10 pleasant surprises hidden in this year’s Grammy nominations

Fleet Foxes are part of the most exciting Grammy race of 2012, according to a survey of me. (by Sean Pecknold via Subpop Records)

Adele and Kanye. That’s what everyone (and by “everyone” I mean “people who get paid to write about whatever is trending on Google”) was talking about yesterday, following the announcement of nominations for the 54th annual Grammy Awards. And while I’m happy for them both, I always have more fun looking beyond who got the most nominations and digging through the murky depths of the nomination list.

Of course, those depths are a bit shallower this year, in the wake of  the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences eliminating 31 of the lesser-known categories, resulting in things like the awards for the best Hawaiian, Cajun and Native American albums getting combined into the puzzlingly titled Best Regional Roots Music Album.

Still, there are some amusing oddities to be found in this year’s nominations. Here are 10 pleasant surprises hidden therein:

1. The Decemberists and Wilco are no longer “alternative.”

There is still a category for Best Alternative Music Album, but despite releasing an album that begins with a 7-minute krautrock freakout and a song containing a passing reference to a William Butler Yeats poem, respectively, you will find neither Wilco nor The Decemberists nominated in that category. Instead, they received nominations in the regular old “rock” categories. This isn’t anything exactly a groundbreaking development for Wilco; the Chicago band was previously nominated in the Best Rock Album category for Sky Blue Sky, but that was a much more straightforward folk-rock collection compared to this year’s The Whole Love. The Decemberists, meanwhile, have never been nominated before, but “Down by the Water” scored nominations for both Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. Apparently all it took was the Portland, Oregon, band teaming up with Gillian Welch for the academy to take notice.

2. The Black Keys are now a pop duo/group

You might be acquainted with The Black Keys as a gritty, bluesy garage-rock duo, but the Akron, Ohio, band is nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for its contribution to the Buddy Holly tribute album Rave On Buddy Holly. The band’s cover of “Dearest” still pretty much sounds like a Black Keys track, but apparently the association with Buddy Holly is enough to break the pop barrier.

3.The academy has an opportunity to redeem itself and recognize Robyn

Even if the academy didn’t realize it, it embarrassed itself thoroughly last year by awarding the Best Dance Recording Grammy to Rhianna instead of Robyn for the supremely awesome track “Dancing on my Own.” Voters can right that wrong this year by rewarding the Swedish pop pixie for the equally awesome track “Call Your Girlfriend.” Of course, it will probably give the Grammy to Skrillex or some shit.

4. And the nominees for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album are Tony Bennett, Susan Boyle, Harry Connick Jr. Barbara Streisand … and Seth MacFarlane?

Yup, the creator of Family Guy somehow snuck his way into this category among a bunch of pop heavyweights. Does he stand a chance? No, not really.

5. Raphael Saadiq is up for Best Traditional R&B Performance

R&B was one area in which categories got severely trimmed, but Oakland native Raphael Saadiq still managed to score a nomination for “Good Man,” a standout track from his all-around excellent album Stone Rollin’ (which probably deserved its own nomination).

6. The Civil Wars are up for Best Country Duo/Group Performance

In a category usually dominated by schmaltzy duets, it’s a pleasure to see a stompin’, southern gothic, traditionalist shit-kicker like “Barton Hollow” nominated.

7. The Best Folk Album race is kind of awesome

Speaking of The Civil Wars, they’re also nominated in this new category encompassing both traditional and contemporary folk music. The duo is joined by Steve Earle, Fleet Foxes, Gillian Welch and Eddie Vedder for his ukulele album. I’ll be pulling for Fleet Foxes, but really, this is the one category where anybody could win without it being a disappointment.

8. Steve Martin is up for Best Bluegrass Album

This isn’t a groundbreaking development for Martin, either, as the comedian already won the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy in 2009 for his first all-musical recording. Still, it’s fun to see his name listed alongside Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Ralph Stanley and Chris Thile (who will probably end up winning, based on the fantastic reviews Sleep With One Eye Open, his stripped-down collaboration with guitarist Michael Daves, has been getting).

9. The Bay Brass is up for Best Small Ensemble Performance

Hardly anyone (except for me) makes it all the way down the list to the classical categories, but those who do will find San Francisco’s own The Bay Brass nominated for its recording of new works for brass ensemble.

10. Dubstep is well on its way to no longer being cool

Once the academy begins to recognize an underground genre in major categories, as it has with dubstep by nominating Skrillex for Best New Artist, that means the music is now being co-opted by the industry, and kids will soon be rallying behind something even more irritating.

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