Meet This Year’s Song Of The Year Nominees | 2022 GRAMMYs Awards Show
What were the songs that defined your 2021, a year where the world tentatively felt its way back to normalcy? Were they Olivia Rodrigo's bedroom-floor ruminations? Billie Eilish's hushed revelations? Lil Nas X's colorful odes to LGBTQ+ romance? Silk Sonic's gilded funk-soul throwbacks?
Well, all those artists are up for Song Of The Year at the 2022 GRAMMYs Awards show — as are Ed Sheeran ("Bad Habits"), Alicia Keys feat. Brandi Carlile ("A Beautiful Noise"), Olivia Rodrigo ("drivers license"), H.E.R. ("Fight for You"), Billie Eilish ("Happier Than Ever"), Doja Cat feat. SZA ("Kiss Me More"), Silk Sonic ("Leave The Door Open"), Lil Nas X ("MONTERO [Call Me By Your Name]"), Justin Bieber feat. Daniel Caesar and Giveon ("Peaches") and Brandi Carlile ("Right On Time").
While the 2022 GRAMMYs Awards show will offer all the esteemed categories viewers have come to expect, there's truly no category like Song Of The Year. It's a testament to artists who have mastered how to pack personality, punch and poetry into just a few minutes.
These are artists who best leveraged their outlets to shepherd us through uncertain times, find joy in the small things and weave the sounds, rhythms and melodies that drive our days and nights. Ahead of the ceremony on Jan. 31, 2022, here are the nominees for Song Of The Year.
"Bad Habits" — Ed Sheeran
Don't let the title of "Bad Habits" — or Sheeran's Dracula-fanged visage in its video — tell you otherwise. The four-time GRAMMY winner's slinky lead single from his new album, =, is a guilt-free pleasure.
And the tune's sheer pop patina belies a surprising fact: Sheeran didn't initially hear "Bad Habits" as the single.
"My single was scheduled to come out in June, and I was like, 'I don't know if the world needs a depressing sad, slow acoustic song when it's all opening up,'" he told James Corden on The Late Late Show in 2021. "So, I was in the studio and we created this song and it's just fun, I think."
That's an understatement when it comes to its firepower — "Bad Habits" is a sly, hooky delight.
"A Beautiful Noise" — Alicia Keys feat. Brandi Carlile
There's no lever of democracy like the power to vote — so why do roughly half of those eligible in America choose not to do so?
The answer is complicated and manifold, but that didn't stop Keys and Carlile — plus a consortium of other powerful female songwriters, from Brandy Clark to Lori McKenna to Linda Perry — from doing something about it ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Together, they concocted the impactful "A Beautiful Noise," a gentle-yet-firm song of urging to get regular folks to use their oft-neglected democratic powers.
Sure, one person's vote might be a drop in the ocean, Keys acknowledges in the song. But together, the electorate is like an unstoppable deluge.
"When you're all alone, it's a quiet breeze," she sings. "But when you band together, it's a choir of thunder and rain."
"drivers license" — Olivia Rodrigo
The lovelorn ballad that leveled the internet proved to only be the beginning for Rodrigo. Her 2021 album Sour uses it as a diving-board into a multitude of styles.
Still, it arguably remains her signature song. Why? Because it's possible no other songwriter has captured this very specific locus on the map of heartache.
"drivers license" is about spending your entire relationship ideating the point where you can drive to your beau's pad — only for him to move on right at the moment of truth.
The gut punch? "Guess you didn't mean what you wrote in that song about me," Rodrigo sings in the chorus. "'Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street."
"Fight For You" — H.E.R.
If the global racial reckoning in 2020 was like the cauterization of a wound, H.E.R.'s "Fight for You" is like those first spasms of pain — good, necessary, authentic pain.
From Gabi Wilson's first, wordless aria to the spectral chorale that carries it to the end, the song feels like a Pandora's box of psychological nightmares, finally exorcised into the ether.
"Their guns don't play fair/All we got is a prayer," she sings over a rhythm-and-blues backing that wouldn't sound out of place on a Marvin Gaye or Donny Hathaway record. "It was all in their plans/Wash the blood from your hands."
Musically, it shows Silk Sonic weren't the only vanguards for horn-fueled soul in 2021: H.E.R.'s contribution to Judas and the Black Messiah feels like a throwback in the most vivid, meaningful way.
"Happier Than Ever" — Billie Eilish
Let's set lyrics aside for a second and talk about pure sound: is there another pop phenom doing more with less than Eilish?
The title track to 2021's Happier Than Ever is little more than guitar, voice and some subtle, spacey ambience from her brother and co-conspirator FINNEAS.
As for the words themselves, they're economical and beautiful: "When I'm away from you/ I'm happier than ever," she croons in the chorus. "Wish I could explain it better/ I wish it wasn't true."
But then, the production tilts from dreamland into realism, and the words shift with the vibe: the object of her heartache is careening drunk while behind the wheel. Eilish, too, swerves from philosophical to flat-out vindictive. And as the song explodes into punishingly noisy and bitcrushed dimensions worthy of a Microphones track, it all crescendos with five words: "Just f***ing leave me alone!"
"Kiss Me More" — Doja Cat feat. SZA
Put yourself in this character's shoes. A fetching spaceman — played by Grey's Anatomy actor Alex Landi — winds up in a far-flung galaxy populated by (you guessed it) Doja Cat and SZA.
Just as things get steamy, it's revealed that he's unconscious in a tube of liquid, his consciousness plugged into a video-game netherworld. In other words, he's a plaything.
Such is the girl-power message of the duo's "Kiss Me More," where sex and love and flirtation are on their own terms. But the sentiment wouldn't mean much without a high-thread-count pop song to match, and every second of the hooky track delivers.
"I feel like me and SZA are similar in the way that we both grew up with spiritual backgrounds, but she was perfect for this song," Doja — who grew up in Alice Coltrane's ashram — told Capital XTRA Breakfast at the time. "She was in my heart when I wrote this."
"Leave the Door Open" — Silk Sonic
Take it from a writer who combs through hundreds of hyperbolic pitches about the Next Big Thing per day — it's nice to finally get some truth in advertising.
"We're making music to make women feel good and make people dance, and that's it," Anderson .Paak, who is one half of the R&B/soul duo Silk Sonic with Bruno Mars, recently told Rolling Stone. "It's not gonna make people sad."
This frank evaluation of what Silk Sonic does may not seem particularly deep at first blush, but this simplicity is a feature, not a bug.
On a musical level, Mars and .Paak are making far more than feel-good party music. Even YouTube music dissector Rick Beato was blown away by the sophisticated, jazzy chords they brought back to the airwaves decades after AOR classics like Steely Dan's Aja.
Silk Sonic finally dropped their debut full-length, An Evening With Silk Sonic, after months of living with the funky, soulful, glittery highlight "Leave the Door Open."
Even with all these other tunes to enjoy, it remains the gravitational center of the release — and a reminder that Beato-friendly music is hurtling back into the zeitgeist.
"MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)" — Lil Nas X
On 2019’s smash "Old Town Road," we met Lil Nas X: a TikTok star with a boy-next-door grin even as he participated in a subversive, age-old cultural fusion of Black and white culture.
But in 2021, with the hat and spurs and Billy Ray Cyrus in the rearview, we met Montero.
That's the real name of the born Montero Lamar Hill, and the name of his long-awaited debut album. And on the titular single "MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)," his Blackness and gayness — and musical intrepidity — are on fearless display.
"I feel like we've come to a time in music where everything is nice and nothing is really cutting-edge or starting conversations any more," Lil Nas X recently told Time about its delightfully racy video. "I want to be part of a conversation that actually applies to my situation and so many people that I know."
"MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)" hasn't just started a conversation — it set the course for the rest of this American original's career.
"Peaches" — Justin Bieber feat. Daniel Caesar & Giveon
Fifty-five years after the Beach Boys wished that females the nation round could be "California Girls," Bieber sang in no uncertain terms about what the various regions of the USA could do for him.
"I got my peaches out in Georgia/ I get my weed from California," he sings in "Peaches," his single from 2021's Justice. "I took my chick up to the North/ I get my light right from the source."
It's pretty obvious that Biebs is paying tribute to his wife, Hailey — and his collaborators also shout out long-lasting, long-suffering relationships.
While Daniel Caesar proclaims "There's no time, I wanna make more time / And give you my whole life," Giveon croons, "Your kisses taste the sweetest with mine/ And I'll be right here with you 'til the end of time."
For anyone ready and willing to settle down with one's main squeeze, that's a sentiment one can vibe with.
"Right On Time" — Brandi Carlile
As a member of the Highwomen amid a contemporary wave of confessional, thoughtful Americana singer/songwriters (see also: Margo Price, Jason Isbell, Julien Baker, et al) Carlile knows her way around a lyric that acts as a knife-twist.
"Right on Time," the crestfallen lead-off track from her 2021 album In These Silent Days, is full of them. "I never held my breath for quite this long," she sings near the end. "And I don't take it back / I did what I had to do."
To hear Carlile tell it, she wrote "Right on Time" to attempt to best her last signature song, "The Joke" (which also received a SOTY nod in 2018). "It was a once-in-a-lifetime song," she told Spin in 2021. "I wanted to hit that mark of drama again." And when this tune came spilling from her pen?
"[I] felt like the pressure was off in terms of getting my heart to come out of my mouth," she recalled. And she need not worry whether she measured up to her last zenith: "Right on Time" is a classy, timeless triumph.