Who Are the Best Musical Artists of the Past Year? What Are the Best Songs?

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Who Are the Best Musical Artists of the Past Year? What Are the Best Songs?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Did you watch the Grammy Awards on Sunday? If not, you can see highlights from the show here. Were any of your favorite artists nominated? Did any of them win? When you consider the list of winners — such as Megan Thee Stallion, Harry Styles, Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Beyoncé — do you think their wins represent the best music of the past year?

Do you think the big night of wins for women artists is a step forward for the award show? Or do you think the Grammys are still mired in the past and out of touch?

In “Grammys 2021: Women Sweep Awards Shaped by Pandemic and Protest,” Ben Sisario writes:

The 63rd annual Grammy Awards combined splendor, star power and pandemic-era versatility on Sunday night to celebrate the music that emerged in a deeply challenging year, highlighting the Black Lives Matter protests and — after years of pointed criticism for past slights — the role of women in pop music.

With touring artists grounded and fans stuck at home, and the music industry pulling in billions of dollars from streaming yet criticized by artists over pay, the music world has been upended for the last year.

But the producers of the show promised a night of respect and togetherness, with a novel outdoor setting in downtown Los Angeles in which musicians faced each other while performing — and then gathered, masked and socially distant, to politely applaud each other’s acceptance speeches.

Women won all the night’s major awards. Megan Thee Stallion, the sparkplug Houston rapper who described her young ambition as to become “the rap Beyoncé,” took best new artist, and her song “Savage” — which featured Beyoncé as a guest — won for best rap performance and for best rap song.

“It’s been a hell of a year, but we made it,” Megan Thee Stallion said when accepting best new artist, while downtown traffic roared.

Billie Eilish, the 19-year-old who swept the awards last year, took record of the year for “Everything I Wanted,” and told Megan Thee Stallion: “You deserve this.”

Taylor Swift won album of the year for “Folklore,” which she made entirely in quarantine. It was her third time winning that coveted prize. (She lost each of the five other awards she was nominated for this year.)

Beyoncé, the pop deity whose every move is hyper-analyzed online, won four awards, bringing her lifetime total to 28 Grammys — more than any other woman, and equaling the total for the super-producer Quincy Jones.

Accepting the award for best R&B performance for her song “Black Parade,” which was released just as protests were breaking out last summer, Beyoncé said: “As an artist I believe it’s my job, and all of our jobs, to reflect the times, and it’s been such a difficult time.”

Jon Caramanica critically assessed the night of awards in “The Grammys Discover Youth”:

The annual postgame bemoaning of the Grammys rarely fails to disappoint. Between its consistently fraught relationship with Black artists, its weighing down of the young with the old, and its stoic resistance to the ways in which pop music is evolving, the ceremony has become as powerful for its symbolic out-of-touchness as for its commemorations.

So it would be easy to look at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards, which aired Sunday night from Los Angeles, and underscore what was broken. Beyoncé won four trophies, giving her a total of 28 for her career, the most of any vocalist, tying her for second-most of all time. But these wins, like almost all of them, came in genre categories, not in the biggest, all-genre categories, despite her undeniable influence across the whole spectrum of pop. After sweeping the big four categories last year, Billie Eilish won record of the year for “Everything I Wanted” — a safe choice — and spent her speech repenting by uncomfortably fawning over Megan Thee Stallion.

In most years, those would have been the defining moments — well-intentioned acts gone awry. And yet. The Grammys this year were frisky, energetic, largely well-paced and sometimes surprising. They often met popular music where it actually has been over the past year, with performances by central stars of pop, hip-hop, rock and country. Women dominated all the major categories — in addition to Eilish’s victory, Taylor Swift won album of the year for “Folklore,” H.E.R. won song of the year for “I Can’t Breathe” and Megan Thee Stallion won best new artist.

But the most crucial aspect of the show was this: Almost all of the performers were under 40, and plenty were under 30. This may seem like an obvious move, but at the Grammys, youth and current relevance have often been treated as inconveniences to be navigated deftly, lest older generations — of artists and, presumably, viewers — feel left out. (This year, given the coronavirus pandemic, there was also likely an impetus to keep elders as far from harm’s way as possible.)

Most vividly, that meant several largely unvarnished performances by hip-hop stars, still a shock on the Grammys stage despite the genre’s role at the center of pop evolution for decades. Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B paired for a clever and buoyantly sexual performance of “WAP” that was more erotically direct than any Grammys moment in memory. (Think Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, and then some.) Lil Baby’s protest anthem “The Bigger Picture” was rendered as full social justice theater, with a building in flames, a square-off between protesters and shield-bearing police officers, and spoken-word calls for policy improvements.

Students, read one or both of the articles in their entirety, then tell us:

  • What is your reaction to this year’s Grammy Awards show and the big night of wins for women artists? What were the biggest thrills, surprises or disappointments on the night? Did you care who won, or lost?

  • Who were your favorite musical artists of the past year? What were your favorite songs, albums and music videos? Did any win Grammys or earn nominations this year? What songs have especially helped you get through the pandemic?

  • Do you think the Grammy Awards represent the best in music today? How well do they reflect the music you and your peers listen to? What albums, songs or artists were missing from the nominations or winners? Do award shows like the Grammys matter?

  • “Youth and current relevance have often been treated as inconveniences,” writes Mr. Caramanica. Does the inclusion of younger performers hold any special meaning or relevance for you? Do you feel that the Grammys is finally learning to value the interests and tastes of younger music fans?

  • Mr. Caramanica writes in his conclusion to his critical assessment of the evening: “The Grammys remain, at heart, a balancing act — a big tent that aims to satisfy everyone, fully pleasing no one.” Do you agree? If you were asked by the Grammys to help produce next year’s award show, what recommendations would you offer to improve it and why?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.