Ah another Grammys has come to a close. Overall, the 58th Annual Grammys were pretty predictable without many questionable awards. That said the biggest quibble comes with the album of the year (AGAIN) with Taylor Swift winning her second AOTY with 1989. Wait a minute – hold up? Why is a big, popular album like 1989, which debuted with gargantuan numbers on the Billboard 200 and spawned three number one hits arguably a question choice for album of the year? The answer – Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
Here’s the thing. Taylor Swift had a big year with 1989 and deserves the accolades she’s received. Did she deserve album of the year? If commercial sales and hit singles are the measure of the year’s best album, then yes. But, if it comes down to quality, a critical darling, or being transcendent, then the answer is no. If critical praise and universal acclaimed artistry is the measure, Swift would definitely find herself behind Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes (Sound & Color), and arguably Chris Stapleton (Traveller).
As a critic, To Pimp A Butterfly was easily one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. If ever a hip-hop album were to be honored with the most coveted award at the Grammys (though it’s lost is prestige in my honest opinion), than TPAB would be the one. Of course as we’ve been accustomed to too many times, album of the year is awarded to a safer choice. The point? Taylor Swift’s 1989 has happened “x” number of times in the past – you could even argue it’s a pure-pop version of her first AOTY winner, Fearless.
The last time the Recording Academy was really daring with AOTY was when OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won – a hip-hop album with a number of styles characterized by its eclecticism. Since then, there have been some good albums win, but there have also been some head scratchers. Below is the album of the year winners since 2004 with a brief subjective statement from yours truly on each:
- 2005: Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company – This was posthumously issued, so you could argue respect for Charles’ lifelong work influenced voters. It’s not a bad album, but it wasn’t the best of the elite group of albums it was nominated against, including a gargantuan urban/pop album in Usher’s Confessions.
- 2007: Dixie Chicks, Taking The Long Way – This seemed political, period. The Dixie Chicks had been nominated previously, but their reception had cooled off by the release of Taking The Long Way. The fact this album beat John Mayer’s exceptional Continnum or Justin Timberlake’s pop pleaser FutureSex/LoveSounds spoke to the out of touch Recording Academy.
- 2006: U2, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb – A solid album, but U2 previously won for a more classic work in The Joshua Tree, albeit in 1988. This was a safe vote, clearly the opinion of an older voting bloc, who snubbed a big pop album in Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi and Gwen Stefani’s Love. Angel. Music Baby, not to mention Kanye West’s second consecutive hip-hop masterpiece, Late Registration.
- 2008: Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters – As a jazz pianist, I have great respect towards Herbie Hancock as one of the greatest ever. BUT no way should this surprise victor have bested Amy Winehouse’s contemporary classic Back In Black, which looked well on its way to win the big one. Kanye West was once more in contention as well with Graduation.
- 2009: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand – UGH. This was another ‘oldies’ vote. Sure, we knew Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III wasn’t going to win, but didn’t Coldplay’s Viva La Vida seem more sensible than Raising Sand (no disrespect).
- 2010: Taylor Swift, Fearless – When this occurred yours truly wasn’t on board, but this did at least show a shift towards a younger demographic; as did the nominees, save for vet Dave Matthews Band.
- 2011: Arcade Fire, The Suburbs – This was a great album, but an odd choice for AOTY. Looking back, this may have been the best choice though.
- 2012: Adele, 21 – Perfect.
- 2013: Mumford & Sons, Babel – This was a miss all the daylong – a step back. Yes, this album was successful, but not album of the year caliber as there were better choices. The thing is, there were two other deserving alternative albums that the Recording academy shouldn’t have felt guilty about. There was also alternative R&B (Frank Ocean) and alternative pop (Fun.).
- 2014: Daft Punk, Random Access Memories – Um, I called this one, but I would’ve picked Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City all the day long over this. Still, Random Access Memories was a respectable, enjoyable album through and through.
- 2015: Beck, Morning Phase – This was a beautiful album, but it’s win just didn’t suit the times. The Recording Academy probably should’ve awarded him for Odelay.
Ultimately, no one is ever going to be 100% pleased, but this year felt like the opportunity to make a bigger statement than a big pop album, which come and go. 1989 or Swift shouldn’t be diminished but, is 1989 really a ‘big statement’? Not to the extent of To Pimp A Butterfly, which graced almost everyone’s tops list in 2015.