The Best Ways to Win an Album of the Year at the Grammys

The Grammys are a funny thing.  They present awards for a range of different categories, from Best Recording Package to Best Music Video to Record of the Year.  However, if music is supposed to be art, then how exactly do the Grammys decided on who has the best art?  Isn’t art just an expression of oneself?  What criteria does the Grammy selection committee use to determine who’s art is best?

Fortunately, I’ve done years of research, watching each neverending Grammy award show after the next.  My friends go out and party during the weekends.  I suffer for my cause.  I watch the Grammys.

Yet, there is a bright side.  After all of this research, I have concocted a list of the five best ways to win an Album of the Year, the most prestigious Grammy award.  In so doing, it goes without reason that this list truly is the criteria to judge all performers on the worthiness of their art.

Without further adieu, here is the list:

1. Be Old

With age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes Grammys.  From Robert Plant’s Grammy in 2009 to Herbie Hancock’s in 2008 to  Steely Dan’s in 2001, it is plain to see that if you’re about to kick the bucket, the Grammys would like to congratulate you for living.

Your chances to win Album of the Year improve astronomically if you actually once were deserving of this honor.  For instance, Bob Dylan won it in 1998 for Time Out of Mind (a truly great album), but the man never won one for any of his string of rule-breaking 60s masterpieces (Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, etc.).  It was almost as if the Grammys gave him the one in 1998 to basically say “Sorry about that whole refusing-to-give-you-an-award thing way back when.  You were a bit too controversial in those days.  Now that you’re older and accepted, we love you…and retroactively love all your brilliant past work.”

2. Be Popular

This explains why the Foo Fighters always get nominated (2008, 2012).  It also explains the Black Eyed Peas nomination in 2010.  (Actually, nothing explains that.)  It’s the reason Alanis Morissette won for Jagged Little Pill in 1996.  Did anyone actually think that was the best album that year?  Yes.  The Grammys did.  Her art was best.

3. Be Someone Other than Radiohead

Radiohead is many things to many people.  They’ve won widespread acclaim.  Pitchfork readers want to make love to them.  They are popular.  They are indie.  They are crazy businessmen.  However, there’s one thing they are not.  Grammy winners.

Time (1998) and time (2001) and time (2009) again, they have been nominated.  Yet time (1998) and time (2001) and time (2009) again, they have lost.  OK Computer and Kid A are considered by most to be groundbreaking works in the industry and stone cold masterpieces, yet they still lost.  Astoundingly, in 2009 the band even showed up and played a killer performance of “15 Step” from In Rainbows (below), and still lost.

After doing a bit of digging, I realized why they lost.  Winners from those three years, in order, are Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, and Robert Plant (with Alison Krauss).  The average age of those winners is around 500, while the average age of Thom Yorke and the Yorkettes is about 40.  Despite what they say, music isn’t a young man’s game.  It’s an old man’s game for an old man that once was great as a young man.

4. Be Scheduled to Perform on the Grammys

When was the last time you saw a Grammy winner that didn’t actually perform on the show?  Never, right.  It’s like the whole thing is staged.  Anyway, everyone knows that artists who have TV friendly good looks make the best art.   How else can you explain how Whitney Houston’s soundtrack for The Bodyguard beat R.E.M.’s classic Automatic for the People in 1994?  Bald white guys never make the best art.

5. Be “Americana”

I may not know much, but I do know that America is obsessed about America.  Ford trucks, Bud Light, slavery, etc.  We are a proud nation.  Celebrating our roots is part of our culture.  The Grammy selection committee endorses this celebration wholeheartedly.  In music, celebrating our roots is called playing “Americana” or “folk” music.  It tends to involve a middle-aged white guy with a beard or some sort of old-fashioned facial hair.  This is why I expect Mumford & Sons to win this year.

Mumford and Sons in concert - London

A bunch of white guys with facial hair playing acoustic guitars and other old-timey instruments? Give them the trophy already.

All Americans know that American music is the best music.  It goes without saying that it’s the best art.

There you have it.  Check out the Grammys and let me have it if I’m wrong (which I won’t be).

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From Here to Eternity: The Big Fish

“From Here to Eternity” is a four part mini-series examining what to make of the future of music. The series begins with a glimpse into the crystal ball for the future of  major bands, then onto smaller/indie bands. From there, the series  moves on to two radically changing industries: concert ticket distribution and music sales.

“The Big Fish”

In this section, I’d like to read the tea leaves and describe the future for some of our favorite major rock acts. Be warned, it isn’t just roses from here on out.

The Rolling Stones – The band will continue having anniversary concerts for their 55th year together, their 60th, and then while preparing for their massive We Never Say Die tour in 2022, Keith Richards will die. At his funeral, Mick Jagger will perform a mournful version of “Bitch”.  Confused faces will abound.

U2 – In 2014, five years after the mild-selling U2 album No Line on the Horizon, Bono will announce that  U2 is ready to re-re-apply for job of best band in the world. With that, their new album No Time for the Future But Now will be released. It will be another guitar love affair by the Edge, with classic Bono wailing, and several mentions of the words “love”, “fire”, “spirit”, “time”, and other major sentiments that people can feel attached to. It will sell millions of copies with producer Danger Mouse calling it “the dopest thing created buy a bunch of white guys ever”. U2 will continue to piss off the Pitchfork music website with their shameless display of all flash and no substance. Bono will once again show that the younger Bono of around the 3 minute mark of this clip is dead and gone.

Radiohead – After years of creating cultural upheaval and consistently being called the world’s greatest band or the future of music or the savior of our times, Radiohead created the relaxed and non-world beating The King of Limbs. As astute readers of blogs, critical reviews, and YouTube comments, Yorke and co. will soon decide it’s  time to “get weird” again. So in 2015, they will release the album AOUIWEKLJE to the delight of fans everywhere. Before diving into the album, people will be greeted with the enigma of the title. Fans will give long-winded essays on it’s meaning, from how the letters looked together at certain angles with the sun to the way the sequence of letters sounds in cat noises, with no response from within the Radiohead camp.

Finally, in 2025, Yorke will get drunk in an interview and will be asked about the album title, to which he will say “It was just a big laugh. I covered Jonny’s eyes and he just started typing random letters. We went with it.” The album itself will consist mostly of key arrangements to only sound palatable to those who worked hard enough at it to get that palate. One of their most challenging and awe-inspiring works yet.

Bob Dylan – Bob will keep croaking along. He’ll never stop croaking. He’ll be dead and still croaking.

Beck – After the abysmal failure that was Song Reader, Beck will try his hand at directing movies. His first movie, “Under a Bourbon Sun”, will be about a bottle of bourbon that got tired of living in a bar, decided to crawl out to see the world, got too hot in the desert sun, lost all its alcohol to evaporation, and eventually died. It will not be a success.

Dead Artists – After the deaths of many major artists (Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, etc.), Warner Bros. will win the rights to their music and creates the “Hologram” series in a similar vein to the amazing-and-not-at-all-pure-evil Tupac Shakur Coachella concert.

The “Hologram” series will be surefire hit, with kids from Alabama to Japan dancing along to a hologrammed Michael Jackson “singing” “Billie Jean”. Several artists will try to complain about royalties and ethics, but they will all be dead.

So it goes.

Music Fun Fact #7,815: Dylan’s Non-Paranoia Too Much for the Ed Sullivan Show

May 12, 1963.

Bob Dylan (the man who wrote the second best version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”) was scheduled to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show.  These were the dark days in the long, long ago.  Back in a world that had not heard of Bob Dylan. Before “Like a Rolling Stone”, “The Times They Are A-Changin”, or even “Blowin in the Wind’. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album came out in May 27,1963…fifteen days later. Fifteen days until an album that would set the world on fire.

On May 12, 1963 though, he was just some kid that came from nowhere and was headed perhaps nowhere. He was a 21 year old Woody Guthrie fanatic. He’d had one album nearly completely filled with covers, with nothing special to show for it. Obviously, this would all change in one of the most dramatic can-you-believe-this-actually-happened sort of ways in music history.

But this was before then.

And the boy must have needed money. He was scheduled to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show and had, in radical folk-singer fashion, decided to perform a humorous song dissecting the ultra-conservative anti-communist John Birch Society. The song in question–“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”–would see its first official release decades later on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3: Rare and Unreleased. Apparently “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” or “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” (all on his forthcoming album) weren’t good enough.

Well, the good people at CBS decided this particular 21 year old had written a particular song that didn’t cater to their particular audience. For context, this was back in a time when McCarthyism was still considered a reasonable idea by some. Back when men were men and people were stupid.

CBS staffers requested Dylan to play another ditty. He  refused this request. Ultimately, Dylan walked away from the opportunity, retaining his dignity along with his unknown status. CBS went on to make classic sitcoms like “Two and a Half Men”, while Dylan went on to make classic songs like “Visions of Johanna”, “Tangled up in Blue” and “Not Dark Yet”. Apparently catering to CBS wasn’t on Dylan’s agenda.

Granted, neither was catering to his audience.

The Best Album About Growing Old

Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Mark Twain

Growing old is a funny thing.  We all do it.  We all expect it.  Yet we all deny it.  Some of us buy fancy clothes to look younger.  Others dye their hair blonde or brown or anything other than grey.  Wealthy men get themselves trophy wives and wealthy women buy themselves new faces.  It’s as if people actually believe they can hold back aging and their inevitable demises.  Industries would collapse if people realized that just because they got themselves plastic surgeries, their friends and colleagues can still count age and still know that after someone’s 43rd birthday comes a 44th (and so on), despite any “enhancements” that have been done.

Musicians are just like the rest of us.  However, celebrities can become freakazoids when it comes to aging.  Celebrity musicians are actually the worst of the bunch, since most of these musicians cater to a younger audience.  Particularly when a musician has been around for a while, making his/her mark decades ago, their audience wants to believe that moment has been frozen in time, along with the musician.  Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, I’m talking to you both.  Do you expect us to believe you both are in your seventies with hair that is anything other than grey?  You’re old, deal with it.

Mick-Jagger-2010

No gray hair…really Mick? At age 68. Really?

That being said, there are a number of albums about getting old because the thing is, you’re only young once, but you’re old for all the time after that.  Two musicians have embraced aging and death to a point that deserves respect.  These are Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  (We’ve already mentioned Dylan here and here, but hey, he’s kind of a “big deal”.  And he’s old and cranky…so the shoe fits.)  It turns out that these are also our two humble resident rock poets.  The following is a lyric from each:

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play.

– from Leonard Cohen’s “The Tower of Song”

The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be
The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away.

– from Bob Dylan’s “Highlands”

Both have written great treatises on the trials and tribulations of aging, but in terms of the best album, Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind, wins handily.  From “Not Dark Yet” to “Can’t Wait” to the aforementioned showstopping closer, “Highlands”, this album has it all.  It’s as if Dylan was waiting to age so that he could become that pissed off geezer with a walking cane singing about all the young women he can’t have and all the sunny days that just won’t come around any more.  I imagine it’s the perfect musical accompaniment to the moment you realize that all the fast cars and second, third, fourth, and fifth wives in the world won’t stave away the  sad conclusion that is awaiting you.

Hooray!

In case you don’t believe me, he’s got a song called “Standing in the Doorway”.  And for those that don’t understand figurative language, beyond the doorway is death, and our hero, Mr. Dylan, is standing right next to it.  I’m not sure why he doesn’t just move away from the door, but maybe when you get old, at some point you just say screw it.

-“Standing in the Doorway”, written by Bob Dylan, but played by some guy who thinks at age 20 something, with his guitar, a laptop, and his parents out of town, he can become an internet star by playing something by a 50-plus year old Bob Dylan in what is clearly his parent’s living room.  (The harmonica’s a nice touch bro.  Cuz Bob Dylan also plays harmonica.  Got it.)

Getting old isn’t a great thing, but at least we have Bob Dylan to tell us that.  To our face.

Thanks Bob!

The Best Cover Song Ever. Period.

People love singing.  This fact is inescapable.

Melodies have been encapsulated in our very fibers through the use of cover songs…and these covers have been a part of our human experience almost as long as originals have.  Some cover songs are great (e.g. Jack White’s version of U2’s “Love is Blindness), some are not so great (e.g. My Chemical Romance’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”), some are from hot celebrities who think they can do it all but can’t (e.g. Scarlet Johannson’s version of Tom Waits’ “Anywhere I Lay My Head”), some rape the Stones (e.g. Britney Spears’ version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”), and some are from bands who know they’re done but still want to end on a high note without trying too hard (e.g. REM’s “Blue”, which is essentially a cover of REM’s “Country Feedback”).  Yes kids, there are many, many cover songs.  Too many to count and far too many for you to ever care about, particularly since for every cover song, in theory, there is also an original out there.

Well, there is one cover song that defies all expectations.  It is so thoroughly original and so thoroughly engaging that the listener’s head will inevitably explode when the  lead “singer” goes where no man has gone before.  This cover song questions the very idea of song and spits out something that will always live with you.  You can never un-know this cover.  It takes us to a unique dimension of lunacy and poetry (?) and is too respectful of the listener to bring him/her back to earth like mere normal songs. It leaves you in a world where nothing makes sense…or perhaps, everything makes sense?!

This cover is William Shatner’s version of Bob Dylan’s classic “Mr. Tambourine Man”.

Original:

Glass-Shattering, World-Beating, Mind-Destroying Cover:

Now, I am just a mere mortal.  Bob Dylan and William Shatner are gods among men, unquestioned in their greatness.  This is to say, first and foremost, that I realize the greatness of Bob Dylan.  This greatness is embodied in the song.  Listening to this song is like taking an idyllic journey over all of one’s troubles, over all the tedium of the daily grind, and into a wonderful world of acid-induced illusions of carefree magic carpet rides.  The song is an unmistakable masterpiece.

However, I’ve always noticed something missing.

Enter Shatner.

First, he challenges the listener by changing the arrangement into something of a carnivalesque death march into the abyss of Mr. Shatner’s crazed mind.  Then he desperately questions in search of Mr. Tambourine Man.  As we all do.  In life. Or something.

Then comes the background singers, who sing the chorus as the great jazz singers of yesteryear, which is to say they start singing whenever the urge arises (or when they are so dazed living withing the overwhelming shadow of Shatner that they cannot seem to understand when to sing and when to let his incessant questioning continue).

Mr. Shatner’s work is performance art.  He beckons the listener to come closer and read between the lines.  His stretched out phrasings of Bob Dylan’s simple rhythms suggest either he has a hard time saying more than two words at a time or something else is going on, something wonderful.  I believe in the latter.  His impossibly jarring call for Mr. Tambourine Man at the end of the song says it all.

I believe in Mr. Shatner.  And like him, I am also searching for Mr. Tambourine Man.

Bob Dylan, Tempest

Tempest

With every new Bob Dylan album comes a rearrangement of his oeuvre in order from greatest to worst. Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and eleventh-hour classics like “Love and Theft” and Time Out of Mind rank high on any half-assed best of list and so the question must be asked: where does Dylan’s latest opus rank among his highly-venerated past?

The answer is sorta tricky. Tempest is his late-period Desire–a would-be contender held back by a few missteps. There are a lot of great moments on Tempest; at its best it’s a slightly more focused iteration of Modern Times, however, at its worst it’s Dylan on auto-pilot trudging through tired cliches while occasionally delivering the classic one-line zinger hipster-neophytes and old-timers alike adore.

Dylan’s greatest late-period album may be Time Out of Mind–and oddly enough Tempest makes a strong case for it. Produced by Daniel Lanois, Time Out of Mind featured a word-weary grittiness that perfectly meshed with Dylan’s scowl and bitter odes to love gone wrong, and while every album after Time Out of Mind has found Dylan rummaging through the same old-timey, washed-out, blues-tinged song cycles, they simply haven’t matched Time Out of Mind’s gloriously triumphant sad-bastard sonic landscapes.

There’s a certain Phil Spector-esque sheen that has pervaded Dylan’s work ever since 2001’s “Love and Theft”; the end result sounds a little too clean; a little too polished. The late-night-dive-bar murkiness that defined much of Time Out of Mind has long since been eradicated in favor of a cleaner, brighter, sometimes hard-rocking, but ultimately suffocating sound that sounds more like a static template for Dylan to ramble on about topics ranging from crazy women to John Lennon to–of all things–the Titanic.

Tempest is at its best when Dylan puts on his best Dirty Harry impersonation and calls for bloodshed–but not his own. The rocking numbers (basically every odd-numbered song on the album) are truly great; it’s the ballads that drag. The album’s even-numbered tracks fail to reach the seemingly impossible heights of classics like “Not Dark Yet” and “When the Deal Goes Down” while the “Desolation Row”-esque title track falls short of its 14-minute plus ambitions.

While the first half provides a few memorable numbers, Tempest remains a curiously innocuous album that finds Dylan further settling in to his late-period formula of vintage old-timey sound, trading rockers with ballads through a 10-song cycle largely devoted to the same themes he’s been harping about since 1997. Dylan’s raspy, angry vocals are as raspy and angry as ever; it’s just a shame the songs themselves lack any sort of bite.

Grade: B –