom Yorke attempted the old double-agent maneuver, aligning with BitTorrent.
As streaming continues to surpass downloading, there's no way to guess how long it will take for the mixed results of these tactics to sort out into anything resembling a coherent battle plan. What's more interesting to consider, though, is that despite the chaos, there was still music with a real sense of zeitgeist and urgency, phenomena that felt bigger than just a chart hit. Think of "Let It Go" and the singalong screenings of Frozen or Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" (the song of the moment as Grammy ballots came due), with its irresistibly goofy call for acceptance of all women's bodies. And new artists -- both elegant (Sam Smith) and outrageous (Iggy Azalea) -- made impressions that seemed to grow as the months passed.
Country music produced some of the year's biggest sellers (Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean), while also solidifying the status of Eric Church and Miranda Lambert as A-list artists both creatively and commercially. In contrast, 2014 wasn't a banner year for hip-hop: Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP 2 probably cast the biggest shadow, other than the (sometimes controversial) breakthrough of Azalea.
The rock world saw solid releases from a slew of legends -- Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen -- while such maturing alt-rockers as Beck (Morning Phase) and Jack White (Lazaretto) proved their continuing vitality. Santana hit the top 10 with Corazon, an excursion into Latin pop featuring collaborations with Juanes, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Romeo Santos -- who had the year's best-selling Latin album with Formula, Vol. 2, and even sold out Yankee Stadium not once, but twice.
Really, though, it was the pop smashes, from Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" to "Shake It Off," Taylor Swift's declaration of independence from both her country roots and her critics, that defined 2014. Two of the most omnipresent songs of the year, Pharrell Williams' "Happy" and John Legend's "All of Me," were actually released as singles during the cycle for the 2013 awards and so are only eligible for certain trophies. The Grammy powers-that-be have ruled that live versions of both songs can be considered for record of the year: "All of Me" and "Happy" would have been slam-dunks under other circumstances, but will "All of Me (Live)" and "Happy (Live)" carry the same weight?
And there were plenty of other songs that had comparable impact, from Smith's soaring "Stay With Me" to Eminem's inevitable, stratospheric reteaming with Rihanna on "The Monster." Coldplay's Ghost Stories, perhaps overshadowed by tabloid coverage of Chris Martin's relationships, didn't turn into a blockbuster, but the single "A Sky Full of Stars" -- produced by Avicii, in a year when EDM will likely remain unrepresented in the big Grammy categories -- could factor into the awards. And if you ask pretty much anyone with a child, nothing could compete with Idina Menzel singing "Let It Go" as the year's biggest musical moment.
Meanwhile, as U2 bent over backward to slide in under the Grammy deadline with a vinyl version of Songs of Innocence, it's tough to believe that the widespread public backlash to its iTunes ploy won't ultimately cost the band.
One breakout star of recent years whose album came out too long ago is country's Luke Bryan, so his bittersweet ballad "Drink a Beer" might be the way to ease him in. It's Lambert's Platinum, though, that seemed to loom largest in the genre, pushing back defiantly against the girl-, truck- and party-centric "bro country" that took over Nashville.
The Ariana Grande/Azalea/Charli XCX axis added up to the biggest force in pop in 2014. "Fancy," "Problem" and "Bang Bang" (Grande with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj) led the sassy pop-rap charge that largely defined the sound of radio -- but will they cancel each other out as the list of nominations gets narrowed? Perry, on the other hand, had two consecutive singles fail to reach the top 10 for the first time, though her upcoming Super Bowl appearance should boost her momentum.
More than anyone else, of course, the year belonged to Beyoncé, who is already a 17-time Grammy winner. Her supersecret self-titled album (released Dec. 13, 2013), a creative triumph of both music and marketing, pushed her ever further in front of any pop challengers. With her own tour followed by the On the Run co-headlining dates with Jay Z -- and their own HBO special -- the barrage of hits was enough to (at least temporarily) silence those rumors of marital discord.
Great records also came from all kinds of directions this year: from veterans (Robert Plant's Lullaby And … The Ceaseless Roar, Rosanne Cash's The River & the Thread), from newcomers (Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Blake Mills' Heigh Ho) and from major artists still hitting their stride (The Black Keys' Turn Blue, Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence). St. Vincent kept stepping up her game, especially with the "Digital Witness" and "Birth in Reverse" one-two punch.
Finally, there was the wide range of new artists who emerged in 2014. Among Azalea, Trainor and Grande, rookies have largely controlled the singles charts for the past six months. The blue-eyed soul of Smith stands tall as the year's most accomplished new voice, but New York duo A Great Big World ("Say Something"), the sly and well-respected singer Aloe Blacc, the four South African brothers of Kongos and Magic (whose "Rude" was a No. 1 single) all had big moments. There's also 5 Seconds of Summer, a boy band that plays instruments, and Haim, a rock group that happens to be girls. It's a fittingly odd list for a frequently baffling year -- and it indicates both the challenges faced by an institution like the Grammys as well as the wide-open possibilities for music moving forward.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of Billboard.