Grammys 2016 Preview: From Tame Impala to Slipknot, an Inside Look at the Rock Acts Going for Gold
Best Rock Album
Chaos And The Calm
Label Republic Records
This soul-baring U.K. singer- songwriter may not yet be a U.S. household name, but Bay should be recognizable at the Grammys; he's known for always wearing a wide-brimmed hat over his long hair. In February, Bay took Critics' Choice plaudits at the Brit Awards (past winners: Adele, Sam Smith).Chaos and the Calm, the best-selling U.K. debut album of 2015, has been slower to catch on in the United States, peaking at No. 15 on the Billboard 200. Still, it was produced (in Nashville) by Jacquire King, who has won Grammys with Kings of Leon, Buddy Guy and Tom Waits, and Bay also has been nominated as best new artist, while his earnest, brisk "Hold Back the River" is a contender for best rock song.
Death Cab For Cutie
Label Atlantic Records
While Death Cab for Cutie earned its first Grammy nomination in 2005, those unfamiliar with the band may have wondered about its name (it's an obscure Beatles reference). A decade later, similar questions may arise over the title of its nominated album Kintsugi, a nod to the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with gold to emphasize the cracks. It's an apt image for the band's first album following the high-profile demise of the marriage of frontman Ben Gibbard to actress Zooey Deschanel. With Gibbard's typically personal lyrics joined with the smooth hands of producer Rich Costey (Franz Ferdinand), this surprisingly plush and unsurprisingly plaintive set debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200, marking Death Cab's fourth top 10 outing.
Label 300 Entertainment
Based on its chart performance alone, Highly Suspect's Mister Asylum is one of the year's big nomination surprises. The hard-hitting trio's debut album peaked in 2015 at No. 7 on Top Rock Albums but reached only No. 56 on the Billboard 200. Judging by its amps-cranked intensity, though, Mister Asylum easily shows why industry mogul Lyor Cohen signed the Brooklyn band as one of the few guitar-based acts on his 300 Entertainment label (Fetty Wap, Young Thug, Migos). Tatted-up frontman Johnny Stevens howls like Chris Cornell, while the rhythm section of twin brothers Rich and Ryan Meyers locks into a sultry swagger that recalls Queens of the Stone Age. The band is also nominated for best rock song for the churning post-breakup anthem "Lydia," which reached No. 4 on the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart.
Label Warner Bros. Records
Muse is one of the biggest rock bands in the world, but it took the English act a decade, from its formation in 1994, to crack the Billboard 200 (with Absolution hitting No. 107 in 2004). Mixing lyrics of apocalyptic politics with arena-filling prog-rock, Muse has racked up seven Grammy nominations in its 20-year career, with a 2011 win in this category for The Resistance. Muse's seventh studio album, Drones, matches the band's grandiosity with equally over-the-top production by Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who became legendary for his similarly Brobdingnagian work on Def Leppard's Hysteria. Muse's renewed emphasis on guitar, bass and drums netted the act its first-ever No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
.5: The Gray Chapter
Label Roadrunner Records
Slipknot's first album in six years, .5: The Gray Chapter, risked being overshadowed by behind-the-scenes turmoil: The set is the first from the masked metal band since the drug-related death of founding bassist Paul Gray in 2010; it's also the first without longtime drummer Joey Jordison, who left in 2013. And after the album's October 2014 release, distractions have only mounted, with guitarist Mickael Thomson suffering a stab wound to the head during a March fight with his brother. Despite all that, the album is vintage Slipknot, its pummeling catharsis garnering the group its second No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200. After 10 total Grammy nominations in 20 years (and a win for best metal performance in 2006 for "Before I Forget"), this is Slipknot's first nomination for best rock album.
Best Alternative Music Album
Sound & Color
Label ATO Records
Although 2012 debut Boys & Girls earned Alabama Shakes three Grammy nominations and gigs from Saturday Night Live to the White House, the band didn't repeat itself. Sound & Color explores a wider sonic palette, from psychedelic soul and jackhammering garage-rock to swooning acoustic balladry, and gave the band its first No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Frontwoman Brittany Howard, meanwhile, was everywhere in 2015, from joining Paul McCartney onstage at Lollapalooza to closing out the Late Show With Stephen Colbert premiere alongside other musical all-stars. With Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes is up for four Grammys, including album of the year. "Maybe it hasn't all sunk in," said Howard recently of her group's success, "or maybe I'm just in shock."
Label One Little Indian
Björk has now received 14 Grammy noms in her career but no trophies. Although Vulnicura had an inauspicious start -- her label, One Little Indian, rush-released the set after tracks were leaked online -- the album managed to debut in the top 20 of the Billboard 200, a perch Björk surpassed just twice before. The unconventional nine-song set places the singer's electro-orchestration (with co-production from up-and-comers Arca and The Haxan Cloak) over songs likely inspired by Björk's breakup with artist Matthew Barney. In a year that also brought a critically drubbed Björk career retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Vulnicura marked a triumph over adversity in more ways than one.
My Morning Jacket
Label Capitol Records
My Morning Jacket is legendary on the festival circuit, but the Louisville, Ky., band is no stranger to the award circuit either. This nomination for The Waterfall is the quintet's third overall, after nods in the same category for 2008's Evil Urges and 2011's Circuital. Singer-guitarist Jim James cut The Waterfall in Northern California's Stinson Beach ("it felt like being shoved up at the end of nature, on another planet, in a different galaxy") while recovering from both a back injury and the end of a relationship. So the final product is all the more remarkable for its seaside radiance, spiked by synths and neo-soul. Like Bjork's Vulnicura, The Waterfall leaked early ("I guess I am flattered," said James in a Reddit exchange); it still hit No. 11 on the Billboard 200, compared with No. 5 for Circuital and No. 9 for Evil Urges. A second album of material from the same sessions is planned for 2016.
Label Interscope Records
In concert, Tame Impala is a five-piece, but on record, the Australian psychedelic rock project is all Kevin Parker. Signs of Parker's shift of direction came with his work on Mark Ronson's Uptown Special album and the assertion that he has written an entire album of material for Kylie Minogue. On Currents, Parker fulfills his pop promise in full, downplaying guitars in favor of Daft Punk-worthy synth-loop excursions and moody slow-burners. Song titles "Yes I'm Changing" and "Let It Happen" are none too shy about heralding a style shift. The result: a No. 4 album on the Billboard 200. "My old self would've seen [this album] as too cheesy, too commercial, too top 40," Parker has said. "The new me just sees it as what the melody wants to do."
Wilco initially made Star Wars, its first album since 2011's The Whole Love, available for free online, with no advance notice and little promotion. The next day, the Chicago band played all 11 songs, in order, to start a triumphant hometown set headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival. The message was clear: Dismiss these shape-shifting art-rock lifers as "dad rock" at your peril. Stars Wars peaked at only No. 105 on the Billboard 200 (perhaps due, in part, to that free digital launch). But Wilco has now earned seven Grammy nominations, with two wins (including one in this category) for 2004's A Ghost Is Born. As The Force Awakens arrives in theaters, will this Star Wars bring a sequel of Grammy success to Wilco?
Best Metal Performance
August Burns Red
Label Fearless Records
In this category, Grammy voters have unwittingly set up a competition that mimics a sitcom plotline: Tongue-in-cheek satanic band Ghost is pitted against Christian metalcore act August Burns Red. (Both acts, along with fellow metal performance nominee Sevendust, are also receiving their first-ever Grammy nominations this year.) Yet the subject of this song, which peaked at No. 35 on Hot Christian Songs, is no joke: It was inspired by a friend who came out after keeping their sexuality secret for years. Guitarist Brent Rambler has said that he hopes "Identity" helps LGBT individuals feel that they're not alone.
Label Loma Vista Recordings
In a genre not usually known for its humor, the Swedish band Ghost is the most entertaining among these five nominees. The bandmates maintain anonymity behind masks, and the frontman, known as Papa Emeritus III, bears a pope's miter. Ghost's ghoulish campiness and unapologetically pop-influenced oeuvre make it a dark horse in this category, but the song enjoyed a solid chart run, where it reached No. 4 on Mainstream Rock and No. 27 on Rock Airplay. The Swedes are the only non-American contestants in the category, and if they take the prize, it will be the first time a Swedish act claimed a hard rock/heavy metal Grammy.
Lamb of God
From VII: Sturm und Drang
Label Epic Records
Lamb of God's "512" comes from the group's seventh album, VII: Sturm und Drang, which arrived in the wake of tragedy. Frontman Randy Blythe was arrested in Czech Republic in 2012 and charged with manslaughter after a fan died of a head injury sustained during a 2010 concert by the band; officials claimed Blythe pushed the fan from the stage. The singer was cleared of all charges in 2013, and the lyrics of this song, which peaked at No. 21 on Hard Rock Digital Songs, reflect the survival mentality and psychological toll of being in prison -- "512" was the number of Blythe's cell during his five-week incarceration.
From Kill the Flaw
Label 7Bros Records
While Sevendust is as much a veteran act as fellow Southerners Lamb of God -- the group celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2016 -- its mainstream profile is lower, one reason why this is the Atlanta band's first nomination. The act got an unexpectedly high-profile shout-out in 2015 during Apple's annual iOS event in San Francisco, when senior design producer Jennifer Folse declared her love for metal and Sevendust, and blasted "Thank You" for several seconds while discussing Apple TV's music capabilities. "Thank You" peaked at No. 12 on Mainstream Rock and No. 40 on Rock Airplay.
From .5: The Gray Chapter
Label Roadrunner Records
Slipknot, with its nightmarish masks and uber-aggressive style, is the only metal band to score two nominations this year (the 2006 Grammy winners are also up for best rock album). Parent album .5: The Gray Chapter arrived in the wake of turmoil for the veteran band -- bassist Paul Gray died in 2010, and drummer Joey Jordison was fired in 2013 -- but confirmed that its musical fury remains potent and unapologetic, as evidenced by the blistering "Custer" and its rabid "Cut, cut, cut me up" chorus.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 2 issue of Billboard.