It’s a weird time to be a rock fan.
The biggest rock stars are mostly older. The most heavily nominated artist at this year’s Grammy Awards in the rock categories has been deceased for over a year, after all. The artists that most capture the rock aesthetic (not necessarily the instrumentation, but the spirit and inherent rebellion), are mostly in hip-hop. Rock bands that can fill stadiums are virtually non-existent, with the closest thing to 1970s-1980s arena rock operating on country radio, not rock radio.
And yet, claiming that rock is a dead genre would be an oversimplification, precisely because of that.
My personal favorite album released in 2016, Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings,” was no more a country album than much of the discography of The Rolling Stones. Great artists have always fused genres to accommodate their own weird notions of what they want in music.
The final #1 pop hit of 2016 was one of the least rock-influenced songs to top the charts last year. But, even that track, Rae Sremmurd “Black Beatles ft. Gucci Mane,” had the name of the world’s most famous rock band ever in its title.
Rock is a cultural phenomenon in ways that it wasn’t in the ‘50s or ‘60s. It is no longer cutting-edge, but rather an ingrained part of the identity of the western world.
And as long as the ripple effect of rock continues (and there is no reason to believe that this will not be the case for the rest of your lifetime), the rock genre matters. It may not be noted for innovation as much as it was in generations prior, but it reflects where we have been. And despite what is often a burden of more than 60 years of history, artists continue to find new ways to interpret the genre.
With all that said, here are my picks for the 2017 Grammy Awards’ rock categories.
Best Rock Performance
Posthumous awards have long been a tradition of the Grammys, Ray Charles cleaning up in 2005 with “Genius Loves Company", for example. David Bowie was an inevitable Grammy nominee following his death last January, but this ought not to be dismissed as a maudlin sympathy gesture.
It's hard to know what to expect when listening to a new Bowie song. "Space Oddity" is not "Suffragette City," which is not "Fame,” which is not "Let's Dance," which is not "I'm Afraid of Americans.” But with the track "Blackstar," a man seemingly aware that this would be his final creative output went for surface-level weirdness more closely resembling his Berlin period than the transparent Nile Rodgers-produced pop of the MTV era. And while this particular tune isn't strictly -- ahem -- a spacey oddity, it sounds totally accessible. Context turned it into a requiem, but this doesn't diminish the song's general worthiness.
A nominee you probably wouldn't have expected at the beginning of 2016 is "Don't Hurt Yourself," from Beyonce's latest LP contribution to the zeitgeist, “Lemonade.” It was an album of Bowie-esque diversity. And this track, featuring Jack White, one of the 21st century's closest things to a genuine rock star, is a song one would be wrong to dismiss as rock merely by Beyonce standards.
The Alabama Shakes' "Joe" is a likable enough effort by truly dynamic live performers, but it's ultimately a fairly generic blues rocker. (And it's impossible to fully separate songwriting from a performance.)
Disturbed's Simon and Garfunkel cover, "The Sound of Silence," like their decade-old cover of Genesis's "Land of Confusion," is relatively faithful. But, whereas the latter adds their requisite angst to an angry song, the atmosphere is what makes the original "Sound of Silence," and the Disturbed treatment is mostly redundant.
While “Heathens,” the Twenty One Pilots crossover mega-hit, has a promising start, it is eventually done in by somewhat out-of-place rap verses which give the song a lack of tone rather than serving two different audiences at once.
My Pick: “Blackstar” by David Bowie
Best Rock Song
The potential Bowie coronation for a lifetime of songwriting excellence includes two emeritus rock bands, albeit from two very different worlds, with songs which are very much in their lane.
Radiohead jumps into the creepy atmospherics of yesteryear with “Burn the Witch.” And while the song is arranged largely around the electronic instrumentation of their 21st century work, it evokes the paranoia of "OK Computer"-era Radiohead very successfully. Meanwhile, Metallica’s “Hardwired” is yet another attempted throwback to their '80s thrash days which, mercifully, is just a fast and relatively simple punk-metal tune rather than the overlong works that have become their calling card in their twilight. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite stack up with, say, “Seek and Destroy,” but at least they are going the right direction.
Highly Suspect’s “My Name is Human” initially dips into the Black Keys-y garage-blues of their debut, but ultimately becomes a bit too much of a post-grunge anthem for its own good.
“Heathens,” also nominated in the Performance category, is a song which is better written than performed, and has a stronger case in this particular category. But, in the end, the song is attempting the electronic paranoia which is Radiohead’s hallmark. And, well, it’s hard at that point to not go with the actual Radiohead song.
“Blackstar” is one of Bowie’s better songs of recent vintage, but this particular one is carried more by his oft-underrated vocal talent than his oft-noted composing prowess. It’s well-written enough to merit consideration, but not quite to win the award for me.
My Pick: “Burn the Witch” by Radiohead
Best Rock Album
Mercifully, blink-182’s “California” isn’t just an attempt by the 40-something pop-punks to rehash the immature jokes that formed the basis of their most famous work. While the new album is not exactly transcendent music, it maintains the spirit of their peak, while being grounded in the basic framework of adulthood. Cage the Elephant, a band far less sure of its own identity (usually in a good way) has “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” whose producer, Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, could have been guessed from a mile away. The band has a new confidence that was missing from their “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” days.
Gojira’s “Magma” is a thunderous throwback to a mostly bygone era of metal. Like most metal albums with no pop radio pretense, it’s not for everybody, but for what it is, (straight ahead hard ‘rawk’), it is effective. Panic! At The Disco’s "Death of a Bachelor" barely qualifies as rock in the traditional sense, but unlike contemporaries such as Fall Out Boy, they just go for it. This is a pop album by a formerly pop-rock band; but if you’re going to do this, do it. Synth riffs, huge choruses -- why not? Frontman Brendon Urie basically has free reign at this point.
Weezer, of course, can’t think of album titles, so they released their fourth album titled “Weezer;” and it sounds essentially like an amalgamation of their previous self-titles. It’s fine, but it doesn’t really offer much new. While there’s something to be said about doing the thing you know people like, I’d rather reward a band that did something different, that was still really good.
My Pick: "Tell Me I’m Pretty" by Cage the Elephant
Best Alternative Album
This category essentially includes two Radiohead albums: the actual Radiohead album, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” and the even more Radiohead-sounding album, “22, A Million” by Bon Iver. The former, counter to everything we know about Radiohead, is far more listenable, while the latter is the more consistently interesting sounding album. Though, it’s admittedly difficult to really consistently jam to songs with titles like "10 d E A T h b R E a s T.”
PJ Harvey’s “The Hope Six Demolition Project” once again displays her impressive eclecticism, being less based on a specific sound and more based on running the gamut from garage rock to jazz to everything in between.
The other two nominees are classic alternative cohorts David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who made their albums (“Blackstar” and “Post Pop Depression,” respectively) in very different ways. Bowie is front and center, playing many instruments while filling out the rest of the music with mostly anonymous session musicians. Contrarily, Iggy brought in such an all-star lineup of 21st century rock titans (Queens of the Stone Age bassist Dean Fertita, Arctic Monkeys drumgawd Matt Helders, and guitarist/producer/co-writer Josh Homme) that the trio are also featured on the album cover. Iggy’s solo career has been hit and miss, but he has always been his studio-best when working with others. He does here, and it’s his best album in at least a quarter-century.
My Pick: “Post Pop Depression” by Iggy Pop
The Grammy Awards will air on CBS, Feb. 12 at 8/7c.