This is a race more of less between two albums: One great and daring, one mediocre and safe. So if the conversation here was related to an institution with any standard for greatness, this might not be such a tough call, but since this is the Grammys, bastion for all that is “pretty okay,” it’s harder to say who will receive the honor. Beyoncé’s surprise-released set seemingly isn’t all that different a candidate from Frank Ocean’s sinewy nü-R&B effort Channel Orange, which lost in this category a few years ago. But not inconsequentially, Beyoncé did basically reinvent both the roll-out strategy for a pop album and expand its borders into a full-blown multimedia experience, its iTunes drop packaged with a music video for each of its songs. Then again, increased real estate in the pop-culture discourse has its drawbacks, with right-wing talking heads like Mike Huckabee spouting off about her music being “mental poison” because she has the audacity to extend her narrative focus to strippers and backseat boofing.
It’s doubtful that there are too many folks who think like this even within a body as conservative in its own way as NARAS, but it’s conceivable that there could be just enough of a contingent to balk at the frank feminine sexuality on Beyoncé to spike Sam Smith’s chances. The openly gay British crooner has been on just-this-side-of-Adele-ing the world all year long, and receiving Album of the Year would consummate that. Smith’s sexuality is anything but explicit, so in that sense he’s the more palatable choice. The only problem is that Smith, as a vocalist, is no Adele, and In the Lonely Hour is no 21, and the vast majority of it is composed of intimate, cry-in-the-corner songs about very personal relationship issues that don’t have the kind of robustness, or pedigree, Grammy typically likes to champion.
On the other side of the divide are a couple dark horses and one album we can probably discount altogether. The latter is Pharrell’s G I R L, which in the first quarter of last year might’ve seemed like a heavy-hitter, with an early round of enthusiastic praise from critics and decent sales. But it’s safe to figure Grammy voters got love for the Pharrelaissance out of their system with “Get Lucky” last year; G I R L represents a lot of variations on the singer-producer’s unique pop formula, but even more sugary and high-calorie than the Daft Punk hit, save for when he’s indulging oddball experiments definitely too weird for voters. That leaves Beck’s Morning Phase and Ed Sheeran’s X, both with their share of support on the pundit and personal fronts. A Beck win would probably be precipitated by the Mumford & Sons one a few years ago, and the trend of neo-folky-Americana-but-not-really that swept the nation around the same time. Morning Phase is a considerably smarter, defter album than any that movement produced, but is still a long shot here. Like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories last year, Beyoncé is a popular, industry-shaping album from a prestige act, and while it doesn’t have a single the size of “Get Lucky” (or “Stay with Me”) to boost its profile, Bey doesn’t really need one.
Will Win: Beyoncé, Beyoncé
Should Win: Beyoncé, Beyoncé