(Part II of a series. Part I is here.)
Like any Grammy Award category, Album of the Year contains its share of blunders—winners who haven’t endured, nominees who don’t belong, notable oversights, etc. You can’t necessarily blame the voters for this: They vote in the moment, while we have the benefit of history. But let’s not give away our opportunity to point and laugh.
We’ll ignore recent history for purposes of this post because recent history is too, well, recent to judge the long-term value of recent nominees and winners. But more than a decade is far enough back to giggle over the 1996 nomination of Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future. It’s a greatest-hits compilation, a large share of which had already been honored by the Grammys. (Alanis Morrissette won that year for Jagged Little Pill.) In 1994, the soundtrack of The Bodyguard, featuring Whitney Houston’s godawful yodeling version of “I Will Always Love You” won out over Donald Fagen, Billy Joel, R.E.M., and Sting, which would never happen if the universe were benign and just. Nominees in 1991 included the debut album by Wilson Phillips, which looks pretty strange now because we have forgotten how big they were at the time, and how likely it seemed that they’d be around for a long time. It should have been easier at the time to spot as nonsense the nomination of Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em by MC Hammer. That Grammy ignored true pioneers of the rap genre like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys for several years, only to hand a nomination to Hammer, was farcical then and is even more so now. (The winner that year: Back on the Block by Quincy Jones—another lifetime achievement award, maybe.)
Another year in which the voters didn’t cover themselves in glory—although they lived up to their past tendencies—was 1985. The nominee class was one of the strongest in history: Purple Rain, Born in the USA, Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, and Can’t Slow Down by Lionel Richie. The voters chose Richie. The 1983 award looks pretty strange all these years later, too: Toto IV, which beat Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain, American Fool by John Mellencamp, and Tug of War by Paul McCartney. And in 1981, Christopher Cross’ Grammy sweep extended to the album category, beating nominees who included Frank Sinatra, Pink Floyd (for The Wall), Billy Joel, and Barbra Streisand.
I’m a 70s guy, so the nominees that decade don’t look all that strange to me. Barry Manilow’s Even Now in 1979, maybe, or Behind Closed Doors by Charlie Rich in 1973, maybe, but in general, I’m OK with them. The strongest nominee class of all time, IMHO, was in 1976, when Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years beat out Janis Ian’s Between the Lines, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel, and the Eagles’ One of These Nights. Reviewing the list, I found I’d forgotten a few surprising nominees: Boz Scaggs for Silk Degrees and Peter Frampton for Frampton Comes Alive! in 1977, Some Girls by the Stones in 1979, and Breakfast in America by Supertramp in 1980.
By the late 60s, the Grammys began to admit to the existence of rock, but didn’t seem to like it very much at first. The Beatles’ 1968 win for Sgt. Pepper seems like a slam dunk now, but at the time, any of the other nominees might have seemed like a more reasonable choice for tradition-bound Grammy voters: albums by Frank Sinatra, Bobbie Gentry, Vikki Carr, and Ed Ames. Sinatra had beaten the Beatles the previous two years, when they had been the first rock band ever to get an Album of the Year nomination. (You could count Simon and Garfunkel as the second, in 1969, wait for Crosby Stills and Nash in 1970, or if it’s a self-contained band you want, Chicago in 1971.) Before 1966, Album of the Year failed to acknowledge the kids’ music at all, but that’s understandable given that rock didn’t become an album form until the Beatles blazed the trail.