The Grammys are set to take place at the end of the month, and once the winners are announced, you’re sure to encounter stories evaluating the Recording Academy’s performance, which will likely be rated poor to middling.
The Grammys are an easy punching bag for music critics. As the thinking goes, the Recording Academy is a group of humdrum industry professionals stuck permanently in an unadventurous rut. Grammy voters passed over popular and aesthetically progressive acts like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, even causing Ocean to stop submitting his music for consideration. Instead, the Recording Academy repeatedly valorizes tasteful albums aimed at well-off white parents (Steely Dan, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack) or critically reviled documents like Celine Dion’s Falling Into You. This is the ceremony where music innovation goes to die.
But are critics actually the enlightened, forwarding-thinking alternative to the stodgy Recording Academy? Judging by the last fifteen-ish years of the Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop poll, which tallies the tastes of hundreds of critics, the two bodies are not as far apart as critics might like to think. In fact, if you make R&B or country or pop, you may well get a better reception from the Recording Academy than you will from critics.
Between 2001 and 2009, just five modern R&B albums — i.e., not a Solomon Burke recording or a Sharon Jones LP, but something that engaged with contemporary trends in the genre — appeared in the yearly top 25 on the Pazz & Jop rankings: Alicia Keys’ Songs In A Minor, Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere (though this was actually embraced by pop radio far more than R&B radio), Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah, Pt. 1, Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night and The Dream’s Love Vs. Money. Though the fact that modern R&B is made mostly by black singers likely has something to do with its critical neglect, discounting R&B seems to be more about ignoring a specific sound: Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds did not make it into the Pazz & Jop top 25 either, while multiple albums by black rappers appear in the standings most years.
The Recording Academy, by contrast, was far more interested in modern developments in R&B during the same period. India.Arie, Alicia Keys, Usher, Justin Timberlake (twice), Mariah Carey, Ne-Yo and Beyoncé were all nominated for Album Of The Year. (Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce was nominated in 2010 due to the restrictions on Grammy voting periods, but it was released in 2008, when it was ignored by the Pazz & Jop top 25.) There are only five annual nominees for Album of the Year, meaning that between 2001 and 2009, the Recording Academy favored more modern R&B records in just five slots than Pazz & Jop voters did with 25 slots. And if you took just the top five from the Pazz & Jop to make a cleaner comparison with the Grammys’ top five, you would find only two R&B albums — Badu and Barkley — vs. the Grammys’ eight.
What about country music during the 2000s? The average music critic couldn’t care less. Miranda Lambert was the only modern country artist that critics appeared to listen to during that period; two of her albums made it into the top 25. (Loretta Lynn doesn’t count: If Jack White hadn’t produced her Van Lear Rose album, few critics would have listened to it, and country radio didn’t play it.) If you just looked at the top five of the Pazz & Jop, even Lambert disappears — she didn’t make it into the critical top 15. Unless you truly believe that country music simply isn’t worthwhile, it’s clear that the average critic ignores Music Row.