With the holiday season and this abysmal year coming to an end, the red carpets and shiny trophies are gearing up for awards season. Usually, these affairs become more about whom one is wearing than whatever is being rewarded. Politics and all the usual schmoozing indicate that the record of the year and best picture aren’t always what many consider to be the “best”. However, we have some exciting news for this year’s Grammys.
For the first time ever, all those nominated in the category for Best Rock Performance are women. Finally. How many years have we heard that women can’t rock? Or how many times have female artists been haunted by the idiotic question: “So what’s it like being a woman in music?” Below is a rundown of the songs and the artists nominated this year. Oh . . . and why they’re pretty great.
1. “Shameika” – Fiona Apple
“Shameika” is the second track off of Fiona Apple’s 2020 record Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It is her first release in eight years, and it was definitely worth the wait. This album is born from a seasoned artist who mediates on her roots, her journies, and her present isolation in one of the rawest explorations of self to date. The album has a keen sense of rhythm born from Apple’s tinkering with an ashiko drum on an Alabama farm, and the melodic complexity characteristic of much of her work. Apple is never afraid to slam the keys and bring out the rasp in her voice if that is what the story calls for, yet she knows when to pull it back in a breathy “head voice” and revel in a tender and/or melancholic moment. There is a reason why Pitchfork gave it a perfect 10.
The track “Shameika” is remarkable for so many reasons: the reflection of a formative childhood encounter, the cascading melodies, the sing-songy vocals, and so on. The song dances with chaos. It always seems on the verge of going off the rails with uneasy guitar distortion, crash symbols, and an almost rap-like lyrical speed until “Shameika said I had potential” comes bursting in stripped to piano and vocals (bringing us back down to earth). But you can’t help but be mesmerized by all the moving parts in this piece, and when Apple starts reciting Latin “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” the discombobulation becomes a moment of genius as memories of middle school choir come flooding into my mind.
Shameika is not fictional however, she was a classmate of Apple’s whose encouragement against bullies stuck with her. In fact, Pitchfork also released a feature that highlights the story of the real Shameika, and how while the two were more acquaintances than friends, this memory had a lasting impact on Apple’s life. In it, you can hear a song written in response to the installment in Fetch the Bolt Cutters titled “Shameika Said” by Shameika herself, a long-time rapper, in which the two reconnect. “Shameika” is also nominated for Best Rock Song and Fetch the Bolt Cutters is nominated for Best Alternative Music Album.
2. “Not” – Big Thief
Big Thief is an indie rock band with folk influence fronted by Adrienne Lenker (vocals and guitar), along with Buck Meek on guitar and back up vocals, Max Oleartchik on bass, and James Krivchenia on drums. The band is Berklee College transplants residing in Brooklyn who first came on the scene in 2016 with Masterpiece. In 2019 the band released two studio albums, UFOF, and Two Hands, and it is off the latter that “Not” appears as the seventh track.
Two Hands is a comparatively easier listen than Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It feels laid back as if you’re chilling in the studio with the band, and the numerous guitar solos and instrumentals sprinkled throughout the album garner this jam session feel. Overall, the sound is a pleasing balance of grit, great rock n’ roll guitar, and soft vocals. However, the band throws in a couple of surprises such as a horn section ending its title track “Two Hands” that transitions into a more indie, shoegaze adjacent sound in “Those Girls” (one of my favorite tracks off the record). This album – like many – knows when to drive it up and when to bring it down. The last track is a ballad that ends with blank space in a sense of resolute closure. Its nominated song, “Not” is a standout single for sure.
“Not” carries with it an earworm melody (both in the verse and chorus), a driving beat that so easily forces your foot to tap, and a guitar solo finale that does not disappoint. It ends in a highly satisfying feedback buzz that any rock nerd would appreciate, but what is striking about this song to me is its ability to bring both the past and present into mind. The combination of indie rock and folk conjures sounds from Woodstock days, and Lenker’s voice contains just the right amount of rough and tumbles that it almost reminds me of Johnny Cash in his late years (in the best possible way). However, the band’s ability to provide variety throughout the album is what makes it modern -and interesting. Nostalgia sells, but it also has to be good music. With that said, the lyrics in “Not” are a poetic reflection on life and aging, the repetition of “not” becomes a realization of how things that are material fade.
3. “Kyoto” – Phoebe Bridgers
You may know Phoebe Bridgers from her breakout single, “Motion Sickness,” a fabulous mid-tempo, frustrated uttering against a coercive ex. Her new album Punisher, released in June, has received much critical acclaim. Punisher, like her prior work, is a soft-sounding, yet the hard-hitting story of life and its incessant obstacles (and consequently, what is gained from the ride). The internet has widely claimed it the best album to listen to by yourself, becoming emblematic of what “being in your feels” means (ie. feeling a bit depressed), and many critics have described it as “apocalyptic.”
Punisher in its own right is Bridger’s version of apocalyptic. Her voice has a melancholic beauty to it; it’s breathy and often soft-spoken which is brought out by the slower tempo in most of her music. It imbues a certain sadness that inevitably pulls at the heart-strings, but the album itself begins with this “apocalyptic” vibe in “DVD Menu,” an instrumental with heavy bass and an eerie tone to set the mood of the rest of the work. Not to mention, siren-like sounds ring occasionally, and casual references to everyday nightmares like “Halloween” and the “ICU” have entire tracks dedicated to them.
But what really rounds out in this album is its final track “I Know The End” which starts as a ballad with an imaginative revision of the Wizard of Sz story. As the “tornado” hits, the drums come in setting a new driving beat only to expand into a great horn-laden crescendo, full of crash symbols and wailing guitar. It transitions essentially to an acceptance that the end is near, cruising along almost Thelma and Louise style listening to “ America first rap Country Song” (a reference to Lil Nas X’ “Old Town Road”) gazing at the item over the coast that might be an “alien spaceship” and seeing the titular billboard that bears “this is the end.” To top it off, the final sounds in the album include a soundless scream coming from Bridgers herself that resembles what one does when they scream into a pillow. The finale is the penultimate piece, and Punisher is also up for Best Alternative Album this year. Her single, “Kyoto, however,” is a perfect respite and 2020 counterpart to her 2017 “Motion Sickness.”
“Kyoto” starts off in the same driving manner as Motion Sickness, but quickly transitions into something a little less by the book. The verse melody is irresistible, and when the chorus enters and horns come blaring in, it reminds me of Panic! At the Disco’s “Nine in the Afternoon,” but less wacky and refined in that Phoebe Bridgers fashion. This song sounds the least apocalyptic of the bunch, but it becomes clear through the words, that it might still be a little apocalyptic. Namely, “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t beat me to it” is less upbeat of a topic than the sound of the song indicates. Bridgers has stated that the piece is about “imposter syndrome” and dissociating yourself when on stage or when performing in a new country like Japan. With this realization, the song hits harder; it’s about a battle within herself. However, we cannot complain about a reflection of inner struggle captured in such eloquent lyrics and a tantalizing musical package. “Kyoto” also obtains a coveted spot in the Best Rock Song nomination.
4. “The Steps” – HAIM
HAIM is a trio of sisters who came on the music scene as pop-rock powerhouses in 2012. Lead vocals, guitar, and drums are provided by Danielle Haim, Este is on bass and vocals, and finally, Alana plays keyboard, guitars and also sings. The sisters come from a musical family, growing up playing in their parent’s band and Danielle became a touring musician prior to forming the band with her other two siblings. HAIM is our modern, female Bee Gees minus the disco (they did retain the priceless vocal blend between siblings, however). Their latest record, Women in Music Pt. III packs this Pop Rock style with some R&B influence and slight Fleetwood Mac-Esque acoustic stylings (although the band is apprehensive about this comparison).
Women in Music Pt. III definitely becomes the feel-good album on this list thus far and provides a satisfying amount of variety. It begins with an interesting homage in “Los Angeles” and features sounds from pop mixed with hip hop mixed with a rock in “All That Ever Mattered,” to an R&B vibe in “I Feel Down” and even a nice folk rock in “Leaning On You” and “FUBT.” But the genre-bending never seems forced and transitions well. Songs revolve around love, expressing frustration, and the typical dealings of human relationships. Basslines are tantalizing throughout the record, and the sisters’ voices are buttery smooth especially when low notes are sustained. Women in Music Pt. III is one of the big contenders this year as a nominee for Album of the Year. “This Steps” is the perfect power-pop single in retaliation against a lack-luster partner.
“The Steps” is a song that essentially says f*** you to a partner that does not pull their weight, and when the lyrics “And every day I wake up and I make money for myself / And though we share a bed, you know that I don’t need your help / Do you understand? / You don’t understand me, baby” sound in the chorus, the message is clear; she really does not need this person. It becomes a power anthem of an independent woman, shrouded in an unrelenting Pop Rock sing-along-ability. It resides in the canon of angry lady songs like “You Oughtta Know” and “Before He Cheats,” but less alternative and less country (although it is somewhat related). “The Steps” is a less aggressive, Dixie Chicks-like retaliation and jammable radio favorite.
5. “Stay High” – Brittany Howard
Brittany Howard is a legend in her own right, and her new solo works attest to that. You probably know her as the frontwoman of the widely successful band Alabama Shakes who actually took the Grammy for Best Rock Performance with “Don’t Wanna Fight” in 2015. The band also won three other Grammys and received nine other nominations. So, it is no surprise that Howard’s solo music offers nothing less than greatness. Her 2019 Album, Jaime is a Rock and R&B powerhouse.
Jaime is a record that produces one great track after the next that are perfect for a casual listen, a dinner-party mood setter, and even dancing. It has such a smooth and indulgent sound that one cannot help but just bathe in its soulful instrumentals, and of course, Howard’s captivating vocals. So many tones in this album ring with a blissful, atmospheric timbre; they reverberate filling any room or space with a full-bodied sound (a feat of mastering that is not always easy to achieve).
Songs like “He Loves Me” and “13th Century Metal” bring in spoken elements with ease, adding another layer to this already complex and intriguing soundscape. The synthesizer is used in a manner more compliant with indie and alternative music especially in songs like “Georgia” and “Tomorrow” that keep the album feeling fresh. Twofold, this element acts as a counterbalance to more traditional bluesy ballads like “Short and Sweet.” In only 35 minutes, this album packs an extremely powerful punch. Named after her late sister, Jaime is an album that is both deeply personal to Howard and a great leap in her career as her first major solo project. Its list of nominations is also extensive: Best Alternative Music Album, “Goat head” for best R&B Performance, “Short and Sweet” for Best American Roots Performance, and of course “Stay High” for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song.
“Stay High”’s backbone is a steady guitar strum in a successive eighth note pattern. This is enough to satisfy any ear, but on top of this is a multitude of other layers such as dreamy synth backing and an echoing chorus to Howard’s voice. The emotion is truly felt through the speakers as Howard’s range has the ability to hang low yet reach high notes with ease. Not to mention, the vocal bends she performs to provide the perfect amount of tension before ringing back into tune (just one of many satisfying moments in this song). As the chorus comes in “I want to stay high with you” the existing layers play in unison and it can’t be described as anything but beautiful. Lyrically, the song is simple, wanting to “stay high” with a loved one, literally with substances, or metaphorically with a feeling of elation with the other person. But if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
6. “Daylight” – Grace Potter
Grace Potter released her third solo album, Daylight, in 2019 whose title track has garnered the nomination for Best Rock Performance and has also grabbed a nomination for Best Rock Album. Grace Potter was a former member of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals who disbanded in 2015, but you might recognize their hit, “Stars” which showcases Potter’s impressive vocals. Her latest record only further exemplifies her prowess as a singer and boasts a rock sound with sultry screeching and a slight country influence.
Daylight is a classic formula done well. Who doesn’t like some good old fashioned rock n’ roll? In the single and first track off the record, “Love is Love,” Potter’s vocals soar and her control over the rasp in her voice is impeccable. The second song, “On My Way” only kicks up the rasp into a screech and the record’s power does not stop there. In fact, it lasts much of the album with few moments of relief like the ballad “Every Heartbeat.” Daylight functions much like Two Hands in that it plays with nostalgia and revamps old sounds. In fact, it resembles Fleetwood Mac more than HAIM with Potter’s voice channeling the same heavenly ruggedness as Stevie Nicks herself. In songs like “Back to Me” Potter takes a typical bluesy melody (with that signature three-note run and supremes-like backing vocals) and breathes life into it; the song almost forces you to move. However, its title track is the stand out ending to this record.
“Daylight” begins in a chaotic rattle of drums and guitar that releases into Potter’s sultry vocals with even more bluesy bends. The song is a constant dance with dynamics; there are moments that are loud and epic followed by moments that are softer and waning only to cycle back to loud. For instance, the first verse builds itself back up again with successive pitch elevation and simultaneous drum and guitar slamming. It sounds aggressive as she bellows “I need the daylight,” and it is here that the song takes a 180. Essentially, a “new” song emerges whose structure and melody differs from the previous two minutes. It acts in a “Stairway to Heaven” style in which the change becomes a method to create a song with movements, or multiple musical ideas. This second part comes roaring in reminiscent of Chris Cornell’s incredible vocals in Soundgarden’s Superunknown. But once again, the song pulls back from its rocking high. She sings “to the daylight” in a slow tempo, providing a haunting ending to this rollercoaster of an album (and a song). “Daylight” described in one word is trip.
While it is easy to get held up in the materiality of things like the red carpet looks and the celebrity drama, the nominations that seem out of the left field, etc., these award shows still honor work that deserves all the recognition it can get its hands on. These six songs are among dozens nominated on the entire 63rd Annual Grammy Awards roster which stretches across most identifiable genres. It would be a daunting, but rewarding task to try and listen to all the music nominated this year. Well, at least you have six down by some remarkable female artists. Which song on this list was your favorite?