Never a year goes by when the Grammy nominees for Best Alternative Album are less than puzzling; with usually nothing more perplexing than the winner itself. And that sense of perplexed puzzlement starts with the very simple notion of what year the Best Alternative Albums are from. The 55th Grammy Awards will commonly be called the 2013 Grammys, for the year in which the ceremony is held. But they're awarding the best albums of 2012. Except, um, for the bit where no less than four of the five Albums nominated in the Best Alternative category were released in 2011. In an era in which My Bloody Valentine can instantaneously release their new album, the Grammys are relics of a bygone music industry model; in which the slow lurch of business-as-usual is celebrated in a ceremony big on crass commercialism, light on artistry.
If you're going to nominate an album from 2011, I guess at least it can be one of the best albums of 2011. Biophilia makes the sixth consecutive Björk LP to be nominated for the Best Alternative Album Grammy, but it isn't exactly business-as-usual; and isn't, like the other nominated albums, simply the sum of its jams. The seventh Björk album was a set of songs that doubled as iPhone applications, all connected to a greater 'mother' app. In many ways, the Grammy nomination for Biophilia is for the scope of the project, for its place on the cutting edge of technology, for how it opened up discussion on the very nature of the album. All of which sounds incredibly progressive; making for perhaps the first time 'Grammys' and 'progressive' appeared in the same sentence. In short: this has no chance of winning.
The last time Fiona Apple appeared in the Alternative category, it was back at the 43rd Grammys, wielding the longest-ever title to be nominated for a Grammy (When the Pawn..., all 90 words and 400 characters of it). Now, she's back with a mere 23-word LP title, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, and with possibly the best album of her career. Yet for all its critical plaudits, The Idler Wheel is a weird fit here; and, its predecessor, 2005's Extraordinary Machine, was nominated in the Best Pop Vocal Album category. Not to mention that, way back in her youth, Apple won a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. If she were to win again, here, her acceptance speech would surely be a ceremony highlight.
Every year, there's a nominee in the Best Alternative category that truly baffles the mind, but I don't remember any quite so baffling as Gotye. The Australian one-man-band is, it should be noted, an artist with a long history of independent credentials, but one should never confuse that with being an indie musician, as it were. Wally De Backer is a pop musician, making pop music. As in populist. And, as in popular. Way popular. Making Mirrors, his third LP, has gone Gold all over the world, and in his homeland it's sold triple-Platinum. The record also, perhaps infamously, spawned one of the decade's most omnipresent pop-songs: "Somebody That I Used to Know," a song that has sold 13 million copies and was 2012's biggest single on the Billboard 100. Those kind of sales often translate to Grammy wins, but it'd sure be strange seeing Gotye win a category he never should've been nominated in.
Like Björk's Biophilia, M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming has definitely been rewarded as much on the basis of its ambition as its actual recorded results. Of course, the ambitions of Anthony Gonzalez's sixth LP fit into a far more familiar form, and rock'n'roll narrative: the double album. The 80-minute opus is a vast songbook of soaring synth-pop, referring to all of Gonzalez's familiar childhood indie touchstones —New Order and The Cure, chiefly, as always— yet laying on a kind of Hollywood grandeur. Buoyed by consensus critical plaudits and a place atop countless album-of-the-year lists (in, of course, 2011), Hurry Up, We're Dreaming became M83's commercial breakout. And the Grammys have a history of rewarding the breakthrough albums of French pop acts, which makes Gonzalez less the rank outsider than he initially appears.
Tom Waits has been nominated for seven Grammys in his time; only once, though, has come in the Best Alternative category. That was 20 years ago, when his 1992 classic Bone Machine won the third-ever Best Alternative Album Grammy. In the two decades since, Waits has wondered through the categories; in 2000, his oddball Mule Varations LP somehow won for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The fact that the Grammys don't know where to stick Waits is, of course, symbolic of his iconoclastic status. And Bad As Me is an LP that's pure Waits: a howling piece of outsider blues that sits uneasily in any genre, making this as good a place as any to stick him. Given Waits' long history of Grammy recognition —and the robust commercial sales that Bad As Me turned— it wouldn't be a surprise to see the old renegade win here, again, two decades on.