Will the Grammy for Record of the Year be ‘The Record of the Year’?
I am not a smart man, but I know a few things with absolute certainty: The sun will rise in the east tomorrow; as you read this, a radio talk show host is screaming about something; and on Feb. 8, 2015, the Grammy Award for Record of the Year will not be awarded to the most innovative record released in 2014.
Lest you think that I'm some crusty record collector ready to defend A Drop in the Gray's 'Certain Sculptures' as a lost masterpiece (spoiler alert: I am and it is), let's clarify two things:
- I love a lot of the previous winners of Record of the Year -- a lot.
- According to the Grammy website, "The Record of the Year category recognizes the artist’s performance as well as the overall contributions of the producer(s), recording engineer(s) and/or mixer(s) if other than the artist. The Song of the Year category recognizes the songwriter(s)."
In other words, the Record of the Year is supposed to recognize the single best recorded performance from the prior year. On the other hand, the Song of the Year could be awarded to a poorly recorded version of an even more poorly performed song, at least hypothetically.
Who is responsible for that great recording has varied over time in the eyes of the Grammy committee, but since 1966 both the producer and the artist have been recognized. Starting in 1999, engineers and mixers also have shared the award.
Also worth noting from the Grammy site:
A GRAMMY is awarded by The Recording Academy's voting membership to honor excellence in the recording arts and sciences. It is truly a peer honor, awarded by and to artists and technical professionals for artistic or technical achievement, not sales or chart position.
So the Record of the Year does not need to be a single, nor does it need to sell well or even make the charts. All that matters is "artistic and technical achievement." This year's nominees include:
- 'Fancy,' Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCC
- 'Chandelier,' Sia
- 'Stay With Me (Darkchild Version),' Sam Smith
- 'Shake It Off,' Taylor Swift
- 'All About That Bass,' Meghan Trainor
Based solely on Record of the Year nomination, of the tens of thousands of songs released last year, these five cuts represent 2014's pinnacle of recording and performance.
Maybe they do, I don't know. These are peer awards, after all, and I'm not an industry insider. But I suspect that they don't, because the most innovative, groundbreaking recordings ever made -- and I'm talking about records that were technically innovative as well as documenting great performances -- never earned this accolade ... never.
The Record of the Year was first awarded in 1959. The following year, Phil Spector started his incredible run as a producer, racking up 25 top 40 hits in a six year period. Never mind the "hits" part of the equation, Spector created "the Wall of Sound" that made his records so distinctive. These records remain to this day landmarks of technical achievement, and not one earned a Record of the Year.
Who took home the big prize during Spector's early sixties run? Henry Mancini, Tony Bennett, and Percy Faith, to name a few. Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz took home the trophy in 1965 for 'The Girl From Ipanema' while Spector and the Ronettes were turning out future classics without earning this particular recognition.
Across the Atlantic, the relationship between producer, artist, and studio was being turned on its head by George Martin and the Beatles. Between 1966 and 1968 the band released 'Revolver,' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,' 'The Beatles' (a.k.a. 'The White Album'), 'Yesterday and Today,' and 'Magical Mystery Tour.' This is a stunning run of albums, featuring innovations such as multi-tracking, tape loops, running tracks in reverse, and other production techniques that we take for granted now.
Can you imagine hearing 'A Day in the Life' for the first time? How about 'I Am the Walrus' or 'Tomorrow Never Knows'? These are timeless records, truly representing the best of not just 1966-68, but the history of recorded music.
Any guesses how many Record of the Year statuettes the Beatles took home?
Any guesses how many Record of the Year statuettes the Beatles took home? Zero. Nada. Goo goo g'joob. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass grabbed the 1966 award for 'A Taste of Honey'; the 1967 edition went to Frank Sinatra for 'Strangers in the Night'; and in 1968 the 5th Dimension's 'Up, Up and Away' apparently was better than anything the Beatles produced.
The song remained the same during the '70s. The Who's 'Baba O'Riley,' an immense technical and performance achievement, didn't even receive a nomination in the same year that Roberta Flack brought home the gold for 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.' In 1976 the Captain and Tennille took home the hardware for 'Love Will Keep Us Together.' Keep in mind that Led Zeppelin's towering 'Kashmir' was eligible during that time period, but like the Beatles the mighty Zep never took home a Record of the Year award.
Looking at the list of winners from the '80s one would be forgiven for thinking that post-punk, new wave, and college radio never happened. Not even the Police, whose 1983 album 'Synchronicity' included such perfect records as 'King of Pain,' 'Wrapped Around Your Finger,' and 'Every Breath You Take,' could compete with the likes of Toto, Michael Jackson and Tina Turner. The closest the '80s alternative generation comes to a Record of the Year is U2's back to back wins in 2001 and 2002, long after Dublin's finest had been accepted by the mainstream establishment.
Fifty years of history demonstrates that the makers of the recordings with the biggest lasting impact aren't recognized by their peers, at least at the time. Year after year the Grammy voters overlook the truly innovative and instead honor ... something, I'm not sure what. Some years they seem to pick the most popular song, and others the most popular performer. Some winners even appear to be variations on lifetime achievement awards.
But when all is said and done, I don't need to understand. These are industry awards, after all. It's like me walking into the conference room of my local Ramada Inn and demanding to know why Herb Johnson took home the hardware for Insurance Salesman of the Year rather than crowd favorite Brad Torkelson.
Besides, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe 'All About That Bass' is a future 'Strawberry Fields Forever,' permanently altering the way that records are made. I doubt it, though.
But that A Drop in the Gray business? That I'm sure about.