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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The Passion’s Gone: R.E.M.

When I was young and full of grace
and spirited, a rattlesnake.

– “I Believe”, R.E.M.

R.E.M. has been a thing of the past for nearly 15 months now and any time I hear one of their albums it still seems a bit sad to me.  It’s not as if there was a death in the family, but it seems like a part of me died with them.  As many people who listened to them, I was in my formative years when I first heard their music.  I remember a vivid night as I looked out at all the small houses below while standing on a mountainside park with a girl I knew at the time, thinking of “Nightswimming”.  I remember spending an entire summer listening solely to Automatic for the People, part of the time trying to decipher the chorus to “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, part of the time learning how to play “Find the River” on guitar.  I remember listening to “Fall on Me” and actually feeling that this world won’t last forever, that we are destroying it one tree at a time.  And I remember playing “Country Feedback” over and over again one night around 4AM, each playback hitting me harder than the last.  “Crazy what you could have had.”

R.E.M. was so ingrained within the culture of my youth, both as a popular act and as a comfort during my own introspective moments that without them, it seems that that youth is now, officially, over.  There is no fall back anymore.

However, if I am honest with myself, R.E.M. stopped being R.E.M. a long time ago.  Their string of success lasted for an absurdly long time given how out of place they were with the musical culture through most of it.  For starters, you could hardly understand their lead singer in their first few albums.

Case in point:

As time went on, they gained a cult following through their work on the independent label, I.R.S.  This included a nearly unparalleled string of successes, each album a bit different than the last.  Lifes Rich Pageant was clear statement on environmentalism, while Document was more geared towards the politics of the working class.  On and on they went, until they finally switched over to a major label, Warner Bros., leaving people skeptical.

The 90s for R.E.M. started with Out of Time, which was a good, but not great album.  It had “Losing My Religion”, which I honestly cannot stand any more.  It also had “Shiny Happy People”, which to this day I believe is some kind of deeply ironic statement on something.  I just don’t know what.

Then came, in my opinion, their best album, Automatic for the People.  The album was centered on mortality.  Dark, morose ballads were the centerpiece of this group of songs.  As a popular album from a majorly popular rock band in 1992, Automatic for the People was a bold release.  Think about it.  1992 was when grunge exploded, Kurt Cobain hadn’t killed himself, U2 was on their Zoo TV tour, and electric guitars and defiance was at the epicenter.  R.E.M.  went completely in the opposite direction.  And it worked.  It was that rare album that sold millions, yet also was deeply personal to each listener.  The last three songs (“Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming”, and “Find the River”) are still the best group of closing songs I’ve ever heard on an album.

From there on, the group shifted again to two rocking albums: Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi.  Of the two, the latter is the one to invest in.  However, the latter was also the last with the whole band.  Bill Berry, the band’s drummer, left after the conclusion of the following tour.

But the band played on.

Instead of continuing in the same musical vein, they shifted again to a more electronic, quiet sound.  This led to Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun.  And after Around the Sun failed spectacularly, they finally took a step back to find their well worn bag of tricks.  This led to two good, but only good, albums: Accelerate and Collapse into Now.  Both played the nostalgia factor to perfection.  Neither had a new idea to speak of.

And then it was over.

In looking back, after Bill Berry left, the band was never the same.  The edge was gone.  The moment was gone.  R.E.M. was over before the band knew it.  Band’s have a shelf life and R.E.M.’s lasted from 1980-1996.  It was a great run.  Their last moment of relevance was the last lyric on “Electrolite”, the closing song on New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Your eyes are burnin’ holes through me
I’m not scared
I’m outta here

– “Electrolite”, R.E.M.

The Best Song R.E.M. Never Wrote

Ask a group of Athens acolytes to list their favorite bands to emerge from the proto-punk scene of the early 80s and they’ll probably list Guadalcanal Diary dead last. Or at all. That’s because they’re so indie, they don’t even know they exist.

Guadalcanal Diary were one among the many talented bands roaming the streets of Athens, GA during the time when soon-to-be great bands like The B-52s and R.E.M. were putting together a few of their most memorable tunes.

The first track from Walking in the Shadows of the Big Man–their best album in my humble opinion–is possibly the greatest song R.E.M. forgot to write. It’s got all the major cues of an early R.E.M. tune minus the mumbling; lead singer Murray Attaway sings about lonely women who are fond of wearing black in a clear and audible tone.

For your listening pleasure, I submit to you: “Trail of Tears”