awards season

The Snubs and Surprises of the 2021 Grammy Nominations

Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Getty Images and Universal Pictures

Has anyone checked in on the Weeknd? The Recording Academy announced the 2021 Grammy nominations today, and if you thought this year had run out of curveballs to throw, just wait till you see this list. Now, a curveball isn’t always a bad thing — just check out the rock categories for proof, but it definitely can be, especially when the odds-on favorite in the biggest categories gets completely shut out. We break down those surprises and more below.

Snub: The Weeknd, in general
This week, the Weeknd’s hit single “Blinding Lights” became the longest-running song in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 ever. You wouldn’t know Abel Tesfaye had made such a splash on the year in music from these Grammy nominations, though. Ahead of today’s nominations, the R&B singer-songwriter was the likely winner in Record, Song, and Album of the Year, for both “Blinding Lights” and his album After Hours. Instead, he’s walking away with zero nominations, not even in the pop categories. (One theory, from Variety’s Jem Aswad: The Weeknd’s album marked his biggest jump yet from R&B to pop, and each genre may have been counting on the other to nominate him. Still, as Variety also noted, that doesn’t explain the lack of nominees in the generals.) The Grammys didn’t even do Taylor this bad during reputation. —Justin Curto

Surprise: What the hell is happening in Album of the Year?
Sure, yeah, 2020 has been weird, but this weird? The academy really just had a free-for-all in Album of the Year, with nominations for a finely reviewed Jhené Aiko album, surprise Grammy darlings Black Pumas, a wonderfully unexpected Haim album, an album by musical boy wonder Jacob Collier, and a Coldplay album in the year of our Lord 2020. (Black Pumas also got a Record of the Year nomination, and the academy also eked in another shock nomination for JP Saxe and Julia Michaels in Song of the Year; just as shockingly, AOTY is Coldplay’s only nomination.) Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, and Post Malone made their expected appearances, but past that, this weird slate shut musicians like Lady Gaga out of the top honor — and others like the Weeknd and the Chicks out of the show entirely. —Justin Curto

Surprise: Welcome back, Taylor Swift
With the Weeknd out of contention, Taylor Swift almost certainly becomes the favorite in Album of the Year, a position she hasn’t occupied since five years ago, when 1989 won her second trophy in the category. After scoring just one nomination off reputation (in Pop Vocal Album), she made a softer return than some expected last year, with a Song of the Year nomination for “Lover,” but no Album of the Year nomination for the corresponding album. She also nabs a Song of the Year nomination for “cardigan” this year, and rules the pop category, too, with nominations for folklore in Pop Vocal Album, “cardigan” in Pop Solo Performance, and “exile” for Pop Duo/Group Performance (and while we’re here, congrats to Bon Iver for the pop nomination!). If she wins Album of the Year in January, she’ll join a select group of three-time musician winners that also includes Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder. —Justin Curto

Surprise: Beyoncé?!?
Even as pop stars like Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa cleaned up in their categories, the year’s top nominee is Beyoncé, who didn’t even release a proper album this cycle. She caught surprising key nominations in Record and Song of the Year for her Black Is King cut “Black Parade,” which also showed up in the R&B categories. Music Video and Film nominations came as expected for “Brown Skin Girl” and Black Is King, but what put her over the top was her feature on Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” remix, which snuck her into the rap categories and got her a rare second Record of the Year nomination. —Justin Curto

Snub: Pop Smoke (and Juice WRLD, and Mac Miller)
Three of the year’s biggest albums have been posthumous rap releases by Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, and Mac Miller, all slated to make at least a few appearances in these nominations. Instead, Pop Smoke walks away with just one, in Best Rap Performance for “Dior,” after he could’ve been the first posthumously nominated performer in Best New Artist. That’s still better than Juice WRLD, who could’ve become a first-time nominee today off Legends Never Die, or Mac Miller, who earned his first nomination after his death two years ago. —Justin Curto

Surprise: Phoebe Bridgers and Kaytranada are new to whom, exactly?
One near-constant guarantee of the Grammys: The Recording Academy will make a fool of itself by nominating artists for Best New Artist entirely too late. This year, that applies to both indie giant Phoebe Bridgers, nominated for her second album Punisher (her fourth project overall, counting the boygenius EP and Better Oblivion Community Center album), and festival headliner Kaytranada, nominated for his second album Bubba (also after many EPs and mixtapes). Don’t get us wrong — we welcome them, especially with their great down-ballot nominations in the rock and dance categories, respectively. We’ve just been loving them for years. —Justin Curto

Snub: Lots of potential Best New Artists missed the cut
Best New Artist felt like a bit of a shot in the dark this year, with just so much new talent on the scene. That said, it’s still surprising to see misses for big debuts like Pop Smoke (one of the only musicians to chart a posthumous No. 1 album, never mind keep it in the top ten for so long), Summer Walker (her album Over It set a streaming record for solo women in R&B), and Rina Sawayama (her Sawayama was a rare crossover that satisfied the pop and indie crowds), along with endlessly toasted country newcomers like Morgan Wallen (New Artist of the Year at the CMAs) and Gabby Barrett (setting records with the rise of her single “I Hope”). That said, we can’t complain about surprise nominees in their place, like Chika and Noah Cyrus — even if we are wondering whether some Grammy voters confused D Smoke for Pop Smoke. —Justin Curto

Surprise: Rock’s women really stepped up, huh?
Possibly the single best development of this year’s nominations is the long-overdue recognition that women are leading the pack in rock music. The academy nominated the first-ever all-women slate in Best Rock Performance, including much-deserved first-time nods for Phoebe Bridgers and Haim, along with returns to the rock category for Fiona Apple, Big Thief, Brittany Howard, and Grace Potter. Sure, Rock Album still looks a little weird (congrats to the Strokes, though), but also take this as a sign that Alternative Album is where the big developments are happening — that’s where you’ll find Apple, Bridgers, and Howard. And even if Apple and Bridgers didn’t break into the general categories, we’ll get behind a Haim AOTY nomination any day. —Justin Curto

Surprise: And country’s, too!
But wait, there’s more! Women also dominated the country categories this year, netting a majority of Country Solo Performance and Country Song nominations. (And some truly special ones, too: Mickey Guyton breaks through as a solo Black woman in Country Solo Performance, while supergroup the Highwomen catches a Country Song nomination.) Not to mention, a woman is guaranteed to walk away with Best Country Album, with nominations going to four solo women along with Little Big Town, half of whose members are women. Let’s hope country radio is taking some notes. —Justin Curto

Surprise: How many genres is Brittany Howard in?
Brittany Howard’s debut solo album Jaime drew from everything from classic rock to R&B, and her nominations reflected that. She’s anchored in the rock categories with nominations for “Stay High” in Rock Performance and Song, along with Jaime in Alternative Album, but separate songs also showed up in R&B Performance (“Goat Head”) and American Roots Performance (“Short and Sweet”). —Justin Curto

Surprise: Posthumous nods for John Prine and Power Trip
Even if the academy fell short on posthumous rap nominations, the other categories did come through. John Prine, the legendary songwriter who died due to COVID-19 earlier this year (and wasn’t honored at the recent CMA Awards), received nominations in American Roots Performance and Song for his final release, the stirring “I Remember Everything.” Then, over in Best Metal Performance, Power Trip got a big surprise of a nomination for their righteous live cut of “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe),” after singer Riley Gale died earlier this year at just 34. —Justin Curto

Surprise: The Grammys remind us that Cats happened
The Grammys were willing to take chonces, when no one (or at least the Oscars) took chonces on Cats. Taylor Swift and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s T.S. Eliot–inspired new song “Beautiful Ghosts” from the CGI mass sociological study that was Cats managed to earn a Grammy nomination for Best Song Written for Visual Media, even after being left off the Oscar nomination list this year. To be fair, there wasn’t a lot of visual media released for it to compete against this year. The rest of the category includes Frozen 2’s “Into the Unknown” and Harriet’s “Stand Up,” both Oscar nominees; Onward’s “Carried You With Me”; and Billie Eilish’s Bond song “No Time to Die,” written for a movie that, due to COVID-19, hasn’t yet come out. —Jackson McHenry

(Not that much of a) surprise: The musical-theater category is light on Broadway
Considering that most of the theater world shut down in early March, and that most Broadway shows release their cast recordings around Tonys season in May and June, the Grammys musical-theater category is predictably wonky this year. The Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill, which released its album last fall and is a favorite for the Tonys whenever they happen, is the biggest new musical to make an appearance, while the rest of the category goes off in different directions. There’s David Byrne’s album from American Utopia (great music and theater, though not typical musical theater); two Off Broadway shows, the Jonathan Groff–led Little Shop of Horrors and the new David Henry Hwang–Jeanine Tesori musical Soft Power; and two cast recordings from the West End, the film-to-sage Prince of Egypt, and the London cast version of Amélie, which had a brief run on Broadway (without any Grammy or Tony attention) three years ago. —Jackson McHenry

Surprise: BTS lands their first-ever Grammy nomination
Winning a Grammy has always been part of BTS’s American takeover. After dazzling the rest of the world, BTS released their first-ever English-language single, “Dynamite,” this year, determined to uplift their fans with music. “Dynamite,” the band’s first-ever Billboard No. 1, scored them their first Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group performance. This makes RM, J-Hope, Jin, Jimin, V, Jungkook, and Suga the first South Korean act in history to be nominated for a Grammy. They share the category with legends like Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber, and you better believe they hold their own. Their ever-supportive ARMY may want to see them in more general categories, but after their successful year and the release of their album BE, nothing’s gonna stop BTS from raking in the awards.  —Zoe Haylock

Snub: Justice for the Chicks. 
Back with their first album in 14 years, the Chicks didn’t receive so much as a single nod for Gaslighter. Lest you’ve forgotten, the group, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, stopped making music after they gave the world the absolute gift that is “Not Ready to Make Nice.” A song inspired by the hate they received — literal death threats — after being unceremoniously dumped by the country community for speaking their minds about George W. Bush back in 2003. This is not to say that returning after a lengthy hiatus should be enough to warrant nominations, but the Chicks returned in triumph with a thoughtful album of some really excellent, new music. A delicious blend of pop and country — the group collabed with Jack Antonoff and it shows — full of scorching lyrics. They were right about the Iraq War and they were right on the money with Gaslighter. A title that feels a little too on the nose today. —Madison Malone Kircher 

(Kind of) surprises: Tiffany Haddish and Bill Burr get their first noms, but Marc Maron deserves justice
Considering how COVID dramatically changed the world of live stand-up in 2020, looking at this year’s Best Comedy Album nominees is like a glimpse back at the distant past when large indoor crowds were still legal (Bill Burr’s special was released in September 2019! Do you even remember 2019?). The comedy nominees at the Grammys tend to just feel phoned in — they’re generally limited to the super famous, and women rarely take home the award — but Burr, along with Tiffany Haddish, earned first-time noms this year, joining return noms Patton Oswalt, Jim Gaffigan, and Jerry Seinfeld. (Notably, Haddish is the first Black woman to earn a nomination in this category since The Queens of Comedy in 2002.) Some notable releases since last September were snubbed (Leslie Jones’s Time Machine, Gary Gulman’s Great Depresh, Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas), but none feels like a bigger omission than Marc Maron’s End Times Fun, which straddled the very uncertain line between Normal Times and COVID Times in a prophetic and hilarious way when it was released back in early March. —Megh Wright

Surprise: Ken Jennings, Vulture’s heir to the Jeopardy! fortune, has yet again proved his GOAT status by securing a nomination in the Best Spoken Word category for a very poignant project: He narrated Alex Trebek’s memoir, The Answer Is … Reflections on My Life, which was released just months prior to his death. Jennings will be competing against Flea, Meryl Streep, Rachel Maddow, and Ronan Farrow’s anime voices. “I want to win this for Alex,” Jennings wrote on Twitter, “but taking down Meryl Streep is gonna be sweet.” We have to agree. —Devon Ivie

Surprise: Harry Styles becomes the first One Direction member to be nominated for a Grammy, and it feels great for 13-year-old me. Styles’s sophomore album, Fine Line, is up for Best Pop Vocal Album, “Watermelon Sugar” is up for Best Pop Solo Performance, and “Adore You,” his ode to a fish, is up for Best Music Video. (Tough competition: Styles is up against ex Taylor Swift in the former two categories and Beyoncé’s “Brown Skin Girl” in the latter.) Fine Line was recorded under the influence of the Malibu sun (and, uh, other things), making its December 19 release a little jarring, but looking back, how could we have gotten through the darkest days of quarantine without Styles’s yearning pop-rock, fruit-based innuendos, and a reminder to “Treat People With Kindness?” —Zoe Haylock

The Snubs and Surprises of the 2021 Grammy Nominations