Grammys 2016 Preview: The Lowdown on '1989,' 'Beauty Behind The Madness' and the Acclaimed Discs Vying for Album of the Year Honors

Album of the Year, Grammys

Five unanimously acclaimed records -- eclectic ones, too -- representing rock, hip-hop, country, pop and R&B

Sound & Color
Alabama Shakes
Producers Alabama Shakes, Blake Mills
Engineer/Mixer Shawn Everett
Mastering Engineer Bob Ludwig Label ATO Records

Alabama Shakes may be perceived as an underdog in the album category, with a lower commercial profile this week on the Billboard 200 than the group's four competitors. But a prefix like "under" hardly seems relevant in the face of Brittany Howard's overpowering vocals. Those alone might not have merited the roots-leaning band a nod in what is arguably the Grammys' most prestigious category, but the group transcended genre with the sonic leap of Sound & Color. It's no wonder that Blake Mills received a nomination for producer of the year and Shawn Everett and Bob Ludwig are up for engineering. Although the album's No. 1 bow on the Billboard 200 back in April might seem like old news, the title track's use in an iPad Pro commercial helped Alabama Shakes earn extra traction on the rock and alternative songs charts. But it had already left tire tracks on the hearts of most every critic in America.

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To Pimp A Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar
?Producers Taz Arnold, Boi-1Da, Ronald Colson, Larrance Dopson, Flying Lotus, Fredrik "Tommy Black" Halldin, Knxwledge, Koz, Lovedragon, Terrace Martin, Rahki, Sounwave, Tae Beast, Thundercat, Whoarei, Pharrell Williams
Engineers/Mixers Derek "Mixedbyali" Ali, Thomas Burns, James "The White Black Man" Hunt, 9th Wonder, Matt Schaeffer
Mastering Engineer Mike Bozzi Label TDE/Aftermath/ Interscope

The socially conscious and musically daring To Pimp a Butterfly is both one of the best-reviewed and best-selling albums of 2015, something of a feat for an album dense with rap, classic soul and jazz influences. But Lamar has a history with the Grammys: He's the only repeat nominee in the album of the year category other than Taylor Swift, having gotten the nod two years ago for his debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. He leads the field this year with 11 nominations, including song of the year ("Alright") and best rap album.

Traveller
Chris Stapleton
Producers Dave Cobb, Chris Stapleton
Engineer/Mixer Vance Powell
Mastering Engineer Pete Lyman Label Mercury/Nashville

Stapleton was widely expected to get a best new artist nod, until it was revealed he was ineligible because of previous nominations for his one-time band, The Steeldrivers. What wasn't predicted -- by anybody -- was his nomination for album of the year. Following a Country Music Association Awards duet with Justin Timberlake that turned him into country's It Boy in a matter of eight galvanizing minutes, Stapleton made history by becoming the first off-the-charts artist to re-enter the Billboard 200 at No. 1, a spot he held for two weeks before being knocked out by Justin Bieber. A Nashville veteran who has written hits for Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Luke Bryan and others, the Kentucky-born singer is also nominated in all three country categories: album, song and solo performance.

1989
Taylor Swift
Producers Jack Antonoff, Nathan Chapman, Imogen Heap, Max Martin, Mattman & Robin, Ali Payami, Shellback, Taylor Swift, Ryan Tedder, Noel Zancanella
Engineers/Mixers Jack Antonoff, Mattias Bylund, Smith Carlson, Nathan Chapman, Serban Ghenea, John Hanes, Imogen Heap, Sam Holland, Michael Ilbert, Brendan Morawski, Laura Sisk, Ryan Tedder
Mastering Engineer Tom Coyne Label Big Machine Records

It's a short list of artists who have won this category more than once -- just Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and U2. Swift stands a chance to join their ranks, having previously become the youngest performer ever to win best album when Fearless took the title five years ago. But even though both albums spent 11 weeks at No. 1, Fearless was not the cultural juggernaut that 1989 has become. And Swift's bold pop gambit enjoyed near-critical consensus as well. Even with some heated competition for the season's top prizes, she still has the right to feel fearless.

Kendrick Lamar on 11 Grammy Nominations: 'I Want All of Them'

Beauty Behind The Madness
The Weeknd
Producers Dannyboystyles, Ben Diehl, Labrinth, Mano, Max Martin, Stephan Moccio, Carlo Montagnese, Ali Payami, The Pope, Jason Quenneville, Peter Svensson, Abel Tesfaye, Kanye West
Engineers/Mixers Jay Paul Bicknell, Mattias Bylund, Serban Ghenea, Noah Goldstein, John Hanes, Sam Holland, Jean Marie Horvat, Carlo Montagnese, Jason Quenneville, Dave Reitzas
Mastering Engineers Tom Coyne, Dave Kutch Label Republic Records

Pop, R&B, hip-hop, EDM and even rock fans all found a place in their collective hearts in 2015 for 25-year-old Abel Tesfaye, who passed Swift to become Billboard's top Hot 100 artist of 2015. Two of the album's songs ("The Hills" and "Can't Feel My Face") topped the chart, and "Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)" reached No. 3. The album's strong chart performance shows that the whole was just as worthy as the sum of its parts. It may be his hands, not his face, that will be numb if this and his six other nominations result in an armload of gold gramophones.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 2 issue of Billboard.

2016 Grammys

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