Awards ceremony judging panels are often accused of being pale, male, and stale, an aging cabal out of touch with contemporary culture.
It’s a brickbat that has been hurled at the Grammy voting panel for some time.
In 2018, the only one of its best album nominees not to play one of their songs live was the only woman up for the prize – Lorde.
The same year, U2 was featured no less than three times during the broadcast, despite not even being up for an award.
The awards consistently overlooked dance music, only creating a category for it in 1998, a decade since the heyday of dance culture.
The awards’ sometimes dizzying list of categories – which currently stands at 78, having been cut from 109 in 2012 – means artists in all sorts of less high-profile genres (jazz, comedy, children’s) get their nods alongside the usual red-carpet favorites.
For instance, Elmo the Muppet has won a Grammy three times – for Best Musical Album for Children in 1998 (Elmopalooza!), 1999 (The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland), and 2001 (Elmo And The Orchestra).
But at the heart of the Grammy conundrum is often a dilemma – whether to recognize the uncompromisingly artistic, or plump for the safer bet.
No category bears that out better than Album of the Year.
[Note: the years cited are those in which the albums were released and were awarded, not the year the ceremony took place, which is the following year.]
Won: Blood, Sweat & Tears, Blood, Sweat & Tears
Should have won: The Beatles, Abbey Road
Blood, Sweat & Tears made their first big splash with a cover of Brenda Holloway’s You Make Me So Very Happy. It was so well-received, in fact, that the Grammy judges decided that the most influential rock band of all time’s penultimate album – which included songs like Come Together and Something – just didn’t cut the mustard in the same way as a jazz-tinged odyssey.
Won: Christopher Cross, Christopher Cross
Should have won: AC/DC, Back In Black, or The Clash, London Calling
Meanwhile, the Clash survived the punk revolution relatively unscathed, recording their masterwork, a double album that sealed its place in rock’s pantheon while also coining a timeless hymn that will be chanted long after London has been swallowed by the Thame.
Won: Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down
Should have won: Bruce Springsteen, Born In The USA
Born In the USA marked the pinnacle of Bruce Springsteen’s long, steady rise from New Jersey word-of-mouth to bona fide cultural hero, an album that was as ubiquitous in Aberdeen, Auckland, and Augsburg as it was in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The toast of 1984 stadium rock may have received a nomination from the voting panel, but that was it. Former Commodore Lionel Richie was the clear winner in the Album of the Year category that year, with songs like Penny Lover, All Night, and Hello topping the charts. Or, as it was for Springsteen, “Goodbye.”
Won: Bonnie Raitt, Nick Of Time
Should have won: Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever
No offense to Bonnie Raitt, a Californian country classic whose Nick Of Time was a well-deserved breakthrough following a string of terrible luck in the 1980s, including being dropped by her record label a day after recording Tongue In Groove. Despite how excellent Nick Of Time was, it only had a minor impact outside of country music circles. The same cannot be said for Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, which was produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne, with whom he collaborated on the Traveling Wilburys side project. Petty’s debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, featured nearly the whole lineup of his band The Heartbreakers.
Won: Eric Clapton, MTV… Unplugged
Should have won: Nirvana, Nevermind
Relax, chart pedants. Nevermind was released in 1991, but it wasn’t widely distributed until the following year. Never mind was odds on for success the following year because the Grammys generally only recognized slow-burning records in the year they actually blew big. The album, however, was not even nominated. In their wisdom, the Grammy voting jury decided that Eric Clapton’s café-friendly MTV… Unplugged, Annie Lennox’s Diva, and the soundtrack to Disney’s Beauty And The Beast are all more deserving of recognition than an album that forever revolutionized the way rock sounded – and looked. Clapton ended up winning, proving that quiet was the new loud.
Won: Celine Dion, Falling Into You
Should have won: Beck, Odelay
Another ocean-going calamity two years later. Beck’s Odelay, a mash-up of country, folk, and hip hop that developed out of mostly acoustic sessions in 1994, was justifiably hailed as the album of the year. Beck abandoned these plans and instead teamed up with production group The Dust Brothers (who had previously worked with the Beastie Boys) to create something even more complex than his breakout Mellow Gold. The Grammy voters, however, once again favored something with a little more dramatic wind in its sails, as seen by the ceremony. Take, for example, Celine Dion’s album Falling Into You, which featured Dion’s seismograph-inducing cover of Eric Carmen’s All By Myself. Despite being nominated, Odelay did not win.
Won: Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Should have won: Radiohead, OK Computer
With Time Out Of Mind, released in 1997, Bob Dylan resurrected a dormant muse, teaming up with producer Daniel Lanois, a Canadian who had previously worked with U2 in the 1980s and directed Dylan’s own Oh Mercy album in 1989. The album gave Dylan’s music a more experimental polish — Lanois, after all, was heavily involved in U2’s Achtung Baby – but several critics questioned whether the album was more of a demonstration of Lanois’ studio prowess than a Dylan masterpiece. In contrast, Radiohead had made an album that was widely recognized as one of the greatest of the decade: As the clock moved closer to the finish, I reached Pink Floyd levels of existential misery.
Won: Steely Dan, Two Against Nature
Should have won: Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP, or Radiohead, Kid A
Steely Dan was hailed for their bright, intelligent, jazz-tinged pop. Of course, much of the adoration took place in the 1970s, when Walter Becker and Donald Fagen created their most enduring pieces. They took a 13-year hiatus after 1980’s Gaucho before rejoining for concerts and, eventually, another album, Two Against Nature, in 2000. However, the album was released the same year as Eminem’s third album, The Marshall Mathers LP, which was one of the most controversial – and best-selling – hip-hop albums of all time.
Kid A, a sideways swerve from OK Computer’s doom-laden modern prog into more electronic realms, was also up for consideration; it’s now recognized as a dramatically successful sideways stride and a classic of the electronic genre. Many consider it a classic, however, it appears that the Grammy voting panel does not. But, well, they were at least nominated this time.
Won: Ray Charles and Friends, Genius Loves Company
Should have won: Kanye West – The College Dropout, or Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut was a genuine sensation in 2000. Kanye West’s The College Dropout, meanwhile, remains arguably his creative zenith. It’s possible that the pain of losing blues legend Ray Charles – who died in June 2004 – brought Genius Loves Company into sharp relief when it was released posthumously.
Won: Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters
Should have won: Amy Winehouse, Back To Black
Back To Black, Amy Winehouse’s seminal record seemed like great Grammy fodder on paper. Winehouse, all sadness, beehive hairdo, and eyeliner, looked beamed in from an old Hollywood movie, the music shimmering in a retro haze that heightened the drama and longing. While Winehouse won Record of the Year for Rehab, the album that inspired it, Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, was forgotten. River: The Joni Letters recreated Joni Mitchell’s songs with a cast of musicians that included Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones, Tina Turner, and Corinne Bailey Rae. A polite nod to a living legend, but not a record with the enduring power of Back To Black.