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.
The Recording Academy had a slightly better record with country during the 2000s, nominating three albums from the genre for Album Of The Year — a pair by the Dixie Chicks and one by Vince Gill — once again showing more interest in a genre in five slots than Pazz & Jop could muster in 25. (And remember, if you just compare top five’s, the country score is Grammys 3, Pazz & Jop 0.) You could argue there’s not much difference between two albums and three, or even zero and three, and maybe you’re right. The average critic and the average Grammy voter mostly have very similar views about country music: They don’t want to touch it.
And during the 2000s, it was not unusual for critics and Grammy voters to be generally in agreement. Critics voted Outkast’s Stankonia, Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft, Kanye West’s The College Dropout and Late Registration the best album of the year; all were top five at the Grammys. Both bodies picked Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below as the best album of 2003. There were a few differences. Critics prefer Brooklyn guys in indie bands — LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio — while the Grammys preferred women who made roots music: Norah Jones, Alison Krauss with Robert Plant (who also made into the Pazz & Jop top 25). You decide which of those choices is more groundbreaking.
The uptick in think-pieces about the Grammys’ failure in recent years suggests that perhaps the critics and the Recording Academy have diverged, but there’s not much evidence for this. In 2012, critics finally started to acknowledge R&B, as two albums from the genre appeared in the Pazz & Jop top five for the first time ever — as if the critics’ poll were the Grammys in 1974, 1988 or 2005! The critical No. 1 in 2012, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, was also a Grammy top five the next year.
Beyoncé lost the Album of the Year award in 2015 to Beck, which caused a wave of outrage. But the critics didn’t make her No. 1 either — in 2013 she was fourth after Kanye West, Vampire Weekend, and Daft Punk. (Beyoncé came out in December 2013, too late to be eligible for the 2014 Grammys, so it was considered in 2015.) Beyoncé also lost to Adele in 2016 at the Grammys; she lost to David Bowie in the Pazz & Jop that year. 2016 saw four non-white acts in the Pazz & Jop top five for the first time this millennium. Again, the Grammys did this back in 2005.
And in the realm of country music, critics and the Grammys are still in lockstep, ignoring modern country and now enamored with traditionalists. Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson both earned Album of the Year nominations recently and appeared in the Pazz & Jop top 25. Kacey Musgraves squeaked out a No. 10 ranking in the Pazz & Jop as well.
Agreement between Grammy voters and critics is perhaps strongest of all when it comes to the wide world of Latin pop, which both are determined to ignore. In 2000, the Grammys crowned Santana’s Supernatural Album Of The Year, though it was full of English-language pop hits. Other than that, the closest the Recording Academy has come to the Spanish language in its most prestigious category is the title of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida album. Pazz & Jop has never deemed a Spanish-language album top five. Manu Chao, who sings in multiple languages including Spanish, made it to No. 12 in 2001.
The primary difference between the Recording Academy and the Pazz & Jop is where the two bodies stand on rap and pop. Since 2000, the Recording Academy has nominated 13 rap records for Album Of The Year (3 by Kanye, 3 by Eminem); over the same time period, Pazz & Jop has placed 16 rap albums in its top five. But the Recording Academy has only given one hip-hop album the top honor, while Pazz & Jop has crowned seven rap albums — four by Kanye West — the year’s best. Because of critics’ propensity for rap and especially West, they have awarded 10 non-white acts top album since 2000, while the Recording Academy has given that honor to five non-white acts.
The situation is reversed in pop: The Grammys like mega-successful female pop stars, critics don’t. Gwen Stefani, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Katy Perry have all been nominated for Album Of The Year. None have ever been top five in the Pazz & Jop. Critics prefer their pop acts to be throwback (Amy Winehouse) or demure (Feist), to the extent they like them at all.
The Pazz & Jop poll surely has limits as a reference point for the critical consensus. Since it’s run by the Village Voice, it’s presumably weighted towards New York City music journalists and not entirely representative of all music writers’ views. (If so, it would share this with the Recording Academy’s voter base, which also has been facing its own representational challenges.) But Pazz & Jop had more than 450 voters every year since 2001, and some years over 700: The sample is too large to be skewed by a few die-hard Bowie superfans. And Pazz & Jop is probably a more accurate reflection of what critics like than most publications’ lists, which are often decided by a small group of higher-ups and then divvied up to blurb writers.
That being said, working with a poll only gives you a good look at average preferences. Obviously, there are critics who like R&B and country and pop and Latin pop albums: They’re just not the majority. Like the Grammy voters, critics still have plenty of blind spots.