It was not a question of race, insisted Grammys boss Neil Portnow, in the wake of the furore surrounding Adele’s victory over Beyoncé for the album of the year award – the top prize – at this year’s awards in Los Angeles on Sunday. “I don’t think there’s a race problem at all,” Portnow told Pitchork. “We don’t, as musicians, listen to music based on gender or race or ethnicity.”
Portnow’s problem is that a lot of people aren’t convinced by his argument that the 14,000 voting members of the Recording Academy “almost put a blindfold on” when they listen to the nominated albums. Adele did not seem convinced in her acceptance speech on Sunday night when she said: “I can’t possibly accept this award,” before addressing Beyoncé directly. “You are our light. And the way that you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering.”
Sufjan Stevens didn’t seem convinced when he wrote that that the “urban contemporary album” category in which Lemonade won is “where the white man puts the incomparable pregnant black woman because he is so threatened by her talent, power, persuasion and potential”. St Vincent did not seem convinced by the snub when she agreed with him. Solange – Beyoncé’s sister and a Grammy-winner in her own right – did not seem convinced when she hastily tweeted then deleted: “Create your own committees, build your own institutions, give your friends awards, award yourself, and be the gold you wanna hold, my Gs.” Frank Ocean did not seem convinced when he addressed the Grammy producers on Tumblr: “You know what’s really not ‘great TV’ guys? 1989 getting album of the year over To Pimp a Butterfly … If you’re up for a discussion about the cultural bias and general nerve damage the show you produce suffers from then I’m all for it.”
One year, one overlooked album – that might not be a problem. The issue for the Grammys is that in an era when R&B and hip-hop have been going through a period of massive creativity – matched by huge commercial success – the album of the year prize at the Grammys has been going to white artists. The last black winnner was Herbie Hancock, for River: The Joni Letters in 2008. Since then, Taylor Swift has won twice (for Fearless in 2010 and 1989 in 2016), as has Adele (for 21 in 2012 and 25 this year). Meanwhile, black artists have been shortlisted, but lost out: Beyoncé alone has been in the final five three times since 2010 without winning. Kendrick Lamar has had two shortlisted albums without winning. Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, Pharrell Williams have all been shortlisted without winning. Kanye West has not even been shortlisted since Graduation in 2008, and Drake has been shortlisted just once, for Views, this year.
It is not as if these are marginal acts being passed over for something more mainstream; that list of names contains many of the main drivers of popular culture. They are hit artists, the most-talked about artists of the moment. Are they really not as good as Mumford & Sons (2013 winners), Arcade Fire (2011 winners), Beck (2015 winner) or Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (2009 winners)?
But there is nothing new here. The Grammys have always had a problem with the album of the year award. Looking down a list of winners often has you wondering what on earth the voters were thinking, even when the winner was black (was Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable … With Love really the best album of 1992?). There was a period in the mid-70s when album of the year was, more or less, the Stevie Wonder award, as he won it three years out of four between 1974 and 1977, but equally there have been years when the winning album (and the entire shortlist) have ignored not just black music, but a whole load of other great music, too. So, in recognition of the fact that the Grammys have long been both #grammyssowhite and #grammyssocrap, here are some of the least memorable years for the album of the year winner in Grammy history.
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