Fiona vs. Gaga vs. Weeknd? How the 2021 Grammys’ Album of the Year Race Is Shaping Up So Far

Jeremy Helligar

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The 2020 Billie Eilish Show was only a few months ago, but believe it or not, we’re already more than halfway through the next Grammy cycle. The eligibility period for the 2021 ceremony is September 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020, which means less than five months remain before the field is fixed in place.

Although the music industry has not been affected as heavily as the film and TV industries, the ripple effect nonetheless will influence the next batch of Grammy nominees. Some artists we might have expected to contend for a spot in the top category (like Alicia Keys, the Dixie Chicks and Sam Smith) have had their due dates delayed indefinitely, leaving album of the year more open than usual to earlier releases.

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Speculation has been raised about whether the cutoff date might be extended, because of so many stars hitting the “hold” button. If that were to happen, it’d really be a stretch — because, as it stands, the eligibility period this time is already 13 months long. (This year, the Grammy telecast was bumped up several weeks because of conflicts related to the Oscars and Super Bowl, which meant the 2019 cutoff was a month earlier than usual, adding an extra month to the calendar this go-round.)

The afterglow of Eilish’s Grammy coronation in January probably won’t push her into the running unless she’s sitting on a surprise album drop, but she and her producer brother Finneas O’Connell have a shot at second consecutive wins for song and record of the year for their James Bond theme “No Time to Die.” Last year, Elish swept all four major categories, making her the first artist to do so since Christopher Cross in 1981, but no newcomer has emerged with the momentum to pull off that four-peat next year.

So which releases will make a bid to succeed Eilish’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” as album of the year when the awards are handed out on (presumably, still) January 31?

Let’s consider first the category veterans who face long odds in making it back in. Justin Bieber finally got nominated for his previous album, “Purpose,” but this year’s “Changes” lacks the same momentum, considering the less-than-stellar reviews that greeted it when it dropped on Valentine’s Day. Kanye West’s “Jesus Is King” wasn’t as rapturously received as the controversial rapper’s past releases, so it likely won’t get a shot at extending or breaking his album of the year losing streak.

As for newcomers to the category, BTS devotees hunger to have the K-pop group get the same recognition in industry-voted awards as the outfit does in fan-voted honors. Could this be their year? The South Korean Beatles managed to secure critical acclaim with “Map of the Soul: 7,” an album that scored an 82 Metacritic rating. Considering how the Oscars embraced Korean filmmaking this year with four gongs for “Parasite,” it feels like the right time for the Recording Academy to welcome BTS to the club for their fourth Korean-language studio album. But the previous tally of nominations for BTS in all categories is… zero. (That’s not counting a packaging nomination one of their albums picked up.) Are the Grammys’ nominating committees ready to make the leap from no recognition to a slot in the most prestigious division?

Although it seems increasingly likely BTS will pick up nods in pop categories, at least, going forward, it might take a big overhaul of the makeup of the existing committees for the group to finally bust in. If the Academy were to emerge from its recent turmoil in time to shake up that status quo, though, anything could happen.

As for underdogs, keep an eye on FKA Twigs. If voters wanted to go even more adventurous than the uncompromising Fiona Apple, they could give Grammy props to this singer-songwriter who has been on-the-verge for most of the last decade and inched ever closer to mainstream appreciation with her sophomore studio album. The talented Brit might be a tad too avant-garde to become an album of the year nominee — not even Kate Bush has ever managed to enter that hallowed circle — but an 88 Metacritic rating and a heightened profile due to her role in the well-received indie film “Honey Boy” would make her the perfect wild-card street-cred nominee.

Starting in 2019, the album of the year category was expanded to hold eight candidates instead of the former five. If we had to lay bets today, these could be the final eight:

Childish Gambino’s “3.15.20”

The artist also known as actor Donald Glover struck Grammy platinum with “This Is America,” which won song and record of the year, among other trophies, in 2019. Last year, “Feels Like Summer,” a retro-soul single that appears on this album, swung a best R&B song nomination, so voters are still paying attention. Reviews for “3.15.20” (named for its release date) were solid, but without a single as zeitgeisty as “This Is America,” it might be a harder sell for album of the year. His previous opus, “Awaken, My Love,” made the shortlist largely on the strength of its biggest single (and a record of the year nominee), “Redbone.” None of this album’s three singles have hit any of the major charts, but a smaller pool of releases from other Grammy darlings could be Childish Gambino’s ticket to his second nomination in the category.

Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia”

This year, the British-Albanian singer made good on the promise of her 2019 best new artist win with her second studio album. It spawned the No. 2 single “Don’t Start Now” and earned a whopping 89 score on Metacritic, making it one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2020. If she makes it into the album of the year race, it would be the second consecutive year that a former best new artist has competed there, following Bon Iver’s “i,i.” It happens less often than you might think: Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and Adele are the only others who have pulled it off this century.

Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”

It’s not every week that a new album earns the first-ever perfect 100 score on Metacritic, but that’s what happened when a quarantined Apple released her fifth album with short notice on April 12, eight years after her last hurrah, “The Idler Wheel…” Will the Recording Academy be able to pass over such a lauded opus from a reclusive, iconoclastic singer-songwriter who is regarded as one of the most important voices of her generation? Apple has never competed in a major category, but she does have Grammy history: She’s been nominated eight times, and she won best female rock vocal performance for her breakthrough hit, “Criminal,” in 1998. If nothing else, the woman who declared “The world is bulls—” as a teenager while accepting MTV’s best new artist Video Music Award for “Sleep to Dream” in 1997 would hold everyone’s attention to see if she can still deliver a killer acceptance speech.

Harry Styles’ “Fine Line”

Despite the early promise shown by Zayn Malik after his early departure from One Direction, Styles was always the member most likely to enjoy Justin Timberlake-level solo success. Released last December, his second solo album became his second to hit No. 1 in the U.S., and it’s gone on to outsell his 2107 self-titled debut. Among its commercial, critical and chart feats: “Fine Line” enjoyed the biggest debut week of any album by a British male artist in modern history, made multiple best-of-2019 lists and went down in chart history as the last No. 1 album of the 2010s and  first of the 2020s. If Styles nabs a spot in album of the year, he’ll be the first British male solo artist to do so since Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith in 2015.

The Highwomen’s “The Highwomen”

What do you get when you combine the considerable talents of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires? Country music’s most potent female supergroup since Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris united on 1987’s “Trio” and earned an album of the year nomination. Will Grammy voters be able to resist? Between them, this quartet of ladies have 26 nominations and seven wins, so their Grammy pedigrees are in the right place. Voters have been increasingly receptive to alt-country in this category in recent years, and if the Dixie Chicks remain sidelined during the eligibility period, this September 2019 release might be country music’s best shot at the gong in 2021.

Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica”

Never count out Lady Gaga. The release of her sixth studio album was pushed back from April 10 to May 29 due to the pandemic, but reaction was generally strong for the first single, “Stupid Love,” even if it wasn’t one of her blockbuster hits. After the chilled country-pop of “Joanne” and “A Star Is Born,” the song was a return to the heroic stadium-pop sound that first made Gaga a star and a Grammy favorite. Over the last decade or so, she’s been nominated 27 times, including three nods for album of the year, and she’s taken home 11 Grammys. It’s the one album on this list the world hasn’t heard yet, of course. But “Chromatica” probably only will have to be as good as 2016’s “Joanne,” which scored a nod for best pop vocal album, to make the final eight.

Post Malone’s “Hollywood’s Bleeding”

For as much chart success and as many nominations (six) as Post Malone has had he’s still waiting for his first Grammy win. Can his third album snag him his second consecutive album of the year nomination, following the shortlisting of his last release, 2018’s “Beerbongs & Bentleys”? In a normal year, his chances might be slimmer, but this is no normal Grammy eligibility period. His hip-hop-to-poppish evolution with an album released way back in September of 2019 could land him in the running once again.

The Weeknd’s “After Hours”

It’s already feeling a little like this year’s “Thank U, Next.” Abel Tesfaye’s fourth album performed a similar triple play: massive sales, two No. 1 singles, and critical acclaim. Can he follow Ariana Grande into the album of the year race? He made it there with 2014’s “Beauty Behind the Madness,” and he’s since steadily built his reputation as a hitmaker and creative visionary. Variety called this his “most fully realized album yet,” and voters may want to reward him for breaking out the test tubes — the new-wavey “Blinding Light” could time-travel back to the early ‘80s and sound right at home — without sacrificing his commercial clout.

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