The Grammys are often criticized for being out of touch with what’s happening in the music industry, but you can’t say they don’t at least try: For this year’s ceremony, the Recording Academy expanded several categories from five to eight nominees and have taken steps to diversify its membership. The Academy is also constantly tinkering with categories from year to year — adding new ones or retiring old ones, combining or splitting existing ones, changing both category names and the fine print on eligibility. Still, there’s plenty room for improvement — and Billboard staffers have a few ideas about how the show can better reflect both modern listening habits and where innovation is happening in popular music. From super-practical suggestions to total pipe dreams, here’s what we’d like to see:
Best Alternative Song
The Grammy award for best alternative music album has been a nifty way to honor some left-of-center stars since its creation in 1991: The National, Vampire Weekend, St. Vincent and Wilco are all Grammy-owners because of this category. But why stop there? Compared to the other popular genres honored at the Grammys, alternative music has been represented by only one category for decades, and “alternative” is such a broad term that to try and squeeze all of alternative music into one category — often with indie rock artists that would make sense in the rock categories if their branding was a bit different — feels like a disservice to the artistic community.
There’s greater work to be done when it comes to the representation of alternative sounds and musical approaches at the Grammy Awards, but let’s start with adding an alternative song category as soon as possible. By doubling the number of categories, the Recording Academy would champion alternative music at a time in which it is as vital and diverse as ever. You’d also have some fun showdowns: Would Mitski’s searing “Nobody” take home the trophy this year? What about one of the 1975’s fantastic singles from 2018? Could a smaller act like Yves Tumor or Let’s Eat Grandma crash the party? Adding an alternative song category wouldn’t be a game-changer, but it would immediately make the Grammys more inclusive — an outcome we all know the Recording Academy would love. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
Best Breakthrough Artist
Let’s be real — “best new artist” has long since lost all meaning. Bebe Rexha, who sang the hook for two 2015 Hot 100 top ten hits, is not a new artist. Luke Combs, who had already scored two Country Airplay No. 1 hits by the time last year’s Grammy nominees were announced, is not a new artist. Chloe x Halle, who initially went viral for a Beyoncé cover they recorded in 2013, are not a new artist. And yet, the Grammys insist on having it both ways, disqualifying Kane Brown, Cardi B, Post Malone and other potential BNA nominees based on technicalities that somehow didn’t cover all these other new-not-new artists. It’s bizarre.
But good news: It’s an easy fix. Just split best new artist into two categories — one still titled best new artist, and another titled best breakthrough artist. For “best new artist,” define the parameters very strictly: Only artists who have under a certain number of officially released songs prior to this year (say, seven, so a couple singles or an EP won’t disqualify) and had never hit the top half of a Billboard chart before. For “best breakthrough artist”? Go nuts! Post Malone counts! Camila Cabello counts! Alessia Cara counts! OK, maybe not Alessia anymore, but anyone whom you could make a credible case for as a breakthrough artist for is eligible — unless they’re also eligible for “best new artist,” in which case they’re relegated to that one. More artists acknowledged, and fewer pedantic arguments about who belongs where: Everybody wins. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Best Latin Song
When the original Latin categories were redefined some years ago, they were divided by genre, with an album category for each major genre of Latin music: tropical, pop, regional Mexican and that mish-mash of alternative, urban and rock. While having the album categories is still valid, at a time when Latin singles are more prevalent than ever on the Hot 100, and when streaming accounts for more Latin revenue than any other genre, the absence of a song category in the Latin field is suddenly terribly apparent. The “Despacitos,” “Mi Gentes” and “Mayores” of the world have shown their mettle in the streaming arena; let’s allow them to compete at the Grammys as well. — LEILA COBO
Best Pop Song
The Grammys hand out songwriting awards like best rock song, best R&B song and best rap song to the best lyricists and composers in the industry. But the pop field is limited to performance and album categories, cutting down on opportunities to recognize the genre’s transcendent melodies and relatable lyrics. Sure, the all-genre song of the year award has, at times, acted as a de-facto best pop song honor. But as streaming redraws the industry’s sonic boundaries and “pop” becomes less of a catch-all label, the genre’s greatest architects deserve their own Grammy moment to better recognize the most impactful hits of the year (Max Martin has only won one songwriting Grammy, and it isn’t even for the right song) as well as the writers leading pop’s influential indie underbelly. — ERIC FRANKENBERG
Best Dancehall Album
The Grammy Award for best reggae album is usually awarded to the same musicians — Shabba Ranks, Shaggy and the beloved Marley brothers (the eldest Ziggy has the most wins the category). It also presents reggae as the sole representation of Jamaican music at the Grammys. But dancehall, the rebellious sub-genre that developed in the late ‘70s, is just as important to the island’s culture. From dancehall veterans like Beenie Man and Lady Saw to dynamic newcomers like Shenseea and Popcaan, it’s time to spotlight this genre and its sonic influence — not just on Jamaica, but on international artists like Ed Sheeran, Drake and Rihanna. And given the fact that a woman has never won best reggae album, a dancehall category could offer visibility to the groundbreaking female artists pushing Jamaican music in new directions. — BIANCA GRACIE
Best Female Rap Solo Performance
Great art shouldn’t be defined by the gender of its creators, which is why some award shows in recent years have moved toward co-ed categories. But if the playing field isn’t level for men and women in those categories, then perhaps separate male and female awards can be a corrective force — especially in hip-hop, where a lingering myth that the genre has only room for one woman in its upper echelons explains a lot of what’s unfolded between Cardi B and Nicki Minaj in the past year. The Grammys shuttered this former category — which was awarded in 2003 and 2004 to Missy Elliott — because there wasn’t “enough competition,” according to one Recording Academy exec, which seems especially laughable now. Reviving this category would show that there’s room for everyone — and acknowledge the breadth of great work by female rappers today. — NOLAN FEENEY
Best Stage/Tour Production Design
We’re living in the golden age of live music. Big-budget artists are selling out arenas and stadiums at a record-breaking rate and, just last November, Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour became the most successful U.S. tour in Billboard Boxscore history (earning $345 million). It’s a testament to the artist’s music, yes, but also to what the artists bring to the table at each show. Who can forget Kanye West’s floating stage on the Saint Pablo Tour, or Travis Scott riding a rollercoaster around the crowd on the Astroworld Tour, or even Roger Waters’ massive “The Wall” design (on many of his tours but most recently the Us + Them Tour), just to name a few? Stage production is its own art form, and the designers and creatives behind the sets ought to be included at the Grammys each year. Adding a production design category would not only up the ante for other artists, it also might prevent other artists from mimicking other designs. (For smaller-budget acts, a separate category highlighting best visual effects would be sufficient too.) While the Recording Academy doesn’t have any awards highlighting music tours yet, it’s worth noting that the AMAs awarded their inaugural tour of the year award in 2016 (to Beyonce’s Formation World Tour) and Billboard is gearing up for its sixteenth annual Live Music Awards in November (which awards a tour of the year, among other tour categories). It’s time the Academy followed suit. — XANDER ZELLNER
Best Live Album
Somehow, the world’s biggest live music awards show doesn’t have a category devoted to celebrating live music. It’s a no-brainer: The rock era is full of iconic live sets that have cemented an artist’s legacy — think Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! or Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison — and stake a claim as the crown jewel of a performer’s entire discography. And while Grammys have shown favor to live material before, as five live albums — two traditional live recordings, two MTV Unplugged sets and a stand-up comedy act — have won album of the year, many other worthy contenders never found a home among the nominations. A category like this would be the perfect gauge to see which artists are willing to tinker with their hits in ways that blend the old and new, the intimate with with the grand — and who’s just performing an album onstage. — TREVOR ANDERSON
Best Latin Urban Album
J Balvin’s 2018 masterpiece Vibras wasn’t nominated for a Grammy this year — though it took home best urban music album at the awards’ Latin version in November (where Balvin, though otherwise snubbed, was the most-nominated artist overall). The options for reggaeton stars at the main ceremony are slim, with the most plausible category being also the most broad: best Latin rock, urban or alternative album. But wait! Best Latin urban album once lived a quick, three-year existence as a standalone award, handed to Calle 13 twice (2008 and 2010) and Wisin & Yandel in 2009. To do without it seems like a disservice to the diversity, depth and success of today’s Latin music — now feels like as pertinent a time as any to bring it back. — TATIANA CIRISANO
Best Dance Album and Best Electronic Album
Ever since the dance and electronic music boom arrived in America in the early 2010s, countless sub-genres have flourished: Future bass, tropical house, dubstep, G-house…the list goes on. The acronym “EDM,” which stands for electronic dance music, technically encompasses all of them. However, the term quickly became associated with the more energetic, festival-ready beats with the rise of artists like Martin Garrix, Hardwell, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike and more — which doesn’t leave a lot of room for the others when the Grammys make everyone compete under the best dance/electronic album umbrella. So why not ditch the slash and split it into two sections: dance music and electronic music, with the former being more commercial, upbeat and energetic records from the likes of Garrix and Calvin Harris, and the latter focusing on chiller, left-of-center and vibe-y records from artists such as Jon Hopkins and Jai Wolf. — DAVE RISHTY
Best Afrobeat Album
Afrobeat, a term coined by Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti in the early ‘70s, has transformed into a booming genre that is finally trickling into the eyes of the Western mainstream. (See: Drake’s “One Dance,” Davido’s “If” or Swae Lee’s “Guatemala.”) Yet it doesn’t fit in the best world music album category, whose awards typically go to Brazilian music. And while African countries have been represented in the past (South African male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo took the trophy last year), Afrobeat is the genre that best reflects where music on the continent is heading musically as a whole. — B.G.
The Recording Academy already recognizes physical products in the music industry with awards for album packaging and boxed sets. But there’s another material good that, as streaming makes physical album sales less relevant, is growing in influence: merchandise, which makes billions of dollars (take that, jewel cases!) and even plays a role in determining who’s topping the charts via merch bundles. Why not show some love to the artists and designers making our favorite apparel the way we do with those creating our favorite album covers? — N.F.
Best Album That Doesn’t Really Fit in a Genre
Call it the Lorde award: Because her sophomore set Melodrama didn’t quite fit into any genre category neatly — it wasn’t quite pop, wasn’t quite rock, maybe didn’t feel natural for alternative — it was somehow nominated for album of the year in 2018 but not anything else. That’s a problem, and one we should only be seeing more of in the years to come. Where should Khalid’s next set go? How about Billie Eillish’s debut LP? Lil Peep’s posthumous album? It’s bad enough that this year, we’re wasting time pretending that Fall Out Boy and Greta Van Fleet still belong in the same rock category, or Beck and Ariana Grande in the same pop one. Let’s give the Grammys their own “Miscellaneous” folder and finally clean up the clutter a little. — A.U.
The Jimi Hendrix Hindsight Award
Would you believe that Jimi Hendrix was only ever nominated for one Grammy? That single nod was for his virtuosic instrumental take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” — and he didn’t even win. The Recording Academy has since given the late legend a lifetime achievement award, but we think they could do even better. That’s where the Jimi Hendrix Hindsight Award comes in: a category where, each year, five albums or songs that should have been nominated for Grammys when they were originally released go head-to-head to determine which was the most egregious oversight. If you thought The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds ?or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On should have been nominated, this is where those now-classics get their due. — KATIE ATKINSON