When Meghan Trainor announced the Grammy nominees for Album of the Year everything was generally going to plan. Ubiquitous pop star after ubiquitous pop star was named until the final nominee: “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” by Sturgill Simpson. It is perhaps the most curious inclusion in the category of the last 10 years. And yet, even though his nomination is straight out of left field, Simpson is generating some buzz that could possibly lead the country-rock up-and-comer to the Grammy stage on February 12. Let’s consider the pros and cons of his unlikely candidacy.
WHY STURGILL SIMPSON COULD WIN ALBUM OF THE YEAR
He is a “real musician.”
We may be in an era where producers dominate the charts, but when it comes to the Grammys the recording academy remains earnest in its efforts to reward singer-songwriter-instrumentalists. This sets Sturgill apart from his closest rivals – pop-oriented performers like Beyonce, Justin Bieber and Drake.
The album is good. And strange.
That’s gotta count for something, right? “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” stands with an 86 score on the aggregate site MetaCritic, indicating universal acclaim. Simpson’s roots are in country but his third album swings bluegrass on some tracks and rock on others, namely his cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” so he could also appeal to voters across genres.
He has no direct competition.
Two years ago, Beyonce was nominated here for her self-titled album, which outsold her competitors and dominated the musical conversation of 2013-2014. What seemed like a no-brainer to win the top prize was held back by a fellow R&B nominee Pharrell Williams (“GIRL”), as well as two other soul-focused pop albums by Ed Sheeran (“X”), and Sam Smith (“In the Lonely Hour”). In walked Beck, with a strange, mellow rock album “Morning Phase” that shot past his seemingly more culturally relevant competitors and won Album of the Year.
And here we are again. Queen Bey is back in the mix with “Lemonade.” With over 1.5 million albums sold, the best critical reception of this year’s nominees, and enough memes to last until her next surprise album release, her sixth studio album looks like a sure thing on paper. But with direct competition from other arena headliners that blend pop, electronic, and soul music, Beyonce could split votes with Adele, Justin Bieber, and Drake. For those enamored of 2016’s biggest A-listers, the crowd may split four ways. For voters looking to honor traditional musicianship and songwriting, Sturgill Simpson stands alone as this year’s sleeper pick for Album of the Year.
WHY STURGILL SIMPSON COULD LOSE ALBUM OF THE YEAR
His Country doesn’t Pop.
In the last 20 years, the only country artists to win in the general field have been Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, and the Dixie Chicks. But while these three acts were technically country, they achieved massive genre-smashing crossover success, conquering adult contemporary and Top 40 radio and selling millions of albums. Sturgill’s more insular brand of alt-country will only work against him.
He doesn’t have much support from the recording academy outside of this nomination.
Most of the time the Album of the Year winner is a major nominee throughout the general field and genre categories. Fourteen of the last 20 Album of the Year recipients have had at least one other general field nomination. While Adele, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and Drake are all nominated for Record and/or Song of the Year as well as multiple times in their respective genre fields, Simpson’s lone other nomination is for Best Country Album.
He may not split the vote, but that doesn’t mean he has no competition.
Sturgill Simpson may not be a household name, but he is hardly a nobody. “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” has sold 150,000 copies so far and he’s playing “Saturday Night Live” on January 14. But nevertheless, there will be some voters asking themselves, “Who is he?”
The Grammys have been leaning very pop in the last five to six years, and this year’s crop of nominees is a perfect representation of their Top 40 bias. Sturgill’s four competitors were recently ranked as the top four bestselling albums of 2016 by Billboard magazine. All four were nominated for Video of the Year at the MTV VMAs. All four received album nominations at the fan-voted AMAs. If Sturgill Simpson wins Album of the Year, he will have defeated the following behemoths:
Justin Bieber: With the two biggest singles of 2016 (“Love Yourself” and “Sorry”), everyone is aware of and seems to be in support of “Purpose.”
Drake: “Views” has obliterated previous streaming records, helping the year’s biggest rap album remain in the Billboard 200 for the majority of the year.
Beyonce: “Lemonade” was one of the best reviewed albums of the year and the R&B diva was on the tip of everyone’s tongue from the debut of “Formation” to her takeover of the CMAs with the Dixie Chicks.
Adele: There’s not much that needs to be said here. “25” sold nine (NINE!) million copies and Adele hasn’t lost a Grammy in seven years.
So do you think Sturgill Simpson’s unique musicianship will work in his favor, or will his low profile keep him from the coveted prize?
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