Music

The Least-New Best New Artist Winners In Grammy History

In 2019, Lizzo scored two Top 5 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 via songs that were released in 2016 and 2017. This is rare, but not forbidden — nothing in Billboard’s chart eligibility rules bars older material. In fact, just under two months after Lizzo’s 2017 track “Truth Hurts” fell from its No. 1 position, Mariah Carey’s 1994 single “All I Want for Christmas is You” hit the top of the chart.

The Grammy for Best New Artist, however, does have eligibility rules that bar older material, and yet Lizzo is a 2020 nominee for that award. Not only did her breakout come courtesy of two- and three-year-old songs, but she’s been releasing music under the name Lizzo since 2013, 2012 if you count a collaboration called Lizzo & The Larva Ink. How is she considered a “New Artist” by any stretch of the imagination?

The Recording Academy’s description of the Grammy Award for Best New Artist is, officially: “For a new artist who releases, during the Eligibility Year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist.” But like many other Grammy categories in the wake of streaming, the Best New Artist guidelines have changed quite a bit in the past few years.

Before 2010, anyone who had previously been nominated for a Grammy was ineligible. But in response to Lady Gaga being ineligible for the 2010 award after her 2008 single “Just Dance” was nominated for Best Dance Recording in 2009, the Academy changed the rule to only bar artists who had previously released an album (“Just Dance” arrived some months before Gaga’s full-length debut) or had previously won a Grammy. In 2016, responding to the increased popularity of mixtapes and streaming-only releases, the Academy removed the “album” caveat, and cemented the current rules, as follows:

  • Must have released a minimum of five singles/tracks or one album, but no more than 30 singles/tracks or three albums.
  • May not have entered into this category more than three times, including as a performing member of an established group.
  • Must have achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and impacted the musical landscape during the eligibility period.

The first two, hard-and-fast numerical tallies, seem pretty cut-and-dry compared to the third, a total judgement call that’s usually to blame for long-tenured musicians receiving a “Best New” designation. But even the clearly stated max number of songs/albums is often fudged by the Academy. Omitting Lizzo’s mixtapes and EPs, she’s released three albums containing 41 songs (not counting remixes), which seems to be a clear breach of the rule. But as Billboard noted earlier this year after Lizzo was declared eligible for the award, “the Grammys sometimes don’t count releases on small independent labels on the grounds that they didn’t really allow the artist a fair chance at breaking through.”

We’re left with a landscape in which artists can work for years, as Lizzo did with 2013’s Lizzobangers and 2015’s Big Grrrl Small World (both originally released independently), and not get recognized as viable entities until they get a big break, one way or another. The Best New Artist award may have more stringent eligibility qualifications than the Hot 100, but for the past 50+ years, it’s somehow much more common for older material to slip through the former’s cracks. Since the award was introduced in 1959, scores of dubiously “new” artists have been nominated. This year, Lizzo may be the clearest example, but she’s not alone in her tenure. Fellow nominees Tank And The Bangas have been releasing music since 2013, and Maggie Rogers’ first album dropped all the way back in 2012. With the exceptions of Lil Nas X and Black Pumas, the six remaining 2020 nominees all could’ve technically been nominated as early as 2018.

To show that this phenomenon is as old as the Best New Artist award itself, we’re listing the most experienced veteran artists to have ever won the award. Organized from freshest to stalest, the artists are grouped by the number of years that elapsed between their first year of eligibility — i.e., albums released within the Grammys window of October 1, 2000 and September 30, 2001 would be eligible for a 2002 award — and the year they actually won. Remember, the Grammys didn’t explicitly say anything about a minimum amount of music required for a Best New Artist until 2016.

4 Years

José Feliciano (1969)

In 1968, this Puerto Rican singer/guitarist made a huge splash with his album Feliciano!, comprised entirely of covers of popular hits by contemporary stars like The Doors and The Beatles. It went gold and spent 59 weeks Billboard’s album chart, which was enough to obscure the fact that it was Feliciano’s 11th (!) album. Granted, the guy worked pretty quickly back then, as his debut single had only been released some four years prior, in 1964.

Marc Cohn (1992)

In 2002, former Starland Vocal Band member Taffy Danoff called the Best New Artist Grammy a “kiss of death,” noting the oft-cited curse that seems to befall its winners. Like Starland Vocal Band in 1977, singer/songwriter Marc Cohn rode one huge single to stardom (“Afternoon Delight” and “Walking in Memphis,” respectively), won the award, and never again achieved as much widespread success. By the time of his breakout, Cohn had amassed quite a resumé as a session player and songwriter, but his first release under his own name came under slightly odd circumstances. He contributed two covers of songs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Starlight Express to a 1987 compilation of music and songs from the play, which for some reason didn’t feature the original cast. This time, it’s pretty understandable that the Academy hadn’t heard of Cohn until he got his own record deal.

Alicia Keys (2002)

As a teen prodigy, Keys was the target of massive bidding war between labels in the mid-to-late ‘90s and the victim of a botched first deal with Columbia Records. By 1996, she had written material that would end up on her eventual debut, but Songs In A Minor wouldn’t be released until 2001 after a prolonged holding pattern. While in label purgatory, Keys did however contribute to two compilation albums. Her cover of “Little Drummer Boy” graces So So Def’s 1996 Christmas album, and the song “Dah Dee Dah (Sexy Thing)” (which she co-wrote) from the 1997 Men In Black soundtrack stands as her only Columbia release. As was the case with Marc Cohn, I don’t think anyone’s faulting the Grammys for this one.

Esperanza Spalding (2011)

Jazz is a genre rarely forefronted by the Grammys, so although it was a bit dubious to call virtuosic bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding “new” in 2011, it still represents one of the few times in the 21st Century that they’ve given a jazz artist a major, cross-genre award. Spalding’s debut album, Junjo, dropped in 2006, but it was her third, 2010’s Chamber Music Society that attracted the Academy’s attention. This was before the Grammys added the “no more than 30 singles/tracks or three albums” requirement, but then again, if they don’t recognize Lizzo’s indie releases, they’d probably view Spalding’s debut, released on an independent jazz label, as even less significant.

Bon Iver (2012)

If we were including artists’ former bands in this tally, then Justin Vernon would be tied at the top of this list. His first album with his first band, Mount Vernon, came out in 1998, and with various other groups, he released some 13 more albums before the one that got him this nod, 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver. But even Vernon’s most popular band had to wait a while to get noticed. Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, was self-released in 2007 before getting picked up by indie label Jagjaguwar in 2008. This one wasn’t a case of indies going unnoticed, as the band’s 2011 album came out on the same label — just a classic example of the Grammys’ oversight.

fun. (2013)

Also a veteran by the time he formed his Best New Artist-winning band, fun.’s Nate Ruess had been making music with his first band, The Format, since 2002. He wasn’t exactly unsuccessful before fun.’s big break, but none of his previous achievements came close to reaching the commercial heights of 2011 single “We Are Young” and its accompanying 2012 album, Some Nights. We’re not counting Ruess’ Format years here, but even fun. was around for a minute before the Academy acknowledged them. The band first released music via Spin magazine (the 2000s were weird) in 2008, and their first single debuted on their Myspace page (like I said, the 2000s were weird) in 2009.

5 Years

LeAnn Rimes (1997)

In 1996, LeAnn Rimes became one of the biggest names in country music with her album Blue. Its title track even made a dent in the Hot 100, a relative rarity for country singles. Rimes, 13 at the time of the album’s release, might’ve been a fresh face to both country and pop listeners, but she’d been recording albums since age nine. Between 1991 and 1994, Rimes released three independent full-lengths. The last of these, ‘94’s All That, actually contains the first recorded version of Blue’s title track.

Evanescence (2004)

Similarly to Rimes, Evanescence had been grinding on the indie circuit for years by the time they got a major label deal. They, too, had three homespun releases of their own by the time the rest of the world heard them. Between 1998 and 2003, the alt-metal band released three EPs, and later in 2003, they followed those up with their Epic Records debut, Fallen. A multi-platinum success that contains No. 5 hit “Bring Me To Life,” the album went on to cement the band as the first-ever metal-adjacent Best New Artist winner.

Meghan Trainor (2016)

Trainor’s breakout album, 2015’s Title, dropped just a few days after her 22nd birthday, but she’d been self-releasing albums since age 16. Between 2009 and 2011, Trainor dropped three albums under her own name, but beyond some local radio play, they failed to attract an audience. She spent the years between 2011’s Only 17 and 2015’s Title focusing on songwriting, eventually penning music for country artists Rascal Flatts and Hunter Hayes. A performance of 2014 single “All About That Bass” for Epic label head L.A. Reid landed her a deal, and the rest is history.

6 Years

Sam Smith (2015)

By now, you should get an idea of why the Grammys changed the eligibility rules after the 2016 awards. Every Best New Artist winner from 2011 to 2016 appears on this list. Because of an expanded online music landscape brought forth by increased access to self-recording and self-distribution, the Academy found themselves “discovering” artists who had been working outside of the major label radar for years. One of those was Sam Smith, whose debut single, “Bad Day All Week,” came out in 2008. Arguably, Smith wasn’t that visible until they appeared on Disclosure’s 2012 single “Latch,” which took two additional years to break out in the States. By that time, Smith had revamped their career, signing with Capitol and releasing the Nirvana EP in 2013 before their 2014 debut album, In The Lonely Hour.

10 Years

Marvin Hamlisch (1975)

Now we’re into the outliers, the artists who were around for at least a decade before getting deemed “new” by the Academy. Marvin Hamlisch is already an odd case because he’s a composer who mostly works in film, and who ostensibly won the award in 1975 for his adaptations of decades-old Scott Joplin ragtime standards for 1973 film The Sting. The Sting soundtrack was a surprise hit, topping out a No. 3 on the albums chart, and marking a rare instance of a composer being the lead artist credited on a gold-certified album. For other artists on this list, we haven’t been counting their stints as backup singers or session players, but since Hamlisch won for his songwriting and composition, it seems only fitting to trace his career back to his first songwriting credit. His name first appeared in the liner notes of Liza Minelli’s debut album in 1964 as a co-writer of “This Travelin’ Life.”

12 Years

Shelby Lynne (2001)

How did Shelby Lynee slip through the cracks? While you can excuse the Academy for ignoring other future winners who toiled in independent obscurity for years, Lynne landed her first major label deal in 1988, some 13 years before her win, and released her debut album the following year (her first on-record appearance was actually the 1988 George Jones duet “If I Could Bottle This Up”). 1999’s I Am Shelby Lynne was in fact Lynne’s sixth album, but it gained her an unprecedented amount of exposure and led to a deserved, if ill-placed, Grammy win.

13 Years

Macklemore (2014)

You thought we were done with 2011-16? There’s no way we could forget Macklemore, who along with producer Ryan Lewis, was one of 2012’s biggest breakout stories. Before that though, Macklemore was just your standard Seattle rapper not named Sir Mix-A-Lot, meaning: almost completely unknown. His debut mixtape, released under the name Professor Macklemore (we’ll count it), dropped in 2000, and by the time he walked onto the Grammy stage, he’d released two albums, two EPs, and two mixtapes total. Mack endured some long gaps (2001-2004, 2006-2008) without releasing any music, but something kept him going, and by the time “Thrift Shop” was out in the world, he must’ve been glad that he stuck with it.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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