This album isn’t Grammy nominated (yet), but Track Four—“Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”—is: “Record of the Year,” “Song of the Year,” and “Best Pop Solo Performance.” And one may as well hear it here, amid Clarkson’s other hits, the better to judge both the song and whether Clarkson’s possession of an American Idol-winning voice justifies her devoting it to hooky banalities while simultaneously rocking too hard yet not hard enough.
What might work against this album’s winning the “Best Pop Instrumental Album” Grammy is that it consists of stripped-down remakes of songs Carlton recorded with a full rhythm section over 30 years ago and that therefore could be considered coasting. What might work in this album’s favor is that hearing slightly slower versions of what used to be fiery-finger-work showcases is not only instructive but also invigorating. The originals often sounded like Steely Dan without vocals. The remakes often sound like Carlton without Steely Dan.
Elling stands out because his singing embodies sprezzatura in a histrionic age. The songs he covers on this Brill Building tribute are classics because, their stylistic diversity notwithstanding, they do something similar: Songs don’t become classics unless their lyrics and melodies unfold with a seemingly natural inevitability. 1619 Broadway deserves to win the “Best Jazz Vocal Album” Grammy because of the melodic and rhythmic experiments that Elling and his combo conduct on the material, experiments that seemed neither natural nor inevitable until Elling and his combo conducted them.
White has been called the “last rock star,” and on this album he validates the hyperbole. That he does so by singing a lot like Robert Plant is no liability. The weirdly rocking soundscape atop which he sings may well have been what Led Zeppelin would be doing right now if John Bonham’s death hadn’t brought it to a halt. Is the implicitly anti-feminist “Freedom at 21” 2012’s “Best Rock Song”? Probably not. Is Blunderbuss 2012’s “Best Rock Album” or “Album of the Year.” Probably so.
Of this year’s 81 Grammy Awards categories (up three from last year’s controversially downsized 78), the most laughable is Category 53: Best Spoken Word Album. Although spoken word albums—or “audiobooks” as they’re now commonly known—are recordings and therefore fall under the purview of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the talent required to do no more than read a book into a microphone, especially with the help of retakes and editing, is surely less than special.
The 2013 spoken word nominees reveal yet another absurdity. Bill Clinton (for Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy), Michelle Obama (American Grown), Ellen DeGeneres (Seriously … I’m Kidding), Rachel Maddow (Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power), the pop singer Janis Ian (Society’s Child: My Autobiography)—what conclusion can one reach other than that NARAS thinks only members of Democratic first families or lesbians have tales to tell and the ability to do so?