A music equation to ponder: What happens when you place sparkly country upstart Maren Morris on a stage with veteran R&B star Alicia Keys? The answer: The sort of genre-hopping performance mash-up that the only the Grammy Awards would concoct. Sunday, February 12th, 2017 will bring about the return of what's long been dubbed "music's biggest night." Expect to see plenty of A-list performers – the likes of Adele, the Weeknd, Daft Punk, and A Tribe Called Quest are all slated to appear. But a plethora of great Grammy music doesn't get screen time. That's because the bulk of the 84 awards are given away off the air. We're here to try and correct that. Here are five Grammy-nominated albums you need to hear, whether or not their creators appear in an all-star medley at the ceremony.
PJ Harvey The Hope Six Demolition Project
Tucked away in the alternative albums field, PJ Harvey has good company. Her competitors include works from Radiohead and David Bowie. But The Hope Six Demolition Project remains one of 2016's standouts, its bluesy and abrasive sounds presenting a startling vision of troubled times. Lyrically, Harvey has poverty on her mind. The songs document a dire state of being with a photographer's eye for detail (see "Dollar, Dollar," where the desperation and anguish of a young beggar get a soft, sparse, hymn-like treatment). Yet don't mistake this for a dour affair. Tunes might be bluesy and militant ("The Ministry of Social Affairs"), or laced with activist-worthy chants ("Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln"). Harvey brings a fighting spirit and rebellious tone to many of the works, a number of which feature a trumpet so loud it seems Harvey practically dares the listener to turn away.
King We Are King
King, comprised of twin sisters Paris and Amber Strother and collaborator Anita Bias, has long kept good company. Prior to snaring a Grammy nomination, the Los Angeles-based R&B trio was perhaps best known for being handpicked by Prince to appear at his Southern California concerts. Yet the group, frequent collaborators with modern jazz genius Robert Glasper, has long deserved to be headliners in its own right. At first listen, We Are King appears to be a throwback – a nod to the glistening R&B albums of the 80s and early 90s, when harmonies, snyths, and grooves ruled. Yet the album also possesses an otherworldly dreaminess. Nominated for urban contemporary album, King isn't going to win a Grammy over Beyoncé. But don't sleep on songs like "Red Eye," where vocals gradually erupt into a psychedelic swirl, or the spare "In the Meantime," with soft beats that move like jellyfish.
France will be well-represented at the Grammy Awards. Daft Punk, the country's leading music ambassadors, is slated to perform. Less well known, at least in the U.S., is Gojira, the country's metal giants. The band's 2016 album Magma scored two Grammy nods – one for metal performance and one for rock album, where it will compete with the likes of Blink-182 and Weezer. It's a rather moving record, as brothers Joe and Mario Duplantier wrote much of it in response to the passing of their mother. So, it's heavy, literally and figuratively. Yet songs like "Silvera" show the group fighting through the pain. "When you change yourself, you change the world," growls Joe with fist-clenched grit. And then things, as they often do in Gojira songs, get weird, as an ever-so-quiet choir erupts over a torrent of guitars heading in an opposite direction.
Terrace Martin Velvet Portraits
A staple on L.A.'s modern jazz scene, borderline-experimental producer/saxophonist Terrace Martin has worked closely with the city's hip-hop community. Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, the Game, and more have called on Martin's genre-jumping touch. With Velvet Portraits, however, Martin puts the emphasis back on his smooth and soothing jazz chops. Yet he remains hard to define. The Grammys, for instance, slotted Velvet Portraits in the R&B album field. No matter. Martin is far from a purist. How else to explain "Turkey Taco," a song with funk-stained guitars, handclaps, and a stomping beat? Or "Valdez Off Crenshaw," a Donny Hathaway-referencing tune in which the saxophone wafts in and out like smoke. It's jazz, sure, but it's jazz taken for a ride through all of L.A.'s urban pockets.
Various Artists Ork Records: New York, New York
Punk rock, save for the occasional appearance from Green Day, doesn't get much love from the Grammys. The Clash? No Grammys during the band's prime. Sex Pistols? Same. But the very fine reissue label Numero Group managed to sneak into this year's Grammy crop with a compilation of songs from early East Coast punk label Ork Records. Granted, it's buried deep in the historical album field, but punk will have to take what it can get. These rough-and-tumble songs helped document the birth of America's punk scene, when the genre was more of an idea rather than art form. Hence, this is a heavily varied crop. For instance, "Free Again," from Alex Chilton, comes on as a celebration of fuzzed-up melodies while Television's "Little Johnny Jewel" moves to off-kilter guitar lines that twist left and right. The 49 tracks here then manage to capture everything in between, from the highly caffeinated rush of the Feelies to the bluesy snarl of the Revelons. Essential listening.