In the middle of March the 2021 Grammy Awards were given out just as they always are around this time. But the honors were announced with less fanfare than normal. In a year filled with distractions and broken routines, it felt like people couldn’t be bothered with the prizes and pageantry of awards shows. I agree that it’s good not to give these accolades too much credit. There’s simply too much good music every year to be recognized at one show. Besides, what’s chosen is skewed by sales and a cryptic selection process.
Nevertheless, I think it’s still worth looking at what wins awards out of curiosity. Just as it’s worth looking at year-end best-of lists. If nothing else, we can look at Grammy winners as music recommendations! I’ve chosen just a few of the winners from various categories I think are worth your time. All of them are available for you to check out from the library.
Taylor Swift – Folklore (Album of the Year)
This was the second time Swift won album of the year. However, this is her third album since her first win and she’s grown immensely as an artist. Swift supposedly let her imagine run wild while writing the evocative lyrics for Folklore. She wrote these mostly during quarantine without concerns for radio format or pop standards. The songs are rich and drift between genres, hard to pigeonhole as anything but immaculate Americana. The album features Bon Iver and The National, so even if you’ve not given T-Swift a chance in the past, this is a great place to reassess her impact.
Snarky Puppy – Live at the Royal Albert Hall (Best Contemporary Instrumental Album)
Please forgive the goofy name, because this band is awesome! Described as a collective but maybe more like a revolving door, Snarky Puppy is a group of up-to-19 insanely talented jazz musicians. The band started as a Michael League’s freshman year project when he was at University of North Texas with nine classmates. Since then they’ve risen the ranks of music cred thanks to their fun and funky jams. Appealing more to rock fans and skirting stuffier jazz scene, they’ve finally hit a new high with this London performance. Mixing jazz fusion with progressive rock weirdness, this recording sounds better than many studio albums with solos many players couldn’t capture in dozens of takes.
The Strokes – The New Abnormal (Best Rock Album)
The hippest NYC rock band of the new millennium has grown up (mostly)! Having gone through label contracts, addictions and side-projects, in this latest album The Strokes sound more like themselves than they have in too long. But just because they’ve dropped their vices and become dads doesn’t mean they’ve lost their edge. The tracks move at a quick pace and retain that bright, punchy punk edge that the best NY bands have. They pepper in enough synthy interludes and crooning to keep some variety in the wailing. This album is an assured outing from one of the most influential rock bands of the last 20 years.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Best Alternative Music Album)
Fiona Apple hadn’t released an album in eight years before Fetch the Bolt Cutters. So this felt like it came out of nowhere. More than any other album on this list, maybe more than any other nominated, this sounds like one musician’s thoughts and feelings distilled without a filter. Apple captured her thoughts on the current state of things, as she sees them and has lived them, as a raw and immediate burst of creativity. Sometimes her fury is captured in booming percussion and cathartic chants. Sometimes it’s sly and scathing with vocal harmonies and echoing piano slowly unfolding. Apple recorded most of it at her home studio in Venice Beach over five years. She incorporates drumming on the building itself and no fewer than five dogs into the album. It sounds familiar and timeless. It’s an art album without pretense. This album reveals another layer with every listen.
Thundercat – It Is What It Is (Best Progressive R&B Album)
This is by far my most-listened-to album of the year. Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) is a bass guitar virtuoso and comic/video game/anime nerd. He comes from a family of L.A. jazz virtuosos and has played bass for several of today’s biggest hitmakers. But Bruner never takes any of that too seriously. His albums are filled with internet-humor, offhand skits and geeky references. With an abiding love of 70s funk, his nimble bass leads us through a quick 37 minutes of comedy and heartache. While the overriding tone is one of brevity it covers an underlying sense of anxiety. The album ends with several songs in memoriam of Bruner’s friend Mac Miller who died in 2018 at age 26.
Nas – King’s Disease (Best Rap Album)
Nas has been one of the most consistently prolific rappers of the golden age of rap. “Twenty-seven summers, that wasn’t even the goal,” he raps on 27 Summers referencing how many years it’s been since his monumental debut album, Illmatic. King’s Disease is full of self-referential self-awareness of Nas’s impact on rap and a reflection on how far he’s come. While not necessarily groundbreaking, this album is a solid piece of real hip-hop. It’s unified in sound and concept because it primarily had one producer, Hit-Boy. Nas’s lyrics and wordplay are as dense as ever, painting pictures and telling stories as only he can.
Maria Schneider Orchestra – Data Lords (Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album)
Maria Schneider is one of the best kept secrets in modern music. That’s a shame because she’s an incredible artist. Schneider’s last several albums have all been crowd-funded and this one is no different. Here, she conducts an 18-piece jazz orchestra on her most ambitious album yet comprising two discs.
Like the cover suggests, the album’s theme is the push-and-pull between digital/online and the natural/personal forces in our lives. There are few songs shorter than five minutes, which lets the music really build in layers and instruments. Its concepts are told without words but in tones and moods. You feel the contrast between beautiful tracks that sing and soar and those that unnerve through their tension and discord. Challenging, but never unlistenable, this is music you can focus on or let play in the background.
More Winners & Nominees
These are just some of the Grammy winners I’ve listened to. I plan to listen to many more as I have time. The wonderful thing about your library is that a vast majority of this year’s music is at your fingertips! Besides the many CDs we own, there are tons of albums on hoopla that take nothing more than a checkout on your phone to start listening. I’ve compiled (and noted) the major nominees and winners in the list below. Give some a listen and let us know what music impressed you this year!