Record of the year: The Heart Part 5
The single preceding Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, “The Heart Part 5,” is a production gold mine. It draws inspiration from both the funk and rock eras of the 60s and 70s. The track is the fifth installment in The Heart series, which are singles that Lamar releases before each new project to signal an impending release. Part 5 brilliantly utilizes the full body sample of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 soul classic “I Want You” to its fullest potential. The multitude of different instruments are each individually highlighted, yet still work extremely cohesively to create one distinct sound. Amidst the brimming back track, there are moments in which the instrumental is stripped down to only shuffling hand drums and a simple baseline, which draws attention to the potent lyricism. Part five perfectly represents the kind of expertly crafted production that Lamar’s projects are known for, able to be enjoyed by hardcore fans and casual listeners alike.
Album of the year: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
Among the many stand-out albums nominated this year, Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers deserves the top spot. Lamar himself is no stranger to the Grammys, having snagged 13 already, and Mr. Morale perfectly encapsulates why. With a bold, diverse array of production ranging from bright, staccato tracks like “N95,” to emotional, raw music like the piano in “Crown,” the album truly reaches every genre. On top of the album’s stellar production, it also delivers a psychotherapeutic vibe through its introspective lyrics and dissection of the Black American experience.
Best new artist: Omar Apollo
n a crowd of new artists that all seem to lack that intangible quality for stardom at first glance, Omar Apollo stood out with his album, “Ivory,” which exemplifies his ability to traverse across the genre verse while still staying grounded to his identity as the son of first-generation immigrants. The album features tracks such as Mexican corrido-inspired “En El Olvido,” electric guitar-led track “Talk,” which could almost be mistaken for a Strokes song, and Motown-influenced “Evergreen,” the latter of which garnered a significant amount of attention on TikTok and earned him his first charting single. Apollo’s raw vocals, paired with introspective lyrics that pull you into the all-too-human feeling of young heartbreak, foreshadow a legend in the making.
Best pop vocal album: Harry’s House
Continuing a long career at the forefront of the pop music scene, Harry Styles captures the quintessential feeling of the genre in his second solo album, “Harry’s House.” Drawing from the title of Harumi Hosono’s 1973 album, “Hosono House,” Styles’ album carries the same breezy air of charm that thrust him into popularity as a member of One Direction. The highs and lows of the album provide easy listening with a variety of sounds, including the folksy “Boyfriends,” ‘70s funk inspired “Cinema” and synth-infused track “Late Night Talking.” Though the record isn’t anything groundbreaking, it effuses the feel-good energy that is necessary for pop music, making Harry’s House the perfect contender for best pop vocal album.
Best rap album: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
Hip hop fans everywhere eagerly awaited Lamar’s next project following the 2017 hit “Damn,” and Lamar greeted their expectations with open arms. The other nominees may not be standouts themselves, with Dj Khaled’s underwhelming “God Did” and Jack Harlow’s disappointing “Come Home The Kids Miss You,” however, this doesn’t detract from the strength of “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.” The record is a masterclass in musical storytelling, taking listeners on a journey through Lamar’s inner psyche in the search for who exactly ‘Kendrick Lamar’ is. Heavy tracks like “Mother I Sober” focusing on Lamar’s struggles with addiction and past trauma, and “Auntie Diaries,” detailing a family member’s struggles with gender identity, create a sense of personality and vulnerability to an extent Lamar hasn’t reached in his past projects. With an impressive array of features including Kodak Black, Summer Walker and Baby Keem, combined with minimalist, new wave production, Mr. Morale is an overall well-rounded addition to Lamar’s legendary discography.
Best rock album: Mainstream Sellout
It’s safe to say that, regardless of its mixed reception, Machine Gun Kelly’s “Mainstream Sellout” truly symbolizes the revival of the pop-punk genre that dominated the industry in the early 2000s. With nuanced lyrics detailing the struggles of a failed rapper turned rock star, the album encapsulates the edgy ‘I hate everything’ theme that teens couldn’t get enough of in 2007. This is MGK’s second studio rock album, following his 2020 record “Tickets To My Downfall,” and it is reminiscent of Avril Lavigne’s early career, with gritty electric guitar riffs and violent percussion. With this album, MGK has proven himself to be a promising prospect in the future of punk rock.
Best alternative album: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
Big Thief seemed to uncover every aspect of the human experience in their album, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You,” with a collection of songs that refuse to confine themselves to a genre. It’s not just the title that seems larger than life; singer Adrianne Lenker builds the band’s lyrics into a mosaic of worlds that contain the most arbitrary of experiences with tracks such as “Change,” “Spud Infinity” and “Flower of Blood.” In 20 tracks, they manage to extend their ambition far beyond the confines of their previous albums, as Dragon consistently reattaches itself to concepts of wonder and exploration that almost seem childlike, perhaps symbolizing an era of rebirth for the band. These themes allow the album to persist after the first listen, encouraging listeners to uncover details in musical composition like long-held secrets while bearing resemblance to the timeless quality of Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.”
Best pop solo performance: Bad Habit
Seemingly a revolutionary in the pop stratosphere, Steve Lacy brings a timid charisma to the table with the leading single of his album, “Gemini Rights.” Like Apollo, Lacy found fame with “Bad Habit” through TikTok. The warbling guitar riffs of the track set the scene as the singer details what could have been in his romantic pursuits. As the song reaches its zenith in the bridge, it slowly de-layers, until Lacy’s vocals are stripped completely and all you’re left with is his voice, up close and personal. The honesty that emanates from the track during these moments reminds audiences that humanity still exists at the core of the pop genre.