For music critics, complaining about the annual Grammy nominations is as much a December tradition as menorahs and mistletoe. Year after year after year, Grammy voters reveal themselves to be out-of-touch, conservative, and perennially late to the party—and that’s not to mention the fact that the nominations are tinkered with by a secret committee in some shady back room. I myself have never been immune, and kvetching about “Music’s Biggest Night” has become so tired that last year Slate’s Carl Wilson was forced to mix things up by putting his grievances into verse.
But if this year’s nominations were engineered by some Spectre-like organization, I would like them to step out of the shadows so I can shake their hands. Nearly every nominee in the three biggest categories (Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year) is great, and most are fantastic.
Let’s start with Album of the Year. The most acclaimed album of this year by almost any metric, Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop epic To Pimp a Butterfly, is nominated for Album of the Year, and Lamar leads all nominees with a well-earned 11 nominations. My favorite album of last year, Taylor Swift’s 1989 is also, of course, nominated, just as surely as the sun did rise this morning. (The album’s best song, “Blank Space,” is also nominated for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year.) The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness cemented his bid to being 2015 R&B’s closest thing to Michael Jackson, and he deserves all seven of his nominations (especially Record of the Year for “Can’t Feel My Face”). A few weeks ago Chris Stapleton shocked the Country Music Association Awards by stealing the night with his album Traveller, my favorite country album of the year, and it’s no less a surprise that he managed to find his way into the big leagues here. Rounding out the category, it’s a delight to see that the only puzzling pick is still a really good album: Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, an LP that’s not exactly game-changing, but which is hard to see anyone truly disliking. (In an extraordinarily weak year for rock, Sound & Color may have been graded on a curve.)
The closest thing to a serious snub is probably the exclusion of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, the most acclaimed album of last year, which wasn’t eligible until this one. But even that omission wasn’t really a surprise: Beauty Behind the Madness was a much bigger (and frankly much more contemporary) R&B album that sold almost four times as many copies in its first week, and has already produced two No. 1 hits. What was much less predictable is that D’Angelo would still manage to garner a nomination for Record of the Year, when not a single song from that album has charted on the Hot 100—or even, for that matter, in the Top 10 on the R&B/hip-hop chart.
Other pleasant surprises: Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”—anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement and all around one of the best jams of 2015—somehow managed to dance and protest its way into Song of the Year. The witty indie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, whose album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is another fixture on critics’ Top 10 lists, managed to snag a nomination for Best New Artist. She’ll go up against the Drake of country, singer and occasional mopey rapper Sam Hunt, whose nominations were more expected but are no less deserved. Tame Impala, Jamie XX, Little Big Town, and Fetty Wap all got duly recognized for career highs (though the latter could reasonably complain about getting passed over for Best New Artist), and artists like Björk, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Miguel, Drake, and Jeremih all earned the minor nominations they deserved for minor works in their own discographies. Small corners of the Internet may throw tempests in their teapots about the lack of nominations for great albums from Sufjan Stevens, Carly Rae Jepsen, Sleater-Kinney, and Kamasi Washington, in those artists’ respective categories, but these are fairly niche concerns.
Of course, it’s possible that this could all come to naught on Grammy night. Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s Furious Seven anthem “See You Again” could win Song of the Year, Ed Sheeran’s relatively snoozey “Thinking Out Loud” could win Record of the Year, and the Shakes’ Sound & Color, like Beck’s similarly backward-looking Morning Phase last year, could run off with Album of the Year. If that happens, I won’t mind if Grammy-hating music critic Kanye West does more than just feint toward the stage, and Kendrick Lamar will be owed a lot more than another round of text messages.