2011 Grammy Awards: A Closer Look at Key Nominees

  • Comments: ↓ 13 user comments
  • Publish Date: February 10, 2011

Nice ceremony, shame about the awards

ImageWill Win win?

Out of all of the televised awards ceremonies that air throughout the year, the Grammys typically are among the most watchable, packed as they are with live music performances from some of the biggest acts around. The lineup of performers for this year's 53rd annual Grammy Awards ceremony, which airs Sunday night at 8pm ET/PT on CBS, includes Arcade Fire, Lady Gaga, Eminem, Muse, Cee Lo Green, Janelle Monáe, and more.

But the awards themselves are almost an afterthought. Many serious music fans -- and even some major recording artists -- consider the Grammy Awards to be inconsequential at best, and a joke at worst. The Recording Academy doesn't help matters with its arcane qualification rules, bizarre category definitions, and willingness to hand out awards in as many (often redundant) categories as possible, frequently to the blandest, most commercial artists and albums nominated. Whether it is recognizing Jethro Tull for its "metal" performance, or denying Lady Gaga a nomination for Best New Artist on a technicality (or even nominating artists for that award who are many years removed from their actual debuts), the Grammys frequently generate news for the wrong reasons. This year, for example, you won't find any mention of 2010's best album at the awards, thanks to the Academy's odd decision to treat the year as ending in September (which, admittedly, is better than August, which is when the Grammy calendar expired the previous year).

But how many truly undeserving albums and artists earn Grammy nominations, and do the best nominees ever win Grammy Awards? Let's look more closely at this year's nominees and recent winners in a few major Grammy categories to find out those answers.

Album of the year

This award is presented to the artist, producer, and engineer responsible for the year's best album (in any genre), and is the most prestigious Grammy handed out each year; consider it the Grammy equivalent to the Oscars' best picture award. This year's nominees are:

Album of the Year Nominees, 2011
Artist Album Metascore Last.fm Plays
(Monthly Avg.)
Users Billboard 200
Weeks at #1
Arcade Fire The Suburbs 87 1st 2,428,494 1st 8.7 2nd 1 3rd
Eminem Recovery 63 3rd 1,572,780 3rd 8.8 1st 7 1st
Lady Antebellum Need You Now 63 3rd 117,477 5th 6.5 4th 4 2nd
Lady Gaga The Fame Monster 77 2nd 1,566,971 4th 7.6 3rd 0 5th
Katy Perry Teenage Dream 52 5th 1,865,738 2nd 6.5 4th 1 3rd

Metascore is a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good). Last.fm Plays is the number of times the album has been played on Last.fm divided by the number of months since the album's release. Users is the average score assigned by Metacritic users on a scale of 0 (bad) to 10 (good). Billboard 200 Weeks at #1 is the number of weeks each album topped the Billboard 200 sales chart, which lists each week's best-selling albums across all genres as reported by Billboard based on Nielsen SoundScan data.

Note that Recovery was best-selling album of the calendar year in 2010, while Lady Antebellum's Need You Now -- seemingly unpopular with critics, Metacritic users, and Last.fm listeners -- wasn't far behind. The Suburbs sold fewer copies than any other nominee; Lady Gaga's disc sold well despite never hitting #1. By comparison, here are the numbers for last year's nominees:

Album of the Year Nominees, 2010
Artist Album Metascore Last.fm Plays
(Monthly Avg.)
Users Billboard 200
Weeks at #1
Beyonce I Am ... Sasha Fierce 62 4th       194,585 3rd 7.9 2nd 1 2nd
Black Eyed Peas The E.N.D. 60 5th 179,560 4th 6.1 5th 1 2nd
Lady Gaga The Fame 71 2nd 1,200,231 1st 7.3 3rd 0 5th
Dave Matthews Big Whiskey & The GrooGrux King 67 3rd 66,973 5th 8.2 1st 1 2nd
Taylor Swift [WINNER] Fearless 73 1st 467,919 2nd 6.3 4th 6 1st

Taylor Swift's Fearless, last year's winner, was the best-selling album of 2009 (in addition to topping the chart six times), and also received the best reviews out of a rather anemic crop of best album nominees. How often does the nominated album with the highest Metascore win the Grammy? Very rarely. The only other time it happened during the past decade was in 2002, when Norah Jones' winning Come Away With Me 82 tied for the highest score among that year's nominees. So, while it wouldn't be unprecedented for Arcade Fire, with the best-reviewed album among this year's group of nominees, to take home the trophy, it's also unlikely, if voters stick to past patterns.

Here are some other stats covering award years 2001-2010:

  • Only two of the last 10 winners (Steely Dan and Herbie Hancock) failed to hit #1 on the Billboard 200, while more than half (six of 10) booked multiple weeks in the #1 position. Out of this year's nominees, Lady Antebellum and Eminem spent multiple weeks at #1, Arcade Fire and Katy Perry each had just one week at #1, and Lady Gaga never reached that position.
  • Voters never pick the worst-reviewed album. Only one winner in the past decade (Steely Dan) had the 4th-lowest Metascore among the nominated albums; all other winners have been among the three highest scores in their nomination group. That trend -- among other factors, such as the quality of her album -- suggests that Katy Perry will not win this year. (Note that in two years we did not have Metascores for the winning albums.)
  • The average Metascore for the past decade's winning albums is just over 80, which is certainly a respectable figure. The previous lowest-scoring album to win had a 72, which would seem to be good news for Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire, the only two of this year's nominees to surpass that mark.
  • More bad news for Eminem: The Academy has selected a rap album to win just two times in the history of the award (most recently, to OutKast in 2004). Eminem himself has been nominated for Album of the Year twice before, failing to win both times. On the other hand, oddsmakers have him as the favorite to win this year, thanks in part to the weak field, coupled with the fact that there isn't another rap album nominated to divide votes from hip hop fans. (Yes, the Arcade Fire album is strong, but indie rock albums win even less often than hip hop albums do, with it last occurring ... never.)

Are the right albums being nominated in the first place?

The answer to that question is no, if you trust the collective opinion of music critics. The average Metascore for all nominees from the past decade is 76.7, a score that indicates solid, though not spectacular, reviews. (This year's group is well under that, at 68.4.) A more telling figure, however, is that over the last ten years, only 5 of 50 nominees have ranked among the ten best-reviewed albums of their respective eligibility years.

What's the average overall Metascore rank for an Album of the Year nominee? 158. That means, on average, there have been 157 better-reviewed albums than each nominee for this award. Taylor Swift and the Dixie Chicks had the two lowest-ranked winning albums, placing 278th and 272nd in their respective eligibility periods (which typically run October 1 through September 30). The highest-ranked album to win was OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the third-highest-scoring album of its year.

Here is how each of the recent Album of the Year winners ranked among the other albums in their eligibility year. For each year, we also listed a better-reviewed alternative among the nominees (if any), as well as just a few examples of relatively well-known, non-nominated albums that ranked higher than even the best nominee that year.

Album of the Year Winners and Nominees, 2002-2011
Award Year Album / Metascore Rank Among All Albums in Eligibility Year *
2011  
Winner ?????
Nominees BEST: Arcade Fire: The Suburbs 87 #14 WORST: Katy Perry: Teenage Dream 52 #722
Overlooked Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid 91 #4
Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty 90 #6
2010  
Winner Taylor Swift: Fearless 73 #278
Nominees BEST: Taylor Swift WORST: Black-Eyed Peas: The E.N.D. 60 #585
Overlooked Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion 89 #7
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix 82 #42
2009  
Winner Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raising Sand 87 #11
Nominees BEST: Radiohead In Rainbows 88 #5 WORST: Coldplay: Viva la Vida 72 #286
Overlooked TV On The Radio: Dear Science, 88 #4
2008  
Winner Herbie Hancock: River: The Joni Letters n/a n/a
Nominees BEST:Vince Gill: These Days 82 #38 WORST: Foo Fighters: Echoes, Silence... 71 #266
Overlooked Arcade Fire: Neon Bible 87 #6
M.I.A.: Kala 87 #8
LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver 86 #9
2007  
Winner Dixie Chicks: Taking the Long Way 72 #272
Nominees BEST: Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere 81 #64 WORST: John Mayer: Continuum 67 #356
Overlooked My Morning Jacket: Z 90 #3
Bob Dylan: Modern Times 89 #4
2006  
Winner U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb 79 #97
Nominees BEST: Kanye West: Late Registr. 86 #16 WORST: Mariah Carey: Emanc. of Mimi 64 #361
Overlooked Sufjan Stevens: Illinois 90 #1
Sleater-Kinney: The Woods 88 #5
2005  
Winner Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company n/a n/a
Nominees BEST: Kanye West: College Dropout 88 #14 WORST: Usher: Confessions 71 #238
Overlooked Brian Wilson: Smile 97 #1
Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose 97 #2
Arcade Fire: Funeral 90 #9
2004  
Winner OutKast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below 91 #3
Nominees BEST: The White Stripes: Elephant 92 #2 WORST: Justin Timberlake: Justified 68 #298
Overlooked n/a
2003  
Winner Norah Jones: Come Away With Me 82 #33
Nominees BEST: Norah Jones WORST: Nelly: Nellyville 70 #179
Overlooked Tom Waits: Alice 90 #1
The Strokes: Is This It? 90 #2
2002  
Winner Various Artists: O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack 83 #23
Nominees BEST: OutKast: Stankonia 95 #1 WORST: U2: All That You Can't Leave... 76 #76
Overlooked n/a

* Ranking compares each albums Metascores to all albums (including live albums, compilations, and reissues) released during the same eligibility year, which is October 1 - September 30 of most years (the 2010 eligibility period ended August 31, 2009).

Best alternative music album

Since 1991, the Recording Academy has been honoring the top "alternative" album of the year, a broadly-defined category that has included artists ranging from Tom Waits and David Bowie to Depeche Mode and Death Cab For Cutie. This year's nominees are below.

Best Alternative Music Album Nominees, 2011
Artist Album Metascore Metacritic Users Last.fm Plays
(Monthly Avg.)
Arcade Fire The Suburbs 87 1st 8.7 1st 2,428,494 2nd
Band of Horses Infinite Arms 69 5th 6.5 4th  369,381 5th
The Black Keys Brothers 82 2nd 8.6 2nd  3,074,602 1st
Broken Bells Broken Bells 71 4th 8.3 3rd  575,727 4th
Vampire Weekend Contra 81 3rd 5.8 5th  793,092 3rd

The Academy likes to pick well-known bands (The White Stripes, Radiohead, Coldplay) in this category, so give the popular Arcade Fire a good shot at this award -- especially since the only sure guarantee of winning this award is having won it before, and none of this year's nominees meet that prerequisite. But if The Black Keys' popularity among Last.fm listeners is emblematic of how well the duo is liked in the music community, then don't rule them out, either.

Last year, Phoenix won in this category for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix 82, which was the highest-scoring album out of the alternative album nominees with both critics and users. How often does the album with the highest Metascore among the nominees take home the trophy in this category? Only four times in the past 10 years, though it has happened in each of the previous two years. Interestingly, two of those top-scoring albums NOT to win the award were by Arcade Fire.

Best pop vocal album

As you may have surmised, the "vocal" in the award title is to differentiate this honor from the award for best pop instrumental album. Here are this year's contenders:

Best Pop Vocal Album Nominees, 2011
Artist Album Metascore Metacritic Users Last.fm Plays
(Monthly Avg.)
Justin Bieber My World 2.0 68 2nd 2.0 5th 221,782 3rd
Susan Boyle I Dreamed a Dream 54 4th 6.0 4th 45,775 4th
Lady Gaga The Fame Monster 77 1st 7.6 1st 1,566,971 2nd
John Mayer Battle Studies 64 3rd 7.2 2nd n/a  
Katy Perry Teenage Dream 52 5th 6.5 3rd 1,865,738 1st
Can Lady Gaga -- the top nominee with critics and Metacritic users, and nearly the most popular with Last.fm listeners -- collect the Grammy? Fortunately, she seems to be the favorite in this category, though never underestimate the Recording Academy's ability to disappoint. The Grammy in this category rarely goes to an album as interesting as The Fame Monster, and nominee John Mayer already has a Best Pop Vocal Album award on his resume. Still, the fact that Lady Gaga was also nominated for the best overall album of the year certainly indicates a high level of support for her album (though the same could be said for Katy Perry).

Best contemporary R&B album

It's the Grammy motto: why have one award when you can have two? We are focusing here on the best "contemporary" R&B album, which goes to an album with some hip-hop or electronic influences (not to be confused with the award for best R&B album, which is intended for more traditional R&B).

Best Contemporary R&B Album Nominees, 2011
Artist Album Metascore Metacritic Users Last.fm Plays
(Monthly Avg.)
Chris Brown Graffiti 39 4th 5.4 4th 104,698 1st
R. Kelly Untitled 62 2nd 7.9 2nd 17,327 3rd
Ryan Leslie Transition n/a   n/a   14,242 4th
Janelle Monáe The ArchAndroid 91 1st 8.9 1st n/a  
Usher Raymond v. Raymond 57 3rd 6.8 3rd 89,918 2nd

Janelle Monáe's debut LP is one of the best-reviewed albums released last year (and, for that matter, the past decade). If it wins, The ArchAndroid will easily become the highest-scoring album ever to win in this category; the previous winner with the highest score is Mary J. Blige, whose Growing Pains scored 77. Interestingly, every winning album (except the first, Ashanti's self-titled debut, which is not in our database) has had a green Metascore, which would seem to make this year's competition a two-horse race. By the way, don't think there were so few R&B albums last year that the poorly-reviewed Graffiti simply earned a nomination by default; we can think of at least a few albums more deserving of that nomination.

Best rap album

Though Jay-Z is the most-nominated artist in the rap category, Eminem is the award's biggest winner, with four trophies. And he'll have a chance to add to his lead this weekend, though he has a few formidable opponents:

Best Rap Album Nominees, 2011
Artist Album Metascore Metacritic Users Last.fm Plays
(Monthly Avg.)
B.o.B Adventures of Bobby Ray 67 3rd 8.0 3rd n/a  
Drake Thank Me Later 75 2nd 6.9 5th 509,886 2nd
Eminem Recovery 63 5th 8.8 2nd 1,572,780 1st
Jay-Z The Blueprint 3 65 4th 7.1 4th n/a  
The Roots How I Got Over 85 1st 9.3 1st 281,777 3rd

Though it actually scored higher than his Grammy-winning 2009 release Relapse, Em's album is actually the worst-reviewed of this year's five nominees. Going back to the 2002 awards (the last year for which we have full statistics), the lowest-scoring nominee has never won the Best Rap Album Grammy. However, one factor strongly suggests that the huge-selling Recovery will become the first such album to win. In the past decade, whenever one of the rap nominees was also nominated for best overall album, it won the rap award. (In 2003, both Eminem and Nelly were nominated for the top album award; obviously, only one of them could win the rap award, and that honor fell to Eminem.)

Best rock album

The rather inclusive rock category can include sub-genres ranging from classic rock to alternative rock to whatever it is that Daughtry does. In past years, the rock trophy has been collected by the likes of John Fogerty, U2, Coldplay, and Green Day.

Best Rock Album Nominees, 2011
Artist Album Metascore Metacritic Users Last.fm Plays
(Monthly Avg.)
Jeff Beck Emotion & Commotion 58 5th 8.3 3rd n/a  
Muse The Resistance 72 3rd 8.3 3rd 1,355,165 1st
Pearl Jam Backspacer 79 2nd 9.1 1st 288,010 2nd
Tom Petty Mojo 72 3rd 8.5 2nd n/a  
Neil Young Le Noise 80 1st 8.0 5th n/a  

Neil Young (a record 6 times), Tom Petty (4), and Pearl Jam (3) have each been nominated multiple times in this category without a win, while Muse and Jeff Beck are rookies. While it would seem like the veteran artists would stand the best chance with Academy voters, the Best Rock Album award has been fairly balanced between old-timers and younger-skewing artists over the past 15 years, so don't rule Muse out; their anthemic, stadium-friendly sound seems like it could sway voters in a year with no clear-cut favorite. Then again, you'd think Young would win sooner or later.

What do you think?

Will you be watching this year's Grammy Awards? Which albums and artists are you pulling for, and which omissions are you most upset about? Let us know in the comments section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (13)

  • Daniel  

    Janelle Monaé go totally screwed over!! I'm darn-near done with the grammys except for the fact that they gave Esperanza Spalding a grammy over Beiber. That restored SOME credibility.

  • mello yello enthusia  

    Agreed with Sai. I already see The Golden Tomatoes as more prestigious than the Oscars. The winners list includes True Grit, Toy Story 3, The Kids Are All Right, Marwencol, The Social Network, Last Train Home, Let Me In, Nanny McPhee Returns (Kids/Family is always a weak category when you take out animation), Cairo Time, Inception, and Animal Kingdom. It's much better when you separate it into genres.

    But yea, Metacritic could be to music what rottentomatoes is to movies for me.

  • Sai  

    For all those who think highly of 'Ye's Dark Fantasy: Album of the Year is often awarded to veterans and Bruce Springsteen just released his album to universal acclaim. Metacritic or MCANA should have their own freaking awards show. The Grammy's are a joke.

  • Han  

    @jja ALternative refers to a genre a rock, not an alternative to best album

  • jja  

    One thing I am confused about is the category of Best Alternative. When the leading nominee is also a nominee for Album Of The Year, it makes me wonder: Alternative to WHAT?

  • KanyeFan  

    Whoever is wondering, Kanye Wests new album wasn't nominated because it was relased after the due date for nominations. It wil be nominated next year

  • JeffLavigne  

    I hope that this year best album goes to Lady Gaga. She redefine pop music with that album. Every single singer who wants to have a hit do the same as Gaga. Anyway, I just hope that Lady Antebellum lost.

  • ep  

    The only cool part about Arcade Fire's album-of-the-year loss is that every online prediction site I've visited shows them in the head photo, as if they're one of the few reasons the show might credit a truly deserving work.

    And while their loss seems inevitable, the category has a record for the occasional out-of-nowhere winner.

  • Ben  

    Great review of the Shammy's Metacritic! And this list of nominees just further proves that these are more of a money making publicity stunt than anything else. I'd say the only deserving winner of the past couple years is definitely Steven Colbert for his Christmas special

  • Ezekiel  

    @JawDropped Grammy nominations end in September, so Kanye's album was ineligible. So you're absolutely right, the Grammy's are a joke.

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