I’m Jon Pareles, sitting in for Lindsay this week because while she’s on vacation, we couldn’t let the Grammy Awards nominations go by without a playlist.
Like a lot of critics, in and out of music, I’m pretty skeptical about awards shows. That’s not just because they rarely agree with my own taste. Awards shows have conflicted agendas and contradictory incentives. They trumpet artistic integrity but crave star power. They claim accountant-verified objectivity but often appear cliquish and stuck in industry bubbles.
The one thing that makes me indulge the Grammys is an aspect that infuriates some other Grammy observers: the chronic sprawl of awards categories. There are 94 this year. That’s a lot, but fine: Let a hundred flowers bloom. The Recording Academy is forever trying to trim and adjust those categories, consolidating or renaming or expanding the list. But music keeps eluding them, changing styles and constituencies, while little Grammy voter pools — hopefully specialists, realistically partisans — battle to boost their candidates.
It’s complicated, fluid, arbitrary, far from perfect. What, exactly, is “alternative jazz,” one of this year’s new categories? But down in the trenches of concert bookings, “Grammy-winning” can make a bigger difference for someone on a club or college tour than for an act with radio hits and arena gigs. The Grammys can be good for something.
I regularly watch the pre-Grammy, non-network, un-prime-time “Grammy Premiere” livestream — just go to live.grammy.com or YouTube — where the unsung majority of Grammy Awards are given out before the prime-time show. They’re dorky and unpolished; some winners read their thank-yous from their cellphones, and they don’t always have designer outfits. But the pre-Grammys also book niche-category performers who tear the roof off, because that’s what happens beyond the controlled sphere of pop. Music can upend everything we expect.
Here are a dozen down-category Grammy nominees, who are unlikely to show up in prime time. They’re not necessarily popular — though some were huge hits — or fashionable. They just made recordings worth noticing.
Listen along on Spotify as you read.
1. Kylie Minogue: “Padam Padam” (pop dance recording)
Kylie Minogue conquered dance floors, yet again, in 2023 with “Padam Padam,” her breezily confident assertion that “I know you wanna take me home.” The title is a heartbeat rhythm, the production uses reverb to play with space, and Minogue sounds quite amenable to a tryst. (Listen on YouTube)
2. Killer Mike featuring André 3000, Future and Eryn Allen Kane: “Scientists & Engineers” (rap performance)
Multifaceted ideas about creativity — as a calling, a compulsion and a career — unite Killer Mike and his guests in this ambitious, changeable track. Enfolded in restlessly blipping synthesizers and Eryn Allen Kane’s ethereal vocal harmonies, André 3000 and Future muse over past and present before Killer Mike arrives with a closing barrage. (Listen on YouTube)
3. Allison Russell: “Eve Was Black” (American roots performance)
Racism and misogyny are Allison Russell’s direct targets in “Eve Was Black,” which transforms itself from Appalachian toe-tapper to eerie rocker to jazz excursion to gospel incantation and asks the unflinching question, “Do you hate or do you lust?” (Listen on YouTube)
4. Jason Isbell: “Cast Iron Skillet” (American roots song)
A tangle of bleak, likely interconnected narratives — murder, death in prison, a family shattered by interracial romance — mingles with homey advice in “Cast Iron Skillet,” a modest-sounding but far-reaching ballad. (Listen on YouTube)
5. Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway: “El Dorado” (bluegrass album)
The songwriter and flatpicking guitar virtuoso Molly Tuttle spins a brisk, minor-key chronicle of the Gold Rush. She sings about desperate characters and wonders, “Was it worth the blood and dirt to dig our lives away?” (Listen on YouTube)
6. Bettye LaVette: “Hard to Be a Human” (contemporary blues album)
The gritty-voiced, 77-year-old soul survivor Bettye LaVette embraces 1970s-style Nigerian Afrobeat, with its chattering saxophone and curlicued guitars, in “Hard to Be a Human,” as she wonders about humanity’s irredeemable flaws. (Listen on YouTube)
7. Blind Boys of Alabama: “Work Until My Days Are Done” (roots gospel album)
The Blind Boys of Alabama, a gospel institution since the 1940s, bring their vintage-style harmonies to a traditional song that’s more about diligence than worship. The arrangement is a two-parter, an easygoing shuffle that revs up midway through to something like sanctified honky-tonk. (Listen on YouTube)
8. Tainy featuring Bad Bunny and Julieta Venegas: “Lo Siento BB:/” (música urbana)
Tainy, the Puerto Rican producer who’s an architect of reggaeton, racked up a billion streams across various platforms with “Lo Siento BB:/” (“Sorry Baby”). Julieta Venegas and Bad Bunny sing about her infatuation and his refusal to commit, juxtaposing cushy electronics and a blunt beat. (Listen on YouTube)
9. Natalia Lafourcade: “De Todas las Flores” (Latin rock or alternative album)
The Mexican songwriter Natalia Lafourcade’s album “De Todas las Flores’ isn’t remotely rock. It’s richly retro pop that harks back decades, with acoustic instruments and some orchestral arrangements. The title track is a rueful, elegantly nostalgic lament for lost love. (Listen on YouTube)
10. Davido featuring Musa Keys: “Unavailable” (African music performance)
Davido is from Nigeria, but he has international aims. In “Unavailable,” he infuses Nigerian Afrobeats with a South African style, amapiano, and he’s joined by the South African singer Musa Keys. They’re both playing hard to get. (Listen on YouTube)
11. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: ‘Dymaxion’ (large jazz ensemble album)
The composer Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is an 18-piece big band that stokes suspense with dissonance, pinpoint timing and an arrangement that gets denser and denser throughout most of “Dymaxion.” Even when it eases back, the piece stays ominous. (Listen on YouTube)
12. Ólafur Arnalds: “Woven Song (Hania Rani Piano Rework)” (new age, ambient or chant album)
“Woven Song” originally appeared on Ólafur Arnalds’s 2020 album, “Some Kind of Peace,” with an eerie, sliding, untempered vocal. The Polish pianist and singer Hania Rani makes it cozier and more consonant in her “rework,” but the ghost-waltz spirit of the original persists. (Listen on YouTube)
And I’d like to thank the Academy …
The Amplifier Playlist
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“12 Grammy Nominees You Need to Hear” track list
Track 1: Kylie Minogue, “Padam Padam”
Track 2: Killer Mike featuring André 3000, Future and Eryn Allen Kane, “Scientists & Engineers”
Track 3: Allison Russell, “Eve Was Black”
Track 4: Jason Isbell, “Cast Iron Skillet”
Track 5: Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, “El Dorado”
Track 6: Bettye LaVette, “Hard to Be a Human”
Track 7: Blind Boys of Alabama, “Work Until My Days Are Done”
Track 8: Tainy featuring Bad Bunny and Julieta Venegas, “Lo Siento BB:/”
Track 9: Natalia Lafourcade, “De Todas la Flores”
Track 10: Davido featuring Musa Keys, “Unavailable”
Track 11: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, “Dymaxion”
Track 12: Ólafur Arnalds, “Woven Song (Hania Rani Piano Rework)”
Caryn the editor here flagging the rest of our Grammy coverage that’s gone live so far today:
Ben Sisario’s big look at the field, with a spotlight on the top competitions.
Our always-entertaining snubs and surprises, examining which genres were conspicuously absent from the biggest categories, and a delightful showdown between Olivia Rodrigo and the Rolling Stones.
The full list of nominees: yes, all 94 categories. Yes, I formatted this myself.
An interview with Victoria Monét, who has seven nominations (the second-most), and one for her toddler.
And an interview with the indie-rock trio boygenius, who picked up six nods.