Awards ceremony judging panels are often accused of being pale, male and stale, an ageing 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 were 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. And the less said about the Grammy’s arm’s length relationship with hip-hop the better.
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 favourites. 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 recognise the uncompromisingly artistic, or plump for the safer bet. No category bears that out better than Album of the Year. This time round, the panel seems to have done a decent job, balancing the pop likes of Arianna Grande and Billie Eilish with critical darlings such as Bon Iver and Lana Del Ray. But BBC Music looks at some of the times the Grammy panel got it noticeably wrong. [Note: the years cited are those in which the albums were released and were awarded for, 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
Canadian jazz fusionists Blood, Sweat & Tears made their first big splash with a cover of Brenda Holloway’s You Make Me So Very Happy, So well-received, in fact, that the Grammy judges decided that the penultimate album by the most influential rock band of all time – one containing the likes of Come Together and Something – just didn’t cut the mustard in the same way as did a jazz-tinged odyssey that included interpretations of Erik Satie and a cover of Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Mind.
Won: Christopher Cross, Christopher Cross
Should have won: AC/DC, Back In Black, or The Clash, London Calling
It was a momentous year for rock, partly thanks to two phenomenal records. AC/DC reconvened after the death of their charismatic frontman Bon Scott with an emphatic call to arms. This memorial to Scott – encrypted on the leather lungs of new frontman Brian Johnson – is arguably the most popular hard rock album in history. The Clash, meantime, negotiated the revolution of punk mostly intact, and cut their masterwork, a double album which cemented their place in rock’s pantheon – and coining a timeless anthem that will still be hummed long after London is swallowed by the Thames.
So what did the jury crown? Adult-oriented radio favourite Christopher Cross’s self-titled debut, home of tasteful radio staples such as Sailing and Ride Like The Wind.
Won: Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down
Should have won: Bruce Springsteen, Born In The USA
Bruce Springsteen’s long, steady climb from New Jersey word-of-mouth to bona fide cultural figurehead reached its high-water mark with Born In the USA, an album as inescapable in Aberdeen, Auckland and Augsburg as it was in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The toast of 1984 stadium rock might have got a nomination nod from the voting panel, but that was as far as it went. Former Commodore Lionel Richie was very much the captain of the Album of the Year category that year, for the album that featured the chart-tastic likes of Penny Lover, All Night and Hello. Or Goodbye, as it very much was for Springsteen’s biggest album.
Won: Bonnie Raitt, Nick Of Time
Should have won: Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever
No disrespect to Bonnie Raitt, a Californian country legend whose Nick Of Time was a deserved breakthrough after a run of bad luck in the 1980s – not least being dropped by her record company a day after recording the album Tongue In Groove. As good as Nick Of Time was, however, it made only a small splash outside of country-lovin’ circles. The same can’t be said for Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, an album recorded by producer Jeff Lynne of ELO as the pair also contributed to the Traveling Wilburys side project. Full Moon Fever was Petty’s first solo album, though virtually all of his band The Heartbreakers contributed. It included Won’t Back Down and Free Fallin’, two of Petty’s biggest hits, sprinkled with Lynn’s characteristic Beatles-esque production sheen.
Won: Eric Clapton, MTV… Unplugged
Should have won: Nirvana, Nevermind
Chart pedants, relax. Yes, Nevermind was actually released in 1991, but it didn’t go overground until the following year. The Grammys usually only rewarded slow-burning albums in the year they actually blew up, hence Nevermind being odds on for success the year later. Except… the album wasn’t even nominated. The Grammy voting jury, in their wisdom felt Eric Clapton’s café-friendly MTV… Unplugged, Annie Lennox’s Diva and the soundtrack to Disney’s Beauty And The Best more deserving of nods than an album that changed the way rock sounded – and looked – for a generation. As it was, Clapton won, proving that quiet was very much the new loud.
Won: Celine Dion, Falling Into You
Should have won: Beck, Odelay
Two years later, another ocean-going clanger. Beck’s Odelay was rightly lauded as the album of 1996, a melange of country, folk, hip hop that grew out of largely acoustic sessions in 1994. Beck scrapped these and indeed hooked up with production duo The Dust Brothers (who had previously worked with the Beastie Boys) to produce something much more layered than his breakthrough Mellow Gold. But the ceremony showed that – once again – the Grammy voters preferred something with a little more dramatic wind in its sails. Cue Celine Dion’s Falling Into You – the album which included Dion’s seismograph-bothering version of Eric Carmen’s All By Myself. Odelay, despite being nominated, sat this one out on the sidelines.
Won: Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Should have won: Radiohead, OK Computer
In 1997, Bob Dylan revitalised a flagging muse with Time Out Of Mind, an album which saw him pairing up with producer Daniel Lanois, the Canadian who had produced U2 in the 80s and helmed Dylan’s own Oh Mercy album in 1989. The album brought a more experimental sheen to Dylan’s work – Lanois, after all, was massively involved in U2’s Achtung Baby – but the generally positive reviews did include some who wondered if the record was less a Dylan masterpiece and more a demonstration of Lanois’ prowess in the studio. Radiohead, on the other hand, had released an LP widely regarded as one of the best of the decade: Pink Floyd levels of existential despair as the clock ticked closer to the end of the millennium.
Won: Steely Dan, Two Against Nature
Should have won: Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP, or Radiohead, Kid A
Steely Dan were rightly lauded for their bright, smart, jazz-tinged take on pop. Much of that lauding, of course, took place in the 1970s, when the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen produced their most enduring work. After 1980’s Gaucho they called it a day for 13 years, before reuniting for concerts and, eventually, another album, 2000’s Two Against Nature. But the album came out the same year as one of the most controversial – and best-selling – hip-hop albums of all time, Eminem’s third album The Marshall Mathers LP.
Radiohead had also been up for contention with Kid A, a sideways swerve from the doom-laden modern prog of OK Computer into more electronic realms; it’s today regarded as a radically successful sideways step, and a classic of the electronic genre. A classic to many, but not the Grammy voting panel, it would seem. But hey, at least they were nominated this time.
Won: Ray Charles and Friends, Genius Loves Company
Should have won: Kanye West – The College Dropout, or Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
Steely Dan’s win in 2000 underlines a frustrating flaw that can affect twilight career albums from established artists. In much the same way that overlooked veteran directors sometimes pick up an Oscar for lesser, later work, the Grammys can reward artists for their continued presence. It’s also possible that the pain of losing blue legend Ray Charles – who died in June 2004 – brought Genius Loves Company into sharp relief when it was released posthumously a few months later. It was a relaxed but unspectacular duets record, pairing Charles with the likes of Willie Nelson, Norah Jones and Diana Krall.
You could argue that two classic albums of that year could have won the prize. Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut was a genuine sensation, a hit record across the globe, and the perfect distillation of frontman Alex Kapranos’ desire to write songs “your girlfriend will dance to”, angular and interesting and yet laden with radio-friendly hooks. Kanye West’s The College Dropout, meanwhile, remains arguably his creative zenith. Recorded over four years while West was rebuffed by record label after record label, The College Dropout fizzed with relentless energy.
Won: Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters
Should have won: Amy Winehouse, Back To Black
On paper, Amy Winehouse’s defining album, Back To Black, was perfect Grammy fodder. Winehouse herself seemed beamed in from an old Hollywood movie, all heartache, beehive hairdo and eyeliner, the music shimmering in a retro haze that heightened its drama and longing. But while Winehouse did pick up Record of the Year for Rehab, the album which spawned it was overlooked for jazz-funk pioneer Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, an album which reimagined the songs of Joni Mitchell via a cast of collaborators including Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones, Tina Turner and Corinne Bailey Rae. A respectful tip of the hat to a living legend – but not a record that has the legacy Back To Black enjoys more than a decade later.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Music, Culture, Capital, Future and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.