For an award named after the old-school gramophone, this year’s Grammys seem surprisingly relevant in the digital age.
There’s honest-to-goodness variety in several categories, plus a nice balance of proven brands—some Coldplay, a little Taylor Swift and Rihanna—and relative newcomers who pose actual challenges to each other (hello to fun. and Frank Ocean). For our money, these 20 primo tracks amount to a nice primer for the festivities, which go down in L.A. (and on CBS) on Sunday.
You still have plenty of time to get to a wifi zone and load ’em up in time for some heavy rotation before the show.
His brand of R&B skews a little more conventional than favored heat-seeker Frank Ocean, but don’t overlook the futuristic flourishes that helped to propel Miguel toward the top of the pop consciousness. Song of the Year or not, this is a sturdy hit that’ll make its way into Valentine’s Day mixes long after “Call Me Maybe” hits the radio skids.
FUN., “WE ARE YOUNG”
We’d be lying if we said the Janelle Monae cameo wasn’t part of the reason why this persistent radio-rock anthem ranks among our favorites from 2012. But by the time you inevitably get an entire room (or car, or high school gym) wailing along to the chorus, does it really matter who’s singing on the actual recording?
THE BLACK KEYS, “GOLD ON THE CEILING”
While “Lonely Boy” got the nod for Record of the Year and Best Rock Performance, this track is our preferred standout from the Keys’ hip-shakingly awesome Album of the Year contender, El Camino. (Singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach’s golden touch with gritty, riffy rock vibes also earned him a nomination for Producer of the Year.)
M83, “MIDNIGHT CITY”
If you still haven’t juiced yourself up for an epic night with the ’80s-flavored loud-soft-loud bliss of this track from M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming—something of a dark horse for Best Alternative Music Album—now’s the time to finally catch up. From that indelible keyboard hook to the shockingly apropos sax solo, it’s this decade’s tastiest dose of retro.
ALABAMA SHAKES, “HOLD ON”
Alabama Shakes front woman Brittany Howard is the real deal, whether she’s laying into a lovelorn melody like Etta James or belting it out like some mutant spawn of Tina Turner and Kurt Cobain. The band may be a long shot in the Best New Artist category, but this track instantly lets you know they’re not in it for rookie-card accolades.
FLORENCE & THE MACHINE, “SHAKE IT OUT”
A nation of Flo superfans who are still sore about the band’s snubbing in the 2011 Best New Artist race are hungry for redemption. It’s fair to say “Shake It Out”—nominated this year for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and featured on the Best Pop Vocal Album contender Ceremonials—holds up as theee defining track for the band and its commanding singer, Florence Welch.
ERIC CHURCH, “SPRINGSTEEN”
Songs about other people’s songs aren’t always an easy sell. This unabashed piece of pop-country doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but we can’t resist the way it references the Boss on multiple levels (some direct, some indirect) while sounding more brazenly commercial than Springsteen himself has since the Reagan years.
DEADMAU5, “THE VELDT”
The sight of dubstep poster boy Skrillex at last year’s Grammy podium had many wondering whether Electronic category voters were honoring a supreme talent or simply grasping at timely sonic trends. Look for Canadian wunderkind deadmau5 to steal Skrill’s thunder this year, thanks in part to his more varied and more inviting brand of programmable jams.
TENACIOUS D, “DETH STARR”
Best Comedy Album nominee Rize of the Fenix is the third installment in the megalomaniacal mock ‘n’ roll saga that is Jack Black and Kyle Gass’ folk-metal duo, Tenacious D. This NSFW track endorses the construction of a real-life version of the deadly space station from Star Wars, which, official government skepticism notwithstanding, starts to sound pretty rad when these guys sing about it.
TAYLOR SWIFT & THE CIVIL WARS, “SAFE & SOUND”
In the wake of the Top 40 tidal wave caused by Tay’s recent album Red, this year-old ditty from The Hunger Games soundtrack sounds downright pastoral. Nominated in two categories, it’s also a gorgeous, mesmerizing tune that we’re rooting for even more than that guiltiest-of-all-pop-pleasures “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
ANTHONY HAMILTON, “PRAY FOR ME”
Hamilton never quite seems to get his due outside of dedicated soul/R&B circles. On this penitent tune from his Best R&B Album contender Back to Love, he calls himself “a dummy” and name-checks Oprah and Jesus en route to mourning the loss of his true love. For extra credit, check out Producer of the Year nominee Salaam Remi’s work on the album’s title track, which sounds more like a classic Curtis Mayfield cut.
COLDPLAY, “CHARLIE BROWN”
When you want a Coke, you buy a Coke. When you want rousing, arena-sized hooks and British guitars strung with Hollywood heartstrings, you buy Coldplay. Mylo Xyloto delivers on Chris Martin and company’s brand promise yet again, earning nods for Best Rock Album and Best Rock Performance.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, “WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN”
Especially in an election year loaded with rhetorical flag-waving and coldly calculated patriotism, it was reassuring to hear Bruce sticking to his populist guns. This song from the Grammy-nominated Wrecking Ball album won’t go down as one of his all-time best, but it manifested something real enough to please longtime fans and rally a few new ones.
RIHANNA FEAT. JAY-Z, “TALK THAT TALK”
You’ll find both Ri’s and Jigga’s names scattered across various categories on this year’s Grammy ballot, but this isn’t just a safety. Nominated for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, the track features the singer in prime sultry come-on mode with a pricelessly cheeky intro by hip-hop’s preeminent artist-mogul.
FRANK OCEAN, “THINKIN BOUT YOU”
We like him more as a Best New Artist front-runner, but if Grammy decides to formally anoint this modern twist on the classic R&B slow jam as Song of the Year, so be it. There’s a lot to love about the whole Channel Orange LP, and all of it is pretty perfectly distilled in this one hypnotic cut.
JACK WHITE, “FREEDOM AT 21”
In a year when The Black Keys stand to score some Grammy gold, it’s only fair to let alt-blues forebear Jack White share at least a bit of the limelight. His Blunderbuss may not have the crossover cache to seal Album of the Year honors, but it’s a doozy of a record that showcases his strengths on both sides of the recording console.
Nearly two decades after he first emerged as a gifted young lion of East Coast hip-hop, Nas turned a few new heads in 2012 with this thoughtful ode to dads with daughters. In total, his Life is Good album yielded four Grammy noms.
FIONA APPLE, “EVERY SINGLE NIGHT”
It was hardly a major comeback in commercial terms, but Apple proved herself anew among critics with her long-awaited (and long-named) new album The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. If she doesn’t win for Best Alternative Music Album, it may be simply because they could never fit that title on the effin’ trophy
THE LUMINEERS, “HO HEY”
Are these Best New Artist nominees more “country” than anyone in the Country categories? The old-timey flavor of their heartfelt alt-folk certainly makes them sound more suitable for a dusty front porch than Carrie Underwood’s veranda. Their self-titled debut would make for a fun upset in the Best Americana Album category.
JAY-Z & KANYE WEST FEAT. FRANK OCEAN AND THE-DREAM, “NO CHURCH IN THE WILD”
The track itself is plenty powerful based on the marquee musical players involved. But consider downloading the Grammy-nominated video while you’re at it. The clip depicts vivid scenes of urban unrest in slow-motion, providing a tense visual counterpart that both complements the song and references the kind of violent real-world revolt we’ve grown strangely accustomed to seeing on TV news screens.