The retroactive album of the year

There’s a pretty sobering minute in the lives of many American teenagers when they realize that, unless they like really mediocre and inconsequential music, that the Grammy’s don’t reward the music that matters to them. There’s the occasional surprise decision that gives one hope, as evidenced by The Suburbs winning the most prestigious prize in 2011, but for the most part the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences throws a Grammy party to celebrate the reach of the industry instead of the agreed upon quality of the product.

This is an understandable behavior. After all, the Oscars, Tonys, and Emmys do the exact same thing with a much smaller pool and less varied fan base to worry about. Settling on just one “Album of the Year” has been such a precarious decision for the academy that it would almost make more sense to scrap the award out altogether. “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year” are pretty easy tasks: one is essentially last year’s summer jam, and the other filled the void when the summer jam tapered off (this year’s voids: “Get Lucky” and “Royals”). “Album of the Year” isn’t so easy. Fans cherish albums more than they remember songs, and it’s up to the academy to decide, often in weeks, which album will be considered the most important one that came out that year. It’s a daunting task.

They haven’t exactly lived up to it, as evidenced by the last fifteen years of questionable selections, but they have made a pretty stellar compromise: retroactively awarding artists and their newer, lesser albums for their work that the academy failed to recognize in the past. The academy last got their “Album of the Year” seclection right with 1999’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill; since then, the digital age has so varied music tastes that it’s just about impossible to discern what is good and what is big. The next year, the academy safely awarded their most prestigious award to Santana’s Supernatural over a better TLC album, and the award essentially played off like a lifetime achievement award. The year after, the Grammys snubbed two of the most polarizing albums of all time in The Marshall Mathers LP and Kid A in favor of your dad’s most favorite Steely Dan. In 2005, a dead Ray Charles won the award over a young rookie named Kanye West. In 2006, it was U2’s turn, mostly as an apology for ignoring Achtung Baby in 1991. In 2009, it was Robert Plant and Allison Kraus, for forever ignoring hard rock and snubbing female singers.

This year the award went to Daft Punk with their lush and pedestrian Random Access Memories. It was the biggest album of the year, no doubt, with large billboards and primetime television advertising stewing up unprecedented anticipation, but I doubt the Grammy voters really enjoyed RAM more than Good Kid M.A.A.D. City or Modern Vampires of the City, or even Yeezus. I prefer to see it as the academy’s mea culpa for failing to recognize Homework and Discovery as the industry-defining albums they have now become. To be fair, when Discovery was released in 2001 no one could have possibly anticipated the impact it now has on the entire festival circuit and YouTube era of streaming. Every major EDM artists credits at least some of their inspiration to Discovery, but we didn’t really know that until a few years ago. So what do the Grammys do to compensate for an understandable lack of foresight? They give Daft Punk the award they deserve, thirteen years after they truly deserved it.

This isn’t as quick a turnaround as the Grammys did for OutKast. They awarded the 2002 version of this award to the fantastic O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, snubbing the even more fantastic Stankonia in the process. Two years later, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, arguably the historic duo’s worst record up to that point, was the big winner, becoming the first rap album to receive the honor. Hopefully we’ll see a similar decision with a future Kanye West release. Both The College Dropout and Late Registration unjustly lost to Ray Charles’s Genius Loves Company and U2’s quite awful How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb. Mr. West’s best album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, wasn’t even nominated for the award it deserved to win in 2011 (over Arcade Fire, no less). If the last fifteen Album of the Year awards show any trend, Mr. West should have his Grammy sometime before 2020.

So fear not following artists: Lady Gaga, Frank Ocean, Beyonce, Radiohead, Eminem, Vampire Weekend, Metallica, Kanye West, Jay Z. All that is required of you now is to retire, make a highly publicized comeback, record a mediocre album, and PRESTO: your Grammy will be shipped in 3-5 business days.


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