Early Grammys frontrunners for Album of the Year: Taylor Swift, Drake, …

The 57th Annual Grammy Awards may have just passed (#TeamBeck? #TeamBeyonce?) but we’re already six months into the eligibility period for next year’s awards. The Grammys’ wacky calendar stretches from October 1 to September 30, which means that April Fools’ Day marks the halfway point. We have a not-so-short list of marquee names gearing up for releases in the next half-year but there are already some strong budding contenders. Below, a recap of the albums released so far that could very well number among the nominees come December’s announcement.

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It would be foolish to start anywhere but Taylor Swift’s first official foray into pop music, “1989.” Swift is a previous winner for 2008’s “Fearless” and reaped an addition nomination last year for “Red.” And just like those albums, her newest set has been an absolute blockbuster, selling more than 4.5 million copies so far and spawning several hit singles. “1989” has also seen an unprecedented level of critical acclaim for Swift, gracing the top-10 of Pazz + Jop’s annual year-end roundup of critics’ favorites. The combination of critical and commercial success, in addition to Swift’s complete cultural ubiquity makes “1989” a near sure thing for an Album of the Year nomination and the current frontrunner to win.

But if the Grammys are ready to stray from the pop and rock domination of the last several years, the first place they would look would be “To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar. Released one week ahead of schedule, Kendrick’s second album was met with unanimous critical praise. It is less radio-friendly than Lamar’s previous AOTY contender, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” but the politically charged album seems to be pleasing fans and bloggers as much as his debut. A hit single would seal the deal in order to keep “TPAB” in voters’ minds until the fall, and “King Kunta” and “Alright” are his best bets.

Another possible politically provocative contender is D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah.” After 14 years of false starts since his seminal “Voodoo,” D’Angelo announced his follow-up on a Friday and released the entire thing just two days later. Overwhelmed by the return of an R&B legend, fans were more-than-relieved to discover that “Voodoo” was not a fluke – “Black Messiah” turned out to be a masterpiece, combining political musings, personal confessions and sensual teasing. Sales were relatively strong, but if D’Angelo makes it to the final shortlist, it will be because of the critical praise and general weight of the album.

On the heels of Beck‘s surprise win two months ago, another alternative veteran who could find a nomination is Bjork for her heartbreak opus, “Vulnicura.” While she has never received a bid in the top three categories, six of her albums have received (fruitless) nominations in the Alternative field. This surprisingly personal album and the build-up of two decades of groundbreaking work (plus a much-publicized career-spanning exhibit at New York’s MoMA) could be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back and yields her an Album of the Year nod. 

Foo Fighters have been exceptionally reliable rock nominees over the last 20 years. Their last two releases secured Album of the Year nominations and their newest, “Sonic Highways,” could make it a three-peat. Dave Grohl & co. promoted the new LP with an eight-part HBO mini-series showing the band creating the album, inspired by the musical histories of the eight major cities where they recorded.

Drake pulled a Beyonce on us, releasing “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” out of nowhere on a Friday morning in February. It’s an album worth mentioning, having posted the biggest opening week so far in a surprisingly strong sales year. But if he couldn’t sneak into the top category with his bigger and better predecessors, I have trouble imagining this mix tape-cum-official album competing with the big dogs. And if Drake can’t push through, things don’t look good for label-mate Nicki Minaj. Her third LP, “The Pinkprint,” is a solid effort but is unlikely to do much damage, given her shockingly bleak Grammy history.

Another album that has me split is Mark Ronson‘s “Uptown Special.” Ronson is as Grammy-friendly as they come, having won Producer of the Year back in 2007 for his retro-meets-modern styling that brought Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Adele to the forefront. And his new album’s lead single is a freaking monster. But compared to the five million singles sold by “Uptown Funk,” its home album hasn’t even broken 100,000 copies. If “Uptown Special” can’t yield another hit single, I’m guessing Ronson’s nominations will be limited to his Bruno Mars collaboration and perhaps a Pop Album nod.

Other albums weighed down by an overwhelmingly huge lead single are debut efforts from Hozier and Meghan Trainor. Both are Best New Artist frontrunners and received general-field nominations for their hit singles at this past year’s ceremony. But despite strong album sales for both, Trainor’s album may seem too lightweight and Hozier may struggle to replicate the success of “Take Me to Church.” But if he can steer closer to the trajectory of Fun. rather than Gotye, he could surprise at the 2016 ceremony. We should continue to watch both artists, but their hype might have peaked too soon.

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If NARAS wants to get adventurous, it would be lovely to see alternative gems from Sleater-Kinney, Father John Misty or Modest Mouse recognized. Budding stars James Bay and Sam Hunt could ride a wave of hype to challenge the aforementioned superstars. If there were not already strong competition from their hip-hop peers, J. Cole or even Run the Jewels would be potential dark-horse candidates as well. Despite a Grammy win last year and a number-one debut for their new album, it is unlikely that Imagine Dragons will compete against Swift and Lamar given the lukewarm reception for their new album.

The artists and albums mentioned above are not our only options. The next six months have an incredible lineup of impending releases. We are expecting albums from Mumford & Sons, Rihanna, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Florence + the Machine, Muse, Alabama Shakes, Sia and Zac Brown Band, among others. Rumor has it we won’t hear anything new until 2016 but we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that Adele could make her hugely anticipated return before October. Eyeing similar hype to Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean may unleash his sophomore effort in time. Bruno Mars is riding high for now on “Uptown Funk,” but he is supposedly hard at work on his third proper album.

Even if those last few headliners don’t release before September 30, this is shaping up to be a hugely competitive year.

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