Music education always & always looking forward.

The Guessing Game of the Grammys

When I was 14 years old, I angrily declared that the GRAMMYs were garbage because my favorite band had lost out on album of the year to Celine Dion.  20 years on, very few folks outside of the sound engineering or Vegas booking biz are probably talking about Let's Talk About Love, and despite Billy Corgan's fan base alienating antics, lots of people are still influenced Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness.*  

This is but one example of the Grammys, here referring to the big-time awards that you see on TV and not the career-making technical or narrow genre-specific awards, being kind of a mess and kind of not with the times.  Of course, the responsible parties for selecting the Album of the Year award have somewhat gotten with the times and awarded more modern, more forward-looking musicians, such as when they awarded Arcade Fire's The Suburbs the phonograph statuette in 2011.**

Tonight's big contest for the Album of the Year Grammy seems to be a battle royale between cultural juggernaut vocalists Beyonce and Adele.  While the two appear to be friendly colleagues and not diametrically opposed foes, media outlets get more clicks by poising them as enemies.  To try and figure this out, let's look to the winners from previous years.  

Just as I figured out as a teenager, from an artistic standpoint, the biggest Grammys don't mean all that much.  It means more to me personally that Sonic Youth is in the Library of Congress than the pantheon of Grammy winners or even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  David Bowie received a single traditional Grammy in his career, and Prince won seven, compared to popular but not culturally defining country artists Vince Gill (20) or Alison Krauss (26).  Surely no one gets as frustrated at the Grammys as Kanye West, but there are still many justifiable theories about who gets awarded and why.  Rolling Stone actually put forth a pretty apt analysis about who will win tonight, and while I'm way behind on current music from all fronts, I agree particularly with the writer's opinion on how utterly boring The Chainsmokers are.  (And I still hope that Lemonade takes home the big prize.)

Before we get angry at tonight's winners, let's look critically at the last 35 years of Album of the Year winners.  (Yes, the producers and additional performers receive Grammys as well, but for brevity's sake, I am only listing the primary performers here.)

  • 1982: Double Fantasy, John Lennon & Yoko Ono
  • 1983: Toto IV, Toto
  • 1984: Thriller, Michael Jackson
  • 1985: Can't Slow Down, Lionel Richie
  • 1986: Graceland, Paul Simon
  • 1987: No Jacket Required, Phil Collins
  • 1988: The Joshua Tree, U2
  • 1989: Faith, George Michael
  • 1990: Nick of Time, Bonnie Raitt
  • 1991: Back on the Block, Quincy Jones
  • 1992: Unforgettable...with Love, Natalie Cole
  • 1993: Unplugged, Eric Clapton
  • 1994: The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album, Whitney Houston
  • 1995: MTV Unplugged, Tony Bennett
  • 1996: Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
  • 1997: Falling into You, Celine Dion
  • 1998: Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan
  • 1999: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill
  • 2000: Supernatural, Santana 
  • 2001: Two Against Nature, Steely Dan
  • 2002: O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack, Various Artists
  • 2003: Come Away with Me, Norah Jones
  • 2004: Speakerboxx/The Love Below, Outkast
  • 2005: Genius Loves Company, Ray Charles
  • 2006: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, U2
  • 2007: Taking the Long Way, Dixie Chicks
  • 2008: River: The Joni Letters, Herbie Hancock
  • 2009: Taking Sand, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
  • 2010: Fearless, Taylor Swift
  • 2011: The Suburbs, Arcade Fire
  • 2012: 21, Adele
  • 2013: Babel, Mumford & Sons
  • 2014: Random Access Memories, Daft Punk
  • 2015: Morning Phase, Beck
  • 2016: 1989, Taylor Swift

It appears that AotY winners can be distinguished in a few ways:

  1. Old favorites.  This was apparently a big deal in the 1990s as the record industry was having to shift very quickly to keep up with changes in tastes.  (Mind you, Nirvana did not win a Grammy until 1996, two years after Kurt Cobain's death.)  In a decade so often remembered for massive musical shifts and innovations, the AotY winners largely did not reflect that.  Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole, Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett, and Bob Dylan were all AotY winners in the 1990s and all fit into that category, none of whom are particularly associated with 90s nostalgia.  Robert Plant & Alison Krauss could be considered the last winner of that category, unless you count Beck.  As a late-era Gen-Xer myself, categorizing Beck as a relic feels a little strange, but that's my bias.  But that leads us to...
  2. Overdue artists.  I would place Beck in that particular category, as his 2015 win was at least 10-15 years overdue.  Some artists that can be labeled as such were more overdue than others.  I felt that the award for Arcade Fire's The Suburbs had been due since their 2004 album Funeral (which didn't even win Best Alternative Album when it was nominated).  Santana and Ray Charles could also fit into this category, as could Bob Dylan and Steely Dan. The longest overdue winner, however, was Herbie Hancock in 2008, who was the first jazz musician to win AotY since 1965.
  3. Zeitgeist winners.  Some musicians win this award at the height of their powers and popularity.  In the 1980s, Michael Jackson, U2 (who went on to become Old Favorites, winning for a lesser album nearly two decades later), and George Michael all took home the award at the crest of their popularity.  While Whitney Houston had been on the scene awhile, The Bodyguard soundtrack saw her at the height of her powers.  Alanis Morissette ('96), Lauryn Hill ('99), and Norah Jones ('03), whose careers were much less notable after their wins, all were cultural fixtures when they took home AotY.  Although Outkast had been nominated before, it seems appropriate that Speakerboxx/The Love Below won as the duo fully dominated airwaves of every station, regardless of the genre.  To be fair, Arcade Fire's win took place just as mass culture was catching on to them, and the same can be said for Mumford & Sons and Daft Punk.  And although the same could be said for other 2010s winners...
  4. New favorites.  Artists like Taylor Swift and Adele have become safe bets for contemporary Grammys.  Rolling Stone picked Adele's 25 as the big winner for AotY tonight, not because it should win, but because the Grammys love Adele.  Everyone and their mother's favorite British soul singer has won 134 awards, total, from a number of different countries, and has been nominated for both BET and CMT awards.  Concerning Grammys, she won Best New Artist in 2009, one of the 10 Grammys she's already taken home and five she's nominated for tonight.  She's also inching toward the EGOT before she's even hit 30, having already won an Oscar and having been nominated for two Emmys thus far.  She is a steamroller, so although Beyonce's Lemonade may be a much more impactful album, a win by Adele would not be surprising.
  5. Posthumous awards, tributes, soundtracks, and massive collaborations.  A friend of mine who is a die-hard Green Day fan was bummed when the band lost the AotY award for their seminal album American Idiot.  I told her that the pop-punkers had no shot against a recently deceased Ray Charles album, featuring a million guest stars.  Many other albums could fit into this category, all the way back to Lennon & Ono's Double Fantasy, and more recently including Herbie Hancock's River: the Joni Letters (which was both a tribute and featured many guest appearances).  This can also explain the 2002 win for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.  

The overall pattern in Grammy awards for Album of the Year is that there is no overall pattern.  The award has skipped around by genres so many times it cannot really be tracked.  Certain trends emerge throughout decades (the 80s were utterly dominated by men, the 90s by deeply established acts, the 2000s were fairly all bets off, and the 2010s have veered toward more currently popular musicians), but there really is no way of knowing.  

Some years feature more stiff competition than others.  I gawk particularly at the groups of nominees from 1984 (winner Jackson, and nominees David Bowie, Billy Joel, The Police, and the Flashdance soundtrack) and 1985 (winner Richie, and nominees Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and Tina Turner), but that's looking through a pop culture historical lens.  1999, when Lauryn Hill took home the prize, was also the only year that every album nominated was primarily performed by either a female artist or female-fronted band (winner Hill, nominees Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Garbage, and Shania Twain).  Additionally, there seems to be zero political bent to the AotY Grammys, with the exception of The Dixie Chicks' win after their mid-00s excommunication from country music and Herbie Hancock's "Yes we can" inspired acceptance speech, which coincided with Barack Obama's 2008 primary campaign.

As it stands, the betting odds have Beyonce heavily favored to win.  And although it seems that every big contest in American popular culture gets boiled down to a political standoff, it is worth noting, as the above linked New York Times piece states, both Beyonce and Adele expressed strong support for Secretary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.  

I cannot say for sure who will win.  All I do know is that if Justin Bieber wins, we burn the whole thing to the ground.  


*20 years on, no love lost to Celine, as she's a pretty powerful artist in her own right, but still, seriously!?!?  It's also worth nothing that Pink Floyd's The Wall lost out in 1981 to Christopher Cross's self-title debut.

**2011's group of nominees included winners Arcade Fire, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry, and was by far the whitest group of the last 35 years.  So there's that.

Who needs Chromaticism, anyway!?

Genre Representation and the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl