It’s becoming a familiar setup: the biggest Grammy Award battle coming down to a face-off between a revered British pop star and R&B/hip-hop royalty. In 2016, those spots were filled by Adele and Beyoncé, ending with the former taking album of the year for 25 and giving a tearfully apologetic acceptance speech in which she said what plenty of Grammy watchers were thinking: that Queen Bey’s politically charged Lemonade, a “monumental,” “soul-baring” and “empowering” statement, deserved the win.
This year, a similar showdown looks likely for album, record and song of the year. In one corner there’s Ed Sheeran, an established Grammy favorite who in 2017 became the first artist ever to have two singles simultaneously debut in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. In the other: Kendrick Lamar, whose DAMN. is the most acclaimed album of 2017, and who is widely considered music’s leading voice in our current, contentious sociopolitical climate.
The Sheeran-Lamar subplot may dominate the 60th edition of the Grammys, but it’s not the only one. This year saw Harry Styles, Miley Cyrus and Kesha all breaking away from their teen-pop images with grown-up, well-received albums; JAY-Z and Lady Gaga tackling personal themes; and a new generation of rappers -- Migos, Rae Sremmurd and Lil Uzi Vert among them -- signaling the next stage of hip-hop’s evolution. Looking across the Big Four categories for the 2017 awards reveals a year full of surprises, disappointments and new beginnings.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Sheeran has racked up nominations numbering in the double digits (and in 2016 won song of the year for “Thinking Out Loud”). Lamar has more trophies to his name (seven to Sheeran’s two), but none in the general categories. Regardless, Sheeran’s Divide and Lamar’s DAMN. should be locks for nominations. Joining those likely frontrunners, Lorde’s Melodrama is a solid bet: Though her follow-up to 2013’s Pure Heroine came up a little short commercially, it was considered a daring, winning step forward after her rookie success. JAY-Z’s 4:44 -- a thoughtful, confessional album from a true icon -- looks like it could nab him long overdue recognition in a category in which he has never been nominated (provided the album’s exclusive TIDAL release didn’t limit its audience too much).
Don’t discount the influence of two of the year’s most powerful artist narratives. Gaga’s intimate Joanne met lukewarm reviews, but it has Mark Ronson’s imprimatur and caps off a year when Gaga won plenty of hearts with a triumphant Super Bowl performance, her revelation of her chronic battle with fibromyalgia and the release of her well-received Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two. And with We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest offered a stunning, unexpected comeback recorded with Phife Dawg before his death in 2016 -- and, as Q-Tip and crew announced, their final project.
Elsewhere, Harry Styles, inspired by classic rock from Bowie to Badfinger, was a remarkable transformation for the former One Direction-er. The Bruno Mars juggernaut could well roll on with 24K Magic, as could The Weeknd with Starboy. Miranda Lambert’s powerful double album, The Weight of These Wings, was arguably Nashville’s strongest offering this year. Though Metallica has never been nominated in a general category, its Hardwired... To Self-Destruct was widely seen as a welcome return to form. Among rap’s contenders, Logic’s Everybody and Big Sean’s I Decided were big hits that earned critical notice. As to who might fill the unexpected outsider slot Sturgill Simpson occupied in 2017, Americana favorite Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound (the rare indie release to hit No. 1 on the country albums chart) and Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy garnered sufficient support to make both long-shot contenders.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
With nearly 5 billion streams and 4 billion video views, Luis Fonsi’s "Despacito" (featuring Daddy Yankee and, on the remix, Justin Bieber) was the year’s biggest sensation. Honoring the first Spanish-language song since “Macarena” to top the Hot 100 -- which went on to tie Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” for most weeks ever at No. 1 on the chart -- would be an ideal opportunity for The Recording Academy to recognize Latin music’s ever-increasing impact on the mainstream. Among the year’s other chart-toppers, Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Lamar’s “Humble” seem like shoo-ins. At least one of Mars’ two hits, “That’s What I Like” and “24K Magic,” should earn a spot. Styles’ soaring “Sign of the Times” could earn recognition as a strong debut single. And among Nashville voters, Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” -- which topped the Hot Country Songs chart for a record-shattering 34 weeks (and crossed over to the Hot 100’s top 10) -- should get the biggest push in this category.
From there, the year’s biggest singles covered a wide range of styles. The massive success of Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” and Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” made next-gen Atlanta rap impossible to ignore. “Malibu” epitomized Miley Cyrus’ ’70s Southern California reboot, and The Weeknd delivered two strong tracks in “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming.” The unlikely (but highly successful) combination of The Chainsmokers and Coldplay for “Something Just Like This” ticks a lot of boxes for voters, while Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” could represent for modern rock. And though “Look What You Made Me Do” was polarizing, never underestimate the power of Taylor Swift -- did any other song generate more debate this year?
SONG OF THE YEAR
Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (written with a team including producer Steve Mac) and Lamar’s “Humble” (credited to Lamar and Mike WiLL Made-It) will likely face off again for the top songwriting honor, and many other record of the year competitors could join them: Styles and a team led by producer Jeff Bhasker for “Sign of the Times”; Mars and crew (including production teams Shampoo Press & Curl and The Stereotypes) for “That’s What I Like” or “24K Magic”; Cyrus and collaborator Oren Yoel for “Malibu”; and Hunt alongside Zach Crowell, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne for “Body Like a Back Road.”
That cohort’s strongest competition might come from songs with timely (or timeless) messages. Gaga’s raw vulnerability on “Million Reasons” -- written with Hillary Lindsey and Ronson, and roundly considered the most solid offering on Joanne -- makes it her best chance at a major nomination. Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” written with Arjun Ivatury and featured vocalists Alessia Cara and Khalid, was an ambitious commentary on suicide prevention that has peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100.
Other new artists with chances for a nod: James Arthur, whose “Say You Won’t Let Go” (by Arthur, Neil Ormandy and Steve Solomon) was the year’s breakout low-key ballad, and Julia Michaels, whose “Issues,” written with Justin Tranter and producers Benny Blanco and Stargate, introduced her as a major new voice. And yet again, don’t count out Swift -- this time for “Better Man,” a song she wrote alone (a possible plus to some authenticity-seeking voters) and then handed off to her friends in Little Big Town.
BEST NEW ARTIST
Without an undeniable breakout star (like Chance the Rapper last year), this is the toughest of the Big Four to call, but plenty of acts make strong cases for nomination. Michaels seems like a safe bet: Her history of writing hits for Bieber, Selena Gomez and Gwen Stefani before recording on her own solidifies her reputation as a “real” artist. Khalid, who won best new artist at MTV’s Video Music Awards, should be a frontrunner, too: His American Teen was one of several stand-out new R&B LPs this year, along with Ctrl from SZA, another likely nominee.
In country’s corner, deep-voiced dudes Luke Combs and Kane Brown look to have the best chances. Brits James Arthur, Rag’n’Bone Man (whose “Human” was a smash outside the United States) and recent Mercury Prize winner Sampha seem solid possibilities. But the genre that had the most rookies break through in 2017 was hip-hop, from “mumble rap” stars Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert to conscious charts force Logic and unorthodox MC Post Malone. A nod to one of those mavericks would signal the academy recognizing what was truly “new” this past year.
2017 GRAMMY WINNERS
Album Of The Year:
WINNER: 25 -- Adele
Lemonade -- Beyoncé
Purpose -- Justin Bieber
Views -- Drake
A Sailor's Guide To Earth -- Sturgill Simpson
Record Of The Year:
WINNER: "Hello" -- Adele
"Formation" -- Beyoncé
"7 Years" -- Lukas Graham
"Work" -- Rihanna Featuring Drake
"Stressed Out" -- Twenty One Pilots
Song Of The Year:
WINNER: "Hello" -- Adele Adkins & Greg Kurstin, songwriters (Adele)
"Formation" -- Khalif Brown, Asheton Hogan, Beyoncé Knowles & Michael L. Williams II, songwriters (Beyoncé)
"I Took A Pill In Ibiza" -- Mike Posner, songwriter (Mike Posner)
"Love Yourself" -- Justin Bieber, Benjamin Levin & Ed Sheeran, songwriters (Justin Bieber)
"7 Years" -- Lukas Forchhammer, Stefan Forrest, Morten Pilegaard & Morten Ristorp, songwriters (Lukas Graham)
Best New Artist:
WINNER: Chance The Rapper