Predicting Grammy nominations has never seemed like more of a fool’s errand than this year. For one, we’re coming off last year’s chaotic nominations, a noticeably out-of-touch slate from a body known for being out of touch. It left the masses wondering: Who are Black Pumas and Jacob Collier? Why is Beyoncé nominated for “Black Parade”? And where is the Weeknd? That last question gave way to a ground-shaking structural change for this year’s awards, which will be the first without the nominating committees that the Weeknd criticized when he failed to be recognized for one of the biggest songs ever. Those committees, known for their anonymity and accused of inside dealing and corruption — notably by ousted Grammys CEO Deborah Dugan — used to narrow down a group of 20 finalists (as voted by Recording Academy members) to eight nominees in a majority of Grammy categories, including the top four. Now, Academy members will simply vote, with the top eight entries becoming the nominees.
The Grammys don’t hew to precedent quite like the Oscars, but it typically helps to have some history to go off. So what happens to all the fields without the nominating committees? (They’ll stick around to guide the more technical craft categories.) My guess is as good as anyone else’s, but I wonder (and worry) that without the nominating committees, some genres will fall through the cracks in the top categories and the awards will turn into even more of a popularity contest than ever before. But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong! In the meantime, don’t hold me to any of the picks below come Tuesday afternoon.
First, though, some housekeeping: This year’s Grammys will actually recognize a 13-month span, from September 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021, in an attempt to shift the eligibility window for future ceremonies — which means Adele’s new album will have to wait for next year, along with Ed Sheeran’s = and Lana Del Rey’s Blue Banisters. Among the others we won’t see on this year’s nominees list: The Weeknd, who would’ve been eligible for “Take My Breath,” didn’t submit owing to ongoing protest. Some of his collaborators, including Ariana Grande and Doja Cat, also seemed to not submit their duets in solidarity. (Kanye West, though, submitted Donda’s Weeknd–featuring song “Hurricane.”) Drake, who’s been hot and cold with the Grammys in the past (he criticized his rap-category wins for “Hotline Bling” and didn’t submit his “playlist” More Life), is entering Certified Lover Boy for Album of the Year but won’t have songs in play in Record or Song of the Year. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” isn’t eligible this year, after Cardi held it from the 2021 awards for an eventual album that has yet to materialize. And Dua Lipa neglected to submit her “Levitating” remix with DaBaby, apparently to avoid recognizing him after his anti-AIDS and anti-gay comments.
Record of the Year
Off and on since 2017, the Grammys have given out Record of the Year as the final trophy of the night rather than Album of the Year. That will make extra sense this year, as the Grammys are going to revolve around one song: “drivers license.” Olivia Rodrigo is the one to beat across the board, starting at the top, thanks to her breakout hit — not just because it was an organic hit that introduced a new pop star but because it’s the sort of no-frills, show-your-work musicianship the Grammys tend to love. That’s key in Record of the Year, which recognizes production and performance of a song. It should also give Silk Sonic, comprising Grammy darlings Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, a nomination for their throwback soul hit “Leave the Door Open.” And speaking of Grammy darlings, let’s also slot in back-to-back winner Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever” and Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” after “Old Town Road” earned a ROTY nomination and got him into Best New Artist and Album of the Year in 2019. Also expect repeat nominations for Doja Cat and SZA, thanks to their irresistibly catchy collab “Kiss Me More.”
With “WAP” absent from the hit parade that usually is ROTY, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion could still appear for “Up” or “Body,” respectively; Megan likely has the better odds after her Best New Artist win, but neither song had nearly the ubiquity of “WAP.” And even the biggest hit of this year, BTS’s “Butter,” is a tossup. K-pop has tough odds at the Grammys, with BTS previously scoring just one nomination for their music. But that nomination was for “Dynamite” last year in Best Pop Duo/Group Performance — a category that, crucially, has never had nominating committees. Given that, along with the fact that “Butter” topped the charts for longer than “drivers license” and was 2021’s runaway song of summer, I see BTS breaking through here. (And further, they’ll have help from Columbia Records CEO Ron Perry, a credited writer on the song who could help legitimize its claim.)
Justin Bieber has also outrun Rodrigo at No. 1 with his two chart-toppers, “Peaches” with Daniel Caesar and Giveon and the Kid Laroi’s “Stay.” “Peaches” has the edge, since Caesar and Giveon are both familiar faces in the R&B categories (where the song is also competing, ironically, after Bieber’s fit last year when Changes was moved from R&B to pop), but I wouldn’t be shocked to see “Stay” nominated as well. (Don’t expect a third nomination for Bieber, though, since Wizkid and Tems didn’t submit the Bieber–featuring remix of “Essence,” a move that will likely make it harder for their Afrobeats crossover hit to crack the general categories.) I’ll give my final slot to Bieber’s friend Ariana Grande, though, who leaned further into her R&B experiments on “positions.”
Album of the Year
Thanks to the strength of “drivers license,” not to mention its album’s cross-genre appeal, Olivia Rodrigo should have no trouble securing an Album of the Year nomination for Sour, despite it being her debut. Her closest competitor here, Billie Eilish, had a similar trajectory in 2020, eventually sweeping the awards. Precedent says Eilish could have trouble returning to AOTY, since most winners aren’t nominated for their follow-up projects, but I don’t see the Grammy love for Eilish stopping this year and do expect Happier Than Ever to break that pattern. Also, after catching his own surprise AOTY nomination for debut EP 7, Lil Nas X should have a smooth ride to a second nod for his proper debut album, Montero. And one past AOTY winner who has never been nominated for a follow-up project is Taylor Swift, but a nomination here for evermore could take into consideration her widely lauded “Taylor’s Version” rerecordings (especially since she’s not submitting Fearless). I also see a path for 2019 winner Kacey Musgraves to reappear with star-crossed — the wide criticism of the Academy’s decision to move the album from the country field to pop both gave her more publicity and could motivate country voters to slot her in here, a category where they still can vote for her. AOTY likes to reward a Best New Artist winner who actually lives up to the title, and Megan Thee Stallion’s Good News is a perfect example of her doing that. Also expect to see 2021 Best New Artist nominee Doja Cat catch her first AOTY nomination for Planet Her, thanks to a likely wave of support for “Kiss Me More” across the ballot.
I have a few medium-spicy theories about how the lack of nominating committees will affect AOTY in particular — especially after last year’s wildly incongruent slate of nominees in this category. Those nominations were largely possible owing to said committees, which seemed to prize some false sense of “musicianship” (Jacob Collier’s arrangements, Black Pumas’ classic-rock revivalism) over music that had greater importance last year. For one, I think it’ll get harder for country and rock releases to break through, so I’m wary of the odds for Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over despite his favor with the Grammys. (His recent near sweep of the CMAs does make him the odds-on favorite country artist to catch a nod here, though, and since it’s nearly impossible to imagine two country albums nominated for AOTY, that should shut out Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous.) And two, I wonder if H.E.R. will still be as much of a Grammy darling when she’s a choice out of thousands of entries rather than just 20; I’m doubting the chances for her proper debut, Back of My Mind. (Similar to Stapleton, she could be splitting votes this year with another Grammy-favorite R&B singer-songwriter, Jazmine Sullivan, and her acclaimed comeback, Heaux Tales).
But there are a few widely appealing pop musicians familiar to this category who could fill the last slot: Drake, Ariana Grande, and Justin Bieber. Drake has the toughest path for Certified Lover Boy, owing to his decision to not submit in Record or Song of the Year and his past criticism of the Grammys. (The dark-horse rap album could be Tyler, the Creator’s stylish CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, if the Grammys want to recognize him for actually rapping this time around.) Grande had a hit in “positions” the song, but I wonder if positions the album will get overshadowed after being released over a year ago. But there’s no denying Bieber had a big year with multiple long-running hits and an album praised as a career best. Justice for Justice.
Song of the Year
Olivia Rodrigo might be the favorite in all of these categories, but “drivers license” has even better chances here than in Record of the Year, thanks to her established reputation as a soul-baring songwriter in the lineage of Taylor Swift. Billie Eilish aims for similar territory on “Happier Than Ever,” compared to her less-personal 2020 winner “bad guy,” which should go over well with the Academy. Also like Rodrigo, Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” is even more impressive as a piece of writing that allows Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak to seamlessly channel the post-Motown era. “Kiss Me More” has good chances here for its clever Olivia Newton-John interpolation in the hook and even more clever lyrics. (“Say So” earning a Record of the Year nod last year proved the Academy has no problems recognizing Dr. Luke, who would share in a “Kiss Me More” nomination as a co-writer despite the abuse allegations against him.) And I’m more confident about “willow” here than in ROTY, given Swift’s perennial status as a nominee (both “cardigan” and “Lover” showed up without corresponding Record of the Year noms).
Ed Sheeran is a similar case to Swift with “Bad Habits,” but he’s only been recognized in SOTY for ballads like “The A-Team” and 2017 winner “Thinking Out Loud,” so I don’t see his synthpop turn changing that. As for who else I’m shakier on? Lil Nas X for one, since “Old Town Road” was previously passed up in 2019, but I ultimately think “Montero,” a marginally more serious song, will come through. And BTS, given that we don’t know how 2021 pop voters felt about “Dynamite” as a work of writing, since there’s no Best Pop Song award. I lean no on “Butter” here, though, since it’s a bit lyrically thin, especially for a song with seven writers.
Historically, SOTY is the general category where R&B, country, rock, and more indie fare have the best odds, but without nominating committees to narrow the field, I wonder how much voters will care about the difference between Song and Record of the Year. I could see a writing-driven sleeper hit like SZA’s “Good Days” edging out a song like “Butter” here, but I think the odds will be steeper for songs like “Starting Over” and “Right on Time,” the follow-up by 2019 surprise nominee Brandi Carlile. (One wild card? Lana Del Rey, who caught a nomination in 2020 for “Norman fucking Rockwell”; she could reappear here with “Let Me Love You Like a Woman,” though that song doesn’t make the same voice-of-a-generation case that “Norman” did.) I give my final slot to reigning winner H.E.R., who gets to campaign on the fact that “Fight for You” has already won an Oscar.
Best New Artist
Sorry to the seven musicians who’ll have to compete against Olivia Rodrigo, who will unquestionably win this category. The Kid Laroi is first alternate with even better odds if Record (or Song) of the Year gives a nod to “Stay.” His friend Polo G should make an appearance too (despite Hall of Fame being his third proper album), especially if his No. 1 “Rapstar” cracks Record of the Year. Country tends to represent here, so I’m betting on both Jimmie Allen, who just won New Artist of the Year at the CMAs, and Gabby Barrett, whose career has already well outlasted her Charlie Puth–co-signed hit “I Hope” (which I thought would get her nominated in 2021, but apparently she wasn’t entered). Speaking of hits, Saweetie and Ava Max both have multiple to their names too and should be near locks here. (Also keep eyes on Glass Animals and Tate McRae, who were forces on the charts as well.)
I predicted Rina Sawayama would be a nominee last year, for her 2020 album SAWAYAMA, but it turns out she’s eligible this year, which I think will work against her without a proper project to promote. Also in the indie space, singer-songwriter Julien Baker is eligible for her third album, Little Oblivions, and could be a dark horse, especially given her boygenius associations with 2021 nominee Phoebe Bridgers. But when it comes to co-signs, someone has her beat: Finneas, who is eligible this year for his solo music, despite already having eight Grammys to his name as producer and songwriter for his sister, former Best New Artist winner Billie Eilish. I don’t think the voters who gave Finneas Producer of the Year for just one album and gave Eilish and Finneas Record of the Year two years in a row will pass up a chance to nominate him again.
Some lingering down-ballot questions …
Will Morgan Wallen show up, and where?
Wallen is submitting across the board, but I’m not too confident about his chances in the generals — as I wrote above, there’s room for one country artist in most of those categories, and if that’s anyone, it’s Chris Stapleton. But from a musical perspective, he has a good shot to show up throughout the country field in one of the first awards appearances where he won’t be penalized after saying a racial slur on video in February. The question becomes whether, and how much, the country industry is ready to let him back in. (Pay special attention to Best Country Duo/Group Performance, where Wallen’s duet with Stapleton, “Only Thing That’s Gone,” is eligible.)
On that topic, what about DaBaby?
The rapper had his best chances with “Levitating,” which Dua Lipa isn’t submitting, and doesn’t have a full album to campaign this cycle. He could still appear in the rap categories for minor hits like “Ball If I Want To,” but amid a sea of worthy rap nominees this year, a DaBaby nomination would be a pointed message from voters.
Where will Kacey Musgraves get her love?
The former Album of the Year winner is sure to walk away with a few nominations, but with star-crossed moved from the country field to pop, the question becomes where. She faces higher odds in a category like Best Pop Vocal Album, where voters will be less familiar with her and more eager to recognize category stalwarts like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, along with new faces like Doja Cat. But her song “camera roll” will still be in play for Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song, categories that have favored her in the past.
And what about Brandi Carlile?
A recent Grammy darling after surprising with six nominations and three awards in 2019, Brandi Carlile returns this year with her first solo single since then, “Right on Time” — also moved to pop rather than American roots. (Her corresponding album, In These Silent Days, won’t be eligible till next cycle.) It’s hard to see Carlile earning a Best Pop Solo Performance nod over chart-runners like Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, and Grande, not to mention the song unfortunately won’t be eligible for a genre songwriting award, which the pop field doesn’t have. Carlile has her best chances in Song of the Year, especially if roots and country voters want to make a protest vote.
Who will appear in the inaugural Best Global Music Performance category?
The Grammys have given out a Best Global Music Album award for a few decades and, this year, will fill out that field with a corresponding song award. The track to beat will be “Essence,” the late-summer Afrobeats hit by Wizkid and Tems.