The year of the newbie—plus Jay Z and Daft Punk
THIS YEAR’S list of Grammy nominees honors an impressive number of new artists. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and Kendrick Lamar, are contenders for Best New Artist and Album of the year; and the Record of the Year category includes three first-time nominees: Imagine Dragons and Lorde, as well as older timer Robin Thicke.
But the rich get richer as well—at least in terms of nominations. Jay Z has nine this year—even more than Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, or Daft Punk, all of whom were recognized several times over.
Here, Electronic Musician takes a look at the production of nominated projects in a handful of categories. Note that these aren’t necessarily our picks, and by the time this issue comes out, the votes will have already been counted. But all of these records are well worth a listen.
Thanks to Ken Micallef, Blair Jackson, and Mix magazine for contributing material for this feature.
Best Alternative Music Album
The meaning of the “Alternative” title is harder to pin down than other categories, but that’s the nature of the beast: What do Neko Case, The National, Nine Inch Nails, Tame Impala, and Vampire Weekend have in common? They all made strong, inventive albums that aren’t easily categorized.
Modern Vampires of the City
Sonically eclectic, quirky and adventurous, Modern Vampires was engineered and co-produced by bandmember Rostam Batmanglij with co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid, and recorded at Batmanglij’s Brooklyn loft, Slow Death Studios (Burbank), Downtown Studios (NYC), Echo Park “Back House” (L.A.), and Vox Recording (Hollywood).
Vampire Weekend Drum sounds are extra compelling on this album; many are effected and/ or distorted, but all started with a solid foundation: “Much of the overall sound and approach was being able to record the drums to tape on an old Ampex machine at Vox Recording Studios,” Batmanglij says. “That put us in a different world. There’s a quality that happens with tape; it lets you really crunch and compress the drums and they don’t get harsh or painful. It has to do with the transients hitting the tape; something changes. Once the drums have been passed through tape to Pro Tools, you can really mangle them and go crazy with them.”
Best Dance/ Electronica Album
Daft Punk’s Top Ten hit Random Access Memories is likely best known in a category that also includes Disclosure’s Settle, Calvin Harris’ 18 Months, Kaskade’s Atmosphere, and Pretty Lights’ A Color Map of the Sun.
A Color Map of the Sun
DJ Derek Vincent Smith wrote, manipulated, and arranged all of the songs for his latest Pretty Lights album—the first that doesn’t sample other artists. Smith says he did a lot of sampling in the past to capture the sonics/vibe of a particular period, like 1940s jazz vocals, ‘70s soul, or ‘90s rap. Working Pretty Lights with Joel Hamilton, co-owner of Studio G in Brooklyn, N.Y., Smith set out to create those various vibes from scratch this time.
“When I called Studio G and said I wanted to do it to tape, they had their 2-inch 24-track Studer tape machine ready to go,” Smith recalls. “I was like, ‘No, I must have miscommunicated. I want to use the [Otari MTR-15] quarter-inch stereo tape machine and run it on 7.5 ips so we’re really getting into emulating a garage recording studio in the ’60s in Detroit or Cleveland or some place like that.’”
Best R&B Album
This year’s R&B nominees include the Faith Evans-led album made on reality TV show R&B Divas, as well as smash releases from John Legend, Chrisette Michele, TGT, and Alicia Keys.
Girl on Fire
“I’d been playing this little motif on a guitar part in Logic and Alicia started singing to it,” producer Salaam Remi says about this album’s anthemic title track. “Jeff [Bhasker] was like, ‘I think a [Yamaha] CP70 might sound good playing those chords.’ So just at the beginning of the record, the sounds start on CP70. Then as we started getting into the song, toward the chorus, Alicia was like, ‘Now I want it to take off,’ so we started to get the chorus going where it was going.
“That’s when I thought of the Billy Squier ‘Big Beat’ [drum sound]. I thought, since she wanted to go up and loud with the hook, let’s put the “Big Beat” under there. And then Ann Mincieli, Alicia’s engineer, took that and put it through many different changes— plug-ins and amps and different stuff—to make it spread out like it was growing.”
Best Rock Album
Rock ‘n’ roll royalty like Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Neil Young make stars Kings of Leon and Queens of the Stone Age look like relative newcomers in this category.
Neil Young with Crazy Horse
Engineer/co-producer John Hanlon built a homey studio into a house on Young’s property, turning the master bedroom into his control room and wiring up comfortable spaces for the bandmembers to play. Pill comprises original songs fashioned from long, glorious, electric jams.
John Hanlon mixes Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill. The first track on the album, “Drifting Back,” for example, started as a 32-minute take. “That performance happened on a Saturday,” Hanlon recalls. “I got up early Sunday morning and called Neil and said, ‘I think you have something here,’ and went over and played it for him on a CD. We mapped all this stuff out in terms of structure—identifiable choruses and verses and B sections—while listening to these parts on a little blaster, sitting in the entranceway of his home, and marveled at what he had.” “Drifting Back” got edited down for the release, but only by about six minutes.
Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media
All of the nominated albums are inextricable from the films, yet different from each other, as the “western” music from Django Unchained goes up against the anthemic Les Miserables, R&B on Gatsby, pure soul of Muscle Shoals, and hard-rocking Sound City.
Dave Grohl & Various Artists
Sound City: Real to Reel
Individual songs were tracked with different guest stars, mainly live through the original Sound City Studios Neve console in Grohl’s personal facility (Studio 606) with producer Butch Vig and engineer James Brown.
The Sound CIty Sessions. “On ’If I Were Me’ [featuring Grohl, Jessy Greene, Rami Jaffee, Jim Keltner], we kept everyone situated really close together. If you listen closely you can hear Rami Jaffee’s fingers scraping across the Hammond keys during the re-intro. We added piano, a little dash of Omnichord, and a violin harmony. Then Jim Keltner went back in to do a shaker overdub that was so beautifully rendered that he reduced several of the grown men in the room, myself included, to tears. Dave’s lead vocal was recorded on the morning we mixed. He’d played in New York the night before at the Global Citizen/World Poverty Festival in Central Park, so his voice had this fantastic weary, blown-out quality that I love.”