TORONTO - A year ago at the Grammy Awards, mighty British songstress Adele simply steamrolled the competition, sweeping the show's three primary categories in a six-award haul that gave the annual L.A. bash an appropriately Hollywood ending: populist, satisfying and endlessly predictable.
But approaching this Sunday's 55th Grammy Awards bash, there's no generational smash on par with "21" to deep-six the Grammy hopes of the rest of the field.
In fact, it's shaping up to be much more similar to 2011's wide-open bash, which concluded with beloved Montreal indie-rock outfit Arcade Fire's shocking album of the year victory.
This year's leading nominees, with six apiece, are numerous and diverse: avant-R&B star-in-the-making Frank Ocean, blues-rock howler Dan Auerbach, pop-folk breakouts Mumford & Sons and decorated hip-hop royalty Jay-Z and Kanye West. The next three major contenders, with five nominations each, only muddy the picture: Prince-influenced R&B crooner Miguel, Ohio rockers the Black Keys and jazz pianist Chick Corea.
The eclectic nature of the night's leading contenders reflects a singles-driven year in which the pop charts were often lit not by stars, but by thousand-watt flashes of sublime pop delivered by artists only dimly known to the public: Gotye, fun., and, of course, Canadian Carly Rae Jepsen.
So after an elusive year in pop, there's no shortage of intriguing storylines heading into music's biggest night.
Mumford's the Word?:
If forced to name a presumptive favourite for the Grammys' marquee category, album of the year, most prognosticators are mumbling Mumford & Sons.
According to the award-season prediction aggregator Gold Derby, the British folk-rock outfit is favoured by the vast majority of analysts, with the Black Keys' "El Camino" riding shotgun as runner-up.
It's easy to see why. The band's sophomore album, "Babel," is broadly accessible to a range of ages (always an important factor given the Recording Academy's greying base) and sold briskly, opening at No. 1 en route to platinum sales in the U.S. (and double platinum here in Canada).
In fact, "Babel" outsold the rest of the field — only "El Camino" similarly reached platinum status, while the rest of the nominees (Jack White's solo debut "Blunderbuss," "Some Nights" by fun. and Ocean's "Channel Orange") moved significantly fewer units.
"I think (the award) will go to Mumford & Sons," said Cory Price, program director at Vancouver rock radio station, 99.3 The Fox. "That band is riding an incredible high right now.
"It's a band that everyone seems to like these days. They're crossing borders on every radio station. They're getting play on hot AC, rock and pop formats. It's undeniable."
Agreed MuchMusic VJ Lauren Toyota: "I think it's probably going to win, just based on the impression that that album made, the worldwide success that that band has had and that album has had moreso than the other contenders in the category."
And yet, neither Price nor Toyota would personally choose Mumford (Price prefers the Black Keys record, while Toyota counts Ocean's "Channel Orange" as her overall favourite record of last year, not just within the category), which reflects a potential problem for the would-be Brit invaders: a divided critical response.
Reviews for "Babel" were mixed, with some scribes taking potshots at what they perceived to be bland tunes and overwrought lyrics. It remains to be seen whether that will influence Recording Academy voters, although Taylor Swift's Grammy-crowned effort "Fearless" wasn't exactly a critical darling either.
For what it's worth, frontman Marcus Mumford says it's bizarre even to be considered a frontrunner — and he's certainly losing no sleep over his award prospects.
"It's definitely something we try to ignore as much as possible," said the 26-year-old in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"In terms of winning anything, honestly I can say we don't really care. Honestly. That's not just (B.S.). Truth is, music isn't a competition and we just don't really care. It's an honour to be there, we're excited about playing it — I'd rather play it than sit there like an idiot in the crowd....
"But it's just fun. It's silly. It's a circus. You know, it's a pantomime."
Well, it's easy to assemble an argument that the other acts in the running are almost as likely to win the big award under the big top.
It's easy to find some support for White (an obvious Grammy favourite with nine previous wins), the well-regarded Black Keys (two-time winners) and Ocean, the critically lauded newcomer. And the awkwardly punctuated fun. have their supporters too, even if the Nate Ruess-led pop outfit is more likely to bring home a Grammy for their audacious blast of theatrical bombast, "We Are Young," than the album from which it was culled.
"I think fun. really exploded last year," said Scott Morello, assistant program manager at Toronto hip hop and R&B station Flow 93.5.
"It's got such a great sound, and the singles are doing so well. I think it's kind of on top of everyone's mind."
A motion for Ocean?:
If these winners were determined by critics, Ocean would be certain to make waves at his first Grammys.
As it stands, the innovative crooner shouldn't be discounted. He, again, has a leading six nominations. He stands out amid his more rock-oriented competitors for album of the year. He has an engaging personal story, having broken down barriers in urban music by publicly sharing the details of a romantic relationship he had with a man.
And, most importantly, his sprawling, incandescent "Channel Orange" was hailed upon its release for navigating a bold new direction in R&B, with his soulful singing, keenly insightful lyrics and varied but often stark production cohering into something thrillingly unique and new.
Still, few view Ocean as a real contender for album of the year.
"I don't think that's going to be his category," Morello said.
Morello does, however, foresee Ocean taking the best new artist category, where he's up against fun., the Lumineers, Hunter Hayes and Alabama Shakes, while most also view the 25-year-old as a shoo-in for best urban contemporary R&B album.
Best new artist would certainly be a coup for Ocean. Although Morello points out that so-called "urban" artists have been disappointed in the category several times in the recent past — Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Drake and 50 Cent were all passed over in recent years — Ocean is a singer, not a rapper, and could be encouraged by recent wins from Alicia Keys (2002) and John Legend (2006).
Still, it's a category that has surprised on more than a few recent occasions (Esperanza Spalding triumphed over better-known competitors Drake, Justin Bieber and Mumford & Sons in 2011, while the Zac Brown Band failed to become a household name after winning in '10), so some observers are still skittish about handicapping the category.
"The best new artist category is so funny for me because every year ... they've been picking the most obscure person," Toyota said with a laugh.
"Maybe (Ocean) will get it, but I wouldn't bet on it.... I feel like they're going to pick Alabama Shakes."
Drake — thank me ever?:
The 26-year-old Toronto rapper could be described as a Grammy darling, having racked up 12 nominations over his career. Except that he's yet to actually win one.
His moody, melancholy sophomore opus "Take Care" earned the former "Degrassi" star three nominations this year, for best rap song, rap album and rap performance, making him the top Canadian contender among a group that also includes double nominees Carly Rae Jepsen and Tamia as well as Michael Buble, Melanie Fiona and Tegan and Sara.
Despite the plaudits, some were surprised that Drake's disc — approaching double-platinum status in the U.S. and already past that mark in his native Canada — was shut out of the Grammys' triumvirate of major categories: album, song and record of the year.
"Drake could be right up there with (the album of the year nominees)," Morello said. "It was a huge album, hugely successful.... Drake's Drake, he's amazing, he's just never won. I wish I could figure that out. He's had so much success but it doesn't translate in the Grammy world into winning the awards."
Toyota says it's "crazy" that Drake has never won, but points to the fact that while he regularly tops the hip hop and R&B charts, he's never reached the same pinnacle on the pop chart (his first single, the swooning "Best I Ever Had," ascended the highest, reaching No. 2 Stateside).
Morello, meanwhile, points out a curious fact. In eight of the nine categories in which Drake's been nominated, the eventual winner was one of three hip-hop titans: Jay-Z, West or Eminem.
He'll compete against Jay-Z and West again this year in two of his categories, but best rap album — where he's up against Nas, Lupe Fiasco, the Roots, 2 Chainz and Rick Ross — could represent his best chance at his first Grammy.
If not, there's a bright side: it would just give the talented rapper more to be moody and melancholy about.
The Grammy Awards air Sunday on Global.