Is the the Grammys' Best New Artist really the best?

To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, last weekend millions of Justin Bieberites suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced when obscure jazz musician Esperanza Spalding won the Best New Artist Grammy.

Which got us thinking. How accurate are the Grammys when it comes to identifying new talent? Do the voters really know what they're doing? Are they picking artistic merit or commercial popularity? Will hindsight prove to be 20/20?

Let's look at the last 40 awards given out.

1970 winner: Crosby, Stills & Nash
>They're certainly popular and well-regarded, but we couldn't hum one of their songs. They beat out Led Zeppelin and Chicago. Can you imagine that Led Zeppelin was ever considered a "new artist"? When it comes to revolutionizing music, doesn't the vote have to go to them? They practically invented heavy metal/hard blues rock.

1971 winner: The Carpenters
>Seems like a vote for a group that was popular at the time. Toothless and completely white-bread. They beat Elton John, who has surely demonstrated longevity and talent. Also losing to the Carpenters was the Patridge Family (were they ever a real band?) and Anne Murray from Canada.

1972 winner: Carly Simon
>>We have no opinion. She beat Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Bill Withers, and two others we never heard of. Guess 1972 wasn't a banner year for new music development.

1973 winner: America
>>We know we should be able to name at least one America song, but we can't. They beat the Eagles. Seriously, Grammys? The frickin' Eagles? Few bands have been as influential or as popular. So far, we've agreed with none of the Grammy picks. None.

1974 winner: Bette Midler
>>Bette has a certainly style and flair and we can't argue with her beating out Marie Osmond, of all people, for the Grammy. But we have to deduct points because Bette nowadays is considered more of an actress than a singer. The award should have gone to Barry White.

1975 winner: Marvin Hamlisch
>>Didn't know composers could win, but we're big fans of "Nobody Does It Better," so we'll reluctantly agree. He beat out Bad Company and others we never heard of.

1976 winner: Natalie Cole
>>How old was she when she won this? We thought she was a nobody until the 1990s when she did that lame "Unforgettable" duet with her dad. Learn something new every day. She beat out KC and the Sunshine Band and a few others we never heard of. Bottom line: not a very worthy crop of nominees.

1977 winner: Starland Vocal Band
>>Let's see... the fluffy disco group that sang "Afternoon Delight" or power-chord classic-rock staple Boston? Bad pick, Grammys. Maybe the worst so far. Were the voters just trying to prove how hip and relevant they were by going disco?

1978 winner: Debby Boone
>>Now we're waist deep in the empty-headed 1970s. Debby may be the least deserving person on this entire list. She sang "You Light Up My Life." For that, shouldn't she be banned from the music industry altogether? Come on, Grammy voters. She beat out similar vanilla pretty-faces Andy Gibb and Shaun Cassidy. She also beat non-threatening rock band Foreigner.

1979 winner: A Taste of Honey
>>Who or what is a A Taste of Honey? All we can think of is the candy bar Bit of Honey. Whatever they are, they beat big-time artists Elvis Costello, Toto, and The Cars. Said Grammy, "Oops."

1980 winner: Rickie Lee Jones
>>We've heard of her, can picture her plain-jane face, and seem to recall Rolling Stone liking her a lot. She beat out Dire Straits, another band that critics seem like more than us. Also beat The Blues Brothers (file that under "Really?" along with the Patridge Family) and Robin Williams, of all people. Whatever, 1980. No one cares.

1981 winner: Christopher Cross
>>We think he was already something of a joke when he won this award, another silky-smooth singer-songwriter custom-built for dentist's offices across the country. We think the Pretenders should have won. "Back on the Chain Gang" works. "Sailing" does not.

1982 winner: Sheena Easton
>>Another safe pick, it seems. Pretty girl who offends no one. We love "For Your Eyes Only," but no way does Sheena beat out the Go-Gos or Adam and the Ants. She also beat R&B heavy-hitters James Ingram and Luther Vandross. In other words, the least deserving person won. Welcome to show biz!

1983 winner: Men at Work
>>It's hard to argue with the win when the competition were similar 1980s flame-outs Asia, Human League, Jennifer Holliday, and Stray Cats. Then again, we never liked "Down Under." And that lead singer gave us the creeps. You know why.

1984 winner: Culture Club
>>Culture Club probably had more hits, but surely we can all agree that the real talent was fellow nominee Eurhythmics. Also losing: Big Country (we liked "Big Country") and Men without Hats (ditto "Safety Dance"), neither of whom should have been nominated.

1985 winner: Cyndi Lauper
>>We endorse this pick, although the Judds probably wound up with the longer, more important career. But Grammy wasn't yet ready to embrace its inner country yet. Cyndi beat out, no kidding, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Corey Hart, and Sheila E, three acts who all wound up being go-nowhere one-hit wonders. Grammy must not have known that "Relax," "Sunglasses at Night," and "Glamorous Life," respectively, were as good as it was going to get.

1986 winner: Sade
>>She's the sexy pick, for sure. Critics loved her smooth-jazz vibe. Still do. We're okay with this, even if Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine" is one of our all-time top 20 songs. Also losing: 1980s where-are-they-now trivia answers a-ha and Julian Lennon.

1987 winner: Bruce Hornsby and the Range
>>Bruce is a talent and was really the only viable option. Other nominees: 1980s top-40 artists Glass Tiger, Nu Shooz (you can't make this stuff up), Timbuk3, and Simply Red.

1988 winner: Jody Watley
>>A tough one. Jody is a dance-pop artifact stuck in 1980s amber and we love her for it. Ditto her fellow nominees Breakfast Club, Cutting Crew, Terence Trent D'Arby, and Swing Out Sister. That list reads like the liner notes for Now! That's What I Call 1988. They're all equally irrelevant now, so you could make the case for any of them to win. You know who we just realized never got nominated? A little band called U2. Nicely done, Grammy.

1989 winner: Tracy Chapman
>>Like Sade, Tracy is a critical darling with a small but loyal fan base, the kind of smug hipster fan base who'd dump her and shout "sell out" if Tracy ever accidentally became actually successful. She beat out Rick Astley, Toni Childs, Vanessa Williams (who's now an actress), and something called Take 6. This win makes sense.

1990 winner: Milli Vanilli
>>We all know how this one turned out. If only Grammy could preserve its dignity and go back in time to give the award to one of the other nominees, a real musical talent, someone like Tone Loc. Seriously, this probably should have gone to Indigo Girls. We think they're still playing at a Lilith Fair somewhere.

1991 winner: Mariah Carey
>>So far, this is the only slam dunk. Grammy got it right. Mariah remains commercially successful. And she's got chops. She beat out Black Crowes, Kentucky Headhunters, Wilson Phillips, and Lisa Stansfield, none of whom are doing much these days unless it's at your local state fair.

1992 winner: Marc Cohn
>>The "Walking in Memphis" dude beat out two bigger talents, Boys II Men and Seal. But he rightfully prevailed over the manufactured sound of C+C Music Factory and the painfully embarrassing Color Me Badd (note the rebellious extra D because they, like, just don't care about your spelling rules, man).

1993 winner: Arrested Development
>>Another of those critically beloved bands with the world-music sound who never made the crossover into mainstream acceptance. We'll take the critics word for it because after the first 30 times of hearing "Mr. Wendell" we started to really really loathe it. We must also give thanks that they beat Billy Ray Cyrus and Kris Kross, neither of whom should ever ever have a Grammy.

1994 winner: Toni Braxton
>>We prefer other nominees Belly and SWV, but that's just us. Toni was a big success and had a fairly long career until she recently went bankrupt, yadda yadda. Whatever, 1994. Yawn.

1995 winner: Sheryl Crow
>>Another slam dunk, though a case could certainly be made for fellow nominee Green Day. Ace of Base and Crash Test Dummies have a special place in our post-college hearts, but they're not Grammy-worthy. Let the record also show that we happily play the contrarian role and proclaim a fierce hatred of Counting Crows.

1996 winner: Hootie and the Blowfish
>>Wrong answer, Grammy. Three women nominated with Hootie were far more deserving: Alanis Morissette, Joan Osborne, and/or Shania Twain. Hootie had a huge record that no one dared admit owning (who then who was buying it?), then rightfully vanished into oblivion.

1997 winner: LeAnn Rimes
>>She was a trendy pick that provided a good storyline - little girl who sings unreleased Patsy Cline song. Her win offended no one. But we would argue a more important, more worthy winner would have been either Garbage or No Doubt.

1998 winner: Paula Cole
>>Now we're in the tail-end of the alternative 1990s, which was chock full of earnest, heartfelt one-hit wonders like Paula ("I Don't Wanna Wait") Cole. She beat out Fiona Apple, who's cut from the same cloth. We don't know much about Erykah Badu, but she still seems relevant and thus might make for the better pick here.

1999 winner: Lauryn Hill
>>As groovy and funky as Miss Hill may be, there's no doubt that from this class of nominees, the monster musical talent is the Dixie Chicks. Big miss, Grammy. Big.

2000 winner: Christina Aguilera
>>We can't find fault with this pick (and it was wise to pick Christina over Britney Spears), though it would have certainly been a nice surprise is fellow nominee Kid Rock would have won. He's dangerous in a way that art should be. Who the heck is Susan Tedeschi?

2001 winner: Shelby Lynne
>>We're big fans of Shelby, but she never really broke out. Which again points to the question: what makes for a "best" artist? Is it artistic accomplishments or commercial success? Discuss amongst yourselves. Shelby's fellow nominees are all rather underwhelming, from frat-rock thugs (Papa Roach) to hip-hop goofs (Sisquo) to country wiseguys (Brad Paisley). Shelby probably deserved it most.

2002 winner: Alicia Keys
>>Another critical darling. Does anyone ever admit to not liking Alicia Keys? We all pretend to love her. A safe, square pick over the likes of Nelly Furtado, David Gray, and Linkin Park (a scary, tattooed band who really should be glad to even be nominated by the stodgy Academy).

2003 winner: Norah Jones
>>See Alicia Keys above. It's simply not cool to say you don't like the smoky jazz of Norah Jones. If need be, you lie. She beat out a fairly strong group: Ashanti, Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne, and professional douchebag John Mayer.

2004 winner: Evanescence
>>Their song "Bring Me to Life" is nothing short of sonic dynamite, but they might as well now be in the witness relocation program. A better choice would have been the charismatic 50 Cent... which reminds us: why wasn't Eminem ever nominated for this award?

2005 winner: Maroon 5
>>A fun, peppy band that cranks out catchy songs, but no one can argue that nominee Kanye West is more talented, more important, and more relevant. He should have won, hands down.

2006 winner: John Legend
>>We hear good things about John Legend, but we know nothing about him other than he likes to wear skinny ties. We'll defer to the Grammys on this one, though if it we were voting, the winner would have been Sugarland.

2007 winner: Carrie Underwood
>>Love her or hate her, there's no denying she's the real deal. Another rare slam dunk for the Grammys.

2008 winner: Amy Winehouse
>>Keep in mind this was before she went cuckoo. Amy was a very trendy, very popular pick so it's hard to argue. Everyone loved her. We don't know what a Ledisi is, but a case could maybe be made for the other nominees Feist, Paramore, and Taylor Swift (whom we're still not sure if she's talented or simply way too precocious and cute).

2009 winner: Adele
>>The jury's probably still out on these last few awards. That said, we think it's safe to say that time will not be kind to fellow nominee the Jonas Brothers. We do still have hope for Duffy and Lady Antebellum.

2010 winner: Zac Brown Band
>>Sure, why not? We sure never heard of Keri Hilson, MGMT, or Silversun Pickups. They sound made-up.

So what's the score? By our count, out of 40 awards, we agree with 13 wins. That's a 32% success rate. If only this were baseball.

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