At big awards shows, often the famous names go home with the trophies. On Monday night at the Grammys, this was mostly true again. But there are under-the-radar artists who deserve a closer listen. Here are some of my favorite 2016 Grammy nominees/winners.
I’m mostly familiar with this year’s folk, rock and jazz related categories, so I apologize if you don’t see your favorite genre represented here. This is not intended to be a comprehensive selection, but more a personal view.
Courtney Barnett didn’t win the Grammy for Best New Artist on Monday night, but this star will no doubt continue to rise. Her witty, wry lyrics make mundane, forgettable moments into profound events, and her unassuming, humorous approach to life is chronicled to great effect in her full-length debut album, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.”Listen to “Depresto,” “Pedestrian at Best” and “Dead Fox” for a glimpse into Barnett’s world.
The Best Folk Album category was almost entirely made up of artists who, up until recently, had been in another group and were now trying their hand at solo work, or vice versa. The winners, husband and wife Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck, have each been lauded as solo musicians, and with other bands (Fleck, a virtuoso banjo player, has won 14 Grammys in a variety of different categories), but teamed up for their first album as a duo this year.
Their self-titled release shows off his incredible inventiveness and agility, backed by her simpler but effective claw hammer banjo style. Washburn’s voice, a graceful mix of traditional Appalachian and more current country, is the glue that binds the album together. Listen to their blues-y cover of the American standard, “Railroad,” and the poignant “Ride to U.”
Glen Hansard and Rhiannon Giddens, who both struck out on their own in the last couple of years after gaining fame with their bands (The Frames and the Swell Season for Hansard, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops for Giddens), were also nominated in the Best Folk Album Category.
Hansard’s emotional depth is evident in each of his songs and with his raw, powerful voice holding nothing back, he sounds better than ever on his second full-length solo album, “Didn’t He Ramble.”“Winning Streak” and “Lowly Deserter” are particular favorites of mine.
Giddens’ solo debut album, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” is a wonderfully diverse compilation of songs written by and made famous by women. Listen to “Water Boy,” “She’s Got You” and “Tomorrow is My Turn” for a taste of her fantastic stylistic range and incredible voice.
Alabama Shakes won for Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song and Best Alternative Music Album for their song “Don’t Wanna Fight” and their album “Sound and Color”was also nominated for Album of the Year.
Lead vocalist Brittany Howard puts rasp and soul into a funk/rock groove that can’t help but have you on your feet dancing. “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Gimme All Your Love” are prime examples of the wild but controlled sound the band has cultivated.
J. Cole probably didn’t have high hopes of winning Best Rap Album for 2014 “Forest Hills Drive,” with Kendrick Lamar’s powerhouse album “To Pimp A Butterfly” in the running, but his lyrics are poignant, cloaked in simple rhymes and beats. His songs seem possibly autobiographical; like Lamar, he touches extensively on the experiences of black people in America.
In “January 28th” he spits, “What’s the price for a black man life?/ I check the toe tag / Not one zero in sight / I turned the TV on / Not one hero in sight / Unless he dribble or he fiddle with mics.”
This year’s Grammy winners might be mostly names we know, but with any luck the names we don’t will also break through to wider recognition.