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Music

The Grammys’ wildly inconsistent history with Album of the Year

@TylerGolsen

Any award show is bound to have some winners that don’t quite hold up to the test of time. There are some egregious Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards, including Crash, The Artist, and Driving Miss Daisy. The Emmys tend to get caught up in routine, which must be the reason why Jim Parsons landed four different awards for portraying Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. What a select group of entertainment elites dub “the best” and what the general public settles on as “the best” very rarely match up when it comes to award season gold.

The Grammys are notorious for this disconnect. Most infamously, this comes up in the supposed curse that follows the winner of Best New Artist. While major names like The Beatles, Amy Winehouse, and Mariah Carey have taken home the award, so have The Starland Vocal Band, A Taste of Honey, Marc Cohen, and Milli Vanilli (for a couple of months, anyway, before theirs was rescinded). In recent years, The Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences seems to have hit a solid run with Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion, and this year’s winner Olivia Rodrigo, but only time will tell if those picks have aged as well as their picks of Fun over Frank Ocean and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis over Kendrick Lamar.

The ceremony’s other awards have their fair share of questionable choices as well, but when it comes to The Biggest Night in Music (™️), the most coveted award has historically been Album of the Year. The music industry has moved further and further away from albums being the predominant end all-be all of the medium, but full-length LPs still carry quite a bit of clout for voters and viewers. Winning Album of the Year is a major news story for its lucky recipient, but it’s not always followed by a positive reception.

Just like Best New Artist, there are plenty of times that the Grammys have been remarkably astute with their Album of the Year choices. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band won in 1968, as did Carole King’s Tapestry in 1972. Stevie Wonder’s historic ’70s run saw him grab three AOTY awards, and when he didn’t release an album in 1975, the award instead went to another classic, Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years.

When The Grammys get it right, they get it really right. Rumours, Thriller, The Joshua Tree, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and 21 are just some of the albums that continue to be cited as some of the greatest LPs of all time, and they quite rightly were awarded Grammy Gold. But over eight decades of awards, The Grammys have inevitably got Album of the Year stupefyingly wrong as well.

The central question to this debate is whether Album of the Year should incorporate popularity into its metrics. The Grammys, like all other award shows that don’t have “People’s Choice” in their titles, tend to be centred around merit rather than monetary success or public consumption. In a best-case scenario, these aren’t mutually exclusive: an album can be a critical favourite and a cultural smash at the same time. Usually when the Academy picks an unpopular AOTY, it’s because a more populist option is sitting right at their feet.

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That’s what happened this year when Jon Batiste took home the award for his jazz-infused LP We Are. Now, there are plenty of laudatory aspects to Batiste’s win: he’s an undeniably fantastic musician who put together what is undeniably a pretty good album. Batiste is the first black artist to win the award since 2008, when Herbie Hancock won for River: The Joni Letters. To say that Batiste wasn’t deserving of the award takes too much away from the talented musician. But to say We Are was the album of the year already looks puzzling.

It’s hard to accurately quantify cultural impact, but just tell me if you’ve passed by any of these albums in a Spotify search or news article in the past year: Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, Kanye West’s Donda, Taylor Swift’s Evermore, and Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever. Here we have a blockbuster debut from the Best New Artist winner, a major release from one of the most famous and controversial figures of modern music, an industry giant completing yet another sonic transformation, and one of the most popular artists in music releasing the follow-up to her monster debut. Album sales and streaming numbers are one thing, but the impact on the industry as a whole is another.

Even when the Grammys have a batting average that any major league baseball player would kill for, the snubs tend to get the most attention. There was Stan Getz & João Gilberto’s win for Getz/Gilberto in 1965 over The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (which wasn’t even nominated); Christopher Cross’ self-titled win in 1981 over Pink Floyd’s The Wall; Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down beating out both Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A. in 1985; Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable… with Love winning over Nirvana’s Nevermind (once again, not even nominated) in 1992; and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind beating out Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1998.

But starting in the new millennium, The Grammys seemed to go completely off the rails in terms of what it decided was worthy of Album of the Year: Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature over Radiohead’s Kid A and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP; Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company over Green Day’s American Idiot and Kanye West’s The College Dropout; Herbie Hancock’s aforementioned River: The Joni Letters over Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black; Mumford & Son’s Babel over Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; and Beck’s Morning Phase over Beyonce’s self-titled fifth album.

It’s not that any of these albums are bad (many of them are quite good, in fact), but almost none of them get continuously cited for their impact on music the way their competition still does. You can still listen to Morning Phase or Two Against Nature or River: The Joni Letters and revel in all-time great musicians making good-to-great LPs. But their only sin is that they took the place of masterpieces, and for that, they continue to be viewed with a sceptical eye and a difficult legacy.

Was there a masterpiece in this year’s crop of Album of the Year nominees? Perhaps, but also perhaps not. Only time will tell whether the likes of Sour, Planet Her, Montero, Folklore, or even Donda will be held up as culture-shifting behemoths. Hell, even We Are has the possibility of ageing gracefully, but it will be completely dependent on how its competition is viewed over the coming decades. Until then, it just looks like another confounding choice in The Grammys’ long and checkered history of choosing the Album of the Year.

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