We don’t see much rock music on the Billboard Hot 100 anymore, and at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards the requisite alternative artist — Twenty One Pilots — featured exactly zero guitars and shared the stage with ASAP Rocky. But on the Grammys, rock still enjoys A-list status.
The nominees for the 2016 awards were announced today (Dec. 7) and Alabama Shakes and Courtney Barnett snagged unexpected nominations amongst the four major categories. In hoisting the former’s Sound & Color for Album of the Year and the latter for Best New Artist, the Grammys not only applauded innovative contemporary rock music, but did so in an arena where Barnett and especially Alabama Shakes stand a fighting chance to win. Arcade Fire won Album of the Year in 2011, Bon Iver won Best New Artist in 2012, and Beck controversially triumphed over Beyoncé last year. Alabama Shakes prevailing over Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar to end the evening? It’s not as unlikely as it seems.
Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color is a great record. There’s retro soul in its DNA, but Brittany Howard’s shape-shifting vocals and the band’s unexpected arrangements are alien enough to shake the revivalist tag. It cleaned up with critics and flexed on the sales side, too. The sophomore album debuted at No. 1 April 29 on the Billboard 200 with 91,000 in traditional sales, and has sold 306,000 copies to date. That success brought Alabama Shakes to the SNL this February and certainly helped bring Howard onstage with Paul McCartney at Lollapalooza. They’re not nobodies, but they make music comfortably outside of the pop songwriting game. That’s where Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and especially Beck ruffled feathers, and although 1989 and To Pimp a Butterfly appear invincible, so did Beyoncé.
For Courtney Barnett in Best New Artist, it’s more of on an uphill battle. Since Esperanza Spalding and Bon Iver’s darkhorse wins in 2011 and 2012, the prize has gone in the populist route, with Fun, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and Sam Smith beating a smattering of alt-leaning challengers — including Alabama Shakes — in the years since. That trend points towards Meghan Trainor this time around and within the rock realm, fellow nominee James Bay has enjoyed far more chart success than Barnett. But it’s a small coup that the Australian outsider was nominated in the first place. She’s a master lyricist with a penchant for knotty, subversive songs that don’t pander to trends in mainstream indie music. When we see Barnett on the Grammys’ red carpet in two months, she’ll have already won.
The nominations are less inspiring in the genre categories. Within rock, metal, and alternative music, the 2016 nominee lists are littered with familiar names, often at the expense of the deserving upsets we see in the major categories. Death Cab For Cutie’s Kintsugi and Muse’s Drones received a lukewarm critical response, yet they’re up for Best Rock Album. In Best Alternative Album, long-running road warriors like My Morning Jacket and Wilco are nominated at the expense of artists like Barnett, Sleater-Kinney, and Sufjan Stevens, whose 2015 music caused a greater buzz within the indie rock community. Do industry-spanning Grammy voters place too much emphasis on name recognition? Remember that last year, two of the five nominations for Best Metal Performance came from a Ronnie James Dio tribute album.
And how does Lana Del Rey, a critically-acclaimed artist who’s garnered real commercial success, continue to get nixed by Grammy voters? Her 2015 album Honeymoon sold over 100,000 copies in its first week and her badass video for “High By the Beach” was one of 2015’s conversation-sparking masterpieces. Her only shout out in this year’s nominees comes via the liner notes for the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness LP, which she guested on.
Through it all, let’s take a moment to bask in the glory of those Alabama Shakes and Courtney Barnett nominations. Women are frequently overlooked in rock music, despite the fact that many — if not most — of today’s most exciting acts are led by women. Seeing two of the year’s most deserving candidates get their due is especially gratifying, considering the rewards Grammy love brings. Beck’s 2015 success with rock and adult alternative radio program directors was due in large part to his Album of the Year win. Alabama Shakes and Courtney Barnett powering rock radio? Howard on a festival headlining stage because of Alabama Shakes, rather than a Paul McCartney invite? Sign us up.