The Weird History Of The Best Rock Album Category At The Grammys

There’s an apocryphal cliche about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. (Actually, according to my Google search just now, insanity really means “the state of being seriously mentally ill.” Kind of makes me feel dumb for Googling “insanity,” to be honest.) Anyway, this cliche always come to my mind whenever people get upset about award shows. When it comes to the Grammys, it especially seems like a waste of time. It’s better to just appreciate the Grammys for what they are: Insane, in the Google search sense.

If the Grammys were a person, his name would be Larry. He’s your eccentric, ponytailed uncle who is “into music.” The one whose favorite band is The Moody Blues. The one who stays “with it” by occasionally wearing a stretched-out Muse tour shirt. The one who will argue, with a straight face, that Johnny Depp’s work with Joe Perry and Alice Cooper in the Hollywood Vampires is “totally saving rock ‘n’ roll, man.”

You can’t be mad at Larry. In his own harmless, comically buffoonish way, he’s lovable. That’s how I feel about the Grammys. This show is just so damn weird sometimes. For instance, let’s talk about my favorite category at the Grammys: Best Rock Album.

First, a little about me: I am a professional music critic. This means that I listen to songs, write down my opinions about them, and then collect a paycheck. It’s like being a bank robber, only this kind of theft is actually legal. It’s a beautiful racket.

As part of my job, naturally, I listen to music all day long. And because I’m particularly interested in rock music, I hear a lot of albums that would theoretically qualify to be nominated in the Best Rock Album category. Over the course of a year, I hear hundreds of these albums. Most of them I’ll play only once, but there are dozens of records that I hear many, many times. My point is, I hear exponentially more rock albums than the average person. Therefore, I feel like I should be able to make a qualified guess about what the Grammys would nominate in the Best Rock Album category.

And yet, almost every year, I am amazed — and perversely impressed — that the Grammys manage to utterly confound me. In that regard, 2020 is truly a banner year.

Here are this year’s Best Rock Album nominees:

  • amo – Bring Me The Horizon
  • Social Cues – Cage The Elephant
  • In The End – The Cranberries
  • Trauma – I Prevail
  • Feral Roots – Rival Sons

This might be Larry’s masterpiece.

What if I told you I had heard not one of these albums prior to writing this column? Not one! I am truly dumbfounded as to who thought these were the best rock albums of the past year. I picture Eddie Trunk and a room full of 10,000 guys who look like Eddie Trunk. Though I doubt even Eddie knows who the hell “I Prevail” is.

Out of this dubiously distinguished bunch, I am most familiar with The Cranberries, the Irish alt-rock group most associated with a series of lilting hits in the mid-’90s. The band’s 2019 album In The End features posthumous vocals from singer Dolores O’Riordan, who passed away in 2018. (She is also the only woman nominated this year. Here’s some shameful trivia: In the 25-year history of the Best Rock Album category, only two women have won the award — Sheryl Crow twice, and Alanis Morissette once.) Other than this Grammy nomination, however, it’s hard to say that In The End made any kind of impact — it was only fitfully reviewed, and peaked at No. 119 on the albums chart. Nevertheless … it’s here!

Then there’s Cage The Elephant, an energetic combo from Kentucky who I saw open for The Black Keys once many years ago. Other than that, I can’t say their music has ever made an impression on me, though the band’s 2015 album, Tell Me I’m Pretty, won the Best Rock Album award back in 2017. My third-most familiar band is Bring Me The Horizon, a British alt-metal act that specializes in the sort of shout-y, aggro-gruel that exists solely for the sake of corporate radio and the Best Rock Album category. After that comes Rival Sons, a dunderheaded retro blooze-rock act that makes Greta Van Fleet sound daringly original and forward-thinking.

Finally, there’s I Prevail, the one band I had never even heard of until I read the list of nominees for Best Rock Album. In recent years, this category has usually included at least one under-the-radar act (such as Highly Suspect in 2016 and Nothing More in 2018) with a generic moniker seemingly spat out by a “middling mainstream rock” algorithm.

If you told me that I Prevail was mistakenly included because a Grammys intern forgot to delete the dummy text from the Best Rock Album file before hurriedly turning it in, I would find that explanation more logical than actually nominating I Prevail. However, during the course of my rudimentary research, I learned that I Prevail previously went platinum for a “metalcore cover” of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.” Based on this information, I am pulling for I Prevail to win in this category.

Lest someone accuse me of snobbery: I’m not saying that the Grammys should only nominate rock albums that I personally like. However, what is the case for any of these albums mattering one iota in the culture? They’re not all that popular. Or acclaimed. Or significant in any sense. They generated virtually no conversation among critics or populist excitement among music fans. These albums, in fact, seem to have been chosen for precisely not doing any of these things. These are Larry choices through and through.

Compounding the strangeness of the Best Rock Album category is the relative right-on-ness of the Best Alternative Album category. Here are the nominees:

  • U.F.O.F. – Big Thief
  • Assume Form – James Blake
  • i,i – Bon Iver
  • Father Of The Bride – Vampire Weekend
  • Anima – Thom Yorke

I don’t love all of those albums, but I really like nearly all of them. But more than that, for the average non-Larry rock fan in 2020, they represent fairly mainstream choices. Consider that Bon Iver, Thom Yorke, and Vampire Weekend have all mounted arena tours or headlined major festivals in the past 12 months. (Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend are also nominated for Best Album, which only reinforces their mainstream bonafides.) Why are they “alternative” and not simply “rock”?

The difference between “rock” and “alternative” at the Grammys is yet another example of the silliness of modern-day genre distinctions. The Grammys have defined “alternative” — a term that already seemed outmoded 25 years ago, around the time the first Bush album was released — “as a genre of music that embraces attributes of progression and innovation in both the music and attitudes associated with it. It is often a less intense version of rock or a more intense version of pop and is typically regarded as more original, eclectic, or musically challenging.”

Which is … odd, especially given the amount of crossover between “rock” and “alternative” at the Grammys in the past decade. For example, Beck won Best Alternative Album in 2019 for Colors … and Best Rock Album for the decidedly mellow Morning Phase in 2015. The aforementioned Cage The Elephant was nominated for Best Alternative Album in 2015 for Melophobia, before winning Best Rock Album two years later. Their former tourmates The Black Keys similarly won Best Alternative Album in 2011 for Brothers and then Best Rock Album for El Camino in 2013.

In 2018, a band I really love, The National, won Best Alternative Album for Sleep Well Beast. The same year, another band I really love, The War On Drugs, won Best Rock Album for A Deeper Understanding. I have no clue what makes one band “alternative” and one band “rock,” when to me they clearly belong in the same lane.

This year, Vampire Weekend’s Father Of The Bride is in the alternative category, while that album’s most popular track, “Harmony Hall,” is nominated for Best Rock Song. Is the album somehow more “progressive” and “innovative” than its defining single?

None of this makes any sense! Then again, maybe it shouldn’t. This is Larry we’re talking about after all. Loveable, nonsensical, clownish, insane Larry. Never change, my friend.