This could be the greatest year for rookies at the Grammy Awards.
When nominations are announced Wednesday morning, expect to hear the names of high-profile newcomers Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X as well as fresh faces Juice WRLD, Morgan Wallen, Lewis Capaldi and Maggie Rogers.
When the winners are revealed Jan. 26, look for many of these new names to be called again.
Newbies have dominated the Grammys before, notably Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones and even — yikes! — Christopher Cross. But those were cases of a single artist sweeping several categories.
This time, a number of first-timers will likely walk away with trophies. That will make the race for best new artist especially exciting.
The smart money says it will boil down to Lizzo vs. Eilish. Lizzo’s buoyant, body-positive, self-loving R&B/hip-hop vs. Billie’s dark self-searching electro pop. A 32-year-old flute-playing, genre-fluid singer-rapper or a provocative, home-schooled 17-year-old who makes angsty bedroom pop with her 22-year-old producer brother.
And don’t discount 20-year-old Lil Nas X just because his hit “Old Town Road,” which spent a record-shattering 19 weeks at No. 1, seems like a country/hip-hop novelty. His unconventional boundary-breaking — a young, black, gay, country rapper sampling Nine Inch Nails and teaming up with passe country star Billy Ray Cyrus for a smash remix — could resonate with the Recording Academy’s just-recruited new cohort of young, hip-hop-loving members.
When was the last time that category had so many compelling and qualified finalists?
Maybe five years ago, with Ed Sheeran, Kendrick Lamar and Kacey Musgraves, all of whom have gone on to impressive Grammy-winning careers. Ironically, the prize went to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who were not undeserving, but have been a disappointment since.
Milli Vanilli misstep
That’s the thing about best new artist. Too often the Grammy victors have been safe choices who turned out to be flashes in the pan. Like Fun, who triumphed in 2013 over Alabama Shakes, the Lumineers and Frank Ocean. Or Paula Cole, who beat Erykah Badu, Fiona Apple and Puff Daddy in 1998.
Sometimes that trophy has been the kiss of death. Like late 1970s one-hit wonders the Starland Vocal Band and Debby Boone, not to mention double-hitmakers Taste of Honey over — can you believe it? — Elvis Costello and the Cars, both now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Of course, there’s the ultimate embarrassment of Milli Vanilli, the dreadlocked duo with three No. 1 pop hits whose 1990 new artist Grammy was rescinded months later when they were exposed as lip-syncers, not singers.
Some choices have been hot-take debates in real time, as close contests should be. Crosby, Stills & Nash over Led Zeppelin and Chicago? America over the Eagles and John Prine? The Carpenters over Elton John?
Of course, there have been many worthy winners, dating back to the very first one, Bobby Darin in 1959, as well as the Beatles, Bette Midler, Rickie Lee Jones, Sade, Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, John Legend, Carrie Underwood, Adele and the surprising Bon Iver.
Under new rules implemented last year, there will eight finalists (instead of five) for best new artist and the three other top awards, album, record and song of the year. The final list is chosen by an anonymous blue-ribbon committee. The winners are determined by about 12,000 voters in the Recording Academy.
A year ago, it seemed like a stretch to find eight laudable candidates for new artist. (British pop singer Dua Lipa wound up topping a list that included country upstarts Luke Combs and Margo Price alongside lesser-knowns like H.E.R. and Greta Van Fleet.)
That’s not a problem this time, even though only 275 acts were nominated — the lowest total in 24 years (670 in 2013 is the record).
With Lizzo and Eilish as the front-runners and Lil Nas X right behind them, let’s look at the other credible candidates:
• Scottish pop singer Lewis Capaldi, who just landed at No. 1 with “Someone You Loved.”
• Juice WRLD, whose creative hip-hop single “Lucid Dreams” climbed to No. 2.
• Buzzy futurist-flamenco phenom Rosalia, who sings exclusively in Spanish.
• Megan Thee Stallion, a rapper who had the hot summer hit “Hot Girl Summer.”
• Country singer Morgan Wallen, whose chart-topping “Whiskey Glasses” was the best country song of 2019.
• Much-lauded, “Saturday Night Live”-launched pop singer Maggie Rogers, whose album “Heard It in a Past Life” made it to No. 2.
• Critically praised old-school country singer-songwriter Tyler Childers, who was named emerging artist of the year at the Americana Music Awards and sold out two nights at First Avenue this month.
• The highly regarded country supergroup the Highwomen, featuring Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires.
But the oft-memed Eilish and Lizzo capture the zeitgeist of the late ’10s. While calling out body-shaming, they have become unexpected but welcomed models — the colorful-haired, baggy-dressed Eilish for Calvin Klein ads and Lizzo in over-the-top glam fashion spreads for Elle, Essence, Billboard and other magazines.
Both have hit No. 1 on the pop chart, Eilish — the first person born in this century to do so — with “Bad Guy,” and Lizzo with the much-memed “Truth Hurts,” a 2017 track that was rediscovered this year, partly via the Netflix film “Someone Great,” and added to the deluxe edition of her 2019 album “Cuz I Love You,” thus making it eligible for the Grammy for best record and song.
Even though both issued recordings previously, Eilish and Lizzo — who started her career in Minneapolis before moving to Los Angeles three years ago — are considered “new artists” because this is the first year in which they made an impact.
In August, Eilish took the trophy for top newcomer at MTV’s Video Music Awards, but Lizzo stole the night with her performances of “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell.”
As their momentum built this year, Lizzo and Eilish have earned massive audiences, widespread critical acclaim and celebrity admirers.
“Beings like her don’t enter our orbit often,” proclaimed Katy Perry on a photo taken with Eilish at Coachella. “I always gravitated toward music that sounds like freedom. And that’s what I get from your music,” Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong told Eilish in a face-to-face interview for the current issue of Rolling Stone.
“She is one of the most original artists I’ve seen in so long,” country-pop star Morris raved to the Star Tribune. A best-new-artist Grammy finalist in 2017, she saw Lizzo in concert in September at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the revered mother church of country music.
“It was the loudest I’ve ever heard that place. … I was so inspired as a fellow artist,” said Morris. “I love her candidness in interviews, and in songs, she’s so real.”
We love Eilish for the same reasons. Maybe she and Lizzo can pull off a Grammy first and share the award for best new artist.