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2017 Grammy Awards: The Races to Watch

Variety logo Variety 2/11/2017 Andrew Barker
© Provided by Variety

Predicting the big winners at the Grammy Awards is often a fool’s errand. Unlike the Oscars, which arrive after an endless succession of smaller awards ceremonies, there is no real Grammy bellwether, no way to take the temperature of likely voters. Even trying to read the tea leaves during the ceremony itself can be precarious, as many an artist will seem to be steamrolling through the genre categories during the afternoon’s pre-telecast awards ceremony, only to come up short when the biggest prizes are announced in primetime.

That said, here are some of the biggest matchups, tightest races, and most interesting categories to watch for on Sunday.

The Main Event

In spite of the above caveat against odds-making, it’s hard to see the competition for this year’s top three categories – song, record, and album of the year – coming down to anyone other than Beyonce or Adele. Both are nominated in all three, and the two were unquestionably the biggest names in music during this year’s eligibility period, with Adele’s “25” smashing seemingly unbreakable sales records, and Beyonce’s “Lemonade” standing as arguably the year’s most socio-politically significant piece of music.

The two are unlikely rivals: both have been effusive in their praise of the other, and both have experienced no shortage of Grammy attention. Adele is one of only two artists to have won all of the Grammys’ so-called “Big Four” general field statuettes (album, record, and song of the year, plus best new artist), and she has a total of 10 to her name. Beyonce has 20 Grammys, the second-highest total for a female artist. Adele and Beyonce also share the record for most Grammys won by a female artist in a single night, with six.

Yet those numbers only tell part of the story. Unlike Adele, Beyonce has only won once in the major categories, as one of the four credited writers on “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” for song of the year. She’s been nominated plenty in the major categories before, and has been on the losing end of some of the Recording Acad’s biggest recent surprises: Kings of Leon won record of the year for “Use Somebody” against her “Halo,” and Beck’s “Morning Phase” contentiously won album of the year over her 2013 self-titled fifth album.

As Beyonce increasingly transcends mere pop stardom to become the object of something resembling a secular religion, largely confining her Grammy honors to the R&B slots may start to seem more and more egregious. All the more so considering the wide-ranging cultural heft of “Lemonade,” which has already inspired dedicated college courses, and seen its component videos wind up on several film critics’ lists of 2016’s best films.

For that reason, it would make sense to see Beyonce take the night’s biggest prize, album of the year. One has to imagine a split in the big three categories, and song of the year (which is purely a songwriters award) seems like a perfect fit for Adele’s more classically composed hit “Hello”; while record of the year (which encompasses performance and production) may offer better odds for Beyonce’s “Formation,” a triumph of studiocraft, engineering, and the singer’s indomitable vocal presence.

Rookie of the Year

The Grammys’ best new artist category has a deserved reputation for unpredictability, having previously awarded Esperanza Spalding over both Drake and Justin Bieber; Shelby Lynne for her sixth album; and most infamously, Milli Vanilli for music they turned out not to have performed. But compared to the category’s past eccentricities, this year’s nominees present a rounded group of critical darlings and commercial champs, all of them more-or-less new. Though they may leave purists cold, the Chainsmokers had two nearly inescapable pop hits last year, and country pop singer Kelsea Ballerini seems poised to become a successor to Carrie Underwood, who won the award ten years ago. Packing more critical cred on the Nashville side is Maren Morris, the flinty singer-songwriter who hit paydirt with her hit “My Church.” Critics swooned over Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu,” which blended R&B, jazz, and hip-hop with a dexterous touch, and few newcomers enjoyed more plaudits and exposure than Chicago’s Chance the Rapper. Will voters reward pure chart success, or hope to stake a claim on an emerging superstar?

Chance’s Chances

As one of 2016’s biggest breakout stars, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Chance is well represented at the Grammys, with a best new artist nod and six other nominations. What is surprising, however, is that the 23-year-old has accrued such support despite the fact that he has yet to release a physical album, and has never signed to a record label. Like previous efforts “10 Day” and “Acid Rap,” his 2016 breakthrough, “Coloring Book,” was classified as a mixtape, and self-released entirely digitally. (It’s the first streaming-only album to be Grammy-nominated.) It will be interesting to see how fully the label executive ranks of Grammy voters embrace an artist who managed to climb the charts without their help.

Nashville Bloodlines

Even though this writer’s personal pick for 2016’s best country full-length – Miranda Lambert’s “Weight of These Wings” – was released after the Grammy deadline, the country album category is particularly dense this year, with nominees representing all of country music’s most prominent strands. Do voters go for Loretta Lynn, the 84-year old grand dame still enjoying her late-career renaissance? Can they ignore Maren Morris, whose debut seems to set a template for modern country that engages with pop and R&B without sacrificing its identity? Do they lean toward the reliable four-quadrant appeal of Keith Urban, or the respected Nashville pro Brandy Clark? Or do they help keep country’s outlaw fringe alive, with Sturgill Simpson’s Waylon Jennings-inspired, Nirvana-covering “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” (also a surprise nominee for album of the year)?

What in the World?

For anyone well versed in the whims of the Recording Academy, major nominations for David Bowie’s “Blackstar” almost felt like a foregone conclusion. In Bowie, voters had a genuine musical icon who had gone completely unrecognized by the Grammys in his heyday; an album that was hailed as a late-career masterpiece (snagging Bowie his first ever No. 1 album in the U.S.); and the added attention and recognition that accompanied his January 2016 death. Any one of those qualifications would usually have been enough for serious Grammy love, but instead, “Blackstar” was shut out in all the major categories. Bowie’s swansong is nonetheless up for five awards in genre and technical categories – including the rather emaciated best rock performance category, where his competition includes a live recording of an Alabama Shakes song, and Disturbed’s cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” from Conan O’Brien – so expect to see voters make up for its absence in the top slots.

Standard Setters

Introduced in 1992, the best pop traditional pop vocal album historically represented a rather sleepy corner of the Grammy program – more than half of the category’s awards have gone to Tony Bennett. But with the rising popularity of standards albums from unlikely characters, the category has grown increasingly colorful. This year, adult-contemporary mainstays Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli are stacked up against Barbra Streisand (who last won a Grammy 30 years ago), as well as the more ragged likes of Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. The winner is unlikely to make Monday morning headlines, but it’s precisely this sort of apples-and-oranges showdown that helps make the Grammy pre-telecast races worth watching.

The Grammys air Sunday at 8pm ET/5pm PT on CBS.

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