Album of the year is an award that sounds as if it should go to something special, exceptional and timeless. Sometimes, the Grammy Awards hit that mark: The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1968, Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” in 1977, U2’s “The Joshua Tree” in 1988.
Sometimes, not so much: “The Bodyguard” soundtrack in 1994; Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature” in 2001.
If the Grammys want to make that significant, exceptional choice Sunday night, they can go with the most obvious nominee, Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” or the least, Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.”
The other nominees — Adele’s “25,” Justin Bieber’s “Purpose,” Drake’s “Views” — are arguably worthy nominees. But Beyoncé’s and Simpson’s entries are the ones that rise to the level of fully realized projects; statements that are simultaneously personal and universal.
At first blush, Simpson and Beyoncé seem like polar opposites. Beyoncé, 35, is arguably the reigning Queen of Pop, an artist with a substantial catalog and towering influence. Simpson, 38, a native Kentuckian who was playing Lexington bars just a few years ago, isn’t even a star in his designated genre of country music, and “Sailor’s Guide” is his third solo album.
The albums are vastly different projects. “Lemonade” was made with myriad producers and collaborators and is accompanied by an elaborate visual album: videos connected by a narrative through line. “Sailor’s Guide” is a much more traditional effort, self-produced by Simpson, a concise two-sided studio recording. There are some cool videos for “Sailor’s Guide” but no video album, and Simpson’s support tour hit theaters, whereas Beyoncé toured “Lemonade” to stadiums, including Houston’s NRG Stadium, where the Super Bowl was played last weekend.
But listen to these records — the one thing Simpson has on Beyoncé is that “Sailor’s Guide” is available on vinyl — and you’ll find out how much they have in common.
There is obviously the personal narrative. Simpson created “Sailor’s Guide” as an open letter to his now-2-year-old son. Its nine songs are a mix of affection (“Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”), regret (“Breakers Roar” and “Oh Sarah”), advice (“Keep it Between the Lines”) and one of the most interesting takes on teen angst, a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” With that tune dialing back from Kurt Cobain’s bluster, the lyrics about a young man who’s dealing with everything coming at him are laid plain.
Having a son who is a senior in high school might make me a bit more susceptible to Simpson’s narrative from someone who feels pulled to be a role model but also feels quite human, and sometimes helpless. The furious album-closing song “Call to Arms,” which Simpson delivered in an epic performance on “Saturday Night Live,” is cathartic reaction to global events that seems more relevant by the day, and I might take the final line, which I cannot share in the paper, as a mantra for 2017.
There also are lines that make me think of “Lemonade.” The lovely “Oh Sarah” in ways feels like a male answer, an apology to the torrent of fury and strength on Beyoncé’s album about infidelity and redemption ... and a lot of other things.
Bey, half of what many people refer to as “America’s Royal Couple” with Jay Z, caused quite a buzz with an album expressing visceral anger at an unfaithful man, with many people wondering how personal that is. For those of us who don’t have TMZ bookmarked, the album is no less gripping with moments of rage (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), defiance (“Sorry”), pain (“Sandcastles”) and, in what might be an unanticipated turn, reconciliation (“All Night”). There is also that sense of gravity, humanity, like Simpson’s effort. “Sandcastles” lays the brokenness of the relationship out there — “Every promise, don’t work out that way” — Bey letting her voice veer off into the gravel in some instances. And there’s even that rage at the world in “Formation.”
Both of these albums recognize that these are troubled times.
One of the most intriguing parallels is between Bey’s “Daddy Lessons” and Simpson’s “Keep it Between the Lines.” Coming from different ends of the parent-child spectrum, “Daddy Lessons” reflects on a father who warned his girl to watch out for men like himself, whereas “Lines” finds a man who has made plenty of mistakes telling his son, “Do as I say, Don’t do as I’ve done, It don’t have to be, Like a father, like a son.” There is a lot of humanity in these records.
There’s also a lot of stylistic diversity.
For an artist lauded for helping bring back traditional country, Simpson takes confident turns into soul, R&B and various iterations that feel organic but by no means consistently country. Beyoncé has offended rock fans by ending up in the best rock performance race with “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a collaboration with Jack White. Does it look weird on paper? Yes. But listen to the song and then try to make a case that it isn’t a blistering rock song. It includes a Led Zeppelin sample and Bey channeling Jimi Hendrix’s vocal style at one point. And we aren’t even going to talk about people who think “Daddy Lessons” didn’t belong at the Country Music Association Awards. Check it for yourself.
Those efforts are just indications of the musical adventure Beyoncé takes on “Lemonade,” another being the bluesy anthem “Freedom,” and then, for a woman so identified with big-city style, a reclamation of Southern roots in “Formation” — “Earned all this money, but they never take the country out me” — kind of reminding us cross-genre listeners that as different as Simpson and Beyoncé seem now, their roots probably aren’t so far apart. So it shouldn’t be surprising that in their mid- to late 30s, they created albums so similar in spirit.
The raging entertainment media debate is the diva tug-of-war between Adele and Beyoncé. And “25” is a fine album, although frankly, “21,” the 2012 album of the year, endures as Adele’s masterpiece.
Beyoncé will in all likelihood raise the trophy on Sunday night. But hopefully for Simpson, this nomination has tuned a lot of people into his equally worthy effort.
“59th Annual Grammy Awards” airs at 8 p.m. Feb. 12 on CBS. Grammy.com