The Grammys can be a little insular and predictable. That’s not exactly a hot take. But of all the various awards and categories, nothing’s as formulaic as the nominations for the biggest award of them all, Album Of The Year. Of the past four AOTY winners, three had been nominated for the award in previous years. The fourth, Kacey Musgraves, had previously been nominated for five Grammys in different categories, winning two.
As is often said about Presidential elections, “name recognition” is a major factor in shrinking the field of likely AOTY nominees. But it’s not entirely a popularity contest — of this year’s eight nominees, only three hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200. Instead, the Grammys’ pattern of selecting the AOTY nominees feels more like typecasting. This is how we end up with critical favorites next to commercial sensations, a wide variety of genres, and an overall sense of well-rounded — but also highly manicured — order. Especially since 2010, each year’s group of nominees is easily divided into five categories, as follows:
- The Radio Dominator: In nearly all circumstances, the album that contains more hit singles than the other nominees. Not necessarily the poppiest, by the standard definition of the word, nor the album by the biggest star. It’s just too successful and omnipresent to ignore. Prime example: Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream
- The Weird One: Highly subjective based on year. Based on its relation to fellow nominees, either the most indie, the most experimental, or the most out-of-step with the rest of its class. It’s also very often a tried-and-true star going out on a limb, but not too far out on a limb. Prime example: Bon Iver’s i,i
- The Ambitious One: Differs from The Weird One in its unyielding quest for more. That can mean either a more convoluted premise, a dramatic departure from the past, a dramatic reach into the past, or simply a very long runtime. Tries so hard you have to acknowledge it. Along with The Mature One, the least like to take home the trophy. Prime example: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly
- The Mature One: Could be an artist that trafficks in nostalgic, bygone sounds. Could be a formerly sophomoric artist getting deep and introspective. Could be, along with some Gimmes, stuff that underperforms commercially and critically but is for one reason or another, catnip for Academy members. Prime example: Beck’s Morning Phase
- The Gimme: The shoo-in. The legacy. Whether because of an artist’s track record at the Grammys, an artist’s stature, or an artist’s strict obedience to Grammy voter sensibilities, it’s the one you should always put your money on. Prime example: Adele’s 25
It’s not necessarily one album per category per year, especially since the Grammys expanded the Album Of The Year nominees from five to eight prior to last year’s ceremony, but a year’s class usually covers the full spectrum. Below, we’ve broken down each category by year, listed the album(s) that fit into the slot, and offered some analysis. AOTY winners are listed in bold.
The Radio Dominators:
2010: Taylor Swift – Fearless
2011: Katy Perry – Teenage Dream
2012: Bruno Mars – Doo-Wops & Hooligans, Rihanna – Loud
2013: Fun – Some Nights
2014: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist
2015: Ed Sheeran – X
2016: The Weeknd – Beauty Behind The Madness
2017: Justin Bieber – Purpose
2018: Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
2019: Cardi B – Invasion Of Privacy, Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys
2020: Lil Nas X – 7, Lizzo – Cuz I Love You, Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next
This one requires the most mathematical explanation. All of these albums scored at least two Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The average number of Top 20 hits per Radio Dominator nominee is 3.4, with the highest total being Teenage Dream’s tally of six. Lil Nas X and Lizzo’s albums from this past year are the only two that had less than three Top 20 hits, but both had very successful No. 1 singles. The average number of No. 1 hits per Radio Dominator is 1.6, with the highest total again belonging to Teenage Dream (that album was an absolute juggernaut), which had six.
Some other notes: 2012 is the only pre-2019 year to have two albums in one category. Why? Because between Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Foo Fighters, and Adele, nothing was particularly weird that year, and all five albums were unusually commercially successful. That scenario’s similar to this year’s field — minus the surprise inclusion of Bon Iver’s i,i — where half of the albums are by first-time AOTY nominees (three of them first-time nominees, period) who all enjoyed massively popular breakout years in 2019. And lastly, why is Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic considered a Radio Dominator rather than a Gimme in 2018? Well, it’s because Kendrick Lamar’s Damn was also nominated that year. Unlike Bruno, who’s sophomore offering, Unorthodox Jukebox, failed to receive an AOTY nomination, Kendrick’s landed three straight solo albums in that category.
The Weird Ones:
2010: Lady Gaga – The Fame
2011: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
2013: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
2014: Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, MAAD City
2015: Beyoncé – Beyoncé
2016: Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
2017: Beyoncé – Lemonade
2018: Lorde – Melodrama
2019: Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer, Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
2020: Bon Iver – i,i
Like we said in the initial description, “weird” is a subjective term. Sometimes it’s about the amount of inhuman, pitch-shifted vocals on an album (Frank Ocean, Kendrick, Lorde, Bon Iver), sometimes it’s about being the most indie (Arcade Fire, Bon Iver), sometimes it’s about subverting audiences’ expectations (Beyoncé, Lorde, Kacey Musgraves), sometimes it’s about being the black sheep in a class of nominees (Frank Ocean, Alabama Shakes) and in the case of Lady Gaga, it’s about being a feisty, uncompromising upstart who took the industry by storm. Sure, The Fame had two more No. 1 singles than the Radio Dominator that year (Taylor Swift’s Fearless), but those singles were surprise hits that sounded like nothing else on the airwaves. Swift was more palatable.
Is Good Kid, MAAD City objectively weirder than Kendrick Lamar’s other two AOTY-nominated albums? No, but he was a first-time nominee that year, and it’s already pretty weird to see rap albums nominated in this category. Is Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color weirder than Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, another 2016 inclusion? No, but seeing a first-time nominee blues-rock band get an AOTY nod was more shocking. Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour is as easy-listening an album as any listed in this article, but it’s a mainstream country album inspired by acid trips and LGBTQ inclusiveness, and how wild is that?
The Ambitious Ones:
2010: The Black Eyed Peas – The E.N.D.
2011: Eminem – Recovery
2012: Lady Gaga – Born This Way
2013: Mumford & Sons – Babel
2014: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
2015: Pharrell Williams – Girl
2016: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
2017: Drake – Views
2018: Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love
2019: Drake – Scorpion, HER – HER
2020: Lana Del Rey – Norman F*cking Rockwell
From The Black Eyed Peas’ bald-faced pursuit of EDM on The E.N.D. to Lana Del Rey’s highly personal, 67-minute-long Norman F*cking Rockwell, these albums are a lot. Sometimes, they border on weird, like Random Access Memories or To Pimp A Butterfly, but they’re always bold in a, ‘You’re gonna sit here and listen to this whole thing, whether you like it or not’-type of way. Oftentimes, they’re bloated and gratuitous in a way that turns off critics, like Eminem’s moody Recovery, Drake’s slogging most recent albums, or HER’s unreasonably lengthy debut. They often represent departures from the norm, but not necessarily in a weird way — think Mumford & Sons dressing up like Civil War castoffs and opting for uncool instrumentation, but still crafting very pop-conscious songs. Should Pharrell be abandoning his production chops to lead an album of funk-pop? Should Daft Punk, the most revered electronic party-starters of their generation, dive headfirst into the ‘70s? Should Childish Gambino leave rap and acting behind for Funkadelic worship? Who knows, but they’re all audacious enough to land here.
The Mature Ones:
2010: Dave Matthews Band – Big Whiskey & The GrooGrux King
2011: Lady Antebellum – Need You Now
2012: Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
2013: The Black Keys – El Camino
2014: Sara Bareilles – The Blessed Unrest
2015: Beck – Morning Phase
2016: Chris Stapleton – Traveller
2017: Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
2018: Jay-Z – 4:44
2019: Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You
2020: Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride
This category’s glory days were the 2000s, when Santana, Steely Dan, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack, Norah Jones, Ray Charles, U2, Dixie Chicks, Herbie Hancock, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss won nine of the ten AOTY awards (Outkast was the only outlier). In the 2010s, the Academy seems to have taken note of the backlash that occured whenever a long-in-the-tooth member of the old guard or a nostalgic-minded youngster won an AOTY. That said, there’s still at least one Boomer or Gen X favorite per year. Again, the artist doesn’t have to be 50+, but they could be playing something that could’ve feasibly been on the radio pre-1980, or they could just conjure up a misty-eyed sensibility that appeals to graying Grammy voters.
Look at The Black Keys, naming their album after a car discontinued in 1987, or Beck, forsaking his genre-mashing for gentle folk, or Jay-Z, someone who might’ve inspired pearl-clutching in his past but came through with the quintessential “marital problems” album, or Vampire Weekend, youngsters who delved into jam band noodling and smooth ‘70s tones. Country’s also a popular fallback plan here, because even though Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson are a little left-of-center in Nashville, they still don’t bombard the elderly with confusing sounds they’ve never heard before.
2010: Beyoncé – I Am… Sasha Fierce
2011: Lady Gaga – The Fame Monster
2012: Adele – 21
2013: Jack White – Blunderbuss
2014: Taylor Swift – Red
2015: Sam Smith – In The Lonely Hour
2016: Taylor Swift – 1989
2017: Adele – 25
2018: Kendrick Lamar – Damn
2019: Various Artists – Blank Panther Soundtrack
2020: HER – I Used to Know Her
With the exception of Sam Smith, and remembering that Kendrick Lamar executive produced the Black Panther soundtrack, all of these artists had previously been nominated for multiple Grammys. Smith’s here because In The Lonely Hour is the closest equivalent to an Adele album that anyone outside of Adele has ever made, and because Adele is the Grammys’ golden goose. Blunderbuss was Jack White’s solo debut, but back in his White Stripes days, he was nominated for 11 Grammys and won six. Why is Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce here while two of her subsequent albums are Weird Ones? Because it has a 62/100 rating on Metacritic, compared to those albums’ respective 85 and 92 scores, and its nomination thusly felt like a consolation prize. Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster is just the previous year’s The Fame (also an AOTY nominee) reissued with an eight-track EP attached, so it feels like a placeholder as well.