This Monday night is the 2016 Grammy Awards, but it will also mark the unofficial 20th anniversary of an important rule change implemented by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, one that most music fans aren’t even aware of.
In the mid 1990s, frustrated that milquetoast records (such as Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged) kept winning coveted ‘Album of the Year’, the Academy started convening a secret blue-ribbon panel of 25 members who would sample the top 20 vote getters in the major categories — including ‘Album of the Year’, and then determine what the final nominees should be. As a result, hipper, more critically-acclaimed and groundbreaking works (like Radiohead’s OK Computer and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly) started to (finally!) appear on the nominees list.
To celebrate, let’s rank the ‘Album of the Year’ winners from the past 20 years — the ones helped by the Grammys blue-ribbon panel.
20. Celine Dion, ‘Falling Into You’ (1996)
In 2007, music critic Carl Wilson published Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, an in-depth analysis of Celine Dion’s power-ballad aesthetic, taking the Canadian singer seriously in a way that most rock journalists never do. Wilson’s well-reviewed book helped make Dion cool — or, at the least, sympathetic — for a minute, but that doesn’t change the fact that Falling Into You is still incredibly hard to stomach. Combining arena-sized pop arrangements with bombastic belting, the album plays like the gaudy soundtrack for a future melodramatic Broadway jukebox musical. In Wilson’s book, he allows that her music “might be excellent for having a first kiss, or burying your grandma, or breaking down in tears.” Sure, but there’s got to be better music to soundtrack these moments.
19. Mumford & Sons, ‘Babel’ (2012)
Perfectly disposable, the songs of Mumford & Sons traffic in genteel folk-rock filled with romantic themes and heartfelt emotional uplift. In other words, it’s the kind of crap that Grammy voters always, always fall for — the sonic equivalent of bland, well-meaning Oscar bait. The band’s second album is a banjo-and-acoustic-guitar cornucopia, as frontman Marcus Mumford does his best Dave Matthews vocal impression, wailing on in such a way that those allergic to hip-hop and pop can insist this is “authentic” musical expression.
18. Santana, ‘Supernatural’ (1999)
Bolstered by “Smooth,” his hit collaboration with Matchbox Twenty frontman, Rob Thomas, Carlos Santana’s comeback album is a who’s-who of big-name stars stopping by to lay down vocals over the legendary guitarist’s smoothed-out rock. Everybody from Cee-Lo to Eric Clapton puts in an appearance — but it’s Santana’s fluid fret work that dominates Supernatural, as you’d expect. While Supernatural’s Grammy victory was a token of the organization’s respect for Santana, as an album it’s overly showy and hit-or-miss.
17. ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (2000)
The 2002 Grammys featured a fierce showdown for Album of the Year — including Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and OutKast’s Stankonia — but the trophy went to a collection of folk, bluegrass and gospel tunes written in the 1920s and ’30s. The soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ riff on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? ended up being more beloved than its accompanying film — as respected artists such as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Ralph Stanley brought Depression-era tunes to a new audience. While the songs are classic Americana, the presentation tends to bland them out a little, adding a thick coat of respectability to tracks that don’t need the polish.
16. Herbie Hancock, ‘River: The Joni Letters’ (2007)
Herbie Hancock is a revered jazz artist. Joni Mitchell is one of the greatest singer-songwriters ever. So it’s no surprise that Hancock’s renditions of Mitchell songs, in River: The Joni Letters, would be catnip for Grammy voters. Sure, you could roll your eyes at the massive tastefulness on display in, say, the slinky “Court and Spark”, anchored by Norah Jones. But Hancock and his band, which includes celebrated saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bring out the mystery and beauty in Mitchell’s inexhaustible tunes. (The originals are still better!)
15. Norah Jones, ‘Come Away With Me’ (2002)
Norah Jones was all of 23 years old when she dominated the 2003 Grammys, winning not just Album of the Year for her debut disc, but also claiming Best New Artist, Best Pop Vocal Album and two other awards for album’s the lead single, “Don’t Know Why.” Offering jazzy takes on older songs from Hoagy Carmichael (“The Nearness of You”) and Hank Williams (“Cold Cold Heart”), Come Away With Me is anchored by new tracks written mostly by Jones and her bandmates Jesse Harris and Lee Alexander. This is nobody’s idea of scintillating, game-changing music — but Jones’ warm voice and casually assured arrangements are nonetheless inviting.
14. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, ‘Raising Sand’ (2007)
T-Bone Burnett and Alison Krauss — who worked together on O Brother, Where Art Thou? — pulled off a similar feat with Raising Sand, a collection of country/folk duets between Krauss and Led Zeppelin vocalist, Robert Plant. Evoking the sense of two legends kicking back on the front porch, the album includes tracks written by Townes Van Zandt, the Everly brothers, Gene Clark and Tom Waits, and its laidback vibe is as charming as it is melancholy. Raising Sand is the epitome of the prestige production — the backing band is top-notch, the sound is immaculate — and it’s got enough feeling behind it that the album still stands up almost 10 years later, long after the novelty of this unlikely pairing has worn off.
13. Dixie Chicks, ‘Taking the Long Way’ (2006)
At the time, Taking the Long Way was known informally as “That Album Dixie Chicks Made After They Dissed George W. Bush”. Partly inspired by the fallout from lead singer Natalie Maines’s March 2003 comments onstage in London, Taking the Long Way is resilient and combative. On tracks like “The Long Way Around” and “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Maines refuses to back down despite the band alienation of much of its fan base by badmouthing Bush, just as the Iraq War was about to go into full swing. But this isn’t really a political album: Featuring sparkling country-pop songs, the record largely focuses on the compromises and challenges that come with motherhood and marriage.
12. Steely Dan, ‘Two Against Nature’ (2000)
There are two types of people in the world: those who deride Steely Dan’s eccentric, maddeningly intricate jazz-rock as a Muzak abomination, and the rest of us who know better. Being a Steely Dan fan means recognizing principals Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s genius for deceptively smooth arrangements that mesh brilliantly with darker-than-dark lyrics about murderers, con men, twisted May-December relationships and the general pointlessness of existence. That all said, the duo’s comeback record Two Against Nature — their first in 20 years — doesn’t have the consistently prickly brilliance of their 1970s heyday. Still, swinging, misanthropic tunes like “Gaslighting Abbie” (about a ménage à trois in which one partner is about to get punk’d) and “What a Shame” (where the narrator regrets running into an old flame at the bookstore) possess much of the band’s old bite.
11. Taylor Swift, ‘Fearless’ (2008)
Around the time of Fearless, Taylor Swift was still the teenage prodigy writing country songs that flirted heavily with pop. The transformation she’s made in subsequent years into a world-beating, media-savvy superstar can obscure how naïve and candid the songs on this album really were — Swift looking at relationships with a wide-eyed wonder. Maybe that’s why tracks like “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” still feel like definitive young-and-in-love tunes: Swift provided just enough specificity to her tales that they speak to most everyone’s awkward teen crushes and early romantic disasters. This album shows how remarkably poised Swift was at an early age, those who listened might’ve been able to guess what a huge superstar she would eventually become.
10. U2, ‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’ (2004)
U2’s second Album of the Year victor — the first was 1987’s The Joshua Tree — continued in the vein of 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, finding the venerable Irish quartet doing away with the experimentation of the 1990s and focusing on more straightforward rock songs. Perhaps as a result, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is one of U2’s albums tends not to be a big argument-starter among fans (or haters): It’s not as bold as Achtung Baby, odd as Pop or stridently ambitious as The Joshua Tree — and so it tends to be a bit overlooked in the band’s canon.
9. Ray Charles, ‘Genius Loves Company’ (2004)
Released two months after Ray Charles’ death, Genius Loves Company was that year’s Supernatural — pairing the titanic R&B artist with jazz singers (Diana Krall), blues guitarists (B.B King), singer-songwriters (James Taylor), country icons (his old friend Willie Nelson) and even Elton John. This duets collection is far from the best introduction to the man nicknamed “The Genius” (for that, try 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music) but as an example of Charles’ still-potent command of vocal phrasing even in his 70s, Genius Loves Company has its considerable merits.
8. Alanis Morissette, ‘Jagged Little Pill’ (1995)
This young Canadian singer-songwriter struggled in obscurity in the early 1990s, releasing albums that nobody much cared about. Then, Alanis Morissette hooked up with hitmaker Glen Ballard, who beefed up her sound and helped her embrace the decade’s alternative-rock aesthetic. Out of their spark came Jagged Little Pill, which brought the angst of grunge and the fury of the riot-grrrl movement into the mainstream with pissy-but-catchy singles like “All I Really Want” and “You Oughta Know.” More than 20 years after the album’s release, smartasses still point out that the things mentioned in “Ironic” are not, in fact, ironic. Yeah, but Morissette’s articulation of romantic uncertainty and anxious self-empowerment holds up just fine.
7. Adele, ‘21’ (2011)
Inspired by a love affair gone south, 21 boasts sleek, effortlessly ear-catching blues, pop and soul songs — not to mention a James Bond-style cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong” — but even better, it captures the rush of emotions that come from being just young enough to start living your own life but not old enough to become jaded by the emotional bruises that result. If 21’s win was an example of Grammy voters going for the easy-listening choice, it’s the rare all-ages album that actually repays multiple spins.
6. Beck, ‘Morning Phase’ (2014)
This is probably the ranking that might cause the most disagreement. Because Morning Phase beat out the far more innovative and dynamic Beyoncé — and because Kanye caused a little scene as Beck went to accept his award — there’s been a collective backlash against this record. But if Morning Phase may seem comparatively tame — just a bunch of Laurel Canyon ballads sung in Beck’s mopey vocal style — it’s actually one of his most consistently tuneful and resonant collections, a top-to-bottom stunner about learning to make do with the mistakes and regrets. In the long run, Beyoncé will end up being the more iconic and influential album, but Morning Phase is the one you’ll be revisiting like a dependable old friend.
5. Lauryn Hill, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ (1998)
It can be hard to remember what a major star Lauryn Hill was in the mid-to-late 1990s. Part of the groundbreaking hip-hop trio Fugees, she jumped from the multi-platinum success of The Score to a solo album in which she recounted her personal failings and moral victories. Pregnant with her first child, she dove into the making of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which melded pop and hip-hop in such a way that the album became a diary of sorts. Looking back, Miseducation now carries a whiff of sadness to it: Hill has largely avoided the studio ever since, a remarkable talent that decided to walk away.
4. OutKast, ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ (2003)
Like The White Album for the Beatles, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below had OutKast pushing the envelope and expanding its sound in exciting ways. Not so much a double album as it was two separate albums individually made by the band’s two members, Speakerboxxx was Big Boi’s salute to Southern hip-hop, while The Love Below was where André 3000 did dabbled in pop and psychedelic. Without a doubt, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is too much of a good thing, reminding fans how relatively restrained and disciplined OutKast’s Aquemini and Stankonia were in comparison. But its excesses are thrilling in their own way, the sound of one of rap’s greatest duos deciding to leave nothing on the table. And “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move” still slay.
3. Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’ (1997)
Since the late 1970s, Bob Dylan fans had been hoping and praying for signs that the acclaimed singer-songwriter had rediscovered his muse. And after years of strange digressions and mediocre records, Dylan finally rewarded the faithful with this powerfully dark look at bad love and encroaching mortality. Time Out of Mind was written and recorded before Dylan contracted a serious lung illness, so by the time the album hit stores, it was easy for listeners to assume that these dour, pitiless songs were about his health scare. That inaccuracy only added to Time Out of Mind’s myth, just like the fact that the night Dylan performed the album’s “Love Sick” at the Grammys, a performance artist named Michael Portnoy jumped onto the stage to dance around shirtless with the phrase “Soy Bomb” written on his chest. But strip away the stories and the album remains a stunningly bleak and beautiful portrait of an aging artist who knows there are more days behind him than in front.
2. Daft Punk, ‘Random Access Memories’ (2013)
In 2013, Daft Punk released their first album in eight years. And as its title suggests, Random Access Memories looked backward to produce futuristic music that morphed 1970s disco, funk and prog into an exuberant new fusion. No doubt Grammy voters’ nostalgia helped propel the album’s victory, but Daft Punk’s masked men Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo went a step further, using old sounds to explore all the ways that the past can’t be retrieved, resulting in the melancholy laments evident in “Instant Crush” (sung by Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas) and “Touch” (sung by Paul Williams, the songwriter behind “Rainbow Connection”). Insanely danceable but also oddly moving, Random Access Memories was an emotional, euphoric party you never wanted to end.
1. Arcade Fire, ‘The Suburbs’ (2010)
After making entire albums about death (Funeral) and George W. Bush (Neon Bible), Arcade Fire devoted their third record to that inevitable moment when you realize you’re going to end up just as boring and old as your parents. The Suburbs may not be as conceptually provocative as their previous efforts, but it’s a sprawling, gorgeous collection of songs that weigh the conflicting merits of experience and innocence, contentment and restlessness. Arcade Fire dared to make an album that saluted domesticity (“The Suburbs”), took potshots at hipsters (“Rococo”) — gently telling the kids to get off their lawn, while simultaneously worrying about how such a stance could affect their artistry. The Suburbs is almost novelistic in its dramatic sweep, but frontman Win Butler’s anxious voice gives these evocative tales an emotional anchor. And here’s all you need to know about this album’s deserving Grammy victory: Kanye was happy about it.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including a biography of Public Enemy.