Every year, the Grammy nominations act as a barometer for how the mainstream music industry sees itself. This year, it seems the Recording Academy has recognized its own image in jazz everyman Jon Batiste, who leads the nominations with 11. Although Batiste is hugely talented, social-justice-minded, and by all accounts a great guy, he’s also largely inoffensive, making music for children’s movies when he isn’t soundtracking a once-great satirist’s CBS show. He’s followed by Justin Bieber, Doja Cat, and H.E.R., each with eight nods, and then Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, who have seven apiece.
Of course, how the Grammys gauge the mainstream music biz’s self-perception depends on the methodology they use each year. The most striking change for the 2022 awards is that the Academy has expanded the number of nominees to 10 in each of the four major categories (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist), up from eight last year and five as recently as 2018. But the secret nominating committees targeted by the Weeknd last year have also had their role reduced. Another rule-change widened the pool of songwriters and producers who can be recognized in the Album of the Year category. And bear in mind the eligibility window for this year, from September 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021, which means Adele is not gonna just sweep this thing.
Here’s our breakdown of the intriguing, the cringey, and the Grammys-gonna-Grammy of this year’s nominations. The awards show airs January 31, 2022 on (but of course) CBS.
As any dedicated maker of annual year-end lists will know, the longer the list, the more room for error. Pick only one album of the year and nobody can tell which great records you completely overlooked, but try ranking 100 and the potential for embarrassing blind spots only multiplies. The Grammys may be running into a version of this problem as they keep lengthening their shortlists for top four categories, because this year’s Big Four picks make the past year in music seem at once more dull and scattered than it seemed in real time.
Album of the Year ends up as an industry-friendly slurry of polite traditionalism (Batiste’s WE ARE, Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga collab Love for Sale), next-gen pop (Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat), relatively minor works by long-established stars (Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Kanye West), and recent Grammys darling H.E.R. (likely thanks to her next-gen traditionalism?). Sure, a few big albums fell outside of the eligibility window (Lana Del Rey, War on Drugs), but was 2021 truly so uninspiring, even focusing only on Grammy-sized releases? Jazmine Sullivan, whose brilliant Heaux Tales didn’t make it past the R&B categories, might beg to differ.
Despite a few surprises (more on those later), the other leading categories are a similarly bland buffet. The list for Record of the Year includes ubiquitous hits from Bieber, Rodrigo, and Silk Sonic—and also the return of ABBA. The two Brandi Carlile songs vying against each other in Song of the Year seem destined to cancel each other out, but how votes will split between Ed Sheeran and, again, H.E.R. seems impossible to predict. The Best New Artist category’s absurdity is stretched to the limit when an eight-time Grammy winner is in the running, and (name any actually new artist of your choice) is not. Overall, the Big Four look almost as if the Grammys are throwing up their hands and leaving it to the voters to sort out their mess. —Marc Hogan
Seemingly in spite of its byzantine nomination process, the Grammys sometimes get it right, or mostly right. Arooj Aftab’s Vulture Prince is inarguably one of the best albums of the year, so it was shocking enough that its most beautiful composition, “Mohabbat,” was recognized in the Best Global Performance category, even if she’s lived in the U.S. since 2005. But her Best New Artist nomination is legitimately shocking, a welcome surprise in a category that regularly produces decidedly less deserving head-scratchers. And Japanese Breakfast’s unexpected Best New Artist nod feels like a well-deserved career achievement award for Michelle Zauner’s project, recognition for making three of the most exciting indie rock albums of the last five years. She was also nominated in the Best Alternative Music Album category, where four out of the five nominees are women—itself an acknowledgement of the incredible guitar music being made by women. That is, until you get to the rock and metal categories… —Matthew Ismael Ruiz
The Grammys’ typically moribund rock categories reared to life last year, perhaps in no small part due to an abundance of women. The contenders for Best Rock Performance were all women or women-led groups, with Fiona Apple eventually beating out Big Thief, Phoebe Bridgers, HAIM, Brittany Howard, and Grace Potter. Howard won too, for Best Rock Song. And while the Strokes may by now be distinguished gentlemen, their Grammy for Best Rock Album last year was their first-ever Recording Academy trophy, which was both a fun coup and a case in point for why you shouldn’t take these statuettes too seriously. Even if Bridgers ended up going home empty-handed, her four nominations across rock, alternative, and Best New Artist were a sign of hope for a slightly less Jurassic awards ceremony.
Alas, the dinosaurs have returned with a vengeance in this year’s rock categories. Half of the names could’ve been scribbled in some kid’s Trapper Keeper during the Clinton Administration, if not earlier: Foo Fighters, Weezer, AC/DC, Paul McCartney, Chris Cornell (R.I.P., but c’mon). Bush-era bands like Deftone and Kings of Leon are the young guns in this crowd, along with more recent Grammy faves Black Pumas. The most potentially unfamiliar name on the list, Mammoth WVH, is the rock band fronted by Wolfgang Van Halen, the equivalent of a legacy admission. —MH
Let’s start with the good news: the Best Latin Pop or Urban category was split in two, adding a new category and more room for new artists to be recognized. But there are still no song categories for Spanish-language music, which seems absurd considering the singles-driven economy of música urbana, or even just music in general. Like every year, the excuse is “they have their own awards show…” Which is literally the problem! Separating Spanish-language music into a discrete awards show otherizes it and suggests it’s inherently less-than. Why is Miami treated like its own industry instead of just another hub like Atlanta, New York, or Los Angeles? Who stands to benefit from a separate, “other” industry? Because it’s certainly not the artists. Even if we ignore the semantic issues with “Latin” categories and awards that include European artists, we can glean more from who is not included. Specifically, Black artists.
Even after spinning it off into its own category, not one Black artist was nominated for Best Música Urbana Album. Instead, you’ve got J Balvin (a non-Caribbean genre tourist), Karol G (a white pop singer who seriously did this), Kali Uchis (whose Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞, while excellent, is more like Spanish-language pop), and Bad Bunny (forever beloved); perhaps the most interesting nominee, Rauw Alejandro, isn’t even up for his most recent genre-bending LP. A genre invented by Black Caribbeans, once marginalized to the point of criminality, has zero Black artists worthy of inclusion? Perhaps that’s a side effect (one of many) of flattening “urban” music, which encompasses a diverse and wide-reaching group of sounds, rhythms, and communities into one neat little box. The Latin Grammys have attempted to acknowledge this by adding Best Reggaetón Performance and Best Rap/Hip-Hop Song categories; at the same time, urbano artists are regularly shut out from the Big Four nominations even while their popularity is leveraged with in-show performances. Both shows still have a #grammyssowhite problem. It’s hard to celebrate the inclusion of Spanish-language music at the Anglo music industry’s biggest awards show when the people charged with shepherding the “Latin” music industry aren’t willing to acknowledge its own diversity problems.
This issue is not unique to Spanish-language music; indeed, it’s only more glaring because it’s more visible than ever. But the way the Academy treats music from outside the Americas is even more embarrassing. Just two categories—five songs and five albums—are supposed to represent the rest of the world. The Academy’s attempt to address criticism of the “World Music” category—changing the name to “Global”—is equal parts impotent and offensive. Every Asian idol group, Afropop album, Tuareg shredder, French chanteuse, or indigenous throat singer is expected to fight for the same 10 spots. Is it great that Wizkid was recognized for “Essence,” one of the biggest songs of the year? Absolutely. Is it a crime that he’s the only Afropop artist nominated, or that “Essence” isn’t up for Record of the Year? Absolutely. —MIR
At first glance, the four rap categories—Performance, Melodic Performance, Song, and Album—are extremely confusing. These are the songs meant to represent the past year in rap music? Instead, it reads like the intersection of the most rap-leaning pop artists and the most successful capital “R” rappers. Drake’s “Way Too Sexy” definitely occupied space in the zeitgeist, but Certified Lover Boy hit like mids, and its impact reflected that. Baby Keem’s most endearing quality is that he has Kendrick Lamar’s phone number. Nas’s latest LP is his best in years, but certainly not among the best of the year. J Cole’s Off-Season probably isn’t even in his own top five. If the Grammys wanted to suggest that their voting members are old and out of touch with the direction of hip-hop, these nominations all but confirm it.
And then there’s Donda. The album certainly absorbed the most oxygen of any rap release this year, but to qualify it as one of the best albums of the year—by any metric—is a sick joke. Putting aside for a minute that a win for either Donda or “Jail” would mean a win for Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, there was a near-universal critical consensus that despite one or two hits (the excellent, if paradoxically named “Jesus Lord,” featuring devout muslim Jay Electronica), the record was meandering, bloated, and worst of all, boring. The Grammys wants us to believe that sales aren’t the metric for Grammy success, but that doesn’t matter if voters are going to tap the only rap record they heard all year. The only interesting part of Kanye’s nominations is that a win for “Hurricane” would mean a win for the Weeknd, who famously returned his 2020 Grammys snub with a snub of his own, a picket line that all of his collaborators—except Kanye—decided not to cross. —MIR
Much has been made of the fact that the Academy nominated, either explicitly or by association, various alleged abusers as well as individuals known for making homophobic or transphobic comments. To recap: Louis C.K. is up for Best Comedy Album; Dave Chappelle got a nod for Best Spoken Word album; Marilyn Manson could win an AOTY trophy as a songwriter/performer on Donda; DaBaby has double the chances at AOTY as a featured artist on both Donda and Bieber’s Justice deluxe; and Dr. Luke has a shot at AOTY, Song of the Year, and Best Rap Song thanks to his work with Doja Cat. Some have called this a reaction to cancel culture, but these nominations are not surprising. Last year, Dr. Luke slid back into the Grammys’ good graces after seven years with a Record of the Year nod for Doja Cat’s “Say So” (under his Tyson Trax pseudonym), and in the year since, his main collaborator, Doja, has scored dueling smashes in “Best Friend” and “Kiss Me More.” It was only a matter of time before the record biz smuggled Luke back in to make massive hits with a newer artist, and though the Grammys are always trying to express how much they’re growing, they’re really only as “good” (or moral, or willing to take a stand) as the major labels or the mainstream entertainment industry itself. If Kanye wants to pretend it’s transgressive to feature someone accused of a frightening number of things, his label is right there promoting it, and part of the engine that ultimately helps Donda garner big nominations. As much as it would like to be leading change in the industry, the Recording Academy is merely the mirror. —Jillian Mapes