As the 2020 Grammys ceremony approaches, the pressure is building to see which of the eight nominees for the coveted Album Of The Year award will be selected — especially after a tumultuous few years for the category. Between the consensus critic’s pick of Lana Del Rey’s Norman F*cking Rockwell, the record-breaking success of Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next, and the overwhelming, paradigm-shifting debut of 18-year-old Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, female pop stars are very well represented, due, in part, to a 2018 that expanded the scope from five nominees to eight for the primary awards of Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Best New Artist, and Record Of The Year.
Aside from these three much-discussed pop albums, the 2020 field also includes Bon Iver’s i,i, H.E.R.’s I Used To Know Her, Lil Nas X’s 7, Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You, and Vampire Weekend’s Father Of The Bride. It would be just like the Grammys to let one of those latter wildcard picks take home the win, and ever since Beyonce’s enormous loss to Beck for her self-titled release in 2015, this category has been under the spotlight more than ever before. The critics pick for album of the year rarely matches up with what the Grammys perceive to be deserving of the win, but tension between the two seems to be increasing year to year, particularly when it comes to issues of diversity, inclusion, and gender imbalance.
2016’s winner, Taylor Swift, for 1989, had words to other young women coming up behind her, mainly not to let men try to take credit for their success (that’s for a whole separate piece), and in 2017, Adele protested her own win over Beyonce, a second crushing loss for another critically fêted album. When Bruno Mars took home the trophy over exquisite works by Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar in 2018, it was anticlimactic to say the least. Last year yielded a different outcome, though, when the top award went to Kacey Musgraves for Golden Hour, a mid-level album commercially, that topped pretty much every critics poll unanimously. Beating out heavy hitters like Drake, Cardi B, Post Malone, and the Kendrick Lamar-helmed Black Panther soundtrack, Kacey’s more-than-shocked face went viral when she unexpectedly won.
There are a few governing bodies that offer consensus picks for the best album of the year, and have been doing so for decades: the long-standing critics poll by the Village Voice, Pazz & Jop, Billboard album sales, and, of course, the Grammys. It’s very rare for the top-selling album to be the one that’s most lauded by critics, and those albums don’t often receive high awards from the Grammys, either. But occasionally, at various points throughout the last four or five decades, the critics and the Grammys have agreed about what the best album of the year should be. Last year was one such occasion, and lining up the available data about Pazz & Jop’s No. 1 records against this Grammy category yields five more, six total including Kacey:
1976: Stevie Wonder — Songs In The Key Of Life
1983: Michael Jackson — Thriller (1984 Grammys)
1986: Paul Simon — Graceland (1987 Grammys)
1997: Bob Dylan — Time Out Of Mind (1998 Grammys)
2003: OutKast — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2004 Grammys)
2018: Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour (2019 Grammys)
Examining whether or not Lana Del Rey is likely to win after topping a plethora of year-end lists — including our own critic’s poll, a stand-in for the now-defunct tradition of Pazz & Jop — can feel like a guessing game, but the albums do offer some commonalities. They are all releases from established stars — even Kacey’s win last year came on the heels of two highly successful major label releases, and a Christmas record. All of these albums are supremely focused on songwriting and personal expression over impressive technical feats or fancy guest stars, additional performers and producers. Finally, each of these albums manages to manifest a certain joyfulness, even out of or in the midst of immensely difficult circumstances. Judging by this criteria, it would seem likely that Rockwell has a shot at entering this rare group.
However, it’s just as likely that plenty of other albums nominated in the category for each of those years shared these similar, subjective qualities, and that I, as a Lana fan, am just seeing what I want to see. And, it’s completely worth noting that save Kacey Musgraves, all five times an album has won both critical and Grammy consensus, the artists are men. Yet, Lana is a well-regarded career artist who has been dramatically overlooked by the Grammys; currently, she has not been awarded a single Grammy award, save a de facto victory for Cedric Gervais’ remix of “Summertime Sadness,” which won the Best Remix, Non-Classical award in 2014. And it would be wonderful to see her properly honored for what is considered to be her best work, especially by a group that has snubbed her for years. But as any artist knows, there is nothing more fickle than awards — even if you’re the greatest.