Handicapping the Grammys: Part One: Best New Artist

How I love awards season. The film nominations are trickling in with all the expected results, while the ire over how out of touch the music industry is with the general public is bubbling up to its annual climax at the Grammy Awards.

Last night, the Grammy Awards Nomination Concert was broadcast to better than expected results on CBS. LL Cool J hosted, an odd choice that worked out well. He's a charming entertainer and well-loved by NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences). He managed to make brief diversions to odd choices like a Jonas Brothers' solo project and an up-with-Jesus Christmas Country Anthem (by Sugarland, who I love, just an odd choice for this event) seem fitting.

But let's get to more pressing matters.

Here are your nominees for Best New Artist:

Country act Zac Brown Band:

This is a traditional country act (as close as you get in the post-"all country has drums and electric instruments" era), and NARAS haven't rewarded a traditional country act in years (Carrie Underwood won Best New Artist because she was a crossover, Zac Brown Band is pure country, ala Sugarland or Brad Paisley, former nominees - not winners). Their biggest single, "Chicken Fried", reached #20 on the Hot 100 without Top 40/Contemporary Hit Radio airplay. It was not a crossover single. In the year of Taylor Swift domination, I see their chance as very strong to win this category. Partly because Swift has pushed country to the forefront of their minds, partly as a reaction to Swift's pop-country crossover status that is almost always controversial; they will be asking themselves "Is she too pop to be country?" and vice versa. Expect some Swift upsets but love for Zac Brown Band. Zac Brown Band have the most nominations of any Best New Artist nominee.

R&B industry songwriting veteran Keri Hilson:

Keri Hilson is a well-respected songwriter in the industry, penning hits for Britney Spears, Ciara, and Usher. She's paid her dues as a back-up and featured singer on many tracks in R&B, Hip-Hop, Rap, and Urban Alternative music and struggled to get her debut solo album just right. "Knock You Down" was a monster hit for her, reach #3 on the Hot 100 with major airplay, and everyone was clamoring to appear on her debut album for years. "Turnin' Me On" did well on the charts, reaching #15 on the Hot 100, but it did that outside of Top 40/Contemporary Hit Radio  If the industry wants to recognize one of their own, Keri Hilson is the obvious choice. She's a known commodity even if many Americans had not known her before March 2009. Two nominations alone do not mean that she is out of the running. Artists have won Best New Artist on that single nomination before. Interesting fact: her name is not "Miscarry" as many of my friends say again and again; she sings "Miss Keri, baby" on one of her tracks, causing the confusion.

Rock/Pop/Electronic/Alternative band MGMT:

This is a pop/electric/rock/alternative duo from Brooklyn. I'm surprised they're nominated to be honest. I'm surprised by the rest of the Best New Artist nominees to be completely candid. Whatever woke the industry up to smaller, edgier acts this year in this category makes me happy. I can't see something this synth heavy winning, especially without the big breakout hits or long-standing love like the other nominees. I'm guessing the closest they have is "Kids," the single responsible for their only other nomination (Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group). It only reached #90 on the Hot 100. They do have greater international support than any other nominee, charting in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Italy, the Baltic States (European Hit Radio), New Zealand, Norway, the UK, and the US. The nomination is the reward here, especially since this is their second album (the first released under the name The Management before legality caused the name change) and NARAS is turning against non-debut albums being nominated.

Speaking of nomination as the reward...

Alt/Rock band Silversun Pickups:

This was the shock. When NARAS makes statements claiming Phoenix isn't eligible for Best New Artist because they released four albums already, how does one justify Silversun Pickups three album discography being nominated here? Or past nominees that kicked around for years, like Susan Tedeschi (winner) and David Gray? I'm over the moon for them. I've been a big fan for years and it's nice to see them finally nominated for what will probably be the first and last time. "Panic Switch" has been my jam for a while now, though their airplay and sales are pretty lackluster. They have a great groove to their songs and a strong pop sensibility. The hooks are catchy and Brian Aubert's voice is unique in a good way. "Panic Switch" is their highest charting single, but that was #98 on the Hot 100 (#1 on Mod, the Alternative charts). I'm doubting a win here. Not being nominated for Best Alternative Album is a pretty good indication of this. It's rare for the winner to not be nominated in their own genre elsewhere.

British Dance Duo The Ting Tings:

Probably my favorite of the nominees. Their great beats, catchy hooks, and very long singles saved me many times at a thankless music/drama teaching camp position this summer. A game of freeze dance, no eliminations, to "That's Not My Name" could go on for 10+ minutes. But I digress. It's fun pop/dance music and they had two distinct Top 40/Contemporary Hit Radio hits in the eligibility period "Shut Up and Let Me Go" and "That's Not My Name." That's significant, as they're the only band with that much airplay in America (MGMT and Keri Hilson get just as much UK play as The Ting Tings, but haven't matched it domestically). Like Silversun Pickups, this is their only nomination. The popularity and airplay could lead to a win, but it's an outside chance. Bonus points for being an awesome album to use on the treadmill at the gym. Just watch out for singing along and getting yelled at by your neighbors.

My prediction: While country hasn't won in a while, this was a big year for R&B/Hip Hop and Keri Hilson is a known commodity. Keri Hilson by a nose, though Zac Brown Band are very much in the race. The Ting Tings are the dark horse, as their airplay and visibility are higher than any other nominee thanks to two hit singles in Top 40/Contemporary Hit Radio.

Next Thursday: Best Record and Best Song

Important Note:

NARAS has been panicking for weeks because Lady Gaga, the second biggest breakout artist of the eligibility period (behind Taylor Swift in sales and airplay), was ineligible for my favorite category of Best New Artist because "Just Dance" was nominated for an award at the previous Grammys. They've apologized and swore up and down it will never, ever, ever happen again.

Really. They plan on rewriting the rules because a performance artist from NJ couldn't win?

The fact is, the response to The Fame was comparatively tepid by NARAS, choosing safe song "Poker Face" over better by all objective musical standards (composition, lyrics, theory, production design) "Paparazzi" as their focus, leaving Lady Gaga nominated in the Big Three - Album, Song, and Record - with little chance of winning (also Dance Recording again and Best Electronic/Dance Album - dance artists aren't exactly respected, and the omission from Pop categories is very telling; more on that in another post).