Surprises abound when it comes to this year's Grammy Award nominees. Recording Academy voters dove heavily into hip-hop and R&B, as the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, and Childish Gambino are all nominated for Album of the Year. The move marks a bold shift from years past, in which voters delicately tried to hit all major genres. No more. There's not a single country or rock album represented in the top category for 2018. But look beyond the headliners, and you'll find many notable releases that likely won't get much airtime on the Sunday evening telecast. Here, we dig through the 84 Grammy categories and pinpoint five must-hear albums.
Aimee Mann, Mental Illness
Recognized by the Grammys in the Folk Album category, Mann's ninth solo effort is a delight for those who value songwriting as a storytelling medium. Soft, reflective, tranquil, and comforting, Mental Illness offers lovingly strummed snapshots of frantic, depressed, and stressed-out lives. Ultimately hopeful, Mann's patient and reassuring vocals soothe throughout the mystery of "Lies of Summer," where she comes to grips with a onetime associate's troubled past. And she almost finds relief in the extreme highs and lows of "Rollercoaster." Mann sounds sterner in "Knock It Off," a lecture to a friend who creepily hung up on his ex. Yet the airy acoustics and tasteful orchestrations make even the harshest of reprimands go down easy.
Iron & Wine, Beast Epic
Delicate indie-pop crooner Sam Beam returned in 2017 with the sixth album under his Iron & Wine moniker. It's the rare work – nominated for an Americana Grammy – that focuses almost exclusively on grown-up, adult concerns. Pop, after all, is a young person's game. But here, Beam dials in on stately and ornate 70s-inspired folk-pop throughout a set full of deceptively simple lyrical refrains that beget deep introspection. On "Bitter Truth," for example, Beam chronicles a couple growing old and growing apart. "You called them mine, I called them yours," he sings, noting the ways people can be out of sync. These aren't sad songs, just honest, as the wide-open, Western-tinged "Claim Your Ghost" ultimately finds solace in companionship.
Rose Cousins, Natural Conclusion
This little-known gem from the Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Rose Cousins is tucked away deep in the Grammy nominations – you'll find it in the category for Best Engineered, Non-Classical Album. As Recording Academy voters increasingly gravitate toward A-list pop stars, such quiet, thoughtful releases will have to find recognition any which way in they can get it. Here, more than 15 years into her career, Cousins finds herself working with acclaimed producer Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Bonnie Raitt), who brings a restrained opulence to her stately vocals. Cousins' tender, piano-based songs tentatively explore various influences, ranging from a dash of blues here and a touch of jazz there, but focus on heartbreak and redemption. There's plenty of inner turmoil, but Cousins' distinguished arrangements call for serenity.
Randy Newman, Dark Matter
Randy Newman, the celebrated West Coast singer/songwriter/pop arranger, has long been a wry observer of topical affairs. Today, however, he may be better known for his work on film scores and contributions to the Toy Story franchise. Such skills are put to mighty fine use on Dark Matter. Cinematic and theatrical in scope, its songs unfold as mini-suites that shift direction and employ symphonic touches. This is certainly the case on "Putin," a song Grammy voters recognized in the Pop Arrangement category. Even as Russian president Vladimir Putin has been in the news plenty, Newman goes more of a silly route, contrasting the image of Putin – he of shirtless photos – with his reputation as one of the most powerful men in the world. All the while Newman intermixes strands of Russian folk music, and even employs a chorus, referred to as the "Putin girls," who serve as self-esteem boosters.
While Grammy voters have shown a desire to recognize more mainstream pop artists – see the inclusion of Lorde and Justin Bieber in the Album of the Year field in recent years – many in the industry saw the lack of major nominations for Kesha's Rainbow as a snub. Sure, it's recognized in the Pop Vocal category, but Rainbow stands as a powerful statement of defiance and independence, coming after years of public legal turmoil with her one-time producer Dr. Luke. Essentially forbidden from recording new music during that time, Kesha returned last year with this inventive and vivid set, her first in five years. Pivoting away from the party pop of earlier works, Kesha touches on soul, garage rock, psychedelic pop, and orchestral grandeur. It feels exhilarating and poignant, as evidenced by the booming, self-assured beats of "Learn to Let Go."
Photo credit: Sheryl Nields