The Best New Artist nominees at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards present a wonderful cross-section of the recorded music industry. Nominated are: Justin Bieber--Pop Drake--Hip-Hop Florence & The Machine--Alternative Mumford & Sons--English Folk/Rock Esperanza Spalding--Jazz/Fusion
The first thing to know about the category is the rule change. Thanks to the "controversy" (see: record label threw a fit and screamed at NARAS until they fixed it) over Lady Gaga being ineligible for Best New Artist because of a prior nomination, the eligibility requirements have changed. Only artists who released a full-length album (not just "a recording" as the website lists) during the nomination year (roughly October 2009 to September 2010) are eligible. That means artists like Nicki Minaj and Bruno Mars couldn't be nominated because they didn't release an album in that period. Just how this is less flawed than the other method remains to be seen, for as far as I know, the "previous nomination" disqualification still applies.
The most important thing to know and understand about the category is what these artist do and why they would be nominated.
First up is Justin Bieber. Mock him all you want to, this young artist has a lot of respect within the recorded music industry. He sings, he plays his own instruments, and he puts on a show. Bringing in an exorbitant amount of money for his record label off of an EP (My World) before the full length album (My World 2.0, comprised of all new songs) was ready is impressive. Essentially, my point is this: just because he's not marketed to you doesn't mean he isn't talented already and can't mature past the teeny bopper phase to something more universal.
Justin Bieber performs pop music layered over R&B beats. His tenor vocal (not soprano, not girlish either, as many professional tenors can sing all of his music without falsetto) is pure and straight tone--no vibrato. He has tremendous stage presence for such a young musician and, thankfully, is allowed to be a kid still by his team. The pitfall of many young artists is being forced to grow up too soon. They aren't allowed to spend time with their friends, aren't allowed to get an education, and are treated like wind-up toys, only to be tossed out when the paint chips and the key rusts. Even more impressive about Bieber's team is the amount of training they are providing for his voice and proper adjustments as his voice changes again. The keys are being lowered and his act is becomingly less dance-heavy as he adjusts. It's the right thing to do. Many young singers see their voices change, then change again as they mature. I'm currently working with a high tenor who magically transformed into a strong, masculine baritone over the summer and a deep bass who now has a two and a half octave range (well into Tenor I territory) in full voice before his lovely falsetto kicks in for an extra octave and a half.
Next is Drake, a singing rap artist. I was surprised by how much singing he does on his first major label release. He doesn't have the best voice, but it works so well with the style of his music. His flow is very smooth and--mercy me--he enunciates. I don't have to listen to his tracks multiple times to understand what he's rapping about.
Drake came to fame by way of mixtapes, wherein he would rap over other artist's beats. This is a common strategy to get recognized by other people in the Hip-Hop industry. He began doing guest spots on other tracks, notably Mary J. Blige's "The One" and Rick Ross' "Ashton Martin Music." He's also heavily featured in the Young Money singles "Every Girl" and "BedRock." Drake is an intelligent and talented young rapper with a bright future so long as he sticks with his musical instincts.
Essential Listening: "Up All Night," "Best I Ever Had"
Florence & The Machine is a curious ocurrence in the music industry. Though she (Florence is the act, though she gives credit in the title to her song-writing partner The Machine, so it's a Sade/Sade situation) has had a good deal of success overseas, she just wasn't pushed in America. The more common situation is an artist from another country is pushed through Europe or Asia (depending on country of origin) than tossed at America if their label thinks they can cross over to this market. Florence & The Machine was introduced to America with the trailer to Eat, Pray, Love where her song "Dog Days Are Over" was heavily used. The buzz seemed to fade until she was a surprise multiple-VMA nominee for the second music video she made for that song.
Florence & The Machine is in that in-between zone like a Kate Bush, Tori Amos, or Fiona Apple. It's not quite rock, and it's not quite pop, and it's not quite alternative, either, but that's how "other" acts are classified. It's a friendly place to be. Florence & The Machine take a very relaxed approach to songwriting. Singer Florence Welch admitted on an interview with Chelsea Handler that she often writes songs while drunk or hungover so she doesn't over think the writing process. To come up with these beautiful, challenging arrangements, she has to work sober, but the lyrics and melodies are very free and open to interpretation.
Mumford & Sons are even stranger nominees than Florence & The Machine. They are a traditional-sounding but wildly inventive English Folk band. The quartet plays old-fashioned instruments--accordion, mandolin, banjo, dobro--but writes all of their own original music. It's a fun new spin on an older genre and they are experiencing unexpected cross-over success with their hit single "Little Lion Man."
I will say that I found this group very off-putting based on their singles. The lead singer's voice was grating and many of the arrangements felt labored. Then I listened to the album. It's brilliant. They create and maintain a unique sonic landscape that does not grow tired or repetitive. There are thematic threads woven through the music, almost as if there is a grander story to Sigh No More than the lyrics alone would leave you to believe. There is. They borrow themes and lyrics from the works of Shakespeare and Steinbeck and I appreciate how willing the band is to expose that they are intelligent, accomplished musicians.
Essential Listening: "Little Lion Man," "White Blank Page"
The final Best New Artist nominee is the strangest of all. Esperanza Spalding is a jazz musician. She sings and plays upright bass. She is a highly-trained musician who jumped through many instruments before falling in love with the bass. She is nominated for her third album as a band leader, Chamber Music Society.
I will make it no secret that Esperanza Spalding is my favorite nominee. What she does is so cool and smooth. I can't find any fault with it. Unfortunately, if the voting body of the Grammys stick to their guns (they will), she has no chance of winning this category. I doubt they'll even let her perform live at the ceremony. What she does is just too low-key for that to happen. However, being nominated opens her up to a whole new audience of people willing to take the initiative to discover her. It's worth it. She's currently touring the US and worth seeing if she comes near you.
The last thing you need to know is how likely these acts are to win Best New Artist. Every voting member of NARAS can vote in this category.
Justin Bieber and Drake most likely do not have the cross-over appeal outside of their genre to win the award.
Florence & The Machine have a big label pushing them for the win, but it's unlikely to work as she's just not well-known enough beyond "Dog Days Are Over."
Esperanza Spalding is nominated for a genre that rarely breaks into the main categories, so she will either be embraced for doing what she does so well or ignored for being too low-key and removed from mainstream recording.
Which leaves us with Mumford & Sons, my pick to win the category. They have commercial success and cross-over appeal, as their music falls in between country and rock. There is no legitimate country act, so they will pick up a lot of votes from that branch of the academy; the same can be said for rock music. Cross-over bands traditionally do well in this category and I doubt Mumford & Sons will be an exception.