2018 Grammy Nominations Analysis: Rock Struggles to Keep Pace With Shifting Trends

Herring and Herring
Metallica

However, recent updates to the Grammy nomination process yield several encouraging developments.

The “sweeping changes” the Grammys implemented after last year’s Adele-BeyoncĂ© controversy have evidently helped push the 2018 nominees towards the current cultural zeitgeist, at least in the four major categories.

Record, album and song of the year, as well as best new artist, are more multi-cultural, youth-friendly, and decidedly hip-hop-focused than ever before. Credit the Record Academy for implementing online voting; with more young voters and touring musicians casting ballots, numerous categories avoided name-recognition popularity contests and reflected how the masses consumed music this past year. However, this progress didn't quite extend to every corner of the industry: The rock categories, perhaps unsurprisingly, aren't exactly filled with fresh blood. 

Released yesterday (Nov. 28), the nominees across the rock, metal, and alternative fields show a heavy preference for old standbys, artists who've enjoyed commercial success and Grammy recognition throughout this century. Still, the Academy isn’t totally at fault here -- the rock and alternative album nominations do, more or less, reflect the most prominent releases over the last 12 months: the likes of Metallica and Queens of the Stone Age in mainstream rock, LCD Soundsystem, Father John Misty, and Arcade Fire in mainstream indie. That rock, metal, and alternative combined to contribute just two nominees with fewer than three albums to their names (K.Flay and Kaleo) is equally telling for the industry at large.

The Biggest Snubs

Given the above, the rock world's nominees absolutely could have been more diverse, as in, anyone who isn't white and male and hasn't been releasing music for at least a decade. One could argue the most vital rock music this year was made by a number of D.I.Y.-leaning punk bands -- Priests, Downtown Boys, Charly Bliss and others -- though unfortunately, few artists from this realm exist in the mainstream music industry circles the Grammys seek to cover. Typically, artists get nominated after Grammy campaigns orchestrated by their record labels, management, and other connections; for much smaller acts, this can be a futile task, if they even bother at all.

Realistically though, there is a handful of younger, more diverse artists that could have been nominated here. Haim was nominated for best new artist in 2014, and their 2017 sophomore album Something To Tell You debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 (it's sold 48,000 copies to date according to Nielsen) and although it didn't produce a hit single, it received plenty of media attention and generated mostly positive reviews. And then there's Paramore, whose 2014 single "Ain't It Fun" won best rock song at the 2015 Grammys. Their fifth LP After Laughter failed to match the sales figures and radio success of its 2013 predecessor, though it's sold a healthy 117,000 copies (according to Nielsen) and "Hard Times" had a solid presence on alternative radio. And again, there's the critical pull -- After Laughter received glowing reviews almost universally. (One caveat with Paramore and Haim, though, is their teams could have rightfully pushed them in the pop categories, outside of rock and alternative entirely.)

Two other rock bands who commercially dominated 2017 were actually nominated under "pop," but more on that later.

K.Flay, the Only Exception

We already mentioned that only two artists with less than three albums were nominated in the rock, alternative, and metal categories -- Icelandic blues-rockers Kaleo and underground rapper-turned-rocker K.Flay, whose punchy single "Blood in the Cut" is up for best rock song. Additionally, every other act across these fields is male-fronted, save for best metal performance nominees Code Orange (co-fronted by guitarist-vocalist Reba Meyers) and K.Flay, the only solo leading woman to receive a nomination. It's been a breakthrough year for the 32-year-old artist, who reinvented herself artistically, and scored a legitimate hit at alt radio ("Blood in the Cut" peaked at No. 4 on Alternative Songs). A trip to the Grammys is a well-earned triumph. 

And Okay, Perfume Genius, Too

Though not technically nominated in any of the rock or alternative categories, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Mike Hadreas -- aka Perfume Genius -- in our rundown of well-deserved, alt-adjacent first time nominees. His experimental pop/R&B opus No Shape (released through indie rock standby Matador Records) is up for best engineered album, non classical, alongside the likes of Bruno Mars, Roger Waters, and again, K.Flay. Technically, this Grammy gets awarded to the album's engineer (for Perfume Genius, Shawn Everett, Joseph Lorge, and Patricia Sullivan are in line) but still, it's a small triumph for Grammy underdogs like Hadreas and Matador. Additionally, No Shape producer Blake Mills (who also worked with John Legend, Laura Marling and others) is up for producer of the year.

No Rock in the Big Four

Moving outside the world of avant-pop engineering, let's take a look at the big picture" For essentially the first time, Grammys' A-list categories -- album of the year, record of the year, song of the year, and best new artist -- do not feature a single rock nominee. If we really split hairs, the closest we get is Lorde, who's appeared on Billboard rock charts, and Childish Gambino, who records for the rock- and alt-centric Glassnote Records, and is the closest we have to an "upstart outsider" nom in album of the year, a role previously filled by rockers like Beck, Alabama Shakes, and Sturgill Simpson.

Imagine Dragons and Portugal. The Man Go Pop

2017 did feature a handful of massive pop hits from rock bands, like Portugal. The Man's "Feel It Still" and Imagine Dragons' "Thunder." Both tracks are indeed nominated, but for best pop duo/group performance. Additionally, Imagine Dragons' Evolve is up for best pop vocal album, alongside another band that's at least nominally rock (Coldplay) and Kesha's Rainbow, which could've been tagged "rock" if we're simply going off the sound of it.

As mentioned earlier, though, which category an artist lands in is partially up to them and their team. It appears Portugal. The Man and Imagine Dragons felt more comfortable with their largely guitar-less Top 40 hits in the pop categories, even if they might've stood a stronger chance against the rock entrants instead of "Despacito." 

Metal Surprisingly Dominant

But just when you were ready to bury the guitar forever, in comes metal with a strong showing in the rock categories -- best rock album in particular, where two of the five noms are metal with a capital "M" (Metallica and Mastodon) and two others are at least metal-influenced (Queens of the Stone Age and Nothing More). Metallica's thrash rager "Atlas, Rise!" is also up for best rock song, alongside first-time nominees Avenged Sevenfold.

It remains somewhat strange the only metal-exclusive category is a song award (best metal performance), since the genre is largely album-driven at this point. At any rate, the nominee field makes a lot more sense than years past, when it was dominated by cover songs and big names getting by on legacy. Alongside past nominees Mastodon and August Burns Red, this year's class includes a couple seasoned, well-deserved first-time nominees (Meshuggah, Body Count) alongside an encouraging nod to Code Orange's rock-solid third LP (and major label debut), Forever. The Grammys are doing their best to make us forget the year they gave this award to a Tenacious D cover of a Dio song. 

Foo Fighters, Surprisingly Not Dominant 

Through both nominations and performances, Dave Grohl has been a fixture on Grammy telecasts this century. The Foos' ninth studio album Concrete and Gold got released two weeks before the 2018 Grammys' Sept. 30 cutoff, yet surprisingly was not nominated in any album category. This has never happened to a Foos album before, if you count 2014's Sonic Highways getting nominated for best music film. Still, Grohl will get a chance to make an acceptance speech; the band's "Run" is up for best rock performance and best rock song, the latter of which was a televised category last year. 

Where's Linkin Park?

Speaking of best rock performance, this year's ranks tip their hat to a pair of (very different) deceased rock legends: Chris Cornell and Leonard Cohen. Last year's winner was David Bowie's "Blackstar." This makes us realize how surprising it is that Linkin Park and their 2017 album One More Light is not represented in any category. It would've made sense for the Grammys to salute the fallen Chester Bennington, especially since, unlike selections from Cornell and Cohen, this year's "Heavy" was a legitimate hit song. Still, it's possible the Grammys are planning to tribute Bennington with some sort of live performance, as they've done frequently in years past. 

2018 Grammy Awards