We know. You want to be the smartest guy in the office when someone brings up the GRAMMYs, but getting up to speed on pop, rock, dance, hip-hop, R&B and country takes valuable time you don’t have. We got you. With the awards show less than two weeks away, we’ve put together the 25 songs you need to hear to get ready for the big night. Check out the video above to see our friendly hosts give the basics for each track. Want the details? Keep reading to become an instant expert.
And check out our GRAMMY Essentials Playlist on Spotify, featuring all 25 highlighted songs for your listening enjoyment!
“All of the Lights” "Jesus Walks” came close, but no song captures ‘Ye’s zeppelin-sized ego like this uber-decadent single from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He enlisted 14 guest vocalists, including Elton John, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, John Legend, The-Dream, Elly Jackson (aka La Roux), Fergie and Kid Cudi, plus an army of horns, flutes and strings. The result is a grand production worthy of three GRAMMY nods, including Song of the Year and Best Rap Song.
Katy Perry, “Firework”
No one should suffer self-image issues as long as Katy Perry’s explosive (zing!) hit “Firework” exists. Admittedly, this glistening pop jam (nominated in two categories, including Record of the Year) should have you singing aloud with all the fun-lovin’ fearlessness of a six year old. It’s positively uplifting: ‘You are sooooo f**king awesome and nothing can dull your beautiful colors,’ Perry sings (well, more or less…). And, look, Perry knows hardship, too. She had acne in high school, okay? But she perseveres.
Jay-Z & Kanye West, "Otis"
For budget-conscious consumers curious about the latest five-figure watch or which Gulfstream jet is currently the best, Jay-Z and Kanye West deliver this restrained paean to the plight and struggles of the average man. Keeds! They like money. Jay and Kanye flip Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" to shout out things you can't afford and dominate the hip-hop categories.
Foo Fighters, “Walk”
It’s Dave Grohl doing what Dave Grohl does best: flexing his rock muscle while also flaunting his stargazing, soft-guy side. He’s a sensitive soul with a pickup truck and a gun rack—and neither girls nor guys can resist. On “Walk,” from the band’s ass-kicking new Butch Vig-produced LP Wasting Light, he takes his winning formula to the radio waves and charts, and nabs nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance.
Skrillex, “Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites”
Dance music made a big comeback in 2011 and this former emo rocker led the pack with his blitzkrieg of dub step madness. His breakout hit “Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites” nabbed a nod for Best Electronica/Dance Album and ruled mainstream fests like Coachella and Lollapalooza. Even Skrillex’s personal style—black combat boots, thick-framed glasses, and long black hair, shaved on both sides—was a much-mimicked trend. Ladies and gentleman, meet the leader of the new rave generation.
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Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
Admit it: Even as you heard it for the 14,254,789th time at the grocery store this morning, you thought, "Damn, this song is f**king amazing." Yep. You did. And Adele has earned it: The London lassie with a full figure and a penchant to cuss, drink and smoke—stars, they’re just like us!—transformed her broken heart into pop gold on his stomping soul number, which has acted as a defibrillator for the music biz. It helped her second album 21 sell 17 million, spend 16 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1, and land seven GRAMMY nods, including Album, Song and Record of the Year.
Bon Iver, “Holocene”
Imagine the scene outside Bon Iver’s rural Wisconsin studio as similar to a cartoon Disney fairytale. Bunnies hop about. Fawns nibble on grass. Flowers bloom. All in Technicolor, of course. The band’s second album suggests as much. After retreating to a log cabin with only an acoustic guitar for his debut, bearded bard Justin Vernon gained popularity by collaborating with Kanye on his last My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Now Vernon ventures even deeper into the woods on the lush, gorgeous Bon Iver. Its centerpiece, “Holocene,” is up for Song and Record of the Year.
Mumford & Sons, “The Cave”
These banjo-plucking Brits were up for two GRAMMYs last year, including Best New Artist, and even backed Bob Dylan live at the awards show in what equated to a ceremonious passing of the folk torch. Still, they lost both noms. But in 2012 their chances are twice as good. They’re up for four nods, including Record and Song of the Year, for the barnstorming “The Cave.”
Lupe Fiasco, "The Show Goes On"
How do you get GRAMMY nominations for Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance and Best Album? Flip Modest Mouse's"Float On" into a radio-friendly hip-hop beat, talk about your perseverance in the face of label and personal struggles and find the balance between celebrated underground cult hero and arena-aspiring rap star.
The Decemberists, “Down By the Water”
If this jangly, radio-ready homage to Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy’s favorite band R.E.M. sounds too much too like R.E.M., it’s for good reason: The Decemberists recruited Peter Buck—hey, he’s not exactly busy anymore!—to play 12-string guitar alongside guest vocalist Gillian Welch. It’s the Decemberists’ catchiest and, arguably, their best yet track yet, and has been awarded with nods for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song.
Nicki Minaj & Drake, "Moment 4 Life"
Best New Artist nominee Nicki Minaj joins last year's contender Drake on the anthemic Best Rap Performance-nominated "Moment 4 Life." In one verse, Minaj douses vampires with holy water, kills Goliath and sends yet another note to her haters. Drake, straying slightly off topic, just has sex with Dominican women and namedrops "Party of Five." 'Cause that's just what Drake does.
Radiohead, “Lotus Flower”
Well, you can’t call ‘em stagnant. The Oxford brainiacs shift directions yet again, getting all groovy and dub-step-y on the lead single from their new album King of Limbs. If the track doesn’t nab any of the three GRAMMYs it’s up for, including Rock Song of the Year, then wiggly frontman Thom Yorke should win a statue for Best Freaked Out Dance Moves of the Year. Seriously. Look at those moves—hot damn!
Tony Bennett & Amy Winehouse, "Body & Soul"
Bennett & Winehouse's sultry vocals + GRAMMY tendency to favor older, more traditional performers + Winehouse's death last year = no competition for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. The pop standard cover would be Winehouse's last performance, with Bennett calling her "The only singer that sang what I call 'the right way.'"
Coldplay, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”
It’s a sonic group hug—and everybody’s invited. Chris Martin and Co. open their arms wide with this emotionally sparkling assortment of influences, like bits of dance, hip-hop and electro. It’s earned them two GRAMMY nods for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song, and the hugs of millions of global fans, which helped Mylo Xyloto debut at No. 1 in 21 countries.
Dr. Dre, Eminem & Skylar Grey, “I Need a Doctor”
Awww… Em and Dre are BFFs! After L.A.’s hip-hop OG discovered and launched Em’s career and later came to his rescue during his bout of drug abuse, Detroit’s whitest rhymesayer returns the favor, reviving Dre’s career after he suffered through a period of rough times, including the overdose death of his son. “You saved my life, now maybe now it’s my turn to save yours,” raps Em. “I’m crying in this booth.” Emo is the new thuggin’.
Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks”
If you can’t own a pair of inflatable shoes that outrun bullets, then why not sing about them, right? These Los Angeles newcomers did, and apparently indie rock fans are nostalgic for their Reebok Pumps (remember those?) because “Pumped Up Kicks” became a massive hit, helping the band score two GRAMMY nods, including Best Alternative Album for their debut Torches. Its sleek, glistening hooks certainly helped.
Cee Lo Green, “Fool For You”
After venting his disdain for gold-digging females in his vengeful hit “Forget You,” it appears that circle-shaped crooner Cee Lo’s wounds have healed on “Fool For You”—the dude has fallen head over heels again once again. Featuring verses from up-and-comer Melanie, Cee Lo’s soulful, horn-laden track from The Lady Killer nabbed nods for both Best R&B Song and Best Traditional R&B Performance.
Wiz Khalifa, "Black and Yellow"
Pittsburgh's new prodigal son got snubbed for Best New Artist, but his breakout hit "Black and Yellow" picked up nominations for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance. The de facto anthem for stoners and Pittsburgh Steelers fans alike, "Black and Yellow" anointed Khalifa as the Twitter generation's Snoop Dogg. And you must be doing something right to earn a tribute song from Tom Hanks' son.
Bruno Mars, "Grenade"
Bullets, blades and grenades are hardly the stuff of love songs, but it helped Bruno Mars snag six GRAMMY nominations, including Record of the Year. "Grenade" is the best example of Mars' prodigious talents, presenting story of unrequited love that blends R&B crooning with pop balladry. But if he truly wants to stop losing girls, he just needs to stop wearing these.
Rihanna featuring Drake, "What's My Name"Rihanna and Drake took over the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category, with Drake's contribution to DJ Khaled "I'm On One" and Rihanna's hook on Kanye West's "All of the Lights" helping both earn nominations. But their best collaboration goes to this ode to oral sex. If the song wins, "The square root of 69 is 8/ate something" will officially be a GRAMMY-winning line. Mull on that for a minute.
Lady Gaga, "Yoü and I"
Pointless umlaut aside, "Yoü and I" may be the most musically diverse of the Best Pop Solo Performance nominees. Her Gaga-ness blends country vocal phrasings with a lift from Queen's "We Will Rock You." Though when you're Gaga, you can afford to just grab Queen guitarist Brian May himself for electric guitar. Sorry... “güitar.”
J. Cole, "Work Out"
Few rappers' albums were heralded with greater anticipation last year than J. Cole's Cole World: The Sideline Story. The prodigious mixtape veteran and Best New Artist nominee received co-signs and warm fuzzies from his Roc Nation boss Jay-Z, blending street-hop with bedroom-ready R&B and radio-friendly pop. On "Work Out," dude samples (and sings!) Paula Abdul's "Straight Up." Is this good or bad for hip-hop? Discuss.
The Band Perry, "If I Die Young"
If Taylor Swift is country's reigning queen, her disciples are Best New Artist nominee The Band Perry. Composed of siblings Kimberly, Reid and Neil, the group's self-titled debut hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and helped blur the line between country and pop. Want to know why they grabbed the Best New Artist nomination? This is the song to hear.
Chris Brown, "Look at Me Now"
Watching Chris Brown rap is like watching your 10-year-old nephew at the school play: Admirable enough, but you know his talents are better used elsewhere. Still, some help from actual rappers Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne helped secure "Look at Me Now" the Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance nominations. Why is it worth checking out? For Busta's best guest verse in years.
Mastodon, "Curl of the Burl"
Even when Atlanta metal band Mastodon trades in guttural growls for more commercial riffs, they still rock harder than anyone. The group's only up for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, but if the Death of Rock meme dominated 2011, thankfully we have groups like Mastodon to keep it on life support.
We've said our piece, but what do you think? What's the best song on this list? Which tracks were we fools for not including? Sound off in the comments below.