The Grammys’ decision this year to expand their definition of traditional pop had a huge impact on that category. For one thing, the number of entries for best traditional pop vocal album jumped significantly, from 55 last year to 81 this year. Also, the change allowed two artists — Elvis Costello and John Legend — to receive their first nominations in the category.
The traditional pop category was introduced in 1991 largely as a way of honoring the Great American Songbook, which is usually taken to mean songs that were written prior to the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. Only one of this year’s nominees in the category, Michael Bublé‘s Love (Deluxe Edition), primarily consists of such songs.
Here’s how the Recording Academy defines the category in its current category description guide: “This category is for performances of a type and style of song that cannot properly be intermingled with present forms of pop music. This includes older forms of traditional pop such as the Great American Songbook, created by the Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the period between the ’20s and the end of World War II, as well as cabaret/musical theater style songs and previous forms of contemporary pop.”
The definition continues by spelling out the change they instituted this year: “This would also include contemporary pop songs performed in traditional pop style — the term ‘traditional’ being a reference, equally, to the style of the composition, vocal styling and the instrumental arrangement, without regard to the age of the material.”
Bottom line: New songs now qualify. With that in mind, let’s look at this year’s nominees:
Andrea Bocelli, Sì. The album consists entirely of new songs. It was Bocelli’s first album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Michael Bublé, Love (Deluxe Edition). The album is dominated by standards, but also includes three new songs, including two that Buble co-wrote.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Look Now. Costello wrote or co-wrote the entire album. The album includes three songs he co-wrote within the past 10 years with Burt Bacharach, and one song he co-wrote in the ’90s with Carole King.
John Legend, A Legendary Christmas. The album includes songs that meet the old definition of traditional pop (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song”), as well as covers of well-known R&B songs, the Peanuts classic “Christmas Time Is Here” and six new songs that Legend co-wrote.
Barbra Streisand, Walls. The album includes a new version of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which Streisand famously remade on her 1963 debut album, as well as contemporary standards such as John Lennon‘s 1971 classic “Imagine.” It also includes seven new songs, including three that Streisand co-wrote.
While Costello and Legend are first-time nominees in the traditional pop category, the other finalists are category veterans. This is Streisand’s 12th nomination in the category (a total topped only by Tony Bennett, with 16 noms in the category); Bublé’s ninth; and Bocelli’s second.
Three of this year’s nominees in the category have been under-recognized by Grammy voters, at least in recent years. Bocelli has never won a Grammy, and has notched just five nominations. Costello has won just one Grammy, for a 1998 collaboration with Bacharach. Streisand hasn’t won a Grammy in competition in 33 years, since The Broadway Album took the 1986 award for best pop vocal performance, female. (The other two nominees have been amply rewarded. Legend has won 10 Grammys since 2005; Bublé has won four since 2007.)
The traditional pop category, with 89 entries this year, is much less competitive than the best pop vocal album category, which had 215 entries this year. The nominees in that category are Beyoncé, Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift.
Traditional pop is a small world. Bublé, Bocelli and Legend all sang duets with Streisand on her 2014 album, Partners. Diana Krall, Costello’s wife, produced and played piano on Streisand’s 2009 album, Love Is the Answer. Both of those albums were nominated in this category. In addition, Krall was nominated in this category last year for Love Is Here to Stay, a collab with Bennett.
The award in this category goes to the artist, producer and engineer/mixer. David Foster has two chances to win. He produced Bublé’s album and was among the producers on Streisand’s album.
Costello has received two noms for best rock album, two for best alternative music album, one for best pop vocal album, one for best contemporary folk album and even one for best spoken word album. So how does he feel about now being nominated in the traditional pop category?
“I think all of those definitions are a little bit silly,” he says. “Sometimes you get shoved into unlikely places.”
That said, he’s having fun with it. “I’m nominated with Barbra Streisand and, I understand, the sexiest man in the world [People‘s reigning Sexiest Man Alive John Legend] and Michael Bublé and Andrea Bocelli. When I saw that list, I said, ‘Well now I’m really in show business, aren’t I?’
“Of course, it’s great fun to be in that kind of contest. It makes me feel like I’m Neil Diamond in 1973 or something and I’m in a race with John Denver and Leo Sayer. I write songs and I’m quite happy to be in that company…All of the other artists in this category are way more high-profile in terms of sales than I am.”
Costello says he didn’t know his album was entered in the traditional pop category. “I didn’t know anything about it until we got the nomination. I didn’t even know we were eligible.” The album was released Oct. 12, 2018, just 12 days into the current eligibility year.
“My phone started going around 6 a.m. [on Nov. 20, the day the nominations were announced]. By the time I got myself a cup of coffee, I had all these people saying ‘Hey congratulations.’ For what? I didn’t even know the nominations were coming out, much less that I could be in them.
“These labels are often very silly. [Even so,] You have to make some distinction between the contemporary pop releases of new artists—there are some really good new artists that have put records out—and [our albums]. It would make a very impossible comparison to take the merits of some of those records and compare them to the merits of John Legend’s record or our record or Barbra or Michael or Andrea. Our records are already pretty different from one another. If you added Billie Eilish into that race, it would be impossible. That should be in a category of the things that have dominated the charts. That’s what that’s about.”
This is Costello’s 15th Grammy nomination. That’s not a large number considering he’s been recording for 42 years. “You just have to keep working, and every once in a while you get into these horseraces.”
Costello skipped the Grammys when he was nominated for best new artist of 1978, even though he was in Los Angeles, where they were held. “I elected to go and play a country & western show at the Palomino in North Hollywood. Those sorts of things [awards shows] weren’t very real to me.”
He wound up losing to two-hit wonders A Taste of Honey, a loss that is invariably cited on lists of greatest Grammy blunders.
While Costello’s 1-13 win-loss ratio at the Grammys is lackluster, he will forever be grateful to the Grammys for one thing. “The best thing I ever got from the Grammys was not an award, but was the invitation [in 2002] to co-present an award with [Diana Krall, who would become] my wife. That’s how we really met and got to spend some time together. We had met very briefly on one occasion before that, but this was really our first date, albeit a blind date, and it was on global television presenting an award with Gwen Stefani.”
Costello hasn’t decided if he’s going to attend the Grammys on Jan. 26. “I don’t know. You’ve got to have a frock to wear and some nice shoes. Nobody asks you about the music when you turn up at those things.
“The whole thing is just like a crazy dream to me. If I get to come along, I’ll try to have fun. You always see people. I know people across so many styles of music.”