Some Grammy nominations didn’t miss the mark.
By Gregg Shapiro
Almost every year after the Grammy Award nominations are announced, it’s not uncommon to find this writer shaking his head in disbelief and disillusionment. This year is no exception. The exclusion of TV on The Radio’s acclaimed Dear Science (DGC/Interscope) is one example of a slight by out-of-touch NARAS (National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences) voters, who think Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentleman is more deserving of an “Album of the Year” Grammy nomination. Needless to say, not all of the Grammy noms missed the mark.
Nominated in the Best Contemporary World Music Album category, Lila Downs, backed by her NYC band LA Misteriosa, honors her heritage, takes risks, and comes out a winner, no matter what, on Shake Away (Manhattan). A showcase for her versatility, as both a co-songwriter and an interpreter of others’ songs, Downs channels Lucinda Williams twice. On the original “Minimum Wage,” she proves herself to be a bluesy storyteller, and on “Yo Envidio el Viento,” a Spanish version of Williams’ “I Envy the Wind,” she brings the compliment full-circle. Other standouts include “Ojo de Culebra,” “Perro Negro,” “Taco de Palabras,” and “Tierra de Luz,” and singular renditions of the Blue Nile’s “I Would Never” and “Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” (featuring Raul Midon). Perhaps Juana Molina’s Un Dia (Domino) will receive a similar Grammy honor next year.
Not even Beck is immune to the retro pop trend, and with Modern Guilt (DGC), nominated in a couple categories, he makes a place for himself as the male voice in the scene, somewhere between The Bird and The Bee and Amy Winehouse. Just try to resist twisting the night away to “Gamma Ray” which makes reference to both a “transistor sound” (vintage) and “icecaps melting down” (current). The title track sounds like it was touched by The Doors, and the updated hand-jive of “Youthless” may have you throwing your hands in the air, as much to dance as to surrender to the hopeless, bottomless pit of the song’s message. There’s an echo of British invasion on “Profanity Prayers” and some recent retro to the drum’n bass of “Replica.”
A father figure in the ranks, Al Green is continuing the artistic and creative comeback that started with 2003′s fittingly named I Can’t Stop. Green’s Lay It Down (Blue Note) garnered four Grammy nominations, including Best R&B Album. Still in possession of one of the most distinguished voices in music, Green revisits his trademark sound under the guidance of James Poyser and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson (of The Roots), but never sounds trapped in the past. These timeless new compositions, some of which include guest appearances by Corinne Bailey Rae, Anthony Hamilton, and John Legend, renew both the soul of the listener and that of soul music.
Following the stunning artistic breakthrough of 2004′s Transatlanticism and the mainstream success of 2006′s major-label Plans (reaching #4 on Billboard), Death Cab For Cutie were clearly at a crossroads. How to please longtime fans, new fans, and continue breaking new ground? Narrow Stairs (Atlantic/Barsuk), nominated for a couple of Grammys, is a respectable offering. And if they didn’t alienate some of the newbies with the nearly eight-and-a half-minute “I Will Possess Your Heart,” then that’s half the battle. Those who stuck with it were rewarded with “No Sunlight,” the Brian Wilson-colored “You Can Do Better Than Me,” and “Your New Twin Sized Bed.”
As with some of the others mentioned here, Coldplay has a few Grammy Awards under its belt. Nominated for more than a half dozen Grammys for Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends (Capitol), Coldplay’s decision to work with legenadary musician/producer Brian Eno sounds like it paid off in a number of ways. In addition to broadening the band’s sound in different ways (the subtle gospel influence on “Lost!” and the Middle Eastern strings on “Yes”), the band may have had its biggest hit single with the irresistible “Viva La Vida.” Viva Coldplay!
Southern rock kin, the Followills of Kings of Leon, fry up some gritty modern musical anthems on Only by the Night (RCA). Shaking off their red-state roots, they have their say on “Sex on Fire,” “Crawl,” the burning bass line of “Manhattan,” the loop on “Revelry,” and the chill of “Cold Desert.”
While Britney Spears was on her downward spiral, it gave a lot of other young women, primarily singer/songwriters, a chance to be heard. Sara Bareilles was one such performer who did so with her major label debut album Little Voice (Epic). Possessing anything but a little voice, Bareilles had a considerable hit with “Love Song” and earns the title of This Year’s Vanessa Carlton. Standouts on the disc, some of which were first heard on her 2004 debut, include “Love on the Rocks,” “Many the Miles,” “Fairytale,” “One Sweet Love,” and “Morningside.”
Since the ’90s, Cassandra Wilson has made a name for herself through her distinctive interpretations of contemporary tunes by songwriters including Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, as well as her own original compositions. On her Grammy-nominated Loverly (Blue Note), she digs into the standard stock, performing renditions of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “Sleepin’ Bee,” “’Til There Was You,” “Black Orpheus,” “The Very Thought of You,” and “Caravan,” that can be best described as Cassandra-esque.
Editor’s note: The 51st Annual Grammy Awards air February 8 on CBS at 7 p.m.
Gregg Shapiro is a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.