The biggest shock of this year's Grammy nominations was that Justin Timberlake wasn't nominated for Album, Record, or Song of the Year. It's not just that "The 20/20 Experience" is the year's best-selling album, but that Timberlake is well-liked by such a broad coalition of fans. He fared well this year at such varied award shows as MTV's Video Music Awards and the BET Awards.
The second biggest surprise is that Sara Bareilles's "The Blessed Unrest" was nominated for Album of the Year. The album has sold just 214K copies (about one-11th of Timberlake's total) and didn't show up on many lists of the year's best albums.
You can give the credit (or blame, depending on how you see it) to the committee of Grammy insiders that selects the final nominees in the top four categories (the three categories named above plus Best New Artist). The rank-and-file membership of the Recording Academy selects the nominees in most of the other categories, but since 1995, a panel has second-guessed the voters in the Big Four categories.
The panel was put in place after many critics and music industry figures criticized the 1994 nominations as being out-of-touch. The panel system was also instituted to give rap, rock, and alternative artists a better chance at a nomination and to keep a check on the voters' tendency to shower nominations on favorite artists year-in and year-out.
This year, rank-and-file voters put Timberlake's album in the finals for Best Pop Vocal Album, while bypassing Bareilles's album (which was also entered in that category). "The Blessed Unrest" is the first album that wasn't even nominated in its "home" category to receive an Album of the Year nomination since Paul Simon's 2000 release, "You're the One."
The Recording Academy never releases vote totals, but I have to believe that Timberlake's album was in the top five among rank-and-file voters' choices for Album of the Year (and that Bareilles's album wasn't). Why would the panel have made the switch? They may have decided that Bareilles could use the enormous boost that a Grammy nomination in a marquee category provides — and that Timberlake hardly needed it. This same impulse was probably the reason the panel gave Joan Osborne's 1995 debut album "Relish" an Album of the Year nomination. It, too, had been passed over by rank-and-file voters in its "home" category — Best Rock Album.
In pushing Bareilles forward, the panel may also have been looking for gender balance. Taylor Swift is the only other female artist in this year's Album of the Year finals.
It's also possible that the lackluster sequel to "The 20/20 Experience" dampened enthusiasm for Timberlake's project right at the time that the panel was casting its votes.
This year's nominations have sparked controversy in the music industry. There is even grumbling that the panel is out-of-touch (which echoes the criticisms that led to the panel's formation in the first place).
As a long-time Grammy analyst and prognosticator, I think the Recording Academy should re-examine whether it still needs to have a panel review the members' choices. In the nearly two decades that the panel has been in place, the Academy has made strides to recruit more a younger and more diverse membership. Maybe the Academy can dispense with the panel and return to letting rank-and-file members make the final selections. (What a radical idea!)
If the panel must be retained, its power, which appears to be almost limitless, should be curtailed. Maybe it should have the ability to add one or two finalists to the lists of nominees, but not to take away from what the voters have decided. (This would expand the lists of nominees in these categories to six or seven.) Or, if five is deemed to be the magic number, the panel would have to accept the voters' top three picks, but could make its own choices to fill out the final two slots. (I imagine this year Timberlake was in the voters' top three, and probably #1, so he would have made it under this rule tweak.)
Neil Portnow, President and CEO of the Recording Academy, didn't respond to requests for comment by press time. When he does, I'll follow up with the Academy's perspective.