Grammys Best Alternative Album Category Steps Up With Female Contenders St. Vincent, Halsey, Arlo Parks

In 1991, the inaugural Grammy award for alternative music album went to Sinéad O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got.” But it would be 24 more years before the next solo female artist, St. Vincent, took home the prize — a situation emblematic of a wider gender imbalance that the Recording Academy has been actively working to correct in recent years. However, the nominees for the 64th annual Grammy Awards, taking place on Jan. 31, 2022, suggest that some progress has been made.

Three of the five nominees for alternative music album are solo female artists. St. Vincent is in the mix again, along with first-time nominees Halsey and Arlo Parks. Factoring in indie-rock band Japanese Breakfast, fronted by “Crying in H Mart” author Michelle Zauner, Fleet Foxes are the lone male-led act in the category. The female nominees are also encouragingly diverse, both when it comes to race and their approach to the deceptively vast horizons of alt-music.

St. Vincent, at 39, is the veteran of the field. She reunites with “Masseduction” collaborator Jack Antonoff for the sprawling lounge-pop of “Daddy’s Home,” a project using ’70s tropes to explore personal themes.

Halsey, 27, made an album that was heavily influenced by her pregnancy but took off in some very un-maternal directions. With its exploration of industrial sounds, courtesy of co-producers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the album represents a sonic rebirth for the hitmaker.

At the other end of the experience spectrum is 21-year-old newcomer Arlo Parks, who introduces herself with the diaristic bedroom-pop of “Collapsed in Sunbeams.” An introspective rumination on topics such as mental health, trauma and identity, the 12-song set won the 2021 Mercury Prize for British album. The emotional heft of Parks’ debut is counterbalanced by the exuberant guitar-pop of Japanese Breakfast’s “Jubilee.” After Zauner recorded two relatively downcast albums focused on the death of her mother — who is also the subject of the bestselling “Crying in H Mart” — the 32-year-old intentionally brought a more upbeat tone to her music with “Jubilee.”

While alternative music album shows signs of a gender course correction, the historical domination of male artists cannot be downplayed. After all, the category is yet to honor alt-music icons like Björk (eight nominations, no wins), Tori Amos (five noms, no wins) and PJ Harvey (four nominations, no  wins). Fiona Apple, another beloved alt-heavyweight, only broke through in 2021 with “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” after two previous nominations. Arguably only rock and rap albums have more skewered winners’ lists.

The importance of Grammy recognition to an artist is articulated by the nominees’ reactions on social media. Parks shared a powerful open letter to fans after learning of her two nominations.

“I have no words for this feeling,” she wrote. “This white hot, gushing feeling of joy and confusion.”

The British singer-songwriter, who is of Nigerian, Chadian and French heritage, then celebrated her underdog status. “I’m 21 years old, I’m an independent artist and WE ARE GOING TO THE GRAMMYS.”

With only a couple of nominations to show for her commercially and critically successful discography, Halsey has been an outspoken critic of the Recording Academy in the past, alluding to “handshakes” and “bribes” on social media. She expressed her surprise at being nominated for the 64th annual Grammy Awards on Twitter.

“Really wasn’t expecting that!” she tweeted. “It was an honor to work with some of my heroes, Trent and Atticus, and I am so proud of this album.” Their biggest takeaway: “Here’s to taking risks.”

As for Japanese Breakfast’s Zauner, there was complete euphoria. She recorded herself watching the nominations and jumped for joy when “Jubilee” was read out by K-pop titans BTS.

“It’s BTS reading it!” she screamed. “Oh my fucking God!” (St. Vincent has yet to publicly comment on her nomination.)

With the odds stacked in favor of diverse, boundaries-pushing female artists, alternative music album might be one of the categories that gets it right in 2022.

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