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Guide to the 52nd Grammys' Best Alternative Album Nominees


Are the Grammy Award nominees —in all categories, at all times— anything less than baffling? And, like, especially in the 'Best Alternative Music Album' ghetto? With past winners including Coldplay, Green Day, Gnarls Barkley, the Beastie Boys, and U2, the category is direly lacking for definition. Not to mention utterly aching for inspiration. Fittingly, the 2009 nominees (awarded in a ceremony that takes place in 2010; yes, it's confusing) seem completely uninspired. The five records that supposedly defined alt-music in 2009 fall into two simple camps: bands bankrolled by the big four, and old people.

David Byrne & Brian Eno 'Everything That Happens Will Happen Today'

David Byrne & Brian Eno 'Everything That Happens Will Happen Today'
Todo Mundo
37 years ago —which is, if we're to take their fondness for Steely Dan into account, where plenty of Grammy voters seem to wish they still were— David Byrne was in Talking Heads and Brian Eno was in Roxy Music. 30 years ago, they worked together on Talking Heads' classic Remain in Light LP. 29 years ago, they made an early case for sampling-as-art on their first co-billed collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. These historical facts —not to mention Eno having produced seven U2 albums— are the reasons Everything That Happens Will Happen Today has its Grammy nomination, and not any of the actual songs on the second Byrne/Eno collaboration; a years-on follow-up that has none of the daring of its recently-reembraced predecessor.

Death Cab for Cutie 'The Open Door' EP

Death Cab for Cutie 'The Open Door' EP
Wait, are you serious? A five-song EP? Isn't this category called Best Alernative Music Album? Clearly clinging desperately to the warm familiarity of a thrice-nominated, Warner-bankrolled alt-rock behemoth, the Grammy voters/panel/committee/whoever nominated The Open Door, some throwaway, between-LP filler (a demo version of an album track!) from our old pals Death Cab for Cutie. No one's denying that Death Cab had a big 2009: they toured with Andrew Bird and Ra Ra Riot, and scored top-billing on the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack. Hell, frontman Ben Gibbard even got hitched to She & Him cutiepie Zooey Deschanel, earning the admiration/condemnation of chaps everywhere. But, come on. This is a glorified B-sides collection. Five songs long.

Depeche Mode 'Sounds of the Universe'

Depeche Mode 'Sounds of the Universe'

Wait, Depeche Mode? Really? Is Dave Gahan's eyeliner that commanding? I know Sounds of the Universe landed at #3 on the Billboard charts, and that the band scored top-billing on Friday night at Lollapalooza, but isn't any part of good old Field 5: Category 22 about artistic worth? Depeche Mode's 12th LP was mediocre even by their long-mediocre standards; a dated collection of over-produced synth-rock whose 60 minutes felt both bloated and empty; way too long yet featuring few moments of actual inspiration. Their nomination here is a reward for record sales, sure, but also a tribute to their longevity. When the band began in 1980, Dirty Projectors' 27-year-old leader Dave Longstreth, for example, was not even a twinkle in his pappy's eye.

Phoenix 'Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix'

Phoenix 'Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix'
All things considered, a nomination none too shabby; Phoenix being French, on an independent(-ish) label, and actually credible, three things Grammy nominees routinely are not. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix isn't Phoenix's finest hour —it pales in comparison to its predecessor, 2006's It's Never Been Like That— but, hey, it is Phoenix's best-selling hour, which is what's really important. You get a sense of the worldview of industry minions if you read Billboard's potential-Grammy-noms preview. Phoenix, it says, "aren't eligible for Best new Artist this year because the band's breakthrough album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is actually its fourth." Wow! Next thing you'll tell me Merriweather Post Pavilion is actually Animal Collective's ninth...

Yeah Yeah Yeahs 'It's Blitz!'

Yeah Yeah Yeahs 'It's Blitz!'
The least surprising of the five, Yeah Yeah Yeahs' nomination for It's Blitz! follows their nomination for Show Your Bones in 2006, which followed their nomination for Fever to Tell in 2003. The trio have been one of the more consistently acclaimed and continually interesting bands to toil for major-label beancounters this decade, and It's Blitz! is, in the Grammy realm, aided by the fact that it's easily Yeah Yeah Yeahs' most commercially-accessible LP. Having been twice the bridesmaids, perhaps 2010 —well, I mean, 2009, technically— will be the year Yeah Yeah Yeahs finally take home their first golden Gramophone... Oh, who're we kidding! Given the Grammys' long-standing history of idiocy, the winner can only be the EP, right?

And the winner is...

Phoenix! Surprisingly, the Grammy was handed out to the least established name on the list. Which is to say more of the company than Phoenix themselves; both in this category and in the entire field. In an interview with Pitchfork the day after the ceremony, Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars confirmed that winning a Grammy was hardly a moment of glory. "It's very nice, but you feel some sadness to it, too," he said, of collecting a statue that usually elicits talk of "God" and "blessing" in embarrassing measures. "It's hard to enjoy the moment." And, of suffering through the seven-hour ceremony itself, he politely smiled: "I wish there were more bands that I like." Which is exactly how it feels, every year, to look at the Grammy nominations.
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