Album of the Year by Adora Adeyemi
Prediction: SOUR (2021)
Should Win: SOUR, Planet Her (2021), or Evermore (2020)
While one would have expected music to slow down in the tumultuous year of 2020, the chaos resulted in an output of a wide variety of excellent projects. This was reflected in last year’s Album of the Year category with nominees including a synth-pop album that felt like a burst of energy, a quiet indie-folk album that acted as a form of escape, and much more. After such a great year for music, people wondered “what’s next?”
And just like that, Olivia Rodrigo burst onto the scene. Somewhat known for her roles on Disney shows Bizaardvark and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (mouthful of a title but incredibly fun to say), the teen actress’ name became known all through the internet when she dropped her smash hit debut single “drivers license” at the start of 2021. Followed by a couple more catchy singles, this all culminated in the release of her debut album SOUR, which elevated her into an unprecedented amount of sudden and widespread fame. The album was praised for its lyricism and eclectic pop Gen Z feel with themes of adolescence and heartbreak. A quick listen with a mere 11 tracks, even the “deep cuts” became inescapable as the project topped the Billboard charts and stayed there a long time. Its hold on popular culture combined with the amount of acclaim it’s received made it impossible for the Grammys to ignore and a frontrunner for the biggest award of the ceremony.
However, is SOUR really the Album of the Year? Well it depends on what you define as that title. While it did feel like it was everywhere, so was Planet Her, Doja Cat’s album infused with R&B, pop, and rap. The singer-rapper may have already been popular for some time, but this past year has seen her at her best, with Planet Her cementing her versatile style and solidifying her status as a hard-hitter in the music scene today. She’s definitely due some kind of honor for it all but, considering she’s nominated for several other categories, the win may not necessarily have to come from here.
But what if Album of the Year is just the best album on a purely technical level? Then, I don’t think it should go to Planet Her, or even SOUR—instead it might just belong to Evermore. The cozy alt-rock folk project was surprise-dropped by Taylor Swift in December 2020, mere months after Folklore (the current holder of the prestigious title). Upon its release there was one question on everyone’s mind: Does this live up to the previous groundbreaking project? My answer is yes! The project provided even more stories to tell and a varied sound to set it apart from its sister album. Despite immense acclaim, the Recording Academy only nominated the album for this one field (although, arguably the most important). If Swift wins, she will not only be the artist with the most wins in the category but also one of the few people to receive the award back-to-back. As deserved as this is, I imagine it would be faced with backlash (which truly shouldn’t be a factor here). But while the album was well-received by the public, it didn’t have quite the same dominating impact on culture as SOUR. And so that brings us back to square one. Despite there being others deserving of the award, Olivia Rodrigo’s debut project is a worthy winner of the highest honor of the night.
Record of the Year by Maanasi Chintamani & Francesca Theofilou
Prediction: “Happier than Ever” by Billie Eilish
Should Win: “Happier than Ever” by Billie Eilish
Should have gotten nominated: “INDUSTRY BABY (feat. Jack Harlow)” by Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow
While Song of the Year recognizes the writers of the biggest and best song each year, Record of the Year holistically looks at production, artist performance, sound mixing, and anything else that goes into a hit track.
This year’s category recognizes music from a broad range of genres and artists. Nominees range from “Freedom,” an upbeat jazz record by Jon Batiste, the most nominated artist this year, to Doja Cat and SZA’s infectious summertime hit “Kiss Me More.” ABBA’s comeback single, “I Still Have Faith In You,” is also nominated; in contrast to the band’s beloved and era-defining danceable disco bops, “I Still Have Faith In You” is an contemplative ballad, and frankly far from ABBA’s best work. The nomination, ABBA’s first, appears to reflect an effort on the part of the Academy to finally acknowledge the prolific band rather than a recognition of this particular record.
Take a quick look at the past winners of this Grammy and you’ll notice an interesting trend emerging: the winner last year was Billie Eilish for “Everything I Wanted,” and the winner the previous year was…also Billie Eilish, for “Bad Guy.” While two other artists, Roberta Flack and U2, have won two consecutive Record of the Year awards, no one has ever gone for a three-peat. Eilish’s career is just getting started, and she has already achieved tremendous success at the Grammys: a total of 17 nominations and seven wins, including a sweep of the top four general categories in 2019. Eilish’s nomination this year for “Happier Than Ever,” is well deserved, and given Eilish’s talent and the Academy’s love for her, all signs point to an unprecedented third consecutive Record of the Year.
I am adding my own category for this one because I strongly believe that “INDUSTRY BABY” (feat. Jack Harlow) by Lil Nas X should have received the nomination instead of “MONTERO.” Lil Nas produced a brilliant album full of hits that deserves recognition by the Grammys, but due to the strength of other nominees, as well as the favoritism present in the Grammys selection team, I fear we will not see him win this year. But alas, if only “INDUSTRY BABY” had been nominated for Record of the Year. The song has it all, fantastic vocals from two hit artists, the catchiest backing track (who knew trumpets could go so hard), and larger-than-life production. “MONTERO” is another fantastic and catchy single and utilizes a combination of different instruments and vocals that weave together an interesting and unique melody, but it does not have the head-turning quality that “INDUSTRY BABY” possesses. At the end of the day, I do really hope Lil Nas wins one of the awards he is nominated for, because MONTERO (2021) is such a brilliant and promising debut LP and deserves more credit.
In regards to who deserves the title of the Record of the Year, we are sticking with our predicted win, “Happier Than Ever.” I want to give an honorable mention to “Leave the Door Open” by Silk Sonic, because it is such an original, smoothly produced track with stunning vocals and rhythmic choices. Its production, as well as the truly silky voices of the artists, deserve a round of applause, but the track does not pack enough punch to win Record of the Year in the same way these other two songs do.
“Happier than Ever” is a truly brilliant song, and in my opinion, a far more interesting song than Eilish’s winning track last year. The five minute masterpiece begins with a soft and melodic tune that fits Eillish’s angelic voice perfectly, accompanied by soft acoustic guitar strums. The guitar, now clearly electric, then builds at around the halfway point as the energy of the song completely shifts. Accompanied with a strong bass and incredible drum beat, Eillish shows off her belt in a way we have never seen from her before. The song makes so many unique and surprising production choices, and the finished product is not just catchy, but truly electric. With excellence in both vocal and production fields, the song is a perfect win for Record of the Year.
Song of the Year by Maanasi Chintamani
Prediction: “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo
Should Win: “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo
Song of the year recognizes excellence in songwriting, and even in a stacked category, nothing compares to “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo. Lyrically, Rodrigo offered listeners insight into the angst and emotions of a teenage breakup, evoking the universal rites of passage of growing up: from getting your driver’s license to experiencing first love and heartbreak. Her writing conjured vivid images of the sights and sounds of suburbia, creating an immersive listening experience unparalleled in any of the other nominations. In July 2020, Rodrigo first posted an acoustic demo of “drivers license” on her Instagram, accompanied only by her piano. Working alongside with her primary collaborator Dan Nigro, Rodrigo left the lyrics relatively untouched from the Instagram clip, maintaining the authenticity and poignancy that had characterized the original video of her at the piano. It is this rawness that differentiates “drivers license” from its competitors; tracks like “Bad Habits,” “Peaches,” and “Montero” offer hyper-polished pop perfection, and lack the unique lyrical voice and artistry that Rodrigo demonstrates.
Melodically, “drivers license” builds on its exceptional lyricism. The ascending line in the pre-chorus as Rodrigo wonders, “and I know we weren’t perfect but I’ve never felt this way for no one” mirrors the rising intensity of the lyrics, transitioning the listener from the concrete images and details of the verse to the abstract questions and declarations of the chorus. The song takes risks; an unexpected twist at the bridge creates an expansive climax of sound and emotion.
This build over the course of the song is not unlike that of “Happier Than Ever,” which also features complementary lyrics and melodies that culminate in a euphoric yet devastating anthem. However, I don’t see “Happier Than Ever” winning this award; while the Grammys have shown a degree of favoritism towards Eilish in the past, I think they will split the two big categories of Song and Record of the Year between Rodrigo and Eilish. The Academy has faced criticism in recent years for being out-of-touch with the musical landscape, and to counter those charges, I expect the Grammys to recognize Rodrigo, hailed by many as the next pop megastar, in a big way this year to demonstrate their timely awareness of emerging talents.
Best New Artist by Francesca Theofilou and Maanasi Chintamani
Prediction: Olivia Rodrigo
Should Win: Olivia Rodrigo
According to the Recording Academy, this category seeks to recognize the artist who, in the past year, “achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and notably impacted the musical landscape.” With this description in mind, the Grammy seems to be Olivia Rodrigo’s to lose. Her rise from Disney Channel star to pop starlet occurred literally overnight, when her song “drivers license” was released in January 2021. Her rapid growth was unprecedented, and she went from near-anonymity to those who did not watch her shows, to a household name, in days. She is sure to be a Grammy favorite, as she is a young artist churning out classic pop tracks, but she is also incredibly deserving of this accolade.
All of the typical predicting factors lean in her favor. She shattered records with her debut album, “SOUR,” which included two #1 hits, “drivers license” and “good 4 u.” Rodrigo announced, and then promptly sold out, her tour in support of the album. She notched big wins at the AMAs, Billboard Music Awards, Brits, and VMAs (among other awards), and a spot on the Time 100 list.
This year’s Best New Artist contest features the most nominees ever. It’s worth noting that the Grammys recently changed the rules of eligibility for the category—in 2020, the Academy lifted restrictions on artists who had already released 30 songs or three albums at the time of nomination. This allowed more established artists, such as Glass Animals–who broke through with their hit “Heat Waves”—to be nominated, despite having a longer career and larger repertoire than those who just debuted.
Plenty of the other nominees attained massive successes this year, from the Kid Laroi’s chart-topping collaboration “Stay” with Justin Bieber to Saweetie’s TikTok-friendly “Tap In” and “Best Friend.” In any other year, someone with as many viral hits as Saweetie, or as clear of an original voice as Arlo Parks, would have had a true shot at winning the award, but Rodrigo’s climb to the top of charts and hearts is too significant to ignore. The criteria for Best New Artist also recognize an artist’s impact on the music industry, and in that department, Rodrigo reigns supreme. Her incorporation of early-2000s pop-punk influences contributed to the overall resurgence of that sound, while her raw, angsty lyricism set forth a defining trend of 2021.
Over the course of the year, Rodrigo launched herself into the upper echelons of the pop music industry, and established herself as a household name. In addition to unparalleled commercial success, she released quality records that showcased a unique stylistic and narrative voice, and influenced the genre as a whole. As with former winners of this category like Adele, Megan Thee Stallion, and Amy Winehouse, all eyes are on Rodrigo to see what she does next.