I’ve already taken a stab at predicting the Grammy nominees for Best Pop Vocal Album – in review, they all have an important factor on their side: youth. Adele, Justin Bieber, and The 1975 are all under the age of 30, and while Sia is the rare pop star over 40, her mainstream success is young; she only truly broke through two years ago with her hit song “Chandelier.” Coldplay is the one true contender with veteran status, eligible for their seventh album. But even though their relatively safe arena-rock style has made them a Grammy staple for the last 15 years, they still maintain a healthy presence on Top 40 radio, adapting to modern pop and electronic sounds and collaborating with the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna.
Youth has become more and more important at the Grammys in the last five to seven years. Before that, earlier in the 2000s, the Best Pop Vocal Album category awarded legacy acts such as Steely Dan (“Two Against Nature,” 2000), Sade (“Lovers Rock,” 2001) and Ray Charles (“Genius Loves Company,” 2004). Even when younger artists won it was often for old-school musical styles that catered to older audiences like Norah Jones (“Come Away with Me,” 2002), Amy Winehouse (“Back to Black,” 2007) and Duffy (“Rockferry,” 2008).
But after Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (“Raising Sand”) beat out Radiohead and Lil’ Wayne for Album of the Year in 2009, the recording academy made a Swift turn (pardon the pun) towards all things young and hip, particularly in pop. Yes, Adele (“21,” 2011) and Sam Smith (“In the Lonely Hour,” 2014) have multi-generational fan bases, but even they have captured the youth zeitgeist in this new decade. And when consider other recent winners in the category — Black Eyed Peas (“The E.N.D,” 2009), Lady Gaga (“The Fame Monster,” 2010), Bruno Mars (“Unorthodox Jukebox,” 2013) — you can see that voters are focused on honoring those that define the current era, rather than the legends who laid the groundwork 30 years ago or more.
But even as a fresh face with hits on your side, breaking into the Grammy races can still be difficult. There is a certain prestige associated with these awards and breaking in as a nominee requires the perception of maturity and sophistication. Recently Ariana Grande missed out on a nomination on her first album, “Yours Truly” (2013), still seen as a Disney star attempting to cross over. But by the time her second album “My Everything” (2014) came out, she was a more mature, full-fledged pop star. Trading in dull Disney balladry for contemporary pop, electronic and hip-hop, Grande’s star rose and the Grammys took notice. “My Everything” received a Pop Vocal Album nom that year, and she’s back in the race this year with “Dangerous Woman.” Her third LP dives deeper into Grande’s adult experiences and reaches to affirm her status as a diva, comparable to Mariah Carey in vocal range and Rihanna in personality.
Though they came up in the same class of teenage TV stars, Ariana found quicker mainstream music success (and acclaim) than Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. But both of their latest albums, released one week apart back in October 2015, have brought each star closer to the pop zeitgeist than ever before. Gomez’s “Revival” and Lovato’s “Confident” feel like coming-of-age statements from defiant women who refused to be defined by their earlier entertainment ventures.
Similarly, two matured Jonas brothers compete – Nick Jonas with “Last Night Was Complicated,” and Joe Jonas with his new band DNCE‘s “Swaay.” I don’t expect either to make a huge dent this year without major sales or critical acclaim, though they could slip in to one of the pop performance categories.
While Nick and Joe try to push through the crowded field, the truest pop breakout this year was Shawn Mendes. His second album “Illuminate” was released right before the eligibility cutoff, which may help keep the record in voters’ minds as they make their picks. And while he carries a bit of teen-idol status that would normally hold him back from Grammy attention, his guitar-strumming, singer-songwriter style could make him a good bet to score a nomination or two.
Another genuine breakout name in 2016 was Lukas Graham. He and his band launched onto the charts with “7 Years,” a nostalgic bit of introspection that grabbed the hearts and ears of the general public. Having sold two million singles, it may be impossible for the Grammys to ignore Graham. But he may suffer from the same one-hit-wonder stigma that blocked Hozier from getting any nominations other than one for his hit single “Take Me to Church” two years ago.
One new artist with slightly better chances is Alessia Cara. Though her debut album, “Know It All,” didn’t yield a single quite as huge as “7 Years,” Alessia shows more signs of longevity and may be a better long-term investment for the recording academy.
Last year’s Best New Artist winner Meghan Trainor is back with her second effort, “Thank You,” hoping to continue her hot streak. But “Thank You” failed to produce a hit as ubiquitous as “All About That Bass,” so she may be overlooked
All of these fresh faces don’t leave much room for more senior acts to fill up the pop categories, like they did earlier in the 2000s. What do you think? Can any veterans break through the towering stack of fresh voices? Or will the new kids dominate this year’s ceremony?
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