[7 February 2008]
Glen Campbell over The Beatles? Coolio over 2Pac? Jethro Tull for best hard rock/metal performance ... in 1989?
Even more fun than watching the Grammys is playing armchair quarterback, critiquing the voters’ often baffling choices. This year’s potential curveball comes in the album of the year category, which pits Herbie Hancock’s collection of Joni Mitchell covers (“River: The Joni Letters”) against more obvious candidates like Kanye West’s “Graduation” and Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” Did something go awry in the organization’s complicated voting process, in which numerous committees weed through approximately 15,000 nominees?
“It’s sort of like the government,” according to Tamara Conniff, Billboard Group editorial director. “We have a lot of issues with the government, but we can’t come up with a better system.”
As the most revered award in music celebrates its 50th year, here’s a look at five decades of unlikely winners, curious picks and regrettable oversights.
1959 - In their first year, the Grammys bestow record of the year upon Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu (Volare)” rather than Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” or Peggy Lee’s “Fever.”
1966 - Song of the year goes to Paul Francis Webster and Johnny Mandel’s “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Among the competitors: John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”
1967 - “Pet Sounds,” the Beach Boys masterpiece that set new standards in pop songcraft and virtually created the concept album, is not nominated for album of the year. Though the now-classic track “Good Vibrations” gets a few nods, it loses in every category.
1979 - A Taste of Honey, known for its trendy disco nugget “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” wins best new artist, beating the rather more enduring Elvis Costello.
1981 - Christopher (“Sailing”) Cross emerges triumphant, winning album, record and song of the year, plus best new artist. His competition, respectively: Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” the Kander-Ebb classic “Theme From New York, New York” and the Pretenders.
1985 - Album of the year does not go to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” or to Prince & the Revolution’s “Purple Rain.” Instead, Lionel Richie wins for “Can’t Slow Down.”
1988 - Song of the year goes to “Somewhere Out There” (from “An American Tail”), which you may not remember, instead of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which you probably do.
1989 - Record and song of the year go to the Bobby McFerrin novelty “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which seems wrong no matter who the competition was.
1990 - Best new artist goes to Milli Vanilli. The award is later revoked after revelations that the duo didn’t actually sing on their album.
1993 - Even as Kurt Cobain and Nirvana dominate radio and spearhead the grunge movement with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the band gets only a couple of nods in lesser categories and loses. By the time Nirvana wins its only Grammy, for best alternative music performance for 1994’s “MTV Unplugged in New York,” Cobain is dead.
1996 - In the first-ever best rap album category, Naughty by Nature’s “Poverty’s Paradise” beats 2Pac’s “Me Against the World.”
2001 - Shelby Lynne wins best new artist on the strength of her (ahem) sixth album.
KANYE VS. 50
Last year, 50 Cent and Kanye West released their long-awaited albums on the same day, Sept. 11, duking it out in a bitter battle for sales supremacy - or maybe it was just a gigantic publicity stunt. At any rate, you may remember that 50 claimed he would cease to record as a solo act if West outsold him. West handily did so, but 50 found a loophole - his album, “Curtis,” went to No. 1 in Europe; so there.
Now the two are at it again, vying not for sales but for Grammys. West’s “Stronger” and 50’s “I Get Money” are nominees for best rap solo performance, while West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and 50’s “Ayo Technology” are up for best rap song.
Who’ll be the winnah? West already has the Grammy stamp of approval, having racked up five awards for his own material (including two for best rap album) and one for his songwriting on Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name.” As for 50, his Grammy total to date is zero.
And there’s one more battle West seems to have won already: His disc “Graduation” is up for best rap album, but 50’s “Curtis” is not.