Image: Flickr / James Munson

Rock frustration at the Grammys

Rock artists have no problems collecting Grammy Awards – just look at Bruce Springsteen with 20, and I’m sure Bono will show you the crown he had melted out of the 22 trophies U2 have won. Rock has its own categories, of course. However, annually, the decisions made by ‘industry experts’ to historically cement a Best Rock Album, Song, and Performance of the year does provide frustration for rock music fans.

It is shocking that The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Queen, The Who and Tupac Shakur have never won a Grammy Award. It is unforgivable that The Strokes, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads have never even received a nomination. This list of Grammy-less music icons is long, and, worryingly, seems to be growing. With the nominations for the 2016 awards announced on December 7th, and a host of outrageous omissions and inclusions, the rock categories are more neglected than ever.

2016’s Best Rock Album nominations boast a list of possibly the most uninspiring rock albums of the year

Starting with the holy grail of the rock categories, the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album. 2016’s nominations boast a list of possibly the most uninspiring rock albums of the year. I will start with James Bay’s The Chaos and the Calm. Enough to make any rock music fan feel nauseous. It must be obvious what’s coming next. Best Rock Album?! Quickly moving on. Second on my hit list is Matt Bellamy’s most egotistical and self-indulgent work yet, Muse’s Drones. Take the song ‘Revolt’ as an example: “They’ll take away our homes, They’re just machines and drones”. Hardly Dylan or Cohen-esque. Then there’s the highly suspect decision to award Highly Suspect a nomination for their almost unknown album Mister Asylum. We’ve also got the remarkably unremarkable Kintsugi by Death Cab For Cutie. The only album on the list even slightly worthy of the nomination for Best Rock Album of the Year is Slipknot’s comeback 0.5 The Gray Chapter. The disappointing thing is that I could list five better rock albums from the past year off the top of my head: Wolf Alice’s sublime debut My Love Is Cool; Mini Mansions’ shockingly, yet inevitably, overlooked The Great Pretenders; FoalsWhat Went Down and The MaccabeesMarks To Prove It (both lacking necessary exposure across the pond); Kurt Vile’s B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down…; Blur’s The Magic Whip; Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear… I could go on.

This dull list of Best Rock albums does, possibly, overcome the controversies of past years. U2’s notorious musical nuisance Songs of Innocence’s nomination last year, and, even worse, Led Zeppelin’s live album Celebration Day winning in 2014 – despite being recorded in 2007 and released in 2012. It should be acknowledged that the real controversy here was that this was the first Grammy won by Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin, whom some regard as the greatest rock band of all time, should have been recognised for their genre-defining work four decades ago.

The most exciting rock-related Grammy category of recent years is undoubtedly Best Alternative Album

Interestingly, the NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) did see past the latest albums of usual Grammy favourites Mumford and Sons, Dan Auerbach’s The Arcs and Foo Fighters – although the Foos did manage to slip a debatable nomination in for Something From Nothing for Best Rock Performance. As did British grunge newcomers and future superstars Wolf Alice, who received a humbling but much-deserved nomination for their juggernaut hit ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’. They join Dave Grohl and Co., Alabama Shakes’ ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’, Elle King’s ‘Ex’s and Oh’s’, and Florence + The Machine’s ‘What Kind of Man’, on what is a far more encouraging list. I could be picky – Tame Impala, to name one exclusion, had a fistful of hits – but let’s not spoil the party. Whether the NARAS make a respectable decision we shall have to see on Friday 15th February (see 2014 Best Rock Performance going to alt-rock anti-heroes and drum-assaulting Imagine Dragons’ pop hit ‘Radioactive’ over the consistently criminally overlooked Queens of the Stone Age, with ‘My God is the Sun’).

The most exciting rock-related Grammy category of recent years is undoubtedly Best Alternative Album. Despite being a category within which to honour Radiohead whenever they release an album, and the considerably blurred lines between the rock/alternative categories (with Green Day, The White Stripes, Coldplay and The Black Keys interchanging between the two), it does boast the strongest rock albums. This year Tame Impala, Alabama Shakes, Bjork, My Morning Jacket and Wilco are up for the gong. Last year saw a list that could have easily been mistaken for the Best Album Award: alt-J, Arcade Fire, Jack White, Cage the Elephant, and eventual winner St Vincent. While it is fantastic to see such variety and deserved recognition, it is a shame that these albums are sidelined into an arguably lesser category.

The inconsistencies in awarding leads to problems for artists, academy members, and music fans alike

The categorisation of the Grammy Awards is clearly still a problem. Despite the total number of awards being cut from 109 in 2011 to 78 in 2012, I still feel anyone could win (or at least be nominated) in one of the many categories, one day. It provides the complete opposite problem to the farcical BBC Music Awards, which offers just 5 awards on the night: there is a seemingly endless list of awards on offer, with constantly changing categories (the Best Metal Song award, for example, lasted just two years) that have unclear differences between them (see Best Rock Song vs. Best Rock Performance). Indeed, the inconsistencies in awarding also leads to problems for artists, academy members, and music fans alike: Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs lost to The Black Keys’ Brothers in the Best Alternative Album category in 2011, but winning Best Album overall. Similarly, in 2013 Mumford and Sons’ Babel won Best Album but lost out in the undeniably lesser Best American Roots Album category.

The Grammys are also glaringly Americanised; reflected in the four Country, five Christian/Gospel, and seven American Roots awards on offer. These are all effectively solely winnable by American Artists. In comparison, Reggae only has one available award. To say the Grammys are Western, US or even white-centric is an understatement, but that is a discussion for another day.

Rock n roll isn’t about the awards – the genre wouldn’t be what it is if it was

When superannuated Luton flute-rock band Jethro Tull caused arguably the biggest Grammy’s upset of all time by claiming the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental in 1988, the category was consequently scrapped. Their fusion of prog/hard-rock and woodwind instruments on Crest of a Knave was favoured over Metallica’s seminal and hotly tipped …And Justice For All. As a result of this controversy and the ensuing criticism faced by the NARAS, the separate Best Hard Rock Performance and Best Metal Performance categories were born. Almost reflecting the guilt felt by the NARAS, Metallica would go on to win Best Metal Performance in 1989, 1990 and 1991; it was almost as if the category was literally made for them.

It is clear that the Grammys come with a lot of issues. With excessive and confusing awards, its credibility is surely declining with questionable nomination and awarding decisions. I have only scratched the service by looking at the rock category. Obviously rock is disregarded by the NARAS, with too much focus going towards how many awards Beyonce is going to win, what Kanye West will or won’t do, and what, if anything, Jennifer Lopez is wearing. Ultimately, rock n roll doesn’t need the Grammys. James Bay can have his Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song awards. While recognition from ‘industry experts’ is always nice, a welcome boost to the ego of real rockstars; rock n roll isn’t about the awards. The genre wouldn’t be what it is if it was.

Other notable controversies (to name a few) include:

  • Steely Dan winning Album of the Year in 2001 over Radiohead’s Kid A and Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP.
  • The Baha Men winning Best Dance Recording in 2001 for Who Let The Dogs Out.
  • Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down winning Album of the Year in 1985 ahead of two of the best albums of all time: Purple Rain and Born in the USA.
  • Eric Clapton’s Layla Unplugged beating Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit for Best Rock Song in 1993
  • The 1970 Album of the Year gong going to Blood, Sweat and Tears for their self-titled album over The BeatlesAbbey Road.
  • In 1967, Eleanor Rigby and Good Vibrations were overlooked for New Vaudeville Band’s Winchester Cathedral for Best Contemporary Rock and Roll Recording.
  • Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (rightfully) claimed they robbed Kendrick Lamar of four awards in 2014, most notably for The Heist winning Best Rap Album over Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. NARAS has gone some way to rectify this, nominating Lamar 11 times for this year for his critically acclaimed and politically essential To Pimp a Butterfly.

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