Especially in recent years, the list of Grammy nominees have been filled with both “duh!”s and “huh?”s, the obvious and the unexpected, the middle-of-the-roaders and the off-the-beaten-trackers. But the nominees for album of the year, the crown jewel of this most illustrious of mainstream music awards, have been relatively predictable, usually containing a couple of very obvious nominees, a couple of “hmm”s and one “woah!”
But for reasons that have nothing to do with its considerable musical merit, the album of the year category has never had a nominee as unlikely as Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.
A look at all of the AOTY nominees going back to the early 1960s reveals plenty of surprises, but they generally can be explained in one of three ways (with occasional overlap):
1. The Belated Legacy Nod This is how albums like Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters (which, boosted by its Joni Mitchell theme and special guests, won album of the year in 2008), Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature (2001’s winner) and albums like Paul McCartney’s hardly classic Flaming Pie or Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (nominated in 1998 and 2006, respectively) get into the AOTY mix. They are rarely among the artist’s greatest work and are virtually Lifetime Achievement awards; they frequently rise to the top in years when there aren’t more obvious winners, although that certainly wasn’t the case in 2001, when Steely Dan topped Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP and Radiohead’s Kid A. A happy exception is Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, which — more than 20 years into her career — cleaned up at the 1990 awards and added several zeros to her annual income for years to come.
2. The Hit-Powered Relative Newcomer This is when albums by relatively new artists (to the Grammy electorate, anyway) ride into AOTY based on a hit single (like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”-featuring St. Elsewhere or Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” vehicle The Blessed Unrest) or mammoth sales (like Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, which is a stellar album but a long shot for AOTY). These rarely win, but exceptions were Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me — the latter of which, like Adele‘s albums, sounds classic enough to appeal to the voters referenced above in category one.
3. The Groundswell This is when an artist reaches an undeniable critical mass. As the Grammys have upgraded the awareness and savvy of their voting members — a long process that has increasingly borne fruit over the past 15 years or so — the bar here has gotten lower. For example, U2 winning album of the year in 1988 for The Joshua Tree (over Michael Jackson’s Bad and Whitney Houston’s Whitney, no less) and Lauryn Hill in 1999 for Miseducation felt like breakthroughs. Things had progressed enough by 2011 for Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs — the first independent-label release to win AOTY — to beat out Eminem, Katy Perry and Ladies Gaga and Antebellum; and for Daft Punk‘s Random Access Memories to beat Taylor Swift‘s Red in 2014 (Daft Punk also beat out Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, which belongs in this category as well). And while none of these albums topped Swift’s 1989 for AOTY earlier this year, the 2016 finalists were unprecedentedly left-field: Alabama Shakes for Sound & Color, Lamar for To Pimp a Butterfly, Chris Stapleton for Traveller and The Weeknd for Beauty Behind the Madness.
In fact, looking back over the past 50 years, the strangest nominee by far is the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which not only won in 2000 (upsetting Bob Dylan, Outkast and U2), but has gone on to sell a whopping 8 million copies in the U.S. to date (according to Nielsen Music) and exposed countless millions to glorious early country music. However, it was pegged to a hit film and thus falls under category 2.
Sturgill Simpson doesn’t fit any of those models. It doesn’t fit any model.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a bold and unorthodox album that, coming after the more straightforward country of his previous releases, took many fans and critics by surprise — and, to put it mildly, probably puzzled the Nashville establishment. It doesn’t fit into any country category — nor, with its mix of twang, old-school Waylon Jennings balladry and Memphis-style horns, does it fit neatly into any category at all. And while the album garnered a bevy of critical plaudits, it’s not the kind of galvanizing, fanbase-expanding album that the Shakes’, Stapleton’s or Arcade Fire’s were.
All of which is probably the way Simpson intended things. As his first release on a major label (Atlantic), he seems determined to prove that he’s going to follow his own star.
In fact, beyond its musical quality (which, as we’ve seen, is no guarantee of Grammy success!), it’s a challenge trying to game Simpson’s nomination, except possibly as an after-effect of Stapleton’s success last year — although Traveller didn’t win AOTY. The point also may be fairly moot, as he’s up against Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber and Drake.
Various colleagues have rolled their eyes and pshaw’ed some of the arguments above, citing Simpson’s strong critical following. Not coincidentally, all of those pshaw-ers are critics. And while one instinct may be to say, snootily, “Who listens to critics anyway?” …
Well, one such critic, Alan Light, predicted Simpson might be an AOTY nominee on this very site.