Frank Ocean (Roger Kisby / Getty Images )
When Adele took album of the year honors at the Grammys for "21," the British soul vocalist was one of the most recognizable singing voices in the world.
Though contenders for the 55th edition of the Grammy Awards won't be unveiled until Wednesday night in Nashville after an hourlong special on CBS, one thing is already clear: There is no such obvious front-runner.
The bestselling album of 2011 is once again the bestselling album of 2012. Adele's "21" has sold more than 4 million copies this year, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
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What's more, the biggest album of 2012 that was actually released in 2012 is not eligible for Grammy consideration. Taylor Swift's "Red" missed the Sept. 30 cutoff date with an Oct. 22 release. Her single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" will no doubt be the beneficiary of multiple nominations, but "Red" will have to wait until 2014 for its potential trophies.
And if you're looking for some of the other usual Grammy suspects — Kanye West, Lady Gaga, the Foo Fighters, etc. — they don't have albums in the mix.
This may be wishful thinking, but if the Grammy Awards are to get risky with the album of the year nominations, now is the time. The past year in pop music was one marked by the emergence of new faces rather than dominance of familiar ones.
A debut album from a folksy roots rock group known as the Lumineers has thus far outsold two albums from punk-turned-Broadway Green Day. The highly exuberant second pop album from New York's fun., "Some Nights," was released in February and has largely stayed in the top 50. In contrast, Madonna's first new album since 2008, released in March, is off the charts.
Popular R&B is undergoing a dramatic change of the guard. Veteran R. Kelly has just topped 200,000 copies sold of June release "Write Me Back," while homegrown talent Frank Ocean has sold more than 380,000 copies of his July effort "Channel Orange." Likewise, San Pedro's Miguel is off to a fast start with his latest "Kaleidoscope Dream," an album that in two months has sold about 198,000 copies.
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But what truly connects Ocean and Miguel is not their ability to find an audience that's no longer flocking to the name brands. It's that their unorthodox sounds subscribe to the anything-goes democracy of the Internet era rather than the tightly defined playlists that have fueled radio for decades. Ocean's is a study in heartache at its most minimal and Miguel's is a fantastical trip through decades of R&B's sonic variations.
Grammy voters may very well play it safe and carry on the tradition of the past three years and continue pop's reign. Artists such as the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Katy Perry have populated the album of the year field since 2010. If a similar pattern emerges Wednesday, we could see nominations going to teen singles machine Justin Bieber, the slick, hotel-lobby pop of Maroon 5, the defiant pop-rock of Pink and the songwriting-by-committee hits of Rihanna's "Talk That Talk."
But doing so would further cement the reputation of the Grammys as an awards show that stubbornly longs for the days when a handful of major labels defined what it meant to be mainstream and ignoring the fact that today, what qualifies as mainstream is more of a moving target.
Take the heavily psychoanalytic R&B of the Weeknd, which gave away a trio of albums for free and has still sold six figures of its compiled retail release. There was also the bluesy rock of Ohio's Black Keys, whose "El Camino" has crossed the million sales barrier, and the ornamental bombast of Hollywood Bowl headliner Florence and the Machine.
The past year welcomed soul-rock revivalists the Alabama Shakes to the mainstream, whose debut "Boys & Girls" made the top 10. The rowdy folk-rock caravan of Mumford & Sons crashed the Billboard chart, and the act's "Babel" has become one of the bestselling albums of the year in about two months.
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None of these are unknowns, but they aren't household names, either. Most will show up in at least one of the 81 categories at the Grammy Awards, yet it's become so rare for voters to make the unconventional choice in a top field that doing so is nearly shocking to observers.
When the Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" was named album of the year in 2011, beating out bigger names such as Perry, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and a heavily favored Eminem, an entire Web page was soon devoted to those on the Internet who had professed ignorance of the band's existence, including Rosie O'Donnell and Duane "Dog" Chapman. "Who is the Arcade Fire?" became an instant Internet meme.
Wednesday night's nomination announcement will outline the mission that Grammy voters believe the awards should fulfill. Should the most prestigious category be filled with the obvious celebrity contenders, those who ruled the pop charts, or artists who reflect a music world that's more varied than ever?
If the Grammys get it right, a rising star such as Ocean will walk away from the Feb. 10 Grammy telecast with a few trophies, and a potential audience wondering who he is. A superstar — or at least a new meme — could be born.
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