Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Grammys Are Coming -- Part 3

I've talked about the Song of the Year and Best New Artist categories. Now it's on to the Album of the Year. Obviously, this one took a little more time since there are a lot of songs to listen to. I could have just listened to samples and gone from there, but I feel like a really good album should be great from start to finish. Each track has a purpose and when you put them all together, the listening experience should transcend any one, single song you hear on the radio. There should be a reason that these five albums are in this category, and there should be a really good reason why one of these will take home the Grammy over the other four and all of the other albums released last year.

(Interesting thing I noticed--two albums have a very short list of people who worked on the album. Guess which ones they are.)

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Sound and Color, Alabama Shakes

OK. Stop what you're doing and find a way to listen to this album. Brittany Howard is one of the best songwriters we've got right now. When I saw that Alabama Shakes was nominated for a Grammy again this year, I was excited. Their debut album is so good. You will be hard pressed to find a singer and band with more soul and emotion than them. From the opening notes to the final refrain, this album was impressive. Seriously, impressive.

Blues rock, roots rock, southern rock, whatever. This is just good music. You can definitely hear their southern roots in every track, but it's not so heavy-handed as to make you feel like you have to love Country or Americana type music to enjoy the album. There are artists that just bring you great music, whatever the genre. In fact, they defy genre. Alabama Shakes is that kind of group. This was a fantastic album.

Favorite tracks: Where to start? How about the first three. "Sound and Color," "Don't Wanna Fight," "Dunes." And then you can keep going down the line.

Just one of the great songs on this album--seriously, could she be more soulful?

To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar

If you read my earlier post about the Song of the Year you probably won't be surprised to hear that this entire album was rough to listen to. There is the obvious language to contend with. I'm not a prude, and I can 100% appreciate why Lamar chooses the words he does. There is a meaning and feeling he is trying to convey, and that's the way he does it. I can live with it. It makes sense to me. I will say that I didn't find his album, as a whole, to be exploitative or demeaning, like a lot of hip hop can be. There was a definite social agenda with the work that comes through.

Mostly, this album was rough because I felt like I was intruding on a space not meant for me. There have been a lot of takes on the album, and I realize that my take is completely reliant on my own experiences, which differ from Lamar's in about every way conceivable. He takes the 16 tracks and weaves a story of Black America as seen through his eyes and experiences, and attempts to convey some sense of suffering, anger, and ultimately (I think) hope that things will get better. He is realistic, but still manages to give the listener a little bit of optimism.

There is a lot in the album musically that is appealing. The music of the rap and hip hop music I remember from my teen years was a lot simpler. Straightforward beats with simple background riffs dominated the albums. Lamar manages (along with a huge team of writers and producers) to incorporate jazz, funk, fusion, spoken word, old school hip hop, and a number of other styles into his music. I think the variety did a lot to bind the album together and make it more listenable for me, even if after listening to the album I feel a little bit like it was a work I wasn't meant to listen to.

Favorite tracks: Two stood out, probably because of the musicality of the songs. "Alright" and "i."

[Again, We are a family that doesn't believe in censorship, but given the nature of the album I decided not to embed any videos here.]

Traveller, Chris Stapleton

I had never heard of Chris Stapleton before his nomination, but apparently I should have known him before now. For one thing, he has literally hundreds of writing credits on big time albums. He is one of those artists that is finally getting his "moment." Anyone who has read anything I've written here about music knows by now that I'm not much of a country fan. I have a handful of artists that I enjoy, but I normally don't really get into the genre. I will say that Stapleton has managed to make the good ol' outlaw country cool. I'm not going to lie and say that he'll dominate my playlists anytime soon, or that I'm going to play his album on repeat. It's just not going to happen.

What I will say about Stapleton is that his songwriting is impeccable, whether its the lyrics or music. All of it hints at his immense talent. And "hints" is probably the wrong word for it. It proclaims it. It trumpets it. It makes it so obvious that no one can miss it. All in all, the album was deserving of its place here in the Album of the Year category.

Favorite tracks: "Nobody to Blame," "Tennessee Whiskey"

(If you want to see a real treat, find the video of Stapleton and Justin Timberlake performing together at the CMAs.)

The title track, one of many smooth and very good tracks

1989, Taylor Swift

From the time I heard she was doing an 80s concept album, to when I actually heard it from beginning to end, I thought this idea had a lot of potential. I think she pulled it off. For the moment, I'm going to ignore all of the controversy surrounding Swift's videos for "Wildest Dreams" and "Bad Blood." I'm not going to comment on my opinion on whether she is just a "white feminist" or embodies all that is good in the feminist movement at large. This is about the album and whether or not it's the best.

She did a great job capturing a lot of styles from the 1980s. That was a time when the music was fun and less serious in a lot of ways. It's not to say there wasn't any meaning behind the songs, but people didn't take themselves so seriously. Artists released albums with songs people wanted to dance to, or break up to, or cry to. Taylor Swift did it. This is a very good album with several excellent tracks. I think making a clean break with the country genre on this album was the right move. This is a pop album plain and simple, and it holds up against the many other pop albums released last year.

Favorite tracks: "Blank Space," "Wildest Dreams," "I Know Places"

There's something eerie and "not" Taylor Swift about this one

Beauty Behind The Madness, The Weeknd

You know, I thought about spending some time actually discussing this album, but I just can't bring myself to do it. I was so disappointed that I didn't even finish listening. I got less than half of the way through and gave up. And I was a little bummed because Ed Sheeran is on there somewhere, but it just wasn't worth it. So many of his songs were filled with misogynistic, unnecessarily racy, oversexed lyrics that any musicality was lost. He has a great throwback voice, reminiscent of the R&B of the 80s that I love, but this album was awful as far as I'm concerned. Watch, he'll probably win now.

Favorite tracks: Yeah right.

[No video. I don't want to waste your time.]

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My Choice: Of all of the albums here, Sound and Color by Alabama Shakes was my favorite. Top to bottom, music and lyrics, it is the best of the five in my opinion.

My Prediction: This one is tough for me. I can see it going many different ways. Something in my gut says that 1989 by Taylor Swift will rise here. I could make a case for To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, but that would buck some serious trends since the album seems way too edgy for a mainstream win.

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Next Up, Record of the Year.


Jimmy said...

What happened to my comment?

In case it was my fault, let me try to remember what I wrote--

I was happy to hear your critique of Taylor Swift's album. It is a solid pop effort. She won't win this category simply because she's the huge phenomenon that she is and I think they're looking for me of an edge from someone who wins this category, or at least something indicating that they've had more hardship in life than a teenage broken heart.

I was impressed with the country song you embedded. But nowadays I give credit to any country artist that sounds like real country and not the pop country that ruined the genre.

I have no idea who will win this category, but I enjoy your commentary!

Dr. Mark said...

Now I'm curious what it was you originally said. Hopefully all of your thoughts are here again. I think you're right about Taylor Swift. As much as a clean pop album represents a departure for her stylistically, I'm not sure it qualifies as something brand new from her. That being said, if she wins it's not unreasonable.

Chris Stapleton is a monster. I'm familiar enough with country to know that there are no gimmicks in his work. If he wants to keep the solo career going I think he has enough substance and talent to stick around for a long time.

I'm glad you enjoy the commentary. I'll be shocked if I'm right even once in all of this, but it's fun to speculate.

Siths and Jedis said...

I'm a little late to the party. I hadn't read any of these. But I just did and I am really enjoying these posts!

Jimmy said...

I remembered I left out another comment in my original post--

I'd never heard of Sound and Color before. The voice that came out of her in the song you shared was not what I was expecting. Wow!

Boquinha said...

Holy diversity, Batman! This is a REALLY big mix of music. No two albums are at all alike. How do the judges handle this?!? I honestly don't even know what to think. This one's hard.

Dr. Mark said...

Jimmy -- Right?! I remember hearing Alabama Shakes for the first time two years ago on the Grammys. I was thoroughly impressed. She writes all their songs, and if I remember correctly, they formed their band in high school.

Stacy -- Yep. No two sounds are alike. I don't know how they do it either.