Music

Nothing Shocking: The 56th Annual Grammy Awards

Was this a great broadcast? It hasn't been for years. But quite frankly, the Grammy Awards may very well turn into a consistently solid event if they just focus on the performance styles that work and slightly retool their format.

The ads were brash: expect a big reunited Beatles celebration! The remaining Highwaymen getting back together! Robin Thicke performing with the band Chicago for some reason! It was another spectacle-filled event for what is often billed as Music's Biggest Night, but unlike the last two years -- which were more gestations of empty noise than they were a celebration of actual talent -- this year, despite a few obvious duds, ran at a pretty decent clip, and sometimes against its own will, the 2014 Grammy Awards actually turned out to be somewhat entertaining at times (imagine that).

The show opened with a somewhat-decently-kept secret in the form of Beyoncé performing "Drunk in Love" with Jay-Z, and her simple striptease/vocal fireworks display served a better opener than, say Lady Gaga's confused start of last year's VMAs. There wasn't too much over-decoration on stage: it was just Yoncé & Jay (Bey-Z?) running through the song, willfully avoiding confusing gimmickry to instead just be more about the performance than anything else. It was a smart move, and before long, the show got underway with host LL Cool J delivering his same casual level of charisma-free pap. Although he absolutely knocked his inaugural gig out of the park with a well-mannered and celebratory tone following the sudden passing of Whitney Houston, here, he just carted out faux-inspirational speeches about the power of music before being mercifully tucked away for a majority of the evening, perhaps jotting down the name of Pharrell's hat retailer for future reference.

What really thrilled, however, was the set that came just shortly after LL's opening salvo: Lorde performing her chart-topping (and later Grammy-winning) hit "Royals", where the already-minimal song was given an even sparser arrangement, lots of practiced pauses and unexpected acapella moments making for a surprisingly evocative experience, the arrangement doing most of the work for her, as her voice and stage presence are still very much developing before our eyes. For now though, she can stake claim to one of the better Grammy performances of recent memory, because doing anything minimal in such a gargantuan setting is actually something that will garner notice.

After that, however, the festival of blandness began its weary march deep into our collective consciousness: the young Hunter Hayes continued to pad his reputation as one of the most generic songwriters and performers of his generation, Robin Thicke & Chicago collaborated on the most watered-down Steely Dan rendition of "Saturday in the Park/Blurred Lines" you could possibly imagine, and Katy Perry one again confused over-the-top-theatrics with real talent, performing "Dark Horse" with what appeared to be a stripper-friendly version of The Crucible, complete with a cameo from the Knights Who Say Ni. With numerous surface-level award show performances already under her sparkly belt, you'd think that Perry would've by now learned that schtick can only go so far. Some would argue that part of the appeal of Perry is her larger-than-life persona, but on the fundamental basics of performance, you strip away her high-budget entrapments and you're left with song showcases that leave you feeling hollow.

Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar perform. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

While awards were occasionally handed out (and boy let me emphasize the word "occasionally"), the main focus and (let's face it) biggest draw of the evening was the performances. Pink's acrobatic, live-sung take on her moody hit "Try" actually made for quite a compelling sight, although her Nate Ruess-assisted iteration of "Just Give Me a Reason" never quite took hold, Reuss' voice scraping the upper range of his register in a somewhat painful fashion. While the hyped Beatles moments ultimately landed with a resounding "meh" ("Photograph" is fine, but bringing out Ringo to only back McCartney on his new song "Queenie Eye", which isn't even the best thing off of New?), the half-reunited Highwaymen (which consisted of Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Blake Shelton) croaked their way through an absolutely atrocious rendition of "Okie from Muskogee", with no one on key and the song itself seeming to meander the more it went. Although they are called the Highwaymen, it's obvious the fellas have been taking a few too many toll roads as of late.

Merle Haggard, left, in performance with Blake Shelton. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

In fact, outside of some pretty solid moments (Kacey Musgraves' nice "Follow Your Arrow", Sara Bareilles & Carole King's trade-off of "Beautiful" & "Brave", the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Everly Brothers' tribute by Billie Joe Armstrong and Miranda Lambert), actually keeping songs in the right tempo proved to be a real big problem for a lot of performers, whether it be Imagine Dragons turning themselves into a painfully-bland proto-rock group backing up Kendrick Lamar or Daft Punk's ill-conceived "Get Lucky"/"Le Freak"/"Another Star" mashup with Stevie Wonder. The shifting rhythms -- most of them feeling unintentional -- led to these performances lurching in strange, unpleasant ways, and leaving much to be desired.

Yet, the ultimate display of award-show publicity stunts was carried out by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who performed their extremely emotional same-sex marriage anthem "Same Love" with help from Mary Lambert and Madonna (inexplicably dressed as Boss Hog), and right in the middle of it, Queen Latifah helped officiate the wedding of some 30-odd couples, gay and straight alike, for a mass ceremony that took less than a minute, right there in the middle aisle of the live Grammy audience. What's perhaps most surprising about this, though, was that this gesture actually kept in spirit of the song itself, was tastefully done, and actually served the entire performance effectively. "Same Love" is assuredly as big a "message song" as there could be last year, but to have a staged moment like that actually resonate, albeit in glitzy award-show fashion, is a testament to some considered planning and, ya know, actually recognizing what the song is about.

Couples are wedded as Macklemore, pictured, and Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, Trombone Shorty and Madonna perform "Same Love". (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

As is the case last year, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow has learned that he is not one for public speaking, so he kept his perennial speech focused on the Grammy Foundation's new initiative to have people nominate incredible music teachers across the country. Given that was the only thing his speech focused on (thanks for not trying jokes this year, Neil), his oft-droll turn actually made for a celebration of people really making a difference in music, and encouraged even more people to nominate music educators in the future. As mentioned last year, this is a great idea and one of the best high-profile things the Recording Academy does, instead of spending far too much time discouraging downloaders as it has in the past.

As for the big prizes, a Lorde win for Song of the Year is hard to argue against, and while the Album of the Year nominees were all forward-thinking in their own way (save for Sara Bareilles' inexplicable nod), few people should have been surprised by Daft Punk's overall victory, as their Random Access Memories disc was an album that very much took great consideration into disco's storied past, revitalizing and recontextualizing it in an exciting modern way, and that's exactly the kind of thing that Grammy voters eat up in droves. Additionally, the big prizes (Record and Album of the Year) serve as a coronation for Daft Punk, a duo who have long been seen as some of the most innovative voices in dance music, only just now coming into their own realm of mainstream acceptance (and, to their credit, they wore their helmets and did not speak once during the ceremony -- talk about commitment).

Steven Tyler and Smokey Robinson on stage. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

The thankless role of closing the show was this year given to Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age (the former of whom made his displeasure of being cut off by a Delta advert very well known). But truth be told, once you cut out the melodramatic Taylor Swift songs, terrible presenters ('cos Julia Roberts presenting a piece on the Beatles makes perfect sense to whom now?), and just focus on the awards and performances that were not cluttered by technicolor ephemera, the Grammys can actually turn out to be a decent broadcast and a half-way admirable celebration of many, many genres of music. Was this a great broadcast? It hasn't been for years. But quite frankly, the Grammy Awards may very well turn into a consistently solid event if they just focus on the performance styles that work and slightly retool their format. Keep it up, and they might just get lucky.

* * *

Splash Photo: Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk duo, and Nile Rogers on stage to accept the Grammy for Record of the Year at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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