After winning the 2019 Grammy award for Best Rap Song, Drake commented that “you’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown.” It’s a nice sentiment – music shouldn’t be about picking winners and losers – but a Grammy nomination remains a big deal for artists of smaller commercial stature.
When Hiatus Kaiyote and Courtney Barnett picked up nominations in 2016 (for Best R&B Performance and Best New Artist, respectively), even lifelong awards show cynics admitted it was a coup.
The 2019 awards spotlighted a more diverse group of artists than is customary. Childish Gambino became the first hip hop artist to win Record and Song of the Year for ‘This Is America’. Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy won Best Rap Album, the first female artist to do so. Cardi was unsuccessful in the Album of the Year category, however, losing out to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.
The Album of the Year category also included releases by H.E.R., Janelle Monae, Drake, Brandi Carlile, Post Malone and the Black Panther soundtrack. While most of these albums achieved colossal commercial success, it still ranks as an imaginative group of nominees by Grammy standards.
To illustrate, here’s a reminder of this decade’s (overwhelmingly white) Album of the Year winners and runners up.
2011 – Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Arcade Fire’s 2011 win prompted a number of online commentators to ask, ‘who?’ It’s not that the band were obscure – The Suburbs hit number one in the US and UK – but they weren’t tabloid magazine fodder like their competitors Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Eminem.
While fans and critics mightn’t regard The Suburbs as the Canadian band’s artistic highpoint, it was by no means a cynical bid for chart success. The other nominated artist was Nashville country trio Lady Antebellum.
2012 – Adele: 21
Adele’s second album was everywhere in 2011. It perhaps wasn’t a shoe-in for the prize given Adele is British and doesn’t fit the conventional female popstar mould. But her personable character and surplus vocal strength won over the Recording Academy’s voting membership.
The runners up were Foo Fighters’ nostalgic, Butch Vig-produced Wasting Light; Bruno Mars’ debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans; Rihanna’s Loud – a very serviceable pop record, but not an all-time stunner; and Lady Gaga snuck in again with Born This Way.
2013 – Mumford & Sons: Babel
It’s impossible to decipher the measurement by which Mumford & Sons’ Babel is superior to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (it’s not even the ‘Little Lion Man’ album). But the Americans bloody love Mumford, particularly in their contrived Christian- bluegrass era.
Along with Ocean’s paradigm shifting debut LP, Mumford beat fellow guitar wielders Jack White, The Black Keys and fun. Rock/pop crossover acts tend to attract pretty solid Academy support.
2014 – Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
Daft Punk’s long awaited fourth album, a tribute to late-’70s/early-’80s soft rock, certainly made an impact in 2013. Its lead single ‘Get Lucky’ remains on high rotation in Starbucks franchises around the world. The rest of the album is similarly agreeable, if somewhat forgettable.
In a fairer world the award would’ve gone to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a culturally disruptive artistic statement. The 2014 also-rans were The Heist by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Red by Taylor Swift and Sara Bareilles’ The Blessed Unrest.
2015 – Beck: Morning Phase
Morning Phase’s win over Beyoncé’s self-titled LP caused a bit of commotion. Beck’s mid-tempo comeback album was an easy-going listen, dominated by luxuriously textured acoustic arrangements. Beyoncé, by contrast, was an estimable attempt at matching Queen Bey’s towering cultural status with artistic substance.
The other nominees weren’t much chop: Ed Sheeran’s X, Pharell Williams’ Girl and Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour.
2016 – Taylor: Swift 1989
Taylor Swift took home her second Album of the Year gong – Fearless won in 2010 – with the well-executed 1989. Swift teamed up with the likes of Max Martin, Shellback and Jack Antonoff to comprehensively say goodbye to her country years.
Kendrick Lamar was again unlucky to miss out with his socio-politically potent, jazz influenced To Pimp A Butterfly. Alabama Shakes’ critically admired Sound & Color also nabbed a nomination, along with Chris Stapleton’s Traveller and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness.
2017 – Adele: 25
Adele’s 25 surpassed the extraordinary success of its predecessor to become the fastest-selling album of the 21st century. So in that sense the win could be seen as a foregone conclusion. However, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a stylistic melting pot that featured contributions from James Blake, Kendrick Lamar and Jack White, was hot on its heels.
Just Bieber and Drake added some Canadian flavour to the category, which was rounded out by alt-country songwriter Sturgill Simpson.
2018 – Bruno Mars: 24K Magic
Kendrick Lamar can’t catch a break. His fourth album, Damn, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music – the first non-jazz or classical work to do so – but it couldn’t hold off Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic to claim the Grammy.
Mars is a talented musician and the 24K title track is irresistible, but Lamar’s third snubbing in five years was entirely baffling. Elsewhere, Jay Z’s 4:44 was a worthy nominee, likewise Lorde’s Melodrama and Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love.
Kacey Musgraves, Childish Gambino & Dua Lipa were the big winners at the 2019 Grammy Awards. Head here for the run down.