Grammy Watch: Meet The Best Album Notes Nominees Who Bested J.Lo, Among Other Pop Stars

The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions Boxset
Courtesy Photo

The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions Boxset

The latest nominees, including Billboard's international correspondent Judy Cantor-Navas, have penned diverse projects on topics such as Cuban and gospel music, radio plays, folk singer Pete Seeger and Stax Records.

The new class of best album notes writers all have something in common: they toil the depths of analysis, research and history in order to create rich, cultural -- and in some cases, nearly bygone -- musical treasures.

The Recording Academy’s album (liner) notes submissions follow precise rules: original writing “must contribute serious time and effort to writing the notes, as evidence by background research, reflection, analysis and explanation of context," according to the Grammy's album notes entry requirements.

Additionally, submissions are "judged on literary excellence, originality, communicativeness and relevant exposition of recorded content.”

The 62nd Grammy awards air Jan. 26 on CBS, delivering prizes in 84 categories. Here’s a look at the Grammy nominees for best album notes:

Judy Cantor-Navas: A seasoned journalist and longtime Billboard writer, the Grammy nominee wrote extensively on The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions 5-LP and 5-CD box sets, which debuted in November of 2018. The 5-LP features 35 tracks on 180-gram audiophile vinyl in tip-on jackets anchored by a 28-page book featuring black-and-white archival photos of recording artists and liner notes that capture musician bios in English and Spanish. The 5-CD is packaged in mini-jacket replicas of the vinyl jackets accompanied by a 96-page CD booklet.

Cantor-Navas is a Cuban music specialist and co-producer of the box set by Panart Records, Cuba’s first independent label. The wide-ranging writings explore five volumes of music -- albums recorded from 1956 to 1964 in a collection of Cuban music such as big band son montuno, Afro-Cuban rumba, mambo, cha-cha-chá and country acoustic guajira music.

The notes reconstruct details of "the mostly forgotten" all-star cast of Cuban musicians on a historic night in the 1950s, the author said, adding that research involved conversations with the last surviving musicians, their heirs and sources located between Cuba, Spain the United States. The archive’s exploration and other subsequent recording sessions on Panart records include part of the re-mastered albums on Craft Recordings, emphasizing pioneering acts of descarga (improvised jam session), including pianist Julio Gutiérrez, tres player Niño Rivera, flautist José Fajardo and bassist and the legendary mambo co-creator, Israel “Cachao” López.

"It is so important that this Grammy category exists to honor the role of writers and critics," said Cantor-Navas, who dedicated the notes to the musicians so they are not forgotten. "I am thrilled to have been nominated, and more so because it will shine more light on these recordings and the incredible musicians who created them in Havana. If new generations can get to know this music and learn something about the musicians and their times, that is an award in itself."

Robert Marovich: The Gospel According to Malaco includes a book as part of an eight-CD set, which covers a 75-year period, from the post-war years to the present, according to the publisher.

Marovich’s writings on 100 recordings as part of the CD anthology looks at hit recordings in a collection of stories that include Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Rev. James Cleveland, The Gospel Keynotes, Solomon Burke, The Caravans and The Mississippi Mass Choir, among others.

Marovich's career specialties include areas that of gospel music historian, author and radio host. His Gospel Memories program airs on Chicago's 88.7 WLUW-FM and also reaches audiences through online platforms, low-power FM and terrestrial radio stations. In 2017, the program was recognized by the African American Museum of Philadelphia, among other accolades.

Shortly after receiving word of his nomination, Marovich's colleagues celebrated the recognition in spirited social media posts. It took the author back to his childhood dreams.

"As a kid, I always admired the Grammy awards," Marovich said in a Twitter post, adding, "Never thought I'd be nominated."

Brendan Greaves: As the notes writer for Pedal Steal + Four Corner, an album by Terry Allen and The Panhandle Mystery Band from the Paradise of Bachelors label in North Carolina, Greaves covers Allen’s radio plays and long-form narrative audio works, which showcase their “cinematic” songs, stories, and "country-concrète" sound collage -- all part of a deluxe gatefold edition, which includes one LP, three CDs, a DL code, and a 28-page in-depth essay.

For a limited time, the album’s book can be read for free through Paradise of Bachelors’ site. The download includes Greaves‘ essay “‘The Radio...and Real Life’: Pedal Steal, Four Corners, and Other Panhandle Mysteries of the Wind.”

From Greaves’ writings:

“Four Corners, the collection of Terry Allen’s radio plays presented herein, shares its title with a song from his first album, the conceptual masterpiece Juarez (1975). The name is a reference to the site where the state lines of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah crash in a cartographic crucifix.”

Jeff Place: A Smithsonian Folkways archivist and curator, Place’s expansive work manifested into the large-format 200-page book that's part of the collection’s six CDs, Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. Released earlier this year in what would have been Seeger's 100th birthday (May 3), the iconic folk singer/songwriter/social activist, who died in 2014 at the age of 94, led the American folk revival.

From Place’s writings:

“Pete Seeger spent his life single-mindedly fighting for social justice and humankind. For him, the seeds he left behind were ideas and songs. A voracious reader, Seeger tried to stay abreast of the major social movements of the day and was quick to publicize them if he felt they were justified."

Steve Greenberg: Founder and CEO of the New York-based S-Curve Records, the veteran music executive who earlier in his career worked at Mercury Records and served as president of Columbia Records, returns as an album notes nominee for his essay included in Stax ’68: A Memphis Story, a five-disc box set containing the a and b-sides of every release from Stax Records in 1968. It was an instrumental year as the label introduced southern and Memphis soul music. The 56-page book includes in-depth liner notes, rare photos and more than 120 tracks from soul legends such as Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, William Bell, Booker T. & The M.G.’s and Johnnie Taylor.

“I've been privileged to get to work on projects over the years which have explored the legacy of that great R&B label," said Greenberg, who has had a total of four career nominations, according to, including a previous album notes entry for his work on Otis! The Definitive (Album) in 1994. However, his first and only Grammy win to date was seven years later as producer in the best dance recording category in 2001 for Baha Men's memorable “Who Let The Dogs Out."

The Grammy-winning "Dogs" triumphed over "Blue (Da Ba Dee)," Eiffel 65, Europop (Republic/Universal Records); "Be With You," Enrique Iglesias’ self-titled album (Interscope Records), "Let's Get Loud," Jennifer Lopez, On The 6 (Work) and "Natural Blues," Moby, Play (V2 Records).

Baha Men, known for playing a modern style of Bahamian music known as “junkanoo,” went on to receive more trophies including two Billboard Music Awards in 2000 for world music artist of the year and world music album of the year. Today, Baha Men continue touring.