Back Tracks is a weekly music column that studies the past, revisiting tunes that may be old but still resonate today.
In last week’s blog, I reflected on two of hip-hop’s most emotional live performances during past Grammy Awards. Chance the Rapper and A Tribe Called Quest and friends came through in the second half of this year’s show and made sure that the world was awake for their sets.
The thing is, the Grammy’s are hot and cold. Snubs will happen, but artistic, world-shaping art sometimes overcomes commercial success. Here are three snubs and unlikely victories proving just how hit and miss the Grammy’s decision-making has been in the past.
“The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire (2011)
Adjectives such as “shocking” were thrown when Arcade Fire’s third album, “The Suburbs” won the Grammy for 2011 Album of the Year. The reaction stemmed from a relatively unknown — at least to the commercial world — indie-rock band from Montreal taking down Billboard behemoths Eminem, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.
These were valid sentiments considering Eminem has won more than 45 percent of the Grammy’s he has been nominated for, while Lady Gaga is just shy of the 44 percent mark. When “Teenage Dream” and “Recovery” were silenced that year, the Staples Center also turned into an echo chamber for a brief minute while a bunch of eccentric Canadians showed their own disbelief while accepting the award.
However, just like any new sound trying to make an impact on the Grammy’s, it takes a while for a genre or subgenre to break the institution. This particular Grammy award is reflective of that.
“Life Is Good” by Nas (2013)
Speaking of genres finally getting their due, rap has long climbed an uphill battle to become one of the most contentious categories leading up to Grammy night. Although it took a long time for the Recording Academy to acknowledge rap’s prominence, there has been a positive push lately.
Just this year alone, Kanye West and Drake each received eight nominations, while Chance the Rapper recieved seven. Even though there are an abundance of rap nominations today, rap legends The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur received a combined 11 nominations over their careers and won none of them.
In comparison, Nas has been nominated for 11 Grammy awards on his own over the course of his career, but has also walked home empty-handed. In 2013, the Grammys had the opportunity to acknowledge Nas by awarding his most personal collection of songs, “Life Is Good,” with Best Rap Album. The New York titan went up, and subsequently lost, against pop-rap’s posterchild, Drake. The commercial appeal of another Canadian musician overshadowed what was possibly Nas’ last stab at a Grammy.
“Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse (2008)
Amy Winehouse, who is actually featured posthumously on “Life Is Good,” enjoyed quite a night at the 2008 Grammy’s. At the 50th annual Grammy Awards, the British singer tied Kanye for most victories at five, powered by her soul-bearing breakthrough “Back to Black,” featuring the lauded confessional “Rehab.”
The unexpected victor in Album of the Year was piano master Herbie Hancock, who has been nabbing Grammys since the mid ‘80s. There never seemed to be any crossover appeal to his records, so it was not until “River: The Joni Letters,” a cover album tribute to Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, that he became the second-ever jazz musician to take home top honors.
In a year in which no record was backed by as much emotion and personal journey as Winehouse’s, the Recording Academy decided to award an extremely talented and weathered musician like Hancock. Sometimes a truly refined artist will take home Album of the Year, while other times sales will dictate the winners.
Right and wrong are difficult adjectives to assign to music, which makes debating the Grammy’s after the fact one of music lovers’ favorite arguments.