The Grammys are super weird.
They randomly pop up and surprise us all on a random Sunday lost in the middle of awards season and the Super Bowl. Their nominations manage to be ridiculously out of touch and too in touch at the same time. (They’ll give Steely Dan a ridiculous Album of the Year trophy…in 2001…while also making sure we know that THEY LOVE ADELE TOO SO THEY’RE COOL by giving her every single award in every category in 2013.) They are hosted by LL Cool J, God save us all.
This year’s nominations aren’t as bizarre as usual. Breakout new artist Lorde scored nods in every major category…except Best New Artist. Justin Timberlake and Jay Z are the year’s two most nominated performers…but neither scored a nod in the big three categories: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, or Song of the Year.
Plus, there’s the utterly confusing thing where Song of the Year doesn’t actually reward the song, but the song writer, while Record of the Year is for the best overall sounding song—but wait, didn’t we used to call albums “records,” so why does Record of the Year reward just one song and OH MY GOD MY HEAD HURTS.
In any case, people like to say they’re clueless when it comes to popular music, like it’s some badge of honor to listen to only Norwegian folk electronica acoustic girl groups without record deals or only The Beatles. Done. So to prepare those people—and anyone else who just needs a primer—for this year’s Grammy Awards, here’s the 11 songs you need to listen to in order to have any idea what’s going on Sunday night.
1. “Royals” by Lorde
Nominated for: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Pop Solo Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album
There’s this lazy thing that people like to say about the Grammys: “I’m so old! I have no idea who any of these nominees are!” Those people are lying. That, or they have not left their houses for the entirety of 2013, in which case it’s confusing how they got that message out to the world in the first place. If they’ve been in public at all this past year, they’ve heard this year’s big nominee, Lorde, and her song, “Royals.” It played everywhere. Seriously everywhere: every bar, gas station, grocery store, radio station, church, halfway house, laundromat, and party. I swear I opened my sock drawer once and it was playing inside there. She’s going to win many awards Sunday night. And you’re going to try to resist the urge to reach through the TV and brush her hair.
2. “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke featuring T.I. & Pharrell
Nominated for: Record of the Year, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album
It might be misogynistic. It might be rape-y. It might be the worst song ever. And it is nominated for Record of the Year. But you know what? Even as you say, “Ugh, god, I hate this song and I wish it would go away” when it starts playing, you also mindlessly start wiggling your hips and popping your left shoulder along to the cacophonous doo-wop beat. All of which means Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. have done something right.
3. “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk featuring Pharrell and Nile Rodgers
Nominated for: Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Best Dance/Electronica Album, Best Engineered Album
Daft Punk released a new album this year, and it was great, mostly because it featured the perfect summer song. “Get Lucky” is an irresistible cross between disco-era old-school funk and modern electronica groove, heralding pure summer joy with its spot-on chorus: “We’re up all night ‘til the sun/ We’re up all night to get some/ We’re up all night for good fun/ We’re up all night to get lucky.” If Lorde loses Record of the Year, it’s because Daft Punk takes it, raising the question: Will they speak?
4. “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore featuring Ryan Lewis
Nominated for: Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, Best Rap Album, Best Music Video
This year’s Grammys could present an interesting social experiment: If Macklemore wins in a rap category, will Twitter explode? Hip-hop purists like to blast the duo for having more kitsch than cred, but the truth is that Macklemore’s omnipresent in 2013. And fun. Stupid as hell, but fun….and, daresay, important? In addition to being a serious contender in Best New Artist and in the Rap categories for “Thrift Shop,” their equal-rights anthem “Same Love” is nominated for Best Song—a spoiler for a rather poignant win.
5. “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars
Nominated for: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Remixed Recording
For all the fuss over Justin Timberlake’s return to music this year, it’s easy to forget that another retro-pop, R&B crooner has been lording over the music scene in his absence. And doing quite a job at it, too. That “Locked Out of Heaven” might be Bruno Mars’s most innocuous single yet and still scored a Record of the Year nod speaks to how big he’s gotten, especially since Timberlake himself wasn’t able to score a nod in the field. Of course, the real treat when it comes to Mars is the energy he brings to his live performances, somehow manic and polished at the same time. He won’t be performing at this year’s Grammys, though, as he’s likely saving that energy for his Super Bowl halftime performance just one week later.
6. “Holy Grail” by Jay Z featuring Justin Timberlake
Nominated for: Album of the Year (with Kendrick Lamar), Best Pop/Duo Group Performance, Best Rap Performance, Best Rap/Sung Performance (x2), Best Rap Song, Best Rap Album, Best Music Video (x2)
Jay’s actually the year’s most nominated artist, with nine nods, counting his technical inclusion in Album of the Year for being featured on Kendrick Lamar’s album. The bulk of Jay’s nods come from collaborations, specifically with Justin Timberlake: both “Suit and Tie” and “Holy Grail” scored mentions. The rapper was shut out, however, in the major categories, making it a real possibility that he could be the night’s most nominated artist and still win nothing. Oh no. Hov no. (Get it?)
7. “Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake
Nominated for: Best Pop Solo Performance, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best R&B Song, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, Best Rap Song, Best Music Video
Justin Timberlake had the best-selling album of the year. It was also one of the best-reviewed. Yet he was shut out completely from the big three categories: Record, Song, and Album. Does it make sense? Nope. But hey. Grammys. Either way, “Mirrors” is a pretty damned good song, right? If the Grammys thwart expectations and spread the love instead of giving Lorde every award, Timberlake could, and should, win Pop Solo Performance or Pop Vocal Album.
8. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” by Kendrick Lamar
Nominated for: Album of the Year, Best New Artist, Best R&B Performance, Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, Best Rap Album
That Kendrick Lamar scored so many Grammy nods is a huge surprise. Not because he doesn’t deserve them. Quite the opposite, actually: he deserves them very much, making it unexpected that the Grammy Awards, so usually tone deaf when it comes to exciting hip-hop music not by people named Jay Z, Kanye West, and Eminem, actually included Lamar in top categories like Album of the Year. Lamar could even spoil in Best New Artist (he’s really talented, guys), but if the category is going to go to “hip hop” then it’s probably going to be won by the more mainstream-popular Macklemore.
9. “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons
Nominated for: Record of the Year, Best Rock Performance
Ok. That “It’s Time” song was really good, for a hot second. (Specifically: the second it appeared in that trailer for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.) But giving “Radioactive” a Record of the Year mention? C’mon. Thankfully, Imagine Dragons stands no chance of robbing Lorde or Daft Punk of that award, but could very realistically win Best Rock Performance, which…is sad.
10. “Brave” by Sara Bareilles
Nominated for: Album of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance
Sara Bareilles is a very nice, pleasant singer and her song “Brave” is amazing and rah-rah inspirational in a pleasurably understated way. But when she scored a nomination for Album of the Year, the music industry uttered a collective, “WTF!?” It’s a good album, and, again, Bareilles is very pleasant. But there’s nothing about The Blessed Unrest that gave anyone an indication that she’d score the marquee mention. The real fun, though, is that both “Brave” and Katy Perry’s “Roar” are nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance, a saucy face-off considering the accusations lobbed at Perry’s camp when it was discovered how similar to Bareilles’s her song sounded. Are the Grammys trolling us all with the match up? (Doesn’t matter, as neither woman has a prayer of winning the category.)
11. “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift
Nominated for: Album of the Year, Best Country Duo/Group Performance, Best Country Song, Best Country Album
Guys, Taylor Swift’s last album was so good. So. Good. You know what? Just stop reading and go listen to it again.