Like most other major 2017 media events, the Grammys are all about overall narrative, and no single category among the awards tends to dictate the overall story of the night more than album of the year.
Unlike some of the other major award shows, where winners feel largely pre-determined and upsets are rare, front-runners only lead the pack so much at the Grammys, and all nominees go into the night with at least an outside shot of going home with the hardware. So when the show is done, there’ll be five potential lead stories to headline remembrances of the proceedings.
What would it mean about the Recording Academy’s voting — and maybe about popular music in general — if each of the five nominees for the biggest category at music’s biggest night captured top honors? Let’s take our best guesses.
What a win means: Traditionalism still holds strong at the Grammys.
No matter what the year and no matter what the competition, an album like Adele‘s 25 will always be a logical choice for Grammy album of the year. A blockbuster of unprecedented proportions — and seemingly impossible scale for 2017 — from an industry-beloved artist, 25 basically checks all the boxes: It’s a pop record, but with the necessary critical signifiers (confessional songwriting, technical vocal prowess, classic-sounding production) to still curry favor with the rock crowd. It wouldn’t be the boldest choice, and many fans would argue that previous albums 19 and 21 (the latter winning the award in 2012) were more deserving, but if a sketch artist was to draw up the ideal AOTY winner for the Grammys, it’d still look a lot like 25.
What a win means: Time for a change at the Grammys (and elsewhere).
Beyonce is a three-time nominee for album of the year, previously losing the award to Taylor Swift in 2010 and (somewhat infamously) Beck in 2015. Her case for it this year may be her strongest yet: Having settled into the role of critical darling as well as world-conquering pop star with he surprise self-titled record, she released Lemonade last year to her most unanimous acclaim to date, and awesome sales numbers to boot.
Those numbers don’t come anywhere near that of 25, mind you, but while Adele is the poster girl for traditional Grammy success, Beyonce is the face of Grammy progressivism: Lemonade is the most explicitly message-driven of the AOTY nominees, and arguably the most sonically adventurous as well. A vote for Queen Bey will be a vote for modernization at the Grammys — and perhaps a vote for greater activism in general, as some insiders have speculated that anti-Trump sentiment will spur the Academy to lean towards Lemonade for political reasons.
Justin Bieber, Purpose
What a win means: Blockbuster pop is the new blockbuster rock at the Grammys.
Despite having previously won the award in 2010 for Fearless, Taylor Swift’s album of the year victory with 1989 at the ’16 Grammys came as something of a surprise to some. Despite the prestige and the continually staggering sales, 1989 was, at its core, a very mainstream pop record. Such records haven’t often fared well in 21st century album of the year voting — artists with major commercial success have had better AOTY odds if they come from the rock world, like Santana, U2 or Mumford and Sons.
But as much of a sea change as 1989′s win might’ve portended, it’d be nothing compared to the implications of a Purpose victory. While Swift was an industry darling almost instantly, Justin Bieber would’ve been considered virtual anathema to the Grammys’ major categories as recently as an album ago, as his music was largely dismissed as disposable teen pop and his troublemaking public persona earned him little adult respectability. But Purpose had songs strong enough to carry a redemption story — and to place him back at top 40’s center, with a trio of Hot 100-toppers that forced the grown-ups to pay attention, too. A win for Bieber one year after 1989 took top honors would cement that such pop success is now as meaningful a path to the Academy’s good graces as similar rock success was ten years ago.
What a win means: Streaming has arrived as a major Grammy factor.
Though most of the streaming-related buzz at the 2017 Grammys has been centered around physical-release-phobic artist Chance the Rapper’s multiple nominations, most notably for best new artist, the music industry’s fastest-growing revenue generator could play a part in album of the year, too. Though Drake‘s Views ultimately received a traditional release through a traditional label, ask most people what distribution service they now most associate the Toronto MC with. They’ll say Apple Music, where the artist has his own radio show, where Views premiered as an exclusive stream, and where a disproportionately large amount of its fan-listening (and equivalent sales) came through.
Views wasn’t some one-service-wonder, either: lead single “One Dance” also became the first song to reach a billion plays on Spotify in late 2016. If Drake wins — a victory that would mark something of an upset, given the artist’s lack of previous success in the major Grammy categories, and the lukewarm critical reception that Views received — it would demonstrate the growing power of these streaming services as industry influencers.
Strugill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
What a win means: Don’t count out rock at the Grammys just yet.
Though Sturgill Simpson is hardly a traditional rock representative — he came up in the industry through Nashville, and is most commonly viewed as a country artist — as a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, he’s easily the closest thing from this year’s album of the year contenders, and his Sailor’s Guide to Earth album bears a clear-enough rock influence for him to appeal to genre traditionalists. (Simpson also wrote and performed the theme to HBO’s Vinyl, as obvious an indicator of classic-rock cred as you could ask for.)
Though as a newer artist with no real history in the mainstream, his name recognition lags behind those of recent surprise AOTY winners from the rock realm (namely Beck), Simpson could rally the remaining contingent of the rock faithful (along with the country block), and perhaps benefit from vote-splitting among the major pop artists in the process. If he wins, it’ll show that despite their relatively small presence among the major nominees, rock and traditional musicianship still carry major sway among the voters, and that their overall demise at the Grammys may have been prematurely predicted.