Here’s who should win album of the year at the 2021 Grammy Awards
- The 2021 Grammy Awards nominations were announced on Tuesday.
- Jhené Aiko, Black Pumas, Coldplay, Jacob Collier, HAIM, Dua Lipa, Post Malone, and Taylor Swift will compete for album of the year, the ceremony's most prestigious category.
- Insider ranked all eight nominated albums to determine who should win.
- And it's clearly "Folklore" by Taylor Swift.
- Our ranking also includes a mini-breakdown of each album: the highlights, downfalls, critical reception, and overall worthiness.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
When the 2021 Grammy Awards nominations were announced on Tuesday, one category sparked more debate than any other.
Predictably, the debate-sparker in question is album of the year, the ceremony's most prestigious award — although it's not getting attention for reasons the Recording Academy might prefer.
There are surprises and snubs every year, but the eight nominees for 2021 are creatively, almost impressively bizarre.
Only three or four were previously considered to be serious contenders. Only one would actually make sense being crowned "album of the year," a title that explicitly invites us to judge its quality and cultural impact.
Insider ranked all eight nominees to determine who should win. They're listed from least to most worthy below.
8. "Everyday Life" by Coldplay
Metacritic score: 73/100
Billboard 200 peak: No. 7
As you'd expect, "Everyday Life" is easy-listening pop-rock. But it has that undeniable, slightly off-putting air of trying to be profound.
The content focuses on humanitarianism; the production is emphatically multicultural. It incorporates styles like West African church music, Nigerian afrobeat, and Sufi qawwali music.
In "Daddy," Chris Martin sings from the perspective of a neglected child. "بنی آدم" — Arabic for "Bani Adam," or "Children of Adam" — is named after a poem by Iranian poet Saadi Shirazi. "Trouble in Town" attempts to address police brutality by using an audio clip of a policeman sounding tyrannical, but the jarring effect feels more forced than constructive.
There's certainly something commendable about making such specific calls for justice. But if you don't fully buy into the band's earnestness, it could all look a lot like virtue-signaling.
Highlight: I like the jazzy riff and trumpets on "Arabesque," and the biting sarcasm of "Guns" is very effective.
Downfall: This is a Coldplay album, you know? It's fine, if fairly predictable — full of plucky guitars and string arrangements and Martin's warm, familiar voice.
The biggest problem here is conceptual. I'm a simp for "Clocks" and "Yellow" to this day, but nominating Coldplay for album of the year in 2020 is just laughably out of touch.
It's a safe choice, perhaps, given the band's long and fairly respectable career.
But it's a poor choice, nonetheless.
There's no originality or outstanding finesse, nothing in particular about "Everyday Life" that makes it an album of the year contender — although the Grammys love conventional white guys, so it might win regardless.
7. "Djesse Vol. 3" by Jacob Collier
Metacritic score: N/A
Billboard 200 peak: N/A
"Djesse Vol. 3" combines frantic beats, electronic flourishes, and R&B melodies, largely provided by featured artists like Ty Dolla $ign, Daniel Caesar, and Tori Kelly.
It was produced solely by Jacob Collier, a 26-year-old white British singer and multi-instrumentalist, just in case you didn't know. (No shame: His is the first album in history to receive an album of the year nomination without charting on the Billboard 200.)
Collier himself describes "Djesse Vol. 3," the third in a four-part series, as "negative space."
"From the listener's perspective, the space around the music has disappeared, and you're right inside the sounds of the music," he told the AV Club. "It's all about what happens when you explode those kinds of sounds, and it's more along the lines of R&B, soul, and hip-hop."
He's not wrong about sucking space out of the album.
It's chaotic and, at times, claustrophobic — sort of like being trapped in a laboratory with a scientist who's probably a genius, but also doesn't care if his experiments go awry and electrocute you.
Highlight: Collier's production excels when he tones down the dramatics and builds upon the melodic core of a song, rather than distracting from it: "All I Need" (featuring Mahalia and Ty Dolla $ign) and "He Won't Hold You" (featuring Rapsody) are two such examples.
Downfall: We can't ignore the reality of this situation: the number of people who asked "Who's Jacob Collier?" when nominations were announced far outweighed the number of people who didn't.
Of course, name recognition doesn't necessarily translate to quality work, and lack thereof doesn't automatically make an artist unworthy of awards.
However, the Grammys do aim to reflect the current musical climate, and it's difficult to justify Collier's presence in this category when artists like Fiona Apple and The Weeknd were snubbed.
It may also be important to note that Collier's mentor is producer Quincy Jones, the most-nominated artist in Grammys history (tied with Jay-Z) and second-most awarded with 28 wins, including album of the year in 1991.
As Billboard notes, this likely gave Collier an "in" with the Recording Academy, despite his relative lack of chart success and acclaim. (He doesn't even have any Pitchfork reviews, which is my go-to source for obscure music praise.)
All this to say: Collier does not deserve to win album of the year, neither in terms of quality nor historical resonance.
It's a wonder he was even nominated.
6. "Hollywood's Bleeding" by Post Malone
Metacritic score: 79/100
Billboard 200 peak: No. 1 for five nonconsecutive weeks
"Hollywood's Bleeding" was released six days after the eligibility cutoff. In just four months, it became the best-selling album of 2019, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.
For better or worse, Post Malone is an inescapable force. "Hollywood's Bleeding" often feels more like a playlist than a cohesive project, but it's anchored by his unmatched ear for pop hooks and shrewd use of autotune. It's a showcase of versatility.
It's also, however, not much of an evolution.
"Hollywood's Bleeding" rehashes the same tricks that made Post Malone so ubiquitous. It continues to present him as a hitmaker, but not much else — someone who lifts what he wants from various styles and genres, without bothering to innovate or mature.
Highlight: "Circles" is a whole bop and definitely deserves to compete for record of the year. I also listen to "Wow." more than I care to admit.
Downfall: In addition to his chart dominance, Post Malone has become a bona fide Grammys darling. It's his third year in a row with a record of the year nomination, and with just three studio albums to his name, this is his second album of the year nod.
Given the Recording Academy's long-held disdain for hip-hop and rap, I think we can safely assume what makes Post Malone appealing to these voters. He seems to represent the current dominance of those genres, but in an unchallenging and non-threatening (read: white) package.
Like its two predecessors, "Hollywood's Bleeding" trades depth for mass appeal; there's no wordplay, no interesting lyrical terrain, no striking honesty.
You can argue that Post Malone is more pop star than rapper these days, but he hasn't stopped treating hip-hop like a sample platter.
5. "Women in Music Pt. III" by HAIM
Metacritic score: 89/100
Billboard 200 peak: No. 13
As I've previously written, "Women in Music Pt. III" is HAIM's most interesting, textured, and confident album yet.
Like their previous two, this is still summer-night rock music. But this one opens with a chaotic sax riff on "Los Angeles," flirts with horny R&B on "3 AM," and snarls at music industry misogyny on "Man From the Magazine."
The sisters sound as poised as ever, but they've finally learned to weaponize tension and shades of other genres. The lyrics, too, are more vivid and expressive than before.
Highlight: "Gasoline" is one of the year's best songs. The "I get sad!" howl in the second verse just hits different.
Downfall: I'm on the record saying HAIM should not have been nominated for album of the year, and I stand by that, despite the album's refreshing energy.
Let's be clear: "Women in Music Pt. III" is great.
The issue is not that it doesn't deserve praise, though perhaps not at the highest level. It seems to have hijacked a female rocker slot that should have belonged to Apple or Phoebe Bridgers, or even Halsey.
Maybe it doesn't seem fair to judge an album's worthiness based on a lofty ideal of "what could've been," but that's the very essence of this award show. This is the type of criticism it has cultivated over many decades of missteps.
Had the Grammys offered a more intelligible slate of candidates, rather than a group of albums that mostly feel like thieves, then HAIM would have been a more welcome inclusion.
4. "Black Pumas (Deluxe)" by Black Pumas
Metacritic score: 77/100 (Note: This score reflects reviews of the standard edition of "Black Pumas.")
Billboard 200 peak: No. 200
Put simply, "Black Pumas" is a vibe. You will bop your head listening to this album, I guarantee it.
More specifically, the best way I can describe the vibe is Alabama Shakes (especially the soulful, soaring vocals of Black Pumas' labelmate Brittany Howard) meets the easy swagger of Marvin Gaye, the charming twang of Tennessee jazz, and the psychedelic energy of '70s soul.
The Austin-based duo's debut sounds nostalgic and yet distinct, gliding through a technicolor reverie that's deceptively elaborate; the album is so listenable that you'll likely miss the layers of instrumentation that construct the castle in the sky.
Highlight: Eric Burton's voice is a revelation. He can grace my eardrums anytime.
Downfall: "Black Pumas" is a deeply pleasant listening experience. But save for "Black Moon Rising" and "Colors," there aren't any true standout songs or bright moments. Those are the first two you hear, and the tracklist tends to blend together from there.
Moreover, much like Collier, this nomination feels very left-field. W magazine opined, "It reeks of Boomers attempting to be cool." That's harsh, but not entirely off-base.
The Recording Academy discreetly employs a small panel of experts that focus on the Big Four categories.
Their mission is to uncover blind spots, look beyond chart-toppers, and "ensure those categories retain a patina of cool." As Rolling Stone notes, it's likely the reason Black Pumas was nominated for best new artist at the 2020 ceremony.
I mean, Black Pumas' music is cool. But as I noted for previous albums, the lack of cultural impact is a valid and time-honored critique.
It may also frustrate the people to know that "Black Pumas" was nominated on a technicality.
The album was released in June 2019, making it ineligible for a 2021 nod. The deluxe version includes 11 additional tracks, making it eligible again, even though just three of those new tracks are studio originals.
3. "Chilombo" by Jhené Aiko
Metacritic score: N/A
Billboard 200 peak: No. 2
"Chilombo" is Jhené Aiko's third studio album, named for her legal surname.
It's atmospheric, fairly minimal, and somewhat bleary-eyed. Luckily, Aiko is a true vocalist; her sensual tone flows effortlessly through the hour-long tracklist, maintaining a mastery of R&B melody the entire time.
The opening six-song stretch of "Chilombo" is deliciously unforgiving, with Aiko declaring independence from a man like she's leaving her body in some dusty wasteland for a better spiritual plane.
"Pu$$y Fairy (OTW)" is the album's climax, figuratively and literally.
The song drips with Aiko's eyelash-batting magnetism. It's just a shame it comes so early; there's a full 14 tracks that follow, and none of them reach the same levels of charisma and tension. (The deluxe version features nine additional songs, bringing the grand total to 29. Aiko could learn to trim.)
Highlight: The soothing, high-concept inclusion of "sound healing," as explained by The Guardian's Laura Snapes: "She incorporated the vibrational hum of crystal alchemy singing bowls into every track of "Chilombo.'"
"Pu$$y Fairy (OTW), for example, features a bowl in the key of D, which apparently corresponds with the chakra that governs the sexual organs 'to help balance you out in those areas.'"
Downfall: As other critics have noted, the album is way too long and lacks variety.
"Despite confident, freeform performances, Aiko's music too often lacks a pulse," Stephen Kearse wrote for Pitchfork.
"Chilombo" wafts over you like a rosy haze. That makes it the perfect background-music album — to soundtrack a Sunday afternoon of wine and journaling, or perhaps a chilled-out evening with a few of your more existential friends.
But that failure to command your full attention makes it far less worthy of the proverbial Grammys crown.
2. "Future Nostalgia" by Dua Lipa
Metacritic score: 88/100
Billboard 200 peak: No. 4
With her beloved sophomore album, Dua Lipa became the definitive authority on music's disco revival and "levitated to superstar heights," as described by Insider's music editor Courteney Larocca.
In fact, when Insider's music team reviewed "Future Nostalgia" after just one listen, we pronounced it an "instant pop classic."
Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of listens later, I believe in that assessment more than ever. My only regrets include under-appreciating "Cool," and not immediately recognizing the brilliance of "Levitating."
This album is brimming with vivid, infectious bangers. Each one is elevated even further by Dua Lipa's rich tone and sublime vocal control.
Listening to "Future Nostalgia" makes you feel like there's a sparkling dance floor in your brain that never gets exhausting, annoying, or dirty.
Highlight: "Don't Start Now" is my record of the year. I hope it wins.
Downfall: This is easily the best pure-pop album of the year. Now, the Grammys rarely reward pure-pop in major categories, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't (if it's this good).
Among these nominees, "Future Nostalgia" would've been the rightful victor — if only music's savviest and most powerful star hadn't swooped in and dropped the best album of her career.
1. "Folklore" by Taylor Swift
Metacritic score: 88/100
Billboard 200 peak: No. 1 for eight nonconsecutive weeks
Anything other than a "Folklore" win this year would be a disgrace.
This album isn't flashy or pretentious about its splendor. It's a quieter kind of masterpiece, boasting a mature, measured kind of self-awareness without losing an ounce of that raw, unbridled sincerity that Taylor Swift is known for.
It's actually her best album ever, her most poetic and euphonious — which is saying a lot for an artist who built a career on relatable lyrics and emotional connection.
Swift's harshest critics have always relied on thick armors of cynicism (and usually sexism). They insist she's artificial, or somehow less of a lyricist than she claims.
But "Folklore" renders that armor obsolete. Its guileless, fluid storytelling seems to envelop your senses and weaken your shields; it aims for the heart and goes for blood.
The album is hardly even autobiographical, which seems like a conscious counter to accusations that Swift can only write about ex-boyfriends. (That was never true, but it's especially untrue these days.)
Nobody expected Swift to emerge from quarantine with a low-fi, folk-pop monument. And yet, she sounds more natural and powerful on these 17 songs than she has in years.
For a two-time album of the year winner, "Folklore" makes for an extremely worthy hat trick.
Highlight: The fictional love triangle — explored in songs like "Cardigan," "August," and "Betty" — rewards attentive fans, but also creates a subtle sense of familiarity for casual listeners.
Swift's lyrical winks and thematic echoes knit themselves into your subconscious. "Folklore" takes you into the arms of its complex mythology before you even realize it's there.
Downfall: I still think "Epiphany" is kind of boring, I guess.
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