Ah, the Grammys: They pop up every year to make us chortle, groan, and occasionally gasp with delighted surprise.
And while I'm looking forward to this Sunday's telecast of the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, I'm more excited to revisit older Grammy ceremonies. It's like a trip through my bad adolescent choices. (Besides, after I spoofed this year's Oscar nominees, I needed a break from all these "current awards.")
So let's revisit two of the biggest Grammy categories: Album of the Year and Record of the Year. I've dug up the winners and nominees from the last twenty years and given them prizes of my own (as has Joe over at Low Resolution... we came up with this crazy idea together).
Take a look at my reactions and then let me know what you think. Who were the best and worst calls in recent Grammy history? (And don't forget to read Part 2, where I dig into Song of the Year and Best New Artist.)
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
(all nominees and winners)
Most Offensive Winner: Talk about a crowded field! I mean, yes, Ray Charles did his thing pretty well on Genius Loves Company, but was a collection of Starbucks-ready duets really the best album of 2004? Same goes for pleasant-but-soporific winners like Come Away With Me by Norah Jones and Unforgettable... With Love by Natalie Cole.
But the most offensive winner has got to be MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett in 1995. Consider this paradaox: One one hand, the choice highlights how often the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences refuses to honor music made by anyone who post-dates Vietnam. On the other, it proves how often the voters try (and fail) to seem hip. You guys: Rewarding an MTV album isn't cool when it was recorded by Tony Bennett. And you're not about to convince me that a taped concert of musty standards was the best album of the year.
Most Surprisingly Appropriate Winner: You could make a case for Jagged Little Pill, which won the year after Bennett and his stardust memories. After all, Alanis Morissette was owned the zeitgeist in 1995, and her album was solid. Likewise, Taking the Long Way was a good choice in 2007, since the award recognized the Dixie Chicks both for their exceptional music and their of-the-moment politics.
But looking back, it's kind amazing how right the Academy was about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. When she accepted her award, she seemed dumbfounded, and so was I. That album sounds as good today as it did ten years ago---both progressive and retro at the same time---and it really did merit the title of Album of the Year.
Most Egregiously Passed-Over Nominee: Kanye West did great work on Graduation, but he was beaten by U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. REM was at their peak on Automatic for the People, but they lost to The Bodyguard soundtrack.
However, the clearest case of "should've won" syndrome goes to Radiohead for OK Computer. A weird and challenging sonic masterpiece, it was doing much more for music in 1997 than Bob Dylan's good-but-not-revelatory winner Time Out of Mind.
Most Past-Their-Moment Nominee: Look no further than this year. Nominating Radiohead for In Rainbows will not make up for the OK Computer debacle, and if they win this year (which seems possible), it'll be for an album that just isn't their best. (A close second is TLC's nomination for Fanmail. That honor should've gone to their previous album, CrazySexyCool.)
Worst Field: Oh, that'd be 1995. Because if Tony Bennett had lost, then the winner might have been The Three Tenors or Seal (for the album with "Kiss From a Rose" on it.) Even nominees Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton weren't at the top of their game, and when you consider that the nominees could have included Nas' Illmatic, Jeff Buckley's Grace, Johnny Cash's American Recordings, and Madonna's Bedtime Stories, then it's clear what a meiss this category was.
Best Field: I'm going with 1999, which awarded Lauryn Hill but also nominated Version 2.0 by Garbage, the still-sturdy Globe Sessions by Sheryl Crow, Ray of Light by Madonna, and Come on Over by Shania Twain. A lot of different sounds, and a lot of great music.
Worst U2 Nomination: U2 would get nominated for whistling into an answering machine for sixty minutes, and getting recognized for the bloated self-importance of All That You Can't Leave Behind is basically the same thing. (And look: I like a lot of U2's music, but just because Bono sings it doesn't make it good.)
RECORD OF THE YEAR
(all nominees and winners)
Note: This award is given to the performers and producers of a single track.
Blandest Nominee: Well, the James Blunt nomination for "You're Beautiful" is a clear front-runner, as are the nominations for "A Whole New World" by Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle and "Clocks" by Coldplay.
But the blandest nominee in this tapioca-prone category has got to "Because You Loved Me" by Celine Dion. It's the snooziest ode to co-dependency you'll ever hear. (Though that year's winner, "Change the World" by Eric Clapton, isn't far behind. What was it about love songs in 1996? Didn't we believe in ourselves?)
Nominee That Had the Least Chance of Winning: It's neat that the academy nominated "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer for such a major award, but come on... not gonna happen. And it would've been cool for Gorlliaz to win with their dance-tastic hit "Feel Good Inc.," but I doubt a cartoon band is ever going to garner serious votes. But of all hopeless cases, none is more forlorn than M.I.A., nominated this year for her hit "Paper Planes."
Now, I love that song, but I just don't see Grammy voters ticking their ballot for a song that uses cash register sounds instead of instruments and has the audacity to blend rap and world music. It's a little too "out there" for gramps, if you know what I mean.
Most Justified Winner: "Rehab" totally deserved its prize last year, and "Not Ready to Make Nice" showed the Dixie Chicks at their best, but I've got to give the Grammys credit for honoring Shawn Colvin's "Sunny Came Home" in 1998. It's a spooky, catchy record that still sounds current in 2009.
Best Field: I'm going with 2000, since every song is arguably a modern pop classic. Santana won for "Smooth," but if he'd lost to "I Want It That Way" or "Believe" or "No Scrubs" or even "Livin' La Vida Loca," the results would have felt equally just.
Worst Field: I have to say, there's no year where every nominee in this category is a bust, so good on you, Grammys. But even though 2005 brought us Green Day's awesome "American Idiot" and Usher's insistently catchy "Yeah!," it also delivered the generic "Heaven" by Los Lonely Boys and "Let's Get It Started," which is good-but-not-great dance music from Black Eyed Peas. That leaves us with the winner, "Here We Go Again" by Ray Charles and Norah Jones. The song is fine, but it wasn't even a hit single. To me, that taints the entire category.
Worst U2 Nomination: They won in 2001 for "Beautiful Day." Um... really? They don't win for any of their 80s singles, but they pick up the prize for this rock-by-numbers anthem?