One of the few guarantees we have in this cold, cold world is that the announcement of the Grammy nominations will always be followed up by an exhausting amount of hand-wringing, kvetching, and garment-rending from the critics of the world. The snubs! The surprises! The continued emphasis on commercial success over artistic quality!
That may be the case for the statues that get handed out during the televised portion of the annual awards ceremony, but scroll past the General Field and Best Alternative Album picks and things start to get plenty interesting. It’s below the fold where transgender R&B singer Jackie Shane and Canadian pow wow group Young Spirit earn much-deserved recognition for their recorded work. And it’s where all the other elements of an album, like its artwork and liner notes, are justly honored.
But in recent years, the domain for the most truly left field sounds and curveball choices in the Grammy nominations has been the Best New Age Album category.
New Age has long been one of the world’s most easily mocked genres. It’s the music that Kate Beckinsale’s dippy fiance plays in Serendipity. The sounds you hear in elevators and spas and on PBS specials filmed at the Acropolis. It’s what music supervisors pick to winkingly indicate that the folks on screen have their heads in the clouds or have serious opinions about the healing power of crystals.
For the past decade or so, New Age has started to earn some cultural respect as crate diggers and labels have begun to track the connections between the dreamier sounds of the past and the current field of ambient, modern folk, and avant-electronic artists. Albums by Suzanne Ciani and Laraaji have been reissued to breathless acclaim, and I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950-1990, a 2013 compilation released by Light In The Attic, earned Best New Reissue on Pitchfork. As well, a range of modern acts like Visible Cloaks and much of the roster on LA’s Leaving Records are cultivating sounds aimed at inducing meditative or trance-like states.
While those artists and labels mentioned above have gained some hipster cred, the records that tend to get nominated for the Best New Age Album Grammy are the pure, uncut stuff. And it often reveals just how hard it is to quantify what makes a record “New Age.” That’s been the case ever since the award was added to the Grammy roster in 1987. The nominees that year included a collection of spacey instrumentals by electroacoustic harpist Andreas Vollenweider, a performance by jazz saxophonist Paul Winter recorded live in the Grand Canyon, Jean-Michel Jarre’s very synthpop-inspired Rendez-Vous, and two compilations released by Windham Hill Records, maybe the best known New Age label, that ranged from delicate piano etudes to jumpy folk rambles. The only common trait among them is their calming qualities, perfect for background noise or deep listening.
That’s the beauty of a genre like New Age: There’s so much that can be placed under its umbrella. And the Grammy nominations for this genre, more than almost any other category, reflect that. In the first few years of the category’s existence, the rules were loose enough so individual songs to get nominated alongside albums, so the otherwise smooth jazz group Acoustic Alchemy could get a single tune (“Caravan Of Dreams”) from their 1990 album Reference Point in the mix. That open-ended quality does mean that unpleasantness like the treacly piano-pop of John Tesh and the syrupy bombast of Mannheim Steamroller enter into the conversation, but it also opened the door for a broad range of talent to get their just due.
And unlike most of the major categories, the gender scales are much more in balance in the New Age Grammy category. Ciani has been nominated multiple times, and otherwise outsiders like composer Laura Sullivan and woodwind player Nancy Tingel have taken home statues. And, of course, Miss “Orinoco Flow” herself, Enya, the reigning queen of New Age music has been anointed by the voters throughout her career with six nominations and four wins.
The category has also been incredibly friendly to independent labels and artists in a way that the general field tends to gloss over. A great recent example is Henta Ellis, a Seattle-based singer/songwriter who quietly self-released an album of luminous electronic soundscapes called Laserium Of The Soul in 2009. It caught the ear of enough voters to land her a Grammy nomination. While she lost out to cellist David Darling, she got to attend the awards ceremony and get closer to the limelight than most other indie artists. Or there’s last year’s surprise pick of Arizona-based synth legend Steve Roach, a stupefyingly prolific artist who has been releasing multiple collections of colorful, elegiac work every year since 1983. His 2016 album Spiral Revelation landed him and his label, the darkwave-leaning indie Projekt Records, their first ever nods.
This year’s nominees for Best New Age Album are perhaps an even more farflung group than any the voters have put together to date. The only name that the average music listener might recognize is Lisa Gerrard, co-founder of world music meets goth-pop group Dead Can Dance. She received the nod this year for her collaborative album with percussionist David Kuckhermann. Beyond that, it’s a delightfully motley bunch that includes Roach, Sikh vocalist Snatam Kaur, and the world beat quartet Opium Moon. The biggest surprise? Jim “Kimo” West, the guitarist best known for his long career serving at the pleasure of Weird Al Yankovic. His album of undeniably lovely Hawaiian slack key guitar instrumentals, Moku Maluhia, earned him a Grammy nomination for the first time.
For all the justifiable griping that goes on about the major Grammy categories, there have been some positive steps forward. More women and people of color are nabbing nominations every year and there have been some sneaky successes like Arcade Fire snagging Album of The Year in 2011. But the way the system is set up, there’s little chance that the voters for Best Rock Album or Song of the Year will put up a list of nominees as audacious and eccentric as the one found in the Best New Age Album category year after year. If that makes you as frustrated as it does me, you can join me in continuing to vent, or just pick from one of the past New Age nominees and let its gentle sounds send those petty grievances slipping away into the ether.