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Guide to the 53rd Grammys Best Alternative Album Nominees

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Ahhh, the Grammys. Though theoretically meaningful, it's hard to put much stock in an awards show whose concept of 'Best,' this year, seems far closer to 'Worst': Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé, Train, Susan Boyle, Kenny G, Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand, Keith Urban, and Korn are all nominated. Yet, in our old pal Field 5: Category 22, Best Alternative Music Album, things aren't so dire. The noms for 2010 —in a ceremony taking place in 2011, yes— are safe and sure: Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend released great LPs; no one else embarrassed themselves. Unlike whoever assembled the rest of the nominations...

1. Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs'

Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs'
Merge

As the grandest thematic statement of 2010, one of its most self-consciously Big and Important works, one of its most critically acclaimed albums, and —wait, this is really key for the Grammy Awards— a rousing commerical success, The Suburbs was an obvious choice to score the nomination. Win Butler's Springsteenian meditation on an entire Generation, viewed through the bland landscape in which they grew up, packs a certain sociological heft; his weighty, writerly ideas running through a huge helping of rousing rock-songs (plus the totally awesome "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," a genuine pop song). You could make a case that Arcade Fire should be worthy winners, but, then again, let us not forget the Jethro Tull corollary...

2. Band of Horses 'Infinite Arms'

Band of Horses 'Infinite Arms'
Fat Possum

Band of Horses' third LP, Infinite Arms, has the obvious hallmarks of a Grammy nominee: it was their first for a major label, and represented their bona fide commercial breakthrough. It also found the band slipping into a kind of comfortable sameness; once again refining the sound of their charming debut, 2006's Everything All the Time, into something smoothed over, worn familiar. That said, it would be awesome if Band of Horses won, just so Ben Bridwell could give a speech. When I interviewed him in 2008, he called himself "f**k-up," "scumbag," "dickhead," and "mediocre" in the space of one conversation, and dubbed his success a "weird, sick joke." Such comic self-deprecation would be a welcome change from deluded egotists thanking God.

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3. The Black Keys 'Brothers'

Black Keys 'Brothers'
Nonesuch
The Black Keys are all over this year's Grammys, copping noms for Best Alternative Music Album, Best Rock Song, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group, Best Rock Instrumental Performance, and Best Art Direction. Apparently this means there's no real distinction between Alternative (whatever that may be perceived as meaning) and Rock (ditto) in the minds of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and its vote-casting minions. It would seem to make sense that records go in one category or another, but, given how horrendous most of the nominees are, it's no big deal. It may be lame to see the Black Keys whooping it up at the Grammys, though, mere weeks after blowing off a whole Australian/New Zealand tour due to 'exhaustion.'
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4. Broken Bells 'Broken Bells'

Broken Bells 'Broken Bells'
Columbia
Brian 'Danger Mouse' Burton has —despite being a hip-hop producer, really— a fruitful recent history with the Alternative Grammy; being nominated in 2009 and winning in 2007 with his straight-up pop act, Gnarls Barkley. It's a puzzling placement for such an act, but, then again, considering U2, the Beastie Boys, Green Day, and Coldplay have all won Alternative gongs of recent, such confusion is par for the Grammy course. At least Broken Bells has genuine indie credentials (well, y'know, aside from being bank-rolled by Sony): it's Burton's collaboration with James Mercer, frontman of beloved indie-poppers The Shins. The actual LP itself is a little more 'OK' than 'great,' but, hey, there was that video with Christina Hendricks in it...

5. Vampire Weekend 'Contra'

Vampire Weekend 'Contra'
XL
Vampire Weekend delivered not only one of the albums of 2010, but their singer, Ezra Koenig also gave me one of the most interesting interviews of the year. So, I'm all for these polo-shirt-sporting, critic-baiting, former-Dirty Projectors-members and their self-styled twee-African-pop crashing the grotesquerie and excess of the Grammys' gilded palace of (musical) sin. Do I think they'll win? Good lord, I have no idea. I suppose after Phoenix's pleasantly surprising victory last year, anything's possible. The more apt question seems, to me, to be: does it really matter who wins? On a night so celebrating the very worst aspects of the music industry —and some of the very worst music imaginable— we are, my friends, all losers.

6. and the winner is...

The Black Keys at the 2011 Grammys
The Black Keys. Which was, given their slate of nominations and obvious 'presence' in the minds of voters, no surprise at all. But, by the end of the never-ending Grammy ceremony, the award came to feel a little like a consolation prize. Arcade Fire shocked a world conditioned to Grammy idiocy by winning the biggest prize, Album of the Year, over a field of celebrities like Eminem, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. The notion, then, that The Suburbs was the best album above all others in late-'09/early-'10, but not the Best Alternative Album is a bit bizarre. Especially given The Black Keys were also nominated for Best Rock record. The more you think about it, the more confused you will get. Much like the entirety of the Grammys themselves...
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