2023 was a massive year for music. From big-hitter releases to highly-anticipated returns, the nominations for Record of the Year (ROTY) at this year’s GRAMMYs ceremony are diverse. Below is a quick guide on the nominees in advance of music’s biggest night, which will take place February 4.
“Anti-Hero” (Taylor Swift)
A prime sample from her pop-forward album Midnights, “Anti-Hero” marks another successful evolution in Swift’s era-spanning career. Unlike some previous releases from Swift which pack a punch early, the power in this track lies in its simple production. A continual shuffle beat provides the foundation for Swift’s wave-length voice to take charge of the melody. Despite the soft echoing harmonies, Swift’s lower register takes the spotlight on this track. The slowed, reverberated synth of the bridge makes way for Swift’s singing voice to dissolve into her speaking voice. The mood is almost cynical, yet listeners will fight to keep from bobbing their heads.
“Flowers” (Miley Cyrus)
Most fans know Cyrus as a dynamic, powerhouse vocalist whose abilities are tested repeatedly throughout her songs. “Flowers” takes a different approach. While the vocal performance is relatively more subdued, the 70s inspired track takes on a silky, mature sound. Sharing a positive message on individual empowerment and self-acceptance, the ironically assertive performance from Cyrus is enough to instill a level of confidence in the listener on its own. The complementary bass and percussion driving the chorus certainly aids in this attempt.
“Kill Bill” (SZA)
While SZA was already a well-established artist prior to the release of her most recent album SOS, “Kill Bill” was the song responsible for skyrocketing her to mass acclaim. The alternative R&B track finds SZA guiding listeners through her most unhinged plans for getting back at an ex. It is a textbook example of how to use musical elements to elevate the central theme of the song. The underlying synth rhythms in the verses are eerie and dissonant, mirroring what might be expected from a manic state of mind. The catchy chorus deserves mention as a mode for listeners to live vicariously through SZA’s thoughts.
“Not Strong Enough” (boygenius)
There is something so refreshing about seeing an all-female group secure a spot on a nomination list for ROTY. Boygenius, the supergroup featuring Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Julian Taylor, and Lucy Dacus, is a force to be reckoned with. “Not Strong Enough” is an excellent example of their talents. The song’s front half is unsuspecting — a classic indie guitar riff accompanies the comforting harmonies of the group members. It is not until the bridge that the track fully opens up. The band launches into an ascending chant: “Always an angel, never a God.” The festival-ready finale radiates the power to bring listeners together. What better gift can a song give?
“On My Mama” (Victoria Monét)
“On My Mama” isn’t just a quick pick-me-up. The song has listeners get down in order to get back up! It only takes a few bars into the track’s introduction to capture the listener’s attention. The quick, repeated guitar riff heard is vaguely reminiscent of the sound made by a flip-book. As the song progresses, Monét’s signature delivery is punctuated by a horn section which covers the track in a light dusting of nostalgia. Interestingly, the song’s chorus directly samples the 2009 R&B track “I Look Good” by Charlie Boy. Monét’s interpretation makes the former song’s lyrics sound like a mantra over the hard-hitting drum track: “I look fly, I look too good.” The intertwining of the song’s production and theme meld effortlessly in a full-out confidence booster.
“Vampire” (Olivia Rodrigo)
Rodrigo hits the nail on the head with her take on the ever-expanding subgenre of piano-ballad turned rager. Sometimes songs which fit this description fall into the trap of sounding like two different songs forced together. Expertly-placed building blocks throughout “Vampire” bring a sense of unity to the song. Consider the fuzzy synthesizer in the chorus, or call-and-response harmonies in the second verse. It is the entry into the bridge that truly sends the song into orbit: a repeated percussion track serves as a makeshift countdown as Rodrigo convinces listeners her previous partner may actually have been part supernatural.
“What Was I Made For? [From The Motion Picture ‘Barbie’]” (Billie Eilish)
It might seem unusual that a song from a soundtrack be nominated for ROTY. Yet, with the massive success of “What Was I Made For” and the accompanying film last year, it would be wrong to leave such a song off the nomination list. Moreover, Eilish seems to have broken the mold for a summer soundtrack — since when were they melancholy piano-ballads? Eilish’s breathy vocals are as much an instrument on this track as they are a mode of communication. It’s an impressive walk along the line of audible sound and silence. Listen to the reflection in the lyrics too closely and you might just feel a heartstring tear.
“Worship” (Jon Batiste)
“Worship” sounds more like a call for celebration than a religious command. The minute-long introduction features a layer of progressively stronger synths. These ascending chords constitute the melody before the drop, a signature feature of dance music. What follows is a rhythmic explosion with nodes of samba, trap, and tribal. Soaring above the incessant rhythm is a call and response between a choir and Batiste. Together, they encourage listeners to consider those around them who shape their lives. The genre-bending nature of the song is impressive and seriously worthy for consideration.
Who Should Win:
In my 2023 ROTY predictions, I suggested that the ROTY should be “a song that captures the attention of listeners beyond an artist’s typical audience.” One of the most compelling ways to achieve this quality is for the artist to create a musical soundscape that pushes boundaries of current popular music. Based upon this criteria, “Kill Bill” should be a front-runner for the category, with honourable mention to “Worship.”
Who Will Win:
An entirely separate article could be written regarding the flaws behind streaming numbers. However, these statistics are good general indicators for assessing the amount of influence held by a particular song. Many records were set in the previous year across the list of ROTY nominees. One record in particular stands out. In May 2023, “Flowers” became the fastest song to reach one billion streams in Spotify history. It was also the most streamed track on the platform in 2023. The song would not have reached such heights if it did not wholly resonate with listeners. This is an essential feature of ROTY.
It should be noted that “Anti-Hero” achieved it’s own share of streaming achievements this year. However, this track is a stronger contender for Song of the Year, which is specifically awarded based on songwriting credits.