The myth for a long time was that winning the Grammy for Best New Artist is a curse to the artist’s career, but with recent winners like John Legend, Carrie Underwood, Adele and last year’s champ Sam Smith all enjoying continued success the curse seems to have been lifted, if there ever really was a curse at all.
That being said, this year’s contest features some of the least recognizable names in the category’s history, leading me to believe it’s a wide open race. There is usually at least one New Artist nominee that is also nominated in the other general field categories of Album, Song or Record of the Year, but not this year. This is the first time since 2010 that the Best New Artist contenders are absent from the rest of the top four races. 2010 was also the last time the winner specifically — in that case Esperanza Spalding — had no other general-field bids.
So 2010 is best comparison to this contest. Looking back it seems almost silly that none of those nominees contended in the general field, considering Spalding’s competition was Drake, Florence and the Machine, Justin Bieber and Mumford and Sons, all of whom have gone on to success at the Grammy Awards, in their continued careers, or both. Just like in 2010, some of this year’s nominees are better known than others, allowing for the possibility of another surprise win from the least known contender.
The best known nominee is Meghan Trainor, who only last year was competing for Record and Song of the Year for “All About That Bass.” She lost both those contests to “Stay with Me” by last year’s Best New Artist, Sam Smith. Trainor was shockingly omitted from that New Artist lineup, but is instead up for it now, eligible because her debut album “Title” was released during this eligibility period (October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015), and many are expecting her to win. Trainor currently has 5/1 odds to win, placing her third behind two men, James Bay and Sam Hunt, but ahead of two other women, Courtney Barnett and Tori Kelly.
It’s ironic that our odds have the two men leading considering solo male artists are statistically the least likely acts to win the award. Since 1959, when the award was first established, solo female artists have won 25 of 54 times — there was no award given in 1966 and the 1989 award to Milli Vanilli was vacated — which is almost half. Duos or groups have won 18 times and solo male artists have only won 11 times. One of those 11 times was Smith last year, and before him there was John Legend in 2005, but before that the previous solo male artist victor was Marc Cohn in 1991, a 14-year gap.
Nevertheless, James Bay is projected to win with 1/1 odds, closely followed by Sam Hunt with 10/3 odds. Bay is nominated for two other awards, Best Rock Album (“Chaos and the Calm“) and Best Rock Song (“Hold Back the River“), both of which he’s in second place to win according to Gold Derby’s predictions. Those three bids make James Bay the nomination leader in this category, just ahead of Hunt who has two — the other being for Best Country Album (“Montevallo“).
It’s Sam Hunt who has arguably enjoyed the most critical success this year, at least within his own genre. Hunt has already been named New Artist of the Year at the American Music Awards and was nominated as such by the Country Music Association. His Grammy-nominated album “Montevallo” is also up for Album of the Year and its single “Take Your Time” for Single Record of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, where he was already named the New Artist of the Year in 2015. This type of recognition could easily propel Hunt to the Grammy win.
But instead we could be in for a surprise, where the winner is a lesser known female solo artist with only the Best New Artist nomination to her name. If that’s the case, either Tori Kelly or Courtney Barnett could echo Spalding’s 2010 win. Both are only nominated in this category. So is Meghan Trainor, technically, though I think her Record and Song nominations last year put a big asterisk on that fact.
Barnett is an Australian singer-songwriter who broke out in 2015 with her debut album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit,” which earned her four wins from eight nominations at last year’s ARIAs—Australia’s Grammy-equivalent industry award. In the US Barnett has a much smaller presence; her album only peaked at number-20 on the Billboard 200 album chart here.
Charting much higher was Tori Kelly’s debut album “Unbreakable Smile,” debuting at number-two, but Kelly’s acclaim has been a less consistent, with only Breakthrough Artist at the Billboard Women in Music event as a major claim to her name. Most Grammy watchers will instead probably know her from her flawless performance of her single “Should’ve Been Us” at the last VMAs.
With all that being said, my picks in this category are:
WILL win: Courtney Barnett
The bias against solo male artists is itself too much to ignore, and the fact that this year is set up a lot like 2010 reinforces the idea that one of the two lesser known female artists, Barnett and Kelly, will ultimately prevail. I move away from Kelly and toward Barnett because of a sense that Kelly and Trainor may very well split votes (they’re both pop artists with similar appeal). And the Grammys have recently taken this category as an opportunity to herald the coming of a new indie performer to keep your eyes on (see also: Bon Iver and Fun.).
SHOULD win: Sam Hunt
If this category is ever going to return to its former glory of awarding the artist that already had a breakthrough as opposed to possibly foreshadowing one — as they would with Barnett (and with Spalding before her) — then they have to give it to Hunt. Trainor has also had a great start to her career, but honestly she should have been up for the award last year, not this year. Instead it is Hunt who has proven to be an exciting newcomer within his genre, with the talent, chart positions, record sales and other awards to support his case.
Who do you think will win?